November 27, 2004

$8 Million Fossil Museum Being Built

GRAY, Tenn. - On the site of one of the nation's richest fossil discoveries of ancient rhinos, tapirs and other animals from the Miocene Epoch, a combined museum, research facility and visitors center is going up.

East Tennessee State University broke ground Tuesday on the $8 million facility at the Gray Fossil Site - a sinkhole or watering hole that became a cache of fossilized animals and plants from 4 1/ 2 million to 7 million years ago.

With the theme "Sharing a Fossil Find with Ages to Come," the center will be built off Interstate 26 on Tenn. 75. It is expected to open in fall 2006, ETSU President Paul Stanton said. "Our excitement about the fossil site and the new center is unwavering as we see not only the limitless educational opportunities yet to come, but also the potential for significant economic benefits regionally and statewide."

Discovered during the widening of Tenn. 75 in 2000, the center is being underwritten by an $8 million federal grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

The site near Johnson City is the only one of its kind in Appalachia.

Its most common fossils have been tapirs, but researchers also have found short-faced bears, alligators, frogs, turtles, mastodon, saber-toothed cats, plants and pollen residue and a short-legged rhino that became extinct in North America around 4 1/2 million years ago.

Most recently, ETSU paleontologist Steven Wallace described in the science journal Nature the discovery of fossils indicating new species of red panda and weasel.

The center will include storage space for the fossil collection, a preparation lab, a museum, an education center and a workshop for building displays and assembling fossils, Stanton said. What began as a visitors center concept grew into what ETSU is calling a multifunctional Center of Excellence in Paleontology intended to attract scholars, researchers, schoolchildren and tourists.