Fossils can be found in rocks throughout Ohio, but have you ever thought to look in the walls of buildings? Mark Peter, a paleontologist for the Ohio Geological Survey, encourages people to do just that.
Mark has been interested in fossils, especially those of crinoids and trilobites, since his youth. He attended his first paleontology lecture at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the age of 11. Mark is currently working on his Ph.D. in geology at the Ohio State University. His research focuses on the evolutionary history of flexible crinoids, a group of animals related to modern sea lilies and sea stars.
As a part of the publications and outreach group with the Geologic Survey, Mark collaborates on content development for public exhibits and other resources for the public. Among these is Statehouse Fossils: A Guide to Fossils at the State Capitol. The booklet guides visitors around the Capitol building to find the remains of an ancient marine fauna. It features photographs of fossils in the building and illustrations by Mark’s co-worker, graphic artist Madison Perry, of fossils from the collections of Ohio State University’s Orton Geological Museum as well as reconstructions of the animals in life.
Creating Statehouse Fossils
Statehouse Fossils grew from a partnership between the Orton Geological Museum, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board (CSRAB), and the Ohio Geological Survey. The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Mark said, might be the most fossiliferous building in the world; it is a large building built from the densely fossiliferous Columbus Limestone. He described the Statehouse as one of the best places to view the fossils in the Columbus Limestone. In natural exposures, the fossils are often highly weathered, and most of the exposures are not on public lands. The Statehouse, on the other hand, is open to the public, and is more accessible than quarries or natural exposures, with cross sections of fossils visible in the walls, columns, and steps. The Columbus Limestone contains remarkably well-preserved fossil animals that inhabited a shallow sea during the Devonian Period, approximately 400 million years ago.
For about 25 years, Dale Gnidovec, curator of the Orton Museum, along with staff from CSRAB and the Survey, have been leading biannual fossil tours of the statehouse. In recent years, these have been offered on National Fossil Day in October and a weekend around Earth Day in April. In addition to interest in these tours, visitors to the Capitol would sometimes ask about fossils that they observed in the walls during normal tours. Although tour guides would answer their questions, there was a need for a more formal, practical resource for curious visitors. Over the next two years, Mark and his colleagues explored all the public areas of the Capitol, searching for the best examples of each animal that they wanted to highlight. They spent considerable time identifying, photographing, and illustrating each one. When a draft of the guide was ready, it was tested by a geologist, other adults, including a regular tour guide, and a high school intern. These tests resulted in changes to the format and organization of the booklet, and customized maps to improve the ease of use. Finally, Statehouse Fossils was born.
Fossil Hunting in the Statehouse
One of the best parts of the Statehouse Fossils booklet are the detailed illustrations. The illustrations are meant to help bring the animals to life for people, make the details more noticeable, and give the fossils context. They provide a window into Ohio’s past and introduce groups of animals that might be unfamiliar to many. The booklet serves as a resource for both fossil identification and as a self-guided tour. People enjoy the challenge of finding fossils in the walls. At the end, it provides people with resources for recording their own discoveries and encourages them to look beyond the guided tour and beyond the building.
Future Projects and Goals
Mark hopes that the illustrations and information created for Statehouse Fossils will be used for interpretative signage at parks and other localities where the Columbus Limestone is exposed. The booklet opens the door for the Statehouse to serve as an outdoor classroom and possibly be incorporated into curriculums for teaching paleoecology and evolution. Mark hopes to continue working on projects that highlight Ohio’s Lagerstätten (abundant accumulations of fossils, or fossil deposits with exceptional preservation), such as the Cincinnatian Series in southwest Ohio and the Silica Formation of northwest Ohio. He would eventually like to recreate another Survey publication, Ohio Fossils, now out of print, using illustrations like those drawn for Statehouse Fossils.