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Identify it Day: Answering the age-old query, ‘what is this?’

  • Peter Crowley, a professor of geology at Amherst College, talks to Freja Joslin and her son, Enzo Smith-Joslin, 6, of Northampton, about specimens they brought to the college's "Identify it Day" Sunday at Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Freja Joslin, of Northampton, looks at a specimen she brought to “Identify it Day” Sunday at Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Enzo Smith-Joslin, 6, and his mother, Freja Joslin, of Northampton, look at a cow skull during "Identify it Day" at Amherst College's Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Crowley, a professor of geology at Amherst College, talks to Freja Joslin and her son, Enzo Smith-Joslin, 6, of Northampton, about specimens they brought to the college's "Identify it Day" Sunday at Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Crowley, a professor of geology at Amherst College, looks at a specimen brought by Freja Joslin, of Northampton, during the college's "Identify it Day" Sunday at Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Freja Joslin, of Northampton, holds specimens she brought to "Identify it Day" Sunday at Amherst College's Beneski Museum of Natural History. They were determined to be fossils that are about 300 million years old. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Enzo Smith-Joslin, 6, and his mother, Freja Joslin, of Northampton, look at dinosaurs during "Identify it Day" at Amherst College's Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Crowley, a professor of geology at Amherst College, talks to Margaret Byrne of Sunderland and her children, Mataya, 8, and Michael, 6, about specimens they brought to the college's "Identify it Day" Sunday at Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Margaret Byrne, of Sunderland, holds specimens she brought to "Identify it Day" Sunday at Amherst College's Beneski Museum of Natural History. The piece on the left was determined to be sedimentary rock, but the other is a fossil that is about 400 million years old. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Peter Crowley, a professor of geology at Amherst College, talks to Margaret Byrne of Sunderland and her children, Mataya, 8, and Michael, 6, about specimens they brought to the college’s “Identify it Day” Sunday at Beneski Museum of Natural History. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Bulletin
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — People don’t normally think to look, but take a walk down the street, pick up some random rocks and it’s possible, sometimes very possible, to find fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old. Or, sift through some limestone pebbles used to cover driveways, and finding 40-million-year-old shark’s teeth isn’t out of the picture.

That’s according to Amherst College Professor of Geology Peter Crowley and Hayley Singleton, head of collections and operations at the college’s Beneski Museum of Natural History. Apparently, finding old fossils is so common that people frequently come to the museum asking the staff for help in identifying what may turn out to be fossilized bones, shells, organisms and plants. So much so, that for the past four years the museum has hosted “Identify it Day,” giving the public a chance to have their finds professionally examined and, in the best cases, identified.

On Nov. 5, the Beneski museum hosted Identify it Day 2017. According to Singleton, the day brought in not only more people than previous years — at least 200 people — but also some interesting fossils. These included a millions-of-years-old whale bone that, luckily, the museum had a similar fossilized bone to compare to.

Freja Joslin, of Northampton, was in Kentucky with her family for the 2017 solar eclipse when her son collected some loose pieces of rock that had cylindrical imprints and dark, cylindrical streaks running through them. Joslin kept the rocks for months until she could bring them to the Beneski Museum on Identify it Day and have Crowley try to figure out what they are.

“He’s hoping we found something rare and we’ll be millionaires,” Joslin said of her son, age 6.

Crowley, who has been a geology professor at Amherst College for more than 30 years, used several tactics in attempting to date and identify what Joslin brought in: looking at a geological map that gives the dates of rocks found in different parts of the country, applying hydrochloric acid to a rock to discern what type of minerals are present (or not present) and even licking the rock to try and tell bone, which sticks slightly to the tongue, from rock.

“There’s no question they are fossils. The question is what type of fossils,” Crowley said.

Crowley narrowed things down and dated the rocks Joslin brought in to be “something in the range of 300 million years old.” Given the shape of the long, stem-like fossil in one of the rocks, and knowing the date, Crowley believes that fossil was of a type of crinoid called a sea lily, a marine animal related to sea urchins.

However, Crowley said it is usually difficult to be certain, especially when the details of the fossil have not been preserved over time.

Other visitors, like Margaret Burne, of Sunderland, came in having an idea of what they had found, and wanting confirmation. Burne goes fossil hunting with her father in West Virginia. She will sometimes find large rocks in West Virginia, bash them open and find fossils inside.

In the case of one particular rock, she broke it open to find what looked like shells and imprints of shells stuck inside of it. Having some experience with fossils, she guessed the fossils’ age and was correct.

“These are 400-million-years-old Devonian fossils,” Burne said. “This came from the bottom of the ocean when the bottom of the ocean was in West Virginia.”

Fred Venne, a museum educator, helped implement the first Identify it Day, and still works at the museum. He said that people who don’t necessarily work in the fields of geology, paleontology or biology get excited for the event, and send hundreds of pictures to the museum of yet-to-be-identified fossils before the event even starts.

“Half of the fun is, over the course of the year, having people express interest,” Venne said. “We had some people who missed Identify it Day by a week last year and they came back today with the same fossil.”