Last updated: August 01. 2014 1:30AM - 2265 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

An excavation team works to extract valuable insect and other fossils from a Virginia quarry recently acquired by Ararat Rock Products of Mount Airy.
An excavation team works to extract valuable insect and other fossils from a Virginia quarry recently acquired by Ararat Rock Products of Mount Airy.
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All too often, history falls victim to the wrecking ball or natural resources are destroyed in the name of progress, but a Mount Airy company is aiding work at a “world-famous” fossil site.

Ararat Rock Products is cooperating with an excavation team from Virginia Museum of Natural History on a project to remove scientifically valuable fossils as much as 250 million years old from a quarry the company recently acquired near Eden. The excavation is being funded by the National Geographic Society.

“Some of the fossils that have come out of there have not been found anywhere else in the world,” said Dr. Alton Dooley, curator of paleontology for the museum located in Martinsville, Va. The focus is now on ancient insects, but in the past the site has yielded other fossilized species from the Triassic period, such as the Tanytrachelos, an extinct long-necked reptile.

“For scientists, this is a world-famous site,” Dooley added of the former Virginia Solite Co. quarry located in the community of Cascade, Va., on the North Carolina border. “The state line actually runs through the quarry.” It was once the site of a lake, and numerous animal and plant fossils are now preserved in layers of shale.

The scientific significance of the quarry was well-known before its purchase by the Mount Airy company and it has drawn scientists from around the globe.

“This is a site we’ve been excavating actually for more than 20 years,” Dooley said of the property that was owned by several other companies before Ararat Rock Products took over.

Since that occurred, production activity has increased there, creating a sense of urgency for the scientific community. Dooley and others are trying to save as many fossil beds as possible before they are lost to the expanded mining operations.

Ararat Rock Products officials could not be reached for comment about the Mount Airy company’s involvement.

But they have gone out of their way to aid the excavation, according to Dr. Dooley, who pointed out that there is no obligation for them to do so. “They’re making a real effort to work with us on this,” he said.

“There a lot of safety regulations,” Dooley explained, which must be obeyed by anyone working at the quarry, regardless of whether regular production is involved or excavation. And Ararat Rock Products has provided safety training to excavation team members.

So as not to interfere with regular operations at the quarry, the team is only able to work on Saturdays when it is shut down, which the Mount Airy company has willingly accommodated — including staffing the quarry to let in the excavators. “They’ve been working with us quite a bit,” Dooley said.

“It’s actually quite of a bit of a burden for them to deal with us,” the paleontologist added of Ararat Rock Products personnel.

The digging team from the museum includes about 10 members, including scientists and volunteers, who began working last Saturday and plan to continue the project on successive Saturdays for about a month.

Dooley also is grateful for the support of the National Geographic Society in supplying a $9,500 grant to underwrite the cost of the work. “These excavations aren’t free.”

The effort is focusing on insect fossils because those of the Triassic period — the time of the earliest dinosaurs and mammals — are rare. Remains of 15 to 20 ancient species have been found at the site so far, also including fish and plant fossils. Items discovered there are on display at Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.

For the excavation now under way, a jackhammer is being used to break rocks and reveal beds that are then placed in crates and transported to the facility for detailed analysis later, which will determine the significance of fossils unearthed.

Dooley said the priceless value of such discoveries involves helping scientists understand why the world exists as it does today and what it is going to be like in the future by learning what occurred in the distant past.

“You have to understand how the earth has already changed to understand how it’s going to change in the future.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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