Old world uncovered near Selma

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 14, 2002

To get there, you go out Highway 80 to Lebo’s Country Store and turn off. They don’t like to disclose the precise directions, because an onslaught of curious onlookers could muck up everything with their big feet.

Let’s just say it’s in western Dallas County, near the Cahaba River.

Of course, the locals got wind of what was going on right off.

“You lookin’ for arrowheads or bones?” asks a grizzled river rat as he methodically packs his flat-bottom fishing boat with bags of ice and cases of Bud Light.

Intentional or not, that’s a fairly accurate definition of the difference between archaeology and paleontology.

Dr. Ed Hooks, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Alabama’s Alabama Museum of Natural History, attempts to improve on that definition.

“Paleontology,” Hooks explains to the small throng of reporters slowly wilting in the 95-degree heat, “is the study of fossils, or, more precisely, the study of past life as learned from fossils.”

“Archaeology,” he continues, “is the study of human artifacts and culture. We use some of the same tools and techniques, but otherwise we’re totally different fields.”

Hooks takes in the blank stares and tries another tack.

“If you bring me an arrowhead, I’m not gonna know jack about it,” he says. “By the same token, if I bring a handful of vertebrae to an archaeologist, he’s not gonna know anything about that, either.”

Slowly, the lights go on, pens began to move across pads of paper.

Hooks and his tiny crew of volunteers are in Dallas County to recover the fossilized remains of a gigantic lizard-like sea creature known as a mosasaur.

“If you can imagine a Kimodo dragon with flippers, you have a pretty good idea of what a mosasaur looked like,” Hooks tells the reporters. He starts to expand on that description then thinks better of it.

Mosasaurs lived some 80 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Hooks and a team of volunteers found three of the now extinct creatures during fieldwork here last year and have returned to excavate them. They also discovered two sea turtles and a large fish.

“The Black Belt is considered to be one of the more significant paleontological sites in the United States,” Hooks points out. “If Alabama were as barren as some of the Western states, we would be a Mecca for paleontologists.”

He explains that part of the reason this region is so attractive to paleontologists is that it is rich in soapstone, or chalk, which acts as a natural vault of sorts for fossils. “In the Black Belt, if you dig very far at all, you’re going to hit chalk. This whole area sits atop a gigantic chalk bed,” Hooks says.

He breaks off a piece of the grayish, crumbly soil and suggests, “If you’re having any stomach problems or excess acid, you can eat a little of this dirt and it’ll fix you right up.”

No one takes him up on it.

According to Hooks, paleontologists have known that the entire Black Belt was once covered by shallow seas millions of years ago ever since the Field Museum of Chicago first began doing serious fieldwork in this area back in the 1940s.

The Alabama Museum of Natural History invited a small party of media types from across the state to tag along with Hooks and his crew Thursday to get a first-hand look at an actual dig.

After a short drive from Lebo’s, the caravan of reporters and photographers turns off the blacktop. A few minutes of bouncing up and down on a washboard dirt road and the site hoves into view.

Crewmembers attack the soil at the site of the dig with a variety of weapons – ice picks, awls, geological hammers, picks and shovels.

It is hot, slow going. There are two volunteers at the site, one from England and the other from Georgia. Both are dripping with sweat.

Confides Hooks, “A lot of people have difficulty acclimating themselves to these kinds of conditions, especially with air conditioning being so prevalent these days. I always keep my thermostat in my house at 85 degrees, so I don’t have as much of a problem as some people do.”

And, in fact, Hooks appears to be the only one in the crowd who hasn’t lost his cool. After just a few minutes of standing in the Alabama sun at the dig site, the female reporters have begun to glisten noticeably. Some of the more rotund male reporters have begun to sweat buckets.

They look on as the two volunteers painstakingly sift through the dirt, with only occasional glances in the direction of their air-conditioned cars sitting just one hundred yards or so away.

“How do you know when you hit bone?” asks one, as he wipes a shower of sweat from his brow.

“Did you see the last Jurassic Park movie?” asks Hooks, looking as cool as ever. “There’s a scene with these two paleontologists, one male and one female. He’s digging away when suddenly he stops and takes her hand and places it on his hammer and tells her to ‘feel the bone.’

“Now if that were real life he’d probably bust a move on her right then. But the part about feeling the bone is accurate. Bone just feels different. When you hit one, you can feel it. It sounds different. And it feels different.”

Does Hooks believe the world was created in six days?

He pauses. It is the question he has been expecting.

“No,” he says at last. “Not six 24-hour days.”

Then, a grin spreading slowly across his face, he adds, “Of course, I’m speaking as a paleontologist and not as a physicist.”