Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fun at the Museum! (And a peek at my rock collection.)

A story about a rock….
When I was little I was playing with some kids (quite unsafely) in a pit left by construction workers. All over this pit where perfectly round lumps of flint, or chert, and when you threw them on the ground they would shatter into a dramatic explosion of razor-like-shards of rock. No joke. For a few days, this was our favorite game, smashing these mesmerizing “rock bombs” against the pavement. At one point an older girl handed me a small nodule to chuck. There had been much of this, pulling up rocks and sharing them among the group. This one was dinky, and when I dropped it on the road, it did not explode. It “clucked”. It clucked and split perfectly in two. As I knelt down to retrieve the pieces, (so I could give them another heave) I noticed within was the impression, in two halves, of a tiny sea star. Now, what happened after the thrill of finding this treasure is a little fuzzy with age. I believe Mrs. What-ever-her-name-was, demanded I give her the stone. She supposed as she had pulled it out of the ground, she had sole rights to it. I certainly didn’t think so, everyone had turns being “diggers”, and I was the one who had actually found the star. I think someone suggested we split it up, and perhaps there was some yelling. Eventually I must have decided I did not want an altercation with this bigger girl so I snatched up my half and ran home. That night her folks knocked on the front door, told my parents I had stolen it, and for whatever reason I could not convince them otherwise.  My star was whisked forever away. I was also banned from the rock pit. (I may still be a little upset about that whole fiasco.) 
(A water plant, perhaps a lily.)

But the experience did give me fossil fever.  I dreamed of finding another star, and smashed every rock nodule I could get my hands on. Smashing rocks meant handling them, which also meant I noticed amazing details and rainbow sedimentary layers I never had before. I didn’t find any fossils then, but my rock collection, and appreciation for them, grew. Later I realized there were more fascinating treasures to be found on the ground. I grew up on R.A.F Lakenheath, a military base in England, and the site of an ancient Anglo Saxon settlement and cemetery. That meant I could find pottery shards and arrow heads everywhere. The local rabbits became my scavenging partners, digging up cooking stones and worked flint for me. After I moved to Germany, it was woodland hikes which yielded me great fossils. Today I have a pretty cool collection.
(I pulled these pictures of the boys and I off the VLM Facebook page- Mrs. Jody was kind enough to bring up a plant very similar to one I have fossilized!)
             This past weekend the Virginia Living Museum hosted a “What is it” event. The public was invited to share their natural finds with experts, be it feather, shells or…. fossils! Enthused to show off my prizes to people who would be just as excited as I was about them, I rushed over with my stash. Here’s what I learned about some of my favorite pieces….
The Fairy Stone....
While on a hiking trip in England as a teenager I stumbled across this tubular rock in a cow pasture. (Totally tubular!) Surprised by the symmetrical hole which passes all the way through the stone I knew it would make a neat addition to my collection. Later I showed it off to a local guide and was told it was called a fairy stone. It seems once upon a time people believed this sort of rock had magical properties and farmers would tie them to the tails of their cows. The rock somehow kept pesky pixies from stealing milk! I wondered how long the field I had found it in had been a pasture, and if long ago some poor cow had been forced to lug the thing around as pixie protection. It seemed finding similar formations in the marshy Fens was common enough and I was curious what could have caused the “fairy hole”. The guide said it was natural erosion or that perhaps a stick had been encased in the stone and long since rotted away. Not able to come up with anything better I figured he might be right. I was enchanted enough by the fairy story that I didn’t need any other explanation. I was surprised to hear later by the VLM geology station, that my rock would be more appreciated at the fossil table. Turns out fairies were not responsible for the hole, but an earth worm was! The interior discoloration was caused by a worm juice chemical reaction. So, it’s basically a prehistoric worm home. (Cool.)
             The Jellyfish....
              The very top photograph is of a rock I found in Germany.  I was chaperoning a trip to a former dig site where college students had been excavating an early swamp. The kids and I had a blast pulling up fossilized grasses and roots when one girl found a strange remain….a round blob with stringy “tentacles” hanging below. (It looked much like the one I have pictured.) An amateur fossil expert also on the excursion classified her find as a jellyfish. Now I know that jellyfish fossils are pretty rare, and it was unlikely we’d pull one out of a swamp filled with grasses and muck. Pointing out that it was more likely a seed with roots was disliked by the kids, and so by popular vote a jellyfish it remained. Now, I’ll admit I was a little jealous of her find… and maybe a bit of my old sea star insecurities stirred up, because I announced we would not leave the pit until I also found a “jellyfish”. JELLYFISH for EVERYONE! (I know what you’re thinking, and I promise I did not steal her rock.) Luckily I found my own after having given up and packing to go. Honest, that one is MINE! (Hers was larger…. well...I am sure  that you all believe me.) In my mind finding two only confirmed that it was a seed and not a jelly fish. The guys at the VLM thought for a moment it might be a jelly, but when I explained there was no other sea life in the fossil bed, no shells, and it was instead filled with grassy remains, they took a closer look. The new consensus is that it was a leaf, rather than a seed. Perhaps even a lily-pad-like water plant with roots. Neat right?! (I’d like to restate again….  I did NOT steal this fossil.)  
(The boys love the VLM! Their favorite booth at the "What is it?" event was the insects of course.)

               And now everything else....
Or some of everything else at least…  I worry that my rocks may have put most of you to sleep. I’ll run through these last ones real quick.
1.       This is believed to be a woody-type-wetland grass and was pulled from the same German swamp as my “jellyfish”. The VLM staff has a similar plant growing on their outdoor trail, and Mrs. Jody was kind enough to bring some in for comparison.
2.       This large rock and  the smaller one adjacent are “cooking stones” from R.A.F Lakenheath. (Possibly Anglo Saxon, though Romans settled in the area too.) Basically they were used in fire pits, the stones got hot, and after the fire was extinguished the temperature change caused them to crackle and split.
3.       My wormy “fairy stone”.
4.       These three pieces are from England, and top to bottom are, Anglo Saxon pottery, worked flint, and possible a brick from a Roman age building. (A few remains of Roman houses were found on both Lakenheath and R.A.F Mildenhall.)
5.       More grasses from Germany, with the possible remains of another lily-pad-type leaf.
The bottom two pictures are the remnants of a German lava flow. In the first photo the bubbly (and smoothed bottomed) rocks are green. Originally I was told volcanic gasses caused the coloring. The VLM geology table think it could have been caused by organic material which may have been growing in the fertile volcanic remains. (Maybe mold?) The last sample is a lava flow sheet. The bottom layer is crackly and stretched, and has encased lots of material in its wake. I love the top “blob” of lava which at a later time flowed in a different direction.
I have more…. but am thinking perhaps this is enough for today. (No?) The boys and I often like to spread my collection of rocks, sea glass, and shells on the carpet and admire them under magnifying glasses. They seem to share my interest, bringing me countless stones from the sand box, exclaiming they’ve found crystals and dinosaur toes. I humor them, after all I am no expert, but I always make sure to check to for sea stars before we chuck them back. (On day....)
Happy Hunting Everyone! -Kendra


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