Kyle here –
Science has a rather odd role in society. Its achievements form the very foundations of modern civilization, yet, to many, science might as well be magic, obscure and inexplicable. Popular culture tends to make scientists seem like haughty priests in an ivory tower, keepers of arcane knowledge, augurs of great portents, and babblers of dead languages and incomprehensible jargon.
Time Scavengers hopes to change that impression by showing that scientists are ordinary people and science is not as unfamiliar or unapproachable as it might initially seem. While some disciplines may have sizeable barriers to entry—think molecular biology or high energy particle physics—others are far more accessible, particularly ornithology (as “bird watching”), astronomy (as “stargazing”), and, of course, geology and paleontology (as “fossil collecting”). Indeed, these fields are indebted to hundreds of years of contributions by experienced naturalists who were amateurs in name only.
For what is an amateur but someone who takes up their passion solely for its own sake? Paleontology is often known as a “gateway drug” for science, and with good reason: it’s hard not to be entranced by immense dinosaur skeletons at a museum, or fossil shark teeth glistening on a beach, or an ancient coral reef eroding out of a neighborhood construction site. Fossils spark the imagination. Wherever there are fossils, there are people inspired to collect them.
And wherever there are fossil collectors, chances are there is also a local fossil club. Cincinnati is one such place. Built on the banks of the Ohio River and surrounded by 450 million year old shales and limestones packed with a wealth of fossils, the city has a strong tradition of amateur paleontology. Curious locals have been collecting brachiopods, bryozoans, trilobites, cephalopods, and other Ordovician fossils from Cincinnatian outcrops since the 1800s. Many published their findings and became nationally and internationally recognized geologists.
This legacy of citizen science lives on today in the form of the Dry Dredgers. Founded in 1942, the Dry Dredgers are the oldest fossil club in the United States, having recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of their founding in April of 2017. The club was formed in close collaboration with the geology department of the University of Cincinnati, a relationship that continues to this day.
Like most other amateur paleontology societies, the Dry Dredgers has regular field trips and meetings. The latter are held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati monthly during the school year, usually on the evening of the last Friday of the month. Free and open to the public, the meetings typically follow a consistent structure.
First, a Beginners Class convenes before the main meeting, providing basic paleontological instruction to new members and children. The more experienced members also frequently show up early to socialize with their friends. Light food and drink is usually available. Collectors share their recent finds, try to identify unusual specimens, and tell a few tall tales. The desks are always piled with fossils and fossil literature, open for all to see.
At the designated time, the club President calls the meeting to order. They then proceed to introductions, where new members and visitors tell who they are, where they’re from, and what made them decide to attend the meeting. After this rigorous interrogation, the President begins the night’s entertainment with the door prize raffle, a random giveaway of small fossils, minerals, books, and other geological paraphernalia.
Then the main program commences: a lecture by a graduate student, professor, distinguished amateur, or other interesting character. The talks are usually an hour or so in length, focusing on a particular aspect of the speaker’s research or experience. Some are travelogues, slideshows of faraway mountain ranges and mouth-watering fossil deposits. Others focus on a particular fossil or group of fossils—trilobites and echinoderms are persistent favorites. And yet others can be quite technical, delving into PhD-level research on paleoecology and taphonomy. Whatever the topic, the audience invariably grills the speaker with a host of questions at the end of the lecture.
Following the lecture, the meeting wraps up with additional business. Any professional paleontologists in attendance give a report of what they are doing: papers published, students graduated, classes taught, conventions attended, and the like. Upcoming events and other miscellaneous things are announced. Then the meeting is gaveled to an end.
Some hardy members stay long after the meeting proper, socializing late into the night. Fossils are shared, bragged about, and identified. Any remaining refreshments are consumed. Plans are made for future excursions. The last people typically trickle out around 11:00 PM, tired but satisfied.
Unfortunately, chances are that you may not live near Cincinnati. However, many other fossil clubs are scattered across the United States, from North Carolina to Texas to California and almost every state in between. The FOSSIL Project has compiled a list (click here) of dozens of such organizations. Chances are, there’s one near you!