Early spring is a really sweet time to wander through the western Virginia countryside. A friend and coworker had invited me on a field trip run by the geoscience department of George Washington University as an “experienced field hand” (I was a marine geophysicist but didn’t see any ships around). We were to depart at 7 AM; we finally left DC at 9 – good thing it was a Saturday morning. There was a school van and about fifteen other vehicles in the caravan.
An associate professor and two assistants led the group, which consisted mostly of first- and second-year undergrads looking to fulfill science credit requirements, a smattering of grad students (apparently for the same reason), and a few invitees. It had rained the night before but the weather was sunny and cool, perfect for some serious observation and discussion. Three outcrops in early to middle Cambrian carbonates were on the agenda. After a couple hours we reached the first stop, a long roadcut in bedded dolomitic limestone next to an inviting pasture scattered with large oaks. As folks jumped out of their vehicles, most scattered along the outcrop, hammers and magnifiers at the ready. They had been told that the chances of finding trilobites were good. There was no discussion of the geology or the other beasts that might be there.
After about fifteen minutes of hammers clinking and folks running to the leaders for identification of various finds, I walked up to the pasture. One of the grad students was sitting cross-legged on the ground pounding slowly on a slab of rock. On my approach, he looked up at me, back down to the rock, got up and wandered toward an oak, under which a group was gathered. I went back to the rock, levered it out of the sod with my chisel, and cleaned it on the grass.
I had no idea what I was seeing, but it looked very well-preserved. I took it to show the group under the tree. The leader wasn’t sure of the ID, but he suggested “Nidulites pyriformis”, a predecessor of corals and sponges. Nobody else showed much interest; they were admiring a pygidium (which looked to me very much like an embedded brach, but what the hell).
The next outcrop was a muddy disappointment, and by popular demand we retired to a cottage owned by one of the leaders for the evening. Bonfire lit, beer, hot dogs, etc., consumed, tents pitched and sleeping arrangements arranged, we (well, some of us) retired. That night, it rained again, and the next morning the group was given the option of returning to DC or getting soaked and muddy. Thus began the great race back to the city.
The archaeocyathid find is now safely housed as fossil 22704 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.