In 2000, fossil remains from the Miocene Age were discovered in Northeast Tennessee at what is today known as the Gray Fossil Site, offering a window into life on Earth 7 to 4 1/2 million years ago.

Plan to go

What: East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site

Where: Gray, Tenn. (3 1/2 hours from Chattanooga)

Winter hours: February through Memorial Day, Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST

For more information: 1-866-202-6223

The Gray Fossil Site was first discovered by Tennessee Department of Transportation highway crews during the realignment and widening of State Route 75. State officials, geologists and paleontologists were called in to investigate unusual clay deposits that turned up during the highway project.

Within months, the site was determined to have been the location of a semicircular sinkhole that once harbored a pond environment.

Miocene Age fossils are almost unknown east of the Mississippi, and experts say the sinkhole that preserved a fantastic number of extinct animal remains-a shovel-tusked elephant, a semiaquatic potbellied rhino, a sabertooth cat, a red panda and even a camel without humps-has created a record of an entire ecosystem.

Ultimately, State Route 75 was realigned to protect the Gray Fossil Site, and in August 2007, the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site opened.

“The Gray Fossil Site is an internationally significant site because it records a forested environment from a time period that we didn’t have a good picture of previously,” said Dr. Blaine Schubert, director of the museum and the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU. “Most fossil sites in North America that date to this time period were grasslands. Because the site is unique in that way, we are finding a lot of animals and plants that are new to science so far and developing a better picture of how Appalachian flora and fauna have changed over time.”

The Gray Fossil Site represents an ancient lake. Animals that died in the lake were deposited in fine sediments on the lake bottom, which preserved the fossils incredibly well, Schubert said. Many remains have been found as articulated skeletons laid out in their original burial positions.

“Most animal fossils from the site are from those that lived in or around the water, like turtles and tapirs-in fact, the site represents the world’s largest tapir fossil find,” Schubert said.  Other important discoveries include new species of plants, the complete skeleton of an ancient rhinoceros, a venomous lizard and new species of red panda, badger, alligator and short-faced bear. 

The Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site is located next to the fossil site, which comprises four to five acres and is approximately 100 feet deep in some areas, according to Schubert.

Visitors can watch excavations take place on site from May to October.

“The sediment is so rich in fossil material that on some days we can find hundreds of fossils,” said Dr. Steven Wallace, an ETSU paleontologist who moved to the area in 2001 to lead excavations of the site. “We have barely scratched the surface, so we have hundreds of years of work ahead of us.”

Visitors to the Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site can see exhibits of fossil remains and view an active research lab, take a guided tour of the Miocene exhibits and the fossil excavation site and join in the fun of a dig pit full of fossil finds. The museum also features traveling exhibits, such as the current Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies Exhibit, on display through May 6.

The East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site is open Tuesday through Saturday from February through Memorial Day (May 28) and seven days a week during the rest of the year.

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Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at