Artwork depicting an American mastodon, by Charles R. Knight.

Get a Glimpse of Va. Mastodon Fossils As Preservation Begins

It was a discovery as big as the creature itself— a collection of mastodon bones found in Yorktown. Now, you can get a first look at the fossilized remains of the giant that roamed Hampton Roads 16,000 years ago.

The collection of 100 mastodon bones, recovered from a muddy, underwater resting place in the woods in York County, was just named #2 of Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts of 2018 by the Virginia Association of Museums. The second place finish earns a $300 conservation grant, which will jump start the collection’s preservation at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM).

And even better— the VLM will hold a sneak peek on February 23 so the public can check out the collection as it’s being preserved.

To understand just how significant this preservation funding is, it’s important to start at the beginning of the story, says Fred Farris, VLM’s Exhibits Director.

As Farris explains it, a bricklayer was walking through the woods in York County in 1983 when he noticed a shiny object sticking out from the ground along a stream. He took the find to Wiliam and Mary geology Professor Emeritus Dr. Gerald Johnson.

He “immediately knew it was a mastodon tooth and couldn’t believe it because nothing like that had been found in our area…ever,” says Farris of Dr. Johnson’s reaction to the fossilized tooth.

Although other bones were found near the tooth, the landowner at the time wouldn’t allow more of the mastodon’s remains to be excavated. Farris says Dr. Johnson kept the bones in his lab at William and Mary for 32 years, waiting for the land to fall under new ownership and the possibility that he might be given permission to complete the dig.

When the property did change hands, the new owner allowed the dig to continue and even pitched in, says Farris. Dr. Johnson and a group of volunteers, consisting of everyone from archaeologists to Boy Scouts, worked for two years, digging through muck and water to ultimately recover 100 bones (about a third of the animal) from the site. “It’s really thanks to Dr. Johnson and his team of volunteers that made all this happen.”

 Farris with some of the mastodon collection. Farris with some of the mastodon collection.

In 2018, Dr. Johnson donated the collection of bones to the VLM. Because the museum is a private, nonprofit facility, Farris says funds are always limited, and the fossils desperately need staff and materials to preserve them. “That’s why this grant is so key, because we now can move forward with actually preserving this, because it isn’t safe,” says Farris.

The “record find” mastodon bones are the first ever found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the second ever found in Virginia, Farris notes.

The grant money will allow the team at the VLM to begin the process of chemically hardening the bones. Farris explains that because of the size of the collection (and some of the bones themselves, as the tusks alone are six feet long), the work will be time consuming.

Visitors will be able to take small group tours to see work being conducted in an area of the museum normally off limits to the public. The bones “fascinate people, plus this is our own backyard,” says Farris, noting that mastodons and mammoths likely roamed through much of Hampton Roads thousands and thousands of years ago.

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Laura Adams Boycourt