GRAY, Tenn. — Andy Marquart peeled back a black tarp and pointed to a hole in some dark-as-night soil.

And then he smiled.

“People expect Jurassic Park,” said Marquart, the president and CEO of Hands On! Discovery Center.

Well, I certainly did.

I mean, when I first heard that you could dig for fossils at the Gray Fossil Site in Washington County, Tennessee, I figured I would see bones of ancient elephants and pandas and maybe a mastodon.

OK, you might, said Marquart.

“They could potentially find a fossil,” Marquart said. “It’s almost guaranteed that somebody in the group will find one based on the location of where they’re digging.”

This summer, Hands On! Discovery Center and East Tennessee State University Museum of Natural History are partnering in “The Big Dig” — a new paleontological experience for teens and adults.

But, this is not “finders keepers.”

All bones must remain at home for scientists to study and document, said Marquart.

“The Big Dig” is what the discovery center’s marketing director, Kristine Carter, calls a “one-of-a-kind, roll-up-your-sleeves and get-your-hands-dirty paleontology experience.”

To get there, you must climb a hill to the dig site.

“This new program will allow visitors to get up close and personal with the Gray Fossil Site like never before,” Marquart said.

You dig in what’s called the “spoil piles,” an area of sediment that was collected from under the museum during building construction several years ago.

That’s where crews have been finding fossils since the Gray Fossil Site was discovered in 2000 during a road construction project. In nearly 20 years, hundreds of fossils have been found at the site, Carter said.

“We really wanted to create an experience that not only fulfills curiosity but is also extremely unique and special for those that participate,” said Marquart.

“They’re helping clean fossils and find fossils,” Marquart added. “And they’re definitely part of the advance of the research.”

“The Big Dig” lets participants work alongside paleontologists and follow the process from beginning to end — from searching for fossils in the field to placing them in the museum collection, Carter said.

Coming here, participants can:

» Excavate on the site like the field crew;

» Screen-wash sediment and separate what you find;

» Use microscopes to search for microfossils.

“They also get a behind-the-scenes tour of the lab,” Marquart said. “People that participate in this program get to go into the lab and see and touch the fossils that are being uncovered here on the site, including the very large mastodon that’s been the primary focus of their work.”

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