Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fossils in our Nation's Capital

No, the title doesn't refer to the ancient beasts roaming the halls of Congress though I do wish some of them would go the way of dinosaurs. Instead, I want to highlight a web site I just learned about. It is Fossils in the Architecture of Washington, DC: A Guide to Washington's Accidental Museum of Paleontology. The site has been put together by Christopher Barr, a lawyer who has lived in DC since 1979. As the name implies, the site's goal is "to describe, or at least list, all of the public fossils occurring in Washington's architectural landscape."
Barr has done a first rate job of assembling a thorough list of the fossil-rich buildings throughout the capital. For each building, he provides an introduction on what you can see, where to see it, and a history of the building. In some cases, he also speculates why a particular stone was chosen. He then provides photos (with helpful scales) of the fossils, which he describes in detail, providing geologic background. Finally, he documents who helped him and where one can obtain more background information. Nowhere else have I found such a well-put-together site about urban fossils.
Urban fossils are amazing resources and offer an excellent way to get people interested in fossils, deep time, evolution, and geology in general. Plus, as Barr has done, these fossils are a great way to get people to think about human history. He does list a many of the guides that are available but it is such a small list considering the wonderful fossils found in the urban environment. I hope that Barr's site can inspire other urban paleontologists to do the same thing in their cities.

7 comments:

John T. Collier said...

I'll 2nd the endorsement of Chris' website; I've used it to help me better identify urban fossils as I tromp around Chicago (and other cities). It has been a fantastic resource.

Not only that, but Chris is a great guy; we've shared several emails and he is always thoughtful and encouraging.

John T. Collier said...

A few months ago I made a Google Map of Washington D.C. urban fossil sites from Chris' website. Feel free to use the map as a guide if you tour our nation's capital looking for ancient critters.

David B. Williams said...

John,
Thanks for your notes. Your map is great. Again, it would be great to see similar ones for other cities.
David

John T. Collier said...

I'm very, very slowly trying to find enough interesting urban fossils in the Chicago area to warrant creating a website; whether I succeed or not, only time will tell.

There are plenty of fossils to be found, the problem is finding ones that are "spectacular" enough to get other people excited. Chris and I agree that although we might get hot-and-bothered over microfossils in Salem limestone, let's face it, the average person would yawn and say "ho-hum."

My very loose definition of a "spectacular" fossil is something that is readily detectable by the naked eye - something 1 inch or bigger would do nicely.

So, the hunt continues.

David B. Williams said...

John,

I mostly agree about the Salem, but when ever I show the fossils to people on walks I lead in Seattle, they are excited so it can't hurt to point it out. Also, I think that even if there are some repeats, it still gets people to look and notice. Has anyone used the Treuchtlingten Marble in Chicago? It has some huge, eye-catching fossils. I did a post on it in 2008. http://stories-in-stone.blogspot.com/search/label/limestone

David

John T. Collier said...

David - OK, I guess I wasn't clear about smaller fossils in Salam limestone. I agree that it's worth pointing out to people, but if leading an "urban fossil" tour, for dramatic effect it might be best to start small (i.e., Salem limestone) at the beginning of the tour (when people will "oooooh" and "ahhhh" at the smallest recognizable fossil) and build to a crescendo with the bigger, flashier stuff.

Treuchtlingten "marble" - I'm currently not aware of any in the Chicago area, but I'll be on the lookout for it now!

Question - It would help the hunt for urban fossils to have a list that could tell you which buildings have which stones, but I haven't found a source for that type of information yet. I've tried a couple of places (i.e., the city hall department of buildings, the Chicago Architectural Foundation, etc.) to no avail.

Do you have any pointers on how this information can be derived? Thanks.

David B. Williams said...

John,
Greetings. All good points on using the Salem in a rock tour.

In regard to finding out what stones are used in a particular building, I have found no easy answer. One source is the GeoRef data base, where I will type in a city name and "dimension stone" and "building stone" and see what comes up. There are also a couple of good source books, but only for older, say pre-1920 or so buildings. These include the 1880 Building Stone census, George Merrill's Stones for Building and Decoration, and the various books about dimension stone by Oliver Bowles.

Good luck.

David