Digging into the past
by Ron Harris
Oct 15, 2013 | 1811 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Oakman’s Jonah Gulledge, her husband Larry and their son Jonathan dig for fossils during a family outing at the Union Chapel mine Saturday morning. The Gulledges were among the more than 100 people who spent time digging for fossils, many of which may date back more than 300 million years. – Photo by: Ron Harris.
Oakman’s Jonah Gulledge, her husband Larry and their son Jonathan dig for fossils during a family outing at the Union Chapel mine Saturday morning. The Gulledges were among the more than 100 people who spent time digging for fossils, many of which may date back more than 300 million years. – Photo by: Ron Harris.
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UNION CHAPEL — More than 100 people turned out Saturday morning for the chance to dig up fossils that could date back some 300 millions years.

The dig was held at the Union Chapel mine and sponsored by Fresh Air Family, a grassroots, kid-driven organization dedicated to environmental scientific education, youth leadership, outdoor exploration, healthful lifestyles and families, and an appreciation of the beautiful and biologically diverse state of Alabama. Dayjon, Inc., a company that manufactures conveyor products and systems for heavy industries and mining companies, also served as a sponsor for the event.

The Union Chapel mine has been called one of the most important fossil sites in the world after fossils dating back more than 300 million years were found there over the past 10 years. The site has been rated as the most important Coal Age footprint in the world by international experts, according to Congressional findings that resulted in saving the mine from being destroyed by the Mining Reclamation Act. Only three other places in the world are known to have these types of fossils: Scotland, Nova Scotia and the Czech Republic. The site was found in 1999 by a high school science teacher who took the suggestion of one of his students for a field trip.

On Saturday, the site was opened up for one of Fresh Air Family’s yearly dig that’s open to the public. Saturday’s dig was led by Carl Sloan of the Alabama Paleontological Society, which has been credited with many of the discoveries at the site.

Verna Gates of Fresh Air Family said she was impressed with the turnout for Saturday’s event.

“This is great,” she said. “Clearly people in Jasper and Walker County are really interested in this. You can see that by the turnout today.”

The number of people on hand for Saturday’s dig showed how much interest there is in the past.

“I’m just so pleased that so many people are interested in our fossil history and the wonderful resource we have here in Alabama,” she said. “This is a great place to go and discover things. There are so many kids out here today who are learning by touching things and seeing things they would never be able to do otherwise.

“At Fresh Air Family, we believe in experiential learning,” she added, “and these kids are finding plants and animals and are learning all kinds of things about the geologic history of Alabama and the fossil record they left behind. It’s also great to see them doing something with their family that they will remember for a long time. It’s something for the family to do together. That’s becoming more and more rare these days.”

Sloan said the site is not only of historical importance, but it also serves as an educational tool. “We’ve used this site as an educational asset since it was saved from reclamation,” Sloan said. “We have school groups that come out and the University of Alabama brings students up here all the time. It’s being used by schools as an educational tool, and we’ve had quite a few groups come out here. It’s been a pretty popular thing.”

At one fossil hunt recently, Jasper native Cindy Wallace found seven human-hand-sized prints left there more than 300 million years ago by a sailback reptile, a Dimetrodon, which roamed a Coal Age Forest that covered Alabama. The six-foot-long amphibian resembled a giant salamander with a fin on its back, in an age predating dinosaurs.

“My son loves to dig,” said Cheryl Ingels of Hueytown, who came with her husband Robyn and son Rider. “This is my first time, but it’s fun. I’m glad we came.”