Digging Big: A Hands On Experience at Gray Fossil Site


There aren’t many places in the world where you’ll find an active pre-historic fossil site that actually allows visitors to dig for remains of animals dating back more than 4.9 million years.

Northeast Tennessee is home to the Hands On! Discovery Center at the Gray Fossil Site, an active Pliocene-era fossil dig site, operated by East Tennessee State University Center for Excellence in Paleontology. Scientists believe the site was formed by an underground limestone cave that collapsed and created a sinkhole. This left a vast fossil deposit that dates back approximately 5 million years ago. Animals that have been unearthed so far include a saber tooth cat, alligator, tapir, rhinoceros, short-faced bear, red pandas, mastodons, as well as hundreds of plants, and other animals.

The Hands On! Discovery Center’s new Big Dig program allows visitors an all-inclusive experience detailing the entire process of digging for a fossil, cleaning, classification, and prep work, all leading to the final step of lab research.

The day begins with a history behind the legendary discovery of an ivory mastodon tusk by the Tennessee Department of Transportation during a road project in 2001. Then, your small group is led to an active dig area where you’ll take your hand at unearthing fossils.

Once the digging is complete, you’ll take your new discoveries to be cleaned and prepped for the lab. The cleaning process can take several hours, and even days, depending on which method is used. For our group, a newer technique utilizing hydrogen peroxide was used that significantly shortens the initial soak time.

The best specimens are taken inside for a deeper clean. As detailed as the process is, simple tools like a tooth brush, cotton swabs, and rubbing alcohol are used to brush away dirt, clay, and debris that have expertly preserved the fossils for millions of years.

Once your fossil is deep cleaned and ready to be sent to the lab for research, you will fill out an official catalog card that includes your name, the work you did, and date, so that it can be easily accessed. This means that if your fossil ends up in an exhibit or is part of a research project, your name will be attributed as part of the team that put it together!

The Gray Fossil Site is the only site in the world that screens all of the sediment that is collected from the dig site. This means hundreds and thousands of bags are on hand, just waiting to be sifted through, which could result in some major discoveries. The Big Dig also includes an opportunity to take part in this type research by examining the sediment through a microscope for plant seeds, rocks, and even fragments of fossils and bone.

Big Dig participants are also taken on a tour of several dig pits, including the most recent site where an entire mastodon was discovered. Paleontologists believe there many have been a pond and landslide that led to the massive pit.  Some of the pits may even reach up to 140 feet deep.

The final step in the Big Dig includes a trip to the lab to meet one of the head paleontologists. In this exclusive tour, you’ll see volunteers working on a variety of research components, including connecting fossil fragments in what seems to be a never-ending puzzle. And, if you’re lucky, there will be fully intact specimens including mastodon hips, a giant skull, 13-feet ivory tusks, and other sections of prehistoric giants that could have weighed more than 6 tons when they roamed the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

The Hands On! Discovery Center’s Big Dig of the Gray Fossil Site is unlike any other exploratory program. Typically, when you think of going to a fossil site or museum, the exhibits are relocated from a lab or dig site. What makes this program different is the fact that it is an active dig site that constantly uncovers new fossils, a research lab, and museum – all in one place. And, you can take a hands on approach to it all through the Big Dig.

The Big Dig is offered on select Saturdays from July to September from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for ages 12 and up. Reservations are required as space is limited. Cost of the Big Dig experience is $125. For additional information and to register, visit visithandson.org/the-big-dig.

The Hands On! Discovery Center is an all-ages science center located at Gray Fossil Site offering fun interactive programs and exhibits that include a musical Tesla coil, giant building blocks, and a maker studio inviting guests to engineer a rocket, create a masterpiece, and uncover something new.

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