On Saturday, an estimated 5,000 fossil nuts, dinosaur buffs and grade-school paleontologists will cram into the tiny town of Aurora, angling for a bag full of prehistoric loot.
They’ll clamber over a dump truck load of “fossil dirt” piled in the town park, leftovers from the local phosphate mine. They’ll cheer as Mr. and Little Miss Fossil are crowned. And they’ll double-cross their fingers that they hold the winning raffle ticket and win the grand prize:
A Megalodon tooth – that’s the chopper from a big, extinct shark – the size of a grown man’s hand.
Those unwise in the ways of science, myself especially, are surprised to learn that one of the world’s largest sources of Miocene and Pliocene fossils hides beneath the dirt of rural Beaufort County.
It’s even more startling that a museum containing mammoth tusks and manatee ribs sprawls over four buildings in Aurora, population 501. Fifteen million years ago, this place bustled with prehistoric sharks. Now you’d be hard-pressed to field a baseball team. You could take a nap in the middle of Main Street outside the empty Heilig-Meyers store and wake up without a scratch.
But the lid blows off Aurora this weekend for the annual Fossil Festival, an event so embraced by the community that it includes an outdoor church service on Sunday – quite possibly the only time that evolution and creation mix so amicably.
“There will be a lot of fossil geeks here,” said Cynthia Crane, museum director.
An ancient sea once covered this flat and sandy ground, and the remains of countless sea creatures lie scattered under heaps of earth.
Phosphate mining started outside Aurora in the 1960s as the energy firm Texas Gulf began pulling out that hidden rock to make fertilizer and other agricultural products. In the early years, fossil collectors had free rein to scour the mine themselves, pulling out the region’s signature shark teeth that would come to be known as Aurora megs.
PotashCorp bought the huge mine in 1995, creating PCS Phosphate, which still provides the spoil piles for the festival. Look online and see enthusiasts posting pictures of dolphin teeth they extracted with a trowel, having driven six hours to Aurora.
I stumbled into the museum accidentally on Monday while in search of roadside attractions, and Crane gave me the full tour: the fungus gnats trapped in amber, an entire room dedicated to Megalodon teeth, a walrus skull recovered in a fishing net at Oregon Inlet – tusks intact.
The collection spins off into gems – pyrite from Peru – and Native American artifacts, including arrowheads and axes recovered nearby. I’m a fan of small museums everywhere, nonprofits largely run by volunteers. But this place floored me. On the drive back, I stopped for gas in Chocowinity, 25 miles away, and the cashiers were all talking about digging techniques: by hand or via shovel, which they considered cheating.
Aurora Fossil Museum sees roughly a third of its yearly traffic, about 15,000 people, this weekend, when they’ll be auctioning off samples of shrimp, horseshoe crabs and other fossilized goodies. I hope they get 10,000 visitors. There’s a parade. And a dance. And a 5K run. And three sessions of paleontology lectures. Also a lawn mower pull.
Someday, I’m guessing, space creatures will pull our own fossilized remains out of the dirt, turning them over in their eight-fingered hands, placing them on their mantels over little brass plaques. Aurora Man. I hope they can tell we were an inquisitive species, given to open-mindedness and fun.
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The 22nd annual Aurora Fossil Festival runs Friday through Sunday with most of the activity on Saturday. See more at www.aurorafossilfestival.net or Aurora Fossil Festival on Facebook.