In the spring of last year Tom Testa made the painful decision to sell off a piece of his legacy–a 300-million-year-old fossilized chiton called Glaphurochiton concinnus, an oblong mollusk whose modern relatives graze on algae that cling to wave-swept rocky shores. Back then, in the middle Pennsylvanian period, Testa’s chiton crept along the muddy floor of a shallow inland sea whose long northern coastline arced through what is now Kankakee, Will, and Grundy counties, about 50 miles southwest of the Loop.
Testa has several dozen chitons in his enormous fossil collection, most plucked from piles of discarded shale at a former strip mine near Braidwood. The mine was called Pit 11, and it’s the most important of a group of fossil sites in the area, collectively known as Mazon Creek after the tributary of the Illinois River where the fossils were first discovered in the mid-19th century. Mazon Creek fossils are unique. They’re well preserved and unusually diverse, and many have few relatives in the world fossil record. There are mollusks, plants, arthropods, fish, amphibians, and lots of weird soft-bodied invertebrates, which are especially important because the fragile creatures had no hard parts and therefore didn’t fossilize easily.
More than 300 animal species and 200 plants have been identified from the Mazon Creek area, evidence that in the Pennsylvanian period northeastern Illinois teemed with life. Mazon Creek is known as one of the world’s finest Lagerstatten–which, loosely translated from German, means “mother lode” and is used to describe a fossil fauna so well preserved and diverse it tells a nearly complete tale of what life was like when the creatures were alive. In his 1989 book Wonderful Life Stephen Jay Gould called Mazon Creek one of the three greatest LagerstŠtten of the Paleozoic era, the 345-million-year geologic period that begins with the first explosion of multicellular life and ends with a mass extinction just before the rise of the dinosaurs.
For more than 150 years amateur paleontologists like Testa have scoured the banks of the Mazon Creek (the Mazon River on today’s maps) and the dredgings of local coal mines for the type of rocks that contain fossils. Collections of them are in the Smithsonian, the Illinois State Museum, Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, and other scientific institutions all over the world, though the Field Museum’s is the world’s biggest and most important.
Amateurs still hunt in the Mazon Creek area for fossils and still find amazing things. But many collecting spots are disappearing or already gone–bulldozed flat, hauled away for landfill, overgrown by vegetation, or submerged underwater. Someone who wants a Pennsylvanian-period chiton will usually have to wait until a serious collector like Testa decides to sell one.
Among the shrinking community of amateur collectors, the 52-year-old Testa is respected for his dedication and knowledge. Over 29 years he’s built one of the largest and most scientifically valuable Mazon Creek collections still in private hands. He figures he’s picked up, lugged home, and cracked open a quarter-million rocks. Nearly 6,000 of them contained fossils he deemed worth cataloging and keeping in his main collection, which includes rare and unique animals that have never been studied as well as lots of superbly preserved common species that reveal details of anatomy not found in research collections.
Like many older collectors, Testa has begun to worry about what will happen to his collection when he’s gone. A soft-spoken hulk of a man, he lives with his ailing father in the house he grew up in just outside Coal City. He’s spent his whole life in this part of northeastern Illinois, working mostly part-time, low-paying jobs. If it weren’t for his father, he says, he’d probably be homeless.
Sometimes he has to sell a fossil to get by. Sometimes he sells one just so he can keep collecting. He wanted to sell his chiton largely so that he could get to some old Pit 11 waste piles that now form islands in Braidwood Lake, the 3,060-acre flooded basin that cools the Braidwood nuclear reactor. The islands are accessible only by boat. He had a boat, but he couldn’t haul it to the lake because his truck’s battery, tires, and carburetor were shot.
Testa, who sees his collection as his life’s work, wants to keep it intact for posterity, and the idea of parting with his chiton was tough to swallow. “It’s like selling a finger or something,” he said. “I’ll never see it again.” The anatomical details of the chiton were sharp, even those of the fleshy mantle around the edge of its shell, which is rarely found fossilized. It was one of his better chitons and could probably fetch $500, but he needed the cash and was willing to let it go for $400.
Testa is still adding to his collection. He says the scientific community thinks all the important collecting at Mazon Creek has already been done but insists the fossils he continues to find are proof that it hasn’t. He believes that only a fraction of Pit 11’s fossils have been recovered and estimates that hundreds of thousands more could be.
He wishes he could persuade researchers to excavate portions of the former mine’s overgrown shale piles and says he knows just where to lead them. He thinks they might uncover a whole host of new species, perhaps a collection approaching the importance of his own. He realizes such a project would be expensive and politically difficult. Much of the land is managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a state park, and the idea of digging up state land horrifies conservationists. But this is one of the few places left where collecting is still possible, and the fossils are slowly degrading. “The majority of these fossils,” he says, “are in danger of being lost forever.”
Mazon Creek fossils are deposited all over the area where Kankakee, Will, and Grundy counties come together. Near the Braidwood and Coal City exits on I-55 the monotony of flat farmland and suburban sprawl is suddenly broken by isolated pyramids of gray shale and steep, brush-covered ridges–the remnants of shaft and strip mines from the moribund local coal industry. The region is dotted with small towns and villages–Braidwood, Wilmington, Braceville, Carbon Hill–that sprang up around mines excavating the massive deposits of high-quality, low-sulfur coal that began to form 280 to 300 million years ago.
Back then, Illinois was deep in the interior of a supercontinent that would later separate into today’s major landmasses. Near the equator the region was covered partly by vast swampy forests, partly by a huge shallow sea. To the east, rivers rushed down mountains, carrying sediment through the forests and forming muddy deltas where they emptied into the sea. The future tricounty area was on one of these deltas.
Flowering plants hadn’t yet evolved, so the forests were dominated by primitive fernlike plants that grew up to 130 feet tall. Cockroaches, dragonflies, spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, primitive amphibians, and six-foot millipedes swarmed amid the vegetation. The fresh, brackish, and salt waters teemed with crustaceans, mollusks, fish, jellyfish, bivalves, and worms. Geologists have theorized that a series of major storms caused the sea level to rise and inundate the swampy forest, while torrents of water swept down the rivers, breaching the delta floodplains and engulfing millions of creatures in mud.
Charles Shabica is a coastal geologist who teaches at Northeastern Illinois University. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 60s, he studied core samples from all over Illinois trying to determine what happened during this period. “I saw a lot of evidence for what I call catastrophism,” he says. “We had a flood of immense proportions–probably a spring where it started raining like crazy and kept raining, maybe for six months to a year. Sea level’s going up at the same time, and then this stuff started happening. Coarse material is left right onshore. The fine material–a big plume of clay–just gets carried out in the water and slowly sinks to the bottom.”
No one completely understands why so many plant fragments and living organisms were preserved in the ironstone concretions, or nodules, that formed from that clay. The concretions range from the size of pebbles to the size of dinner plates. Scientists believe the clay helped prevent the organisms from decaying and that chemical reactions leached iron carbonate molecules from the mineral-rich water, forming a muddy casing around them. As successive layers of sediment squeezed water out of the deposited mud, the iron helped cement the muck around the creatures and replaced their tissue.
“The fact that these things were preserved at all told me, wow, they had to be buried instantly,” says Shabica. “You take a worm and throw him in a pond, and he’s either eaten or rotted away in a couple days. We found worms and jellyfish perfectly preserved. They had to have been killed and encased in a little tomb literally in a couple of days.”
As millennia passed, the layers of mud hardened into shale and the thick forest peat below them mineralized into coal. The continents pulled apart, dinosaurs evolved and died out, mammals flourished. Beneath the surface the fossilized concretions remained suspended in the soft gray shale, which is found under several midwestern states and in some areas is up to 100 feet thick. Concretions seem to be found only in thick layers, which also occur in places such as Indiana, Missouri, and Great Britain, though the fossils there aren’t nearly as diverse as those in Illinois. There may be fossil deposits that approach the quality of Pit 11 elsewhere, but they haven’t been uncovered.
The Mazon, particularly a stretch just southeast of Morris, provides the only natural exposure of ironstone concretions in Illinois. As the river wore through the shale 10,000 years ago, the concretions spilled out of the banks. The water saturated the concretions, and as it repeatedly froze and thawed with the changing of the seasons, the concretions often split where they were weakest–along the plane where the organism lay.
A century and a half ago local farmers and townspeople began collecting the beautiful plant, insect, fish, and amphibian fossils lying along the river. Some were passed along to the fledgling Illinois State Geological Survey, and researchers began publishing taxonomic descriptions of the species.
Marquette and Jolliet had discovered the first coal in the New World in this area in 1673, and in the mid-1850s the first shaft mines were dug near Morris. Soon coal companies were digging mines all over the region to supply Chicago’s burgeoning industrial economy. The miners dug through the shale to get to the coal seams, piling the waste rock aboveground. Because the concretions were in the lowest layers of shale, just above the coal, they were deposited on the tops of these enormous “spoil” piles. As rain and wind eroded the soft shale, the concretions began poking out and rolling down to the base of the hills. Miners reportedly cracked them open on the railroad tracks and sold them to researchers, schools, and museums.
The development of earthmovers in the 1920s led to strip mining. Thousands of tons of shale were scraped off the coal seams, and huge mechanized shovels piled it in steep ridges along the troughs. By the mid-30s picking the concretions off the ridges had become a popular local pastime.
Among the collectors was George Langford, a self-made Joliet ironworks operator and frustrated paleontologist. When he was a young man his left arm had been chewed off in a machine accident, but he could hold a concretion between his feet and crack it with a hammer in his remaining hand. In 1947 Langford donated his enormous collection of fossils to the Field Museum, the foundation of its Mazon Creek holdings, and with the help of the museum’s new curator of invertebrate paleontology, Eugene Richardson, he began a second career as curator of plant fossils.
By the mid-50s the Peabody Coal Company was mining Pit 11, and collectors soon discovered huge numbers of concretions tumbling from its spoil piles. Peabody welcomed the collectors as long as they stayed clear of the rumbling machinery, and amateur geology groups such as the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI) began taking field trips there.
Many of the amateur collectors expected to find plant fossils similar to the ones they’d collected at the strip mines to the north and along the Mazon, and they didn’t know what to make of the strange blobs and squiggles inside many of the Pit 11 concretions. Some people just tossed them aside, but others noticed similarities and gave the fossils unscientific nicknames–the aitch, the clam-clam, the Oliver Hardy worm.
Langford and Richardson worked in adjoining offices on the Field Museum’s fourth floor. Amateur collectors who knew Langford often brought him Mazon Creek fossils to identify, and Richardson became fascinated with the strange animal specimens they’d found. He began publishing papers on the fauna, and like Langford he encouraged the amateurs to keep collecting. Soon he had hundreds of rock hounds bringing him fossils to identify.
One day in 1958 a Lockport pipe fitter named Francis Tully took Langford some plant fossils and brought along three fossils of a bizarre creature he’d collected at Pit 11. It had a cigar-shaped body ending in a spadelike tail, an extended clawlike appendage, and what seemed to be a pair of eyes on stalks perpendicular to its body. No one had ever found such a creature anywhere in the world, and when Richardson saw it, the story goes, he called it a “monster.” His paper on Tullimonstrum gregarium, popularly known as the “Tully Monster,” caused a sensation among paleontologists (see sidebar).
In the 50s Pit 11 was a huge moonscape that covered several square miles, and a collector with a hammer and bucket could wander over the spoil piles and not see another person all day. Fossils were so plentiful that collectors frequently picked up only concretions that had weathered open on their own. They noticed that certain spots tended to yield particular kinds of organisms–chitons on one hill, shrimp on another. Helen Piecko, a housewife and legendary collector who first picked the spoil heaps in 1956 with her husband, led rookies to her favorite spots for a while, but then the mines got crowded and the collectors competitive. She, like other experienced collectors, started giving the novices the slip. “We were coming out with bags full of rocks, and they were all there with cars parked by ours,” she says. “They never did find out where we were collecting.”
Testa was surprised at how many dedicated amateurs he saw when he started collecting in the mid-70s. “I remember one of the first times I went out there I had a pickup truck and I went down this dreadful road,” he says. “I thought, boy, this really is a wilderness. I came up over this rise and there were like half a dozen sedans with these elderly people picking fossils. I remember this bent-over old man dragging a huge sack of rocks behind him. It just blew me away that they were so motivated.”
Amateur paleontologists have been responsible for some of the most important discoveries in the history of the science, but they often complain that the professionals don’t recognize their achievements. In the rarefied atmosphere of the Field Museum, Eugene Richardson was an anomaly. He was always willing to look at what the amateurs found and acknowledge its value. “He was an angel,” says Piecko. “No matter what you found, he always made it look like you got a gem. He never criticized it, never embarrassed you. One time I found a coprolite–it’s dung, animal feces–and he said, ‘Boy, that looks like a healthy coprolite. I’ve never seen one like that.'” He made a deal with her–if she found a new species, he’d see that it was named after her so long as she donated the fossil to the museum.
Paleontologists study the anatomical form and structure of fossils to establish relationships between living and extinct organisms, and there’s no substitute for having the actual specimens in hand, because intricate details often don’t show up in illustrations or even photographs. This is especially true of Mazon Creek fossils, which don’t photograph well because there’s often little contrast between the color of the fossil and the surrounding rock.
When paleontologists first describe a new fossil species they decide on a holotype–the specimen they have that best represents the structural form of the organism. Important fossil specimens occasionally get lost in huge museum collections or when they’re out on loan, so if possible, paleontologists will also choose paratypes–specimens that serve as backups. Together the Pieckos donated to the Field at least five holotypes, though Helen says it was probably twice that number–she lost count. They’re all named for the Pieckos and include a jellyfish, a worm, and a spider.
Richardson understood how valuable it was to have hundreds of people who loved fossils combing the spoil piles. “His philosophy was that the amateur can spend more time in the field than the professional, so the amateurs can find the majority of the material,” says James Konecny, who, along with his wife, was immortalized in the names of two worms. “If you befriend these people, then you will have access to the material they find. But if you become antagonistic to these people–like some of the professionals have–then you won’t.”
“I have a hundred new species in this fauna and over a hundred collectors,” Richardson wrote a colleague in 1969. “I would like to match them one-to-one and give everyone a namesake.” The amateurs brought him huge numbers of fossils, and he parceled out the most important ones to researchers. Helen Piecko has two scrapbooks filled with letters and postcards from paleontologists all over the world who visited her home to study her fossils–all referred by Richardson. The researchers published papers on hundreds of new animal species, which represented a huge leap in the study of the Pennsylvanian period. And Richardson let the amateurs know that. “He gave me a very strong feeling of doing something important,” says Testa.
Some collectors were reluctant to part with their treasures and would only loan them. Like all professional paleontologists and many amateurs, Richardson believed that holotypes and “figured specimens”–those photographed or illustrated in papers and articles–should be in museums. But some of the Pit 11 fossils in private collections were too important to ignore, so he accepted them as loans.
He wanted to compensate collectors for their efforts but couldn’t. “I try to discourage the purchase of fossils here for the practical reason that the Museum’s resources (though large) are stretched rather thin,” he wrote in a 1969 letter. “If I had the free spending of unlimited money, I could certainly make an acceptable offer for some rare and very desirable Pennsylvanian invertebrates from my Pit 11 locality. Perhaps I should do this. On the other hand, my amateur collectors don’t expect it of me, and some have now added codicils to their wills leaving their collections to the Museum. Since the Museum will outlive the collectors, I am content.”
“He was a very modest man,” says Matthew Nitecki, an invertebrate paleontologist who joined the Field Museum in 1965 and is now a curator emeritus there. “He was sitting on a paleontological gold mine, and he could have made himself famous. But he never did, you see? The scientific world is an aggressive place–there are a lot of aggressive sons of bitches. He wasn’t using his elbows. But then he became a hero to [the amateurs] too. No, more than a hero–they adored him. They could bring fossils to him, and he might have had a little sherry for them and patiently explain things to them–and then they would deposit specimens in the museum.”
Richardson was a generalist, which allowed him to act as a bridge between the amateur and scientific communities. But by the late 70s generalists were becoming scarce, and some Field administrators took an increasingly dim view of his extensive contact with the amateurs. “Around that time, and for a long time thereafter, there was more pressure to get grants, more pressure to publish,” says John Bolt, a vertebrate paleontologist who joined the Field in 1972. “There was, I would say, some unhappiness that Gene had been spending so much time with the amateurs. Because of course if he was spending all this time, it’s gonna make it more difficult for him to publish much.”
Testa once had 400 white plastic five-gallon buckets filled with rocks and water in his yard. He’s now down to about 100. Every spring he dumps each one out over a metal grate, then gently claps two concretions together at a time, watching to see if any cracks appear. If not, they go back in the bucket for another year.
For decades collectors split concretions with hammers, but the rock frequently shattered or cracked the wrong way, only partially exposing or destroying the fossil inside. Sometime in the 60s or 70s, collectors who’d seen how concretions split on their own when exposed to the elements began hauling backbreaking loads of them to their cars and taking them home. Spread out in backyards, the rocks tended to develop hairline cracks, and a few gentle taps would split them along the plane of the fossil. Others wouldn’t break for years; some never did. Eventually rock hounds learned that submerging them in water worked even better, and many backyards and garages became crowded with buckets.
Concretions are usually duds. Testa hauls most of the identifiable fossils to his scrap pile or gives them away. On very rare occasions the fossil is spectacular or one of the few things he doesn’t already have; he’ll assign it a number and add it to his collection. The process of sorting through the buckets often takes all summer. A few rocks haven’t shown any sign of cracking in ten years or more. The longer they go without splitting, the less likely they are to split. But he’s had important fossils open after two decades, so he’s slow to give up.
Testa graduated from high school, but he’s never had a career and never been married. “When I was growing up,” he says, “I was picked on by everybody, including my own family. It wasn’t until I was an adult and could beat people up that it stopped.”
It’s hard to picture Testa as an angry outcast. He speaks quietly and slowly with a lexicographer’s vocabulary and is unfailingly cordial, if guarded. He likes to garden, hunt for mushrooms, read science fiction, and listen to jazz and classical music. He says that when he started collecting fossils he discovered a sense of purpose. “It gave me the motivation to keep on living,” he says. “I don’t know what would have happened to me otherwise. I probably would have done nothing of importance at all. Before I found Pit 11 my life was bleak. I had no future.”
By the early 70s coal companies were selling off their abandoned strip mines to private landowners–to developers as well as hunting, fishing, and recreational clubs. In 1973 Peabody sold Pit 11 to Commonwealth Edison. Two years later ComEd began building its Braidwood nuclear power plant at the north end of the pit. That same year Testa, who’d read about Pit 11 fossils in the local paper, asked if he could look around. “I expected to get a handful of common things, but I got good things right away.”
He had a knack for spotting the concretions. “I have a natural ability to pick objects out of an environment,” he says. “I was born with it and I developed it.” He took a job as a janitor at a tavern, leaving his days free. He liked to go to the mines alone, and other rock hounds say they would sometimes scramble over the top of a spoil pile and find him snoozing on the other side.
One day in 1975 he was collecting near what would become the southern end of the power plant’s cooling lake and picked up a smooth, egg-shaped concretion. The next spring he dumped it out of one of his buckets. “It just opened on its own,” he says. “I knew it was a significant arthropod.”
An exquisitely detailed impression of the insectlike creature curved across each half of the rock. It was about two inches long, measuring from its two antennae to the wicked pair of pincers on its tail end. The rock had split inside the animal, and each half showed different body parts: six thoracic legs, a pair of eyes, a set of jaws on the underside of the head. “This was a rather robust animal,” says Testa. “Something you wouldn’t want to pick up–it would just bite the hell out of you.”
He usually kept his discoveries to himself, but he showed this specimen to Gordon Baird, a Field Museum assistant curator who’d been given a National Science Foundation grant to map the geology of Mazon Creek by collecting fossils from every abandoned shaft and strip mine in five counties. Over six years in the 70s and early 80s he and a team of volunteers would process more than 400,000 concretions, and buckets of rocks covered portions of the museum’s roof until a building engineer warned Baird that the weight could damage it. Baird had identified two main Pennsylvanian environments. The fauna found in the Braidwood biota, north and west of the ancient sea, tended to be terrestrial–insects, amphibians, horseshoe crabs, spiders, centipedes, and scorpions, along with freshwater fish and crustaceans. The fauna found to the south and east, in the Essex biota, were mostly sea dwellers. Pit 11 was in the Essex biota, and because Testa’s insect was a land creature, it must have been swept into the water. Baird urged him to take it to Richardson.
Testa did, and Richardson asked him to donate the find to the museum. He refused. “Even then I was greedy and unwilling to donate,” he says. “Keeping a unique specimen is a very bad thing. I knew it at the time. I’ve known it ever since.”
Yet the fossil was so remarkable Richardson thought it ought to be studied anyway. Testa let him make latex molds and send them off to researchers. Years later a Canadian paleoentomologist named Jarmila Kukalova-Peck heard about the fossil. “Testa showed it to me,” she says, “and I said, ‘Ah! I have to have it!'” She persuaded him to part with it for a few years and in 1987 published a paper describing it in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. She named the new species Testajapyx thomasi. “He’s obviously a ferocious little fella,” says Testa. “I’m proud. I don’t want a wimpy thing named after me.”
Kukalova-Peck placed the fossil in the Diplura order of arthropods and argued that it proved that Diplurans shared an ancestor with insects and should therefore be considered a sister group of the Insecta class. Taxonomists like to study several significant specimens before describing a new species, but Testajapyx, the earliest Dipluran in the fossil record, is the only specimen of its kind. It was bold of Kukalova-Peck to make her argument on the basis of a fossil in private hands. How could other scientists be sure her ideas were sound if they couldn’t examine the holotype itself? What if the fossil were somehow destroyed, stolen, or lost or Testa were to sell it? “Unfortunately,” she says, “it was either this or nothing.”
More species could probably be named for Testa if he were more willing to donate or loan his fossils, since he has unique insects and fish as well as creatures with no apparent predecessors or modern relatives, strange ghosts in the rock that he’s nicknamed by shape–“stickosaurs,” “skinnies,” and “squirms.” He trusts Kukalova-Peck and has loaned her two-thirds of his insects, but he’s reluctant to loan to other researchers. “You know, greed is what I had to go on,” he says. “It’s what kept me going, and I exploited that to keep myself alive. I didn’t have much to look forward to in life, but I had something worth being greedy about.”
And he has reason to be wary. Some researchers are notorious among amateurs for refusing to respect the terms of a loan. He says that 20 years ago he loaned a cockroach for two years to a researcher he won’t name, and the researcher still refuses to return it.
Richardson once told another collector that Testa was without peer among amateurs in his ability to identify fossils. Amateurs and professionals who can’t identify their specimens are frequently referred to him, which he considers a pleasure. “It’s the joy of figuring something out,” he says. “You might have a shrimp with the head bitten off. You can tell that some predator like a fish bit it–there’s a whole story there.”
Many of Testa’s fossils, like Testajapyx, are extraordinarily beautiful, and the structural details are easy to identify. Others aren’t so pretty–mangled, half-eaten, or decayed creatures or simply amorphous shapes. Less experienced collectors might discard such specimens, but researchers want to see as much anatomical detail as possible, which is why a paleoichthyologist might appreciate a complete fish fossil less than one with the head smashed open. This is especially true of the most common Mazon Creek animal, Essexella asherae, a mushroom-shaped jellyfish long known among collectors as “the blob.” It’s the wrinkly, bloated, partially rotten blobs that stand out in the rock and offer the most information about the creature’s anatomy.
The same goes for Tully Monsters. Tullies that are folded over on themselves, twisted, bitten, or somewhat decayed sometimes reveal features not seen in pristine specimens. Testa figures he’s found 100 or so Tullies, and the ones in his collection have a unique range of anatomical details; many people say they’re much more detailed and better preserved than the Field’s specimens. He believes the decay process in six of his Tullies had advanced to the point where their fossils reveal the ordinarily invisible end of their digestive tract. “I want to go down in history as the man who discovered Tully’s anus,” he says. “That’s got to make the history books. To understand the creature you’d have to know what the situation with the gut is.”
Johnson and Richardson’s famous 1969 description identified a faint line running down the middle of the tubular Tully body in some specimens, which they said was probably the gut. Testa thinks he can see the anus in his Tullies, just above the point where the tail fin connects. “It’s continuous with what’s considered the gut, and it has a pucker,” he says. “The rectum was probably inflated by decay gases, making the anus visible. That’s normally why you don’t see it–it has to have gas to make it more prominent.”
Not many researchers have worked on the Tully Monster since Johnson and Richardson. Papers were published in 1979 and 1991, but neither was able to place it in a particular phylum. Testa has his own ideas and intends to write a paper, though because he doesn’t have a degree in paleontology, he’ll have to publish it himself. He agrees with a researcher who suggested in 1979 that Tullimonstrum might be related to a group of shell-less mollusks and goes one step further, arguing that the Tully was a parasite that fed on Essexella asherae. He says he has Tullies whose features support that idea, but he won’t discuss them on the record for fear of being scooped.
Testa has other papers in mind. He wants to lay out his theory that the mysterious “aitch,” or Etacystis communis, actually belongs in Siphonophora, a taxonomic order that incudes the Portuguese man-of-war. This has been suggested before, but Testa thinks he can prove a relationship to a specific genus. “The reconstructions of Etacytis really are off, because the people that published on it only had a few specimens that were poorly preserved,” he says. “I can do what I’m doing because I hit the mother lode of aitches.” A few years ago he collected 27 buckets of concretions when a private recreational club he belongs to partially drained its lake so it could regrade the beach; among the fossils were lots of aitches in predator-prey relationships with jellyfish, worms, and shrimp.
Testa admits he hasn’t uncovered hard evidence to back all of his ideas. He has a theory that a massive die-off of Mazon Creek animals was caused primarily by a toxic algal bloom similar to the red tides that kill marine creatures today. He thinks the animals of Mazon Creek might have been paralyzed by neurotoxins produced by the algae, then sank to the bottom and were buried. As evidence he offers several specimens of Mazon Creek’s most common vertebrate, Esconichthys apopyris, that show two or more individuals pressed up against each other where their reproductive structures might be. “These animals were locked together in a copulatory embrace when they died,” he says. “None of this has been proved of course. How do you prove such a thing? But can you think of any other chordate interaction that involves pressing their poo-poos together? Now how can we get such delicate things like that? Well, if they were victims of algal toxins they couldn’t separate, they couldn’t do anything.” He knows it’s just a theory. “I’ve bounced it off a few other people and gotten blank looks,” he says, laughing. “I’m no scientist. I just pick up mud lumps.”
Testa doesn’t want to say where he keeps his collection, but he relishes showing it off to scientists. “One of the real joys of my collection is I’ve been host to several world-class fossil people,” he says. “And to see the punch-drunk look on their faces–you can just wear people out for four or five hours looking at fossils.”
Desmond Collins is the senior curator of the Royal Ontario Museum, and his research focuses on the fossils of the Burgess Shale, a Cambrian period LagerstŠtten in the Canadian Rockies that contains an abundance of soft-bodied marine invertebrates. He’d heard of Testa’s collection but never seen it, and he stopped by to take a look last year. “Oh, we’d love to get that, but Tom’s not gonna sell it, right?” he says. “Anyway, because there’s so much of Tom Testa in his collection, one would have to deal with that really very carefully–because you could destroy the guy.”
The Field Museum houses the third largest collection of invertebrate fossils in North America. It has around two million specimens, about ten percent of them from Mazon Creek. But nearly all these fossils are locked away on the second floor, accessible only to researchers. Until the beginning of May over 100 were on public display, in the museum’s Life Over Time exhibit. It had a convincing diorama of a Pennsylvania-period coal swamp and some fine examples of plants, worms, insects, shrimp, and clams, along with a few good Tully Monsters under a photograph of Francis Tully, who looked as if he’d just swallowed one alive. But it wasn’t a very comprehensive or compelling representation of the flora and fauna of Mazon Creek. (The exhibit is now closed for a two-year renovation; the Mazon Creek section is to be expanded.)
Some rock hounds believe that if they donate their important specimens to the Field they’ll just disappear into the storage cabinets on the second floor, one more reason they prefer to hang on to them. Many have displays in their homes that outshone the Field’s exhibit, and rock hounds point people who want to see the best public representation of Mazon Creek plants and animals in the world to the basement of Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop in Evanston.
Dave Douglass and his late parents, June and Lincoln, began collecting from the Mazon Creek spoil heaps in 1958. During summer vacations he and his mother went collecting at least three times a week, and the family moved to a new house when the old one could no longer contain their finds.
Douglass pursued a geology degree for a few years at Northwestern University before dropping out to peddle rocks full-time, and now sells a large assortment of jewelry and lapidary supplies, rocks, minerals, meteorites, and fossils. Downstairs specimens his family collected from all over the world are arranged chronologically according to the geologic timescale. Among them are 300 or so of his showiest Mazon Creek specimens–three times as many as the Field exhibit had, and he doesn’t charge admission. He has big cockroaches, tiny sharks, fish, amphibians, leeches, chitons, sea scorpions, a huge horseshoe crab, and an entire case of plant fossils. He says he won’t sell important Mazon Creek fossils and only buys them for the collection. “What I’m trying to do is to get one of everything,” he says, “so people can see the variety of stuff that’s found out there.”
Three holotypes named for the Douglass family are displayed prominently, all found in the late 60s and early 70s. June Douglass picked up the earliest squid in the entire fossil record at Pit 11, named Jeletzkya douglassae by Richardson and a colleague. Lincoln Douglass found a nymph from a flying insect, Mischoptera douglassi, that Richardson said was “one of the most important fossil insects ever found.” The three-inch scorpion claw Dave found got him the namesake Titanoscorpio douglassi.
Richardson didn’t like the family’s holding on to important holotypes, but Douglass says he never pressured them for donations. “I’ve heard stories about other institutions that said they would not publish something or name something after someone if it wasn’t donated,” he says. “I personally feel that that’s idiotic. If you have something that’s unique to science it’s better to have the information described and made known.”
Douglass says he loans specimens to researchers when he’s asked, but he also feels a responsibility to keep his collection accessible to the public. “The idea is for it not to just be tucked away somewhere, where nobody sees it but a couple of academics,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted–to be able to show it off and have people enjoy it and learn from it.”
Perhaps Richardson was more forgiving of possessive collectors because he knew that even the best museums lose important specimens. In a 1970 letter to a researcher he wrote, “I sent you the catalog number for the holotype of Hesslerella. But I cannot find the specimen. All three…shrimp were swiped from my microscope. By any chance, do you have them? Several important specimens have disappeared this way, most notably, one half of a magnificent insect….Something is disturbingly wrong with security around here.” He also said a lamprey holotype, Mayomyzon pieckoensis, which was partly named for Helen Piecko, had been photographed for Science and then half of it disappeared.
Collection managers at the Field say at least part of the shrimp holotype Richardson referred to is safe, as is the lamprey. But over the years some curators suspected particular collectors of stealing, and though no one was ever prosecuted, rumors have followed these collectors ever since.
As time went on Richardson grew less forgiving of collectors who refused to donate. In the 60s he’d taken a young collector named Dan Damrow under his wing. Damrow had started collecting Pit 11 as a teenager, and in the 70s he moved to rural Wisconsin and became a commercial fossil dealer. He stayed close to the Mazon Creek collectors and corresponded with Richardson. In 1979 one of Richardson’s colleagues described a pair of shark holotypes found by a collector named Walter Dabasinskas. The colleague believed the holotypes had been donated to the museum, but for some reason they were returned to Dabasinskas, who sold them to Damrow. “I am quite upset at the fate of the holotypes you have acquired,” Richardson wrote Damrow. “In recent years there has been discussion in the profession about the propriety of using specimens in private hands as types. The consensus is that only specimens in permanent collections should so be used….I have held out against the majority, so far as concerns the collectors in this area, because I was confident that ultimately their specimens would be deposited in some permanent collection….Being now older and wiser, I believe I was wrong.”
Damrow says Dabasinskas told him he was irritated that the Field assumed he’d donated the fossils and that was why he’d sold most of his collection to Damrow shortly before he died. Damrow says he paid a total of $5,000, including $1,000 each for the two holotypes, and later sold them to a private collector he won’t name. He says they’re “being made accessible to scientists who are interested. That was part of the deal.” But he also says he hasn’t spoken to the buyer in years and doesn’t know how to find him.
“Gene was especially angered about this,” says the Field’s John Bolt, “because it was due to him naming these things as holotypes that they acquired this extra value.”
By the early 80s Richardson’s health was deteriorating, and in November 1982 he retired. He said he wanted to finish the comprehensive atlas of the Mazon Creek fossil fauna he’d started–he’d taken photos of the thousands of specimens that had passed through his office but had never made much headway organizing them into a book. Then shortly after retiring he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and two months later he died. Amateurs and professionals from all over the world packed his memorial service.
Grief quickly gave way to panic among collectors, who began demanding that the Field return their loaned specimens. This presented a problem for the museum, because there was nothing to show who owned many of the fossils in Richardson’s office. As the sole remaining invertebrate curator, Matthew Nitecki, along with a collection manager, had to sort out the mess. When it was clear who owned a fossil, letters went out to the collectors asking whether they wished to donate their fossils or have them returned. Researchers were also asked to send back fossils they’d been given on loan.
Several of Testa’s sea cucumbers were on loan, and they were all returned. But other collectors say they never saw some of their fossils again. John Anderson had loaned seven to Richardson, who suspected one was a new species of centipede–something very rare at Mazon Creek. A museum curator wrote Anderson that the staff couldn’t find it, and to this day he wonders where it is.
In 1984 the Field hired Scott Lidgard as assistant curator of fossil invertebrates. He says he honored the amateurs’ requests to return specimens if they had something on paper to back up their claim. Otherwise he felt the only responsible thing to do was to keep them.
Relations between the amateurs and the museum deteriorated further when it became clear that they were no longer welcome to drop by the geology department. “When Richardson was there he helped everybody,” says Helen Piecko. “But when he died nobody talked to you.” Nitecki says, “I chased the rock hounds out.”
“The fact is, in dealing with Gene they just had an individual with an extraordinary interest,” says the Field’s John Bolt. “And not everyone was going to have that interest.”
“OK, so the museum didn’t have such a person,” says Desmond Collins of the Royal Ontario Museum. “Well, they should have got a person. This is one of the prizes of American paleontology, and it’s only 50 miles from Chicago. The world’s best display of Mazon Creek should be at the Field Museum, and there should be at least one person there who is regarded as the authority on the stuff.”
The amateurs too were upset that the museum hadn’t tried to replace Richardson. James and Sylvia Konecny had donated fossils in Richardson’s day, but they decided to will the rest of their vast collection to the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York. “We found that there wasn’t anybody in Illinois that was really interested,” says James. “I mean the Field Museum certainly hasn’t done anything to further Mazon Creek.”
Lidgard disagrees and points out that new Mazon Creek discoveries can still be made in the museum’s collection. “We’ve improved the curatorial status of those collections and the access,” he says. “They remain among the most active areas in terms of the scientific visitors from around the world who come to study, and much of that activity continues to be in the Mazon Creek portion.”
It is true that now and then researchers find new species in museum collections. Just last year a Maryland paleontologist wrote about a new four-legged Mazon Creek amphibian that had been found by amateurs and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. In 2001 a researcher reclassified a shrimp and a millipede specimen at the Smithsonian that had been collected in the 1890s and misidentified.
Charles Shabica, who was teaching at Northeastern Illinois when Richardson died, tried to bridge the gulf between amateurs and academics when he and some of the collectors organized the Mazon Creek Project. The members met occasionally to discuss their finds and concerns, and every year they had an open house, where they set up displays and had some well-known paleontologist speak. But the group didn’t have a Richardson.
At the request of Richardson’s widow, Shabica and another Mazon Creek Project member, Andrew Hay, also took over his book. Shabica says he asked the Field for space and funding but was told it wanted no official connection to the book. He, Hay, and other academics and amateurs contributed chapters, fossils, photographs, and illustrations. The project languished for long periods, but Richardson’s Guide to the Fossil Fauna of Mazon Creek was finally published in 1997.
By midsummer Testa still hadn’t found a buyer for his chiton, so he hadn’t been able to get out to the islands in Braidwood Lake. He’d previously sold unimportant fossils to pay for his blood-pressure medicine, but he’d sacrificed only one of his numbered specimens, a shark fossil he sold to a museum for $540 so he could pay his dues at the recreation clubs where he collects.
The fact that there’s a commercial market for fossils at all is galling to some paleontologists. Professionals, who often struggle to get funding, have always been forced to compete with one another for important fossils. In the last two decades fossils have become even more commodified, and researchers now also have to compete with commercial dealers and private collectors in a brisk, often cutthroat trade. Most amateurs refuse to trade in scientifically important Mazon Creek fossils, but the sheer numbers in private hands make it inevitable that some will be bought, sold, and ultimately lost to science.
In 1987 Mary Carman, the Field’s invertebrate collections manager, tried to find out what had happened to privately held fossils that had been written up. She reviewed around 450 scientific articles on Mazon Creek fossils published over nearly a century and a half and identified more than 400 specimens that had been in 69 private collections. Then she wrote to as many of the collectors as she could find. She concluded that 225 of the specimens remained in private hands and 17 had clearly disappeared, including three holotypes; the rest had found their way into museums. “One can only imagine that as time goes by more specimens will become lost,” she says.
The bulk of Jarmila Kukalova-Peck’s work involves the origin of insect flight and the evolution of insect wings, a puzzle whose answers have long eluded scientists. The Mazon Creek specimens she studied were crucial in forming her theory that insects developed wings not from whole legs, which is what happened with bats and birds, but from pieces that branched off existing leg segments–a once-controversial theory that’s now generally accepted. Over a period of 15 years she’s described many fossils on loan from collectors who were unwilling to donate them, saying she was just making the best of the situation when she couldn’t afford to buy them. “Most of the collectors were absolutely wonderful,” she says. “It was with only one I am bitter.”
More than 20 years ago Richardson told her of a collector who owned a large, fully articulated insect wing that could provide an essential piece of evidence for her theory. She says the collector, Kenneth Daggett, agreed to sell it to her for $1,200. “I swallowed, but I thought, ‘Jesus, I have to.'” Then Daggett changed his mind. “He would think that everybody wanted to betray him, so he would not believe me that it was a fair price,” she says. “He was completely impervious.”
Daggett, who’s now 62, doesn’t remember her offer. He found the wing when he was in high school and kept it for years, even after his father threw away the rest of his fossil collection. “Every one of my kids took it to school for show-and-tell in a plastic bag,” he says. “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.” Kukalova-Peck described and illustrated the specimen in a landmark 1983 paper on insect flight, but the fossil still hangs over Daggett’s fireplace. He knows he should donate it to a museum–Richardson tried to persuade him to. But he says he wanted to write the donation off on his taxes and couldn’t be sure what it was worth.
Testa’s collection became the best in private hands when Larry Osterberger was forced to liquidate his. After 15 years of collecting in Illinois, Osterberger had changed jobs and moved to Georgia, where he filled a four-car garage with nearly 100,000 Mazon Creek fossils. His collection included at least one of almost every animal that could be found in the fauna, he claims, and for that reason alone it would have been an important study collection. He’d hoped to keep it together, but when his wife developed multiple sclerosis he started selling it off in pieces to help pay the bills. He donated some holotypes to the Field Museum but sold others to fossil dealer Dan Damrow, who says he promised not to sell them.
The trade in Mazon Creek fossils is nowhere near as lucrative or controversial as that in vertebrate fossils or fossils exported illegally from China and Argentina; nice Mazon Creek specimens rarely sell for more than $1,000 at rock shows or on the Internet. Yet the price of an extraordinary or unique specimen can go a lot higher. Rumors–the busiest commerce among collectors–circulate that wealthy Japanese collectors and drug-money launderers have paid thousands for individual fossils. Few collectors like talking about how much they’ve paid or been paid, but there’s no doubt the issue of money has hurt relationships.
Keith Holm, a 48-year-old part-time construction worker, has been collecting all over Mazon Creek since he was a teen. He’s traded fossils for things such as German porcelain, but he’s also donated specimens for displays at the public libraries in Braidwood and Coal City, put together a small exhibit for the Department of Natural Resources, and regularly donated buckets of fossils to the state fair to be buried in a sandbox for children to find and take home. And he’s donated important specimens to museums. The one-of-a-kind shark fossil named for him, Holmacanthus keithi, is in the research collection at the Field.
Half of it anyway. The other half is in Dave Douglass’s museum. Holm says Douglass traded him some meteorites and a dinosaur egg for it. Douglass won’t say what he gave for it.
Holm says he found the shark fossil at Pit 11 about seven or eight years ago. He tried to freeze-thaw it open but lost patience and hammered it. It broke into several pieces, which he glued back together.
But Holm’s parents, Wes and Loretta, tell a different story. “He didn’t find that fish,” says Wes. “She found that fish.”
“He bought it off me for a couple hundred and sold it for $10,000,” says Loretta. “Well, he sold half and gave the other half to get his name in the book.”
Wes and Loretta live on an isolated property not far from the Mazon. Rows of buckets line the borders of their yard and the back of a heated garage where they hammer rocks in the winter. Wes rigged up a pulley so he could lift and submerge frozen buckets in a 25-gallon cauldron of boiling water. Many collectors say this method shatters the rocks, but it suits the Holms just fine.
Their scrap pile is 4 feet high and 70 feet long, and their house and garage are filled with boxes and buckets of Tullies, shrimp, worms, and plants. Many of the fossils are extraordinary, including a fist-sized concretion split in three pieces that shows a large, three-dimensional pair of insect wings frozen in the rock as if in flight. “We got so much stuff that we don’t know what we have,” says Wes. “That’s the problem.”
Wes wasn’t much interested in fossils until Keith showed him some shrimp he’d found in the pit. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ma have to get me a shrimp.'”
He and Loretta quickly built a massive collection. But they didn’t have much experience identifying fossils, so they often relied on their son. Loretta says Keith told her the shark was nothing special. “He knew what it was, and he said, ‘Let me take it. I know somebody that will buy it,'” she says. “It was our own fault for not being smart.”
“Would you do that to your parents?” says Wes. “Two or three years he went through a lot of our stuff here. He made lots of money. We didn’t know what was going on.”
They say they eventually got wise and began asking Testa for help instead. “He’s the type of man who can write the names of all this stuff down,” Wes says. “He can write all the Greek words down too. Very honest guy.”
Loretta says her son denied that the Holmacanthus keithi halves that turned up in Douglass’s shop and the Field were hers, but she says she recognized them from the cracks in the rock.
“No, didn’t happen that way at all,” says Keith. “I don’t get along too well with my parents. Everything with them and me is competition. It’s been that way with other collectors too. Everybody wants to get the best piece.”
He says the most money he ever got for a Mazon Creek fossil–half an amphibian concretion–was $12,000, which he says he used to make the down payment on his house. He won’t name the person he sold the fossil to, but most collectors think $12,000 is way too much for only half a concretion.
Keith’s parents like to give away fossils, especially to children, but they mistrust almost everyone else. They’re especially wary of donating specimens to museums for fear curators will turn around and sell them. If the fossils are going to be sold, they reason, they’d rather pocket the money themselves. “We’re getting old now,” says Wes. “So what are we gonna do with our fossils? Give them to Keith? I’d rather drop them in the lake.”
One bright afternoon Tom Testa rode through the South Wilmington Sportsmen’s Club pointing out places where man and nature have conspired to ruin perfectly good strip mines. “Here’s a good example of the future of Pit 11,” he said, pointing to a pond that filled the bottom of an old mine. “Shorelines are entirely coated with phragmites, and all the hills have a dense scrub of cottonwoods and honeysuckles, with an herb understory of burr clovers, white and yellow sweet clover, and smooth broam.”
Phragmites australis, otherwise known as “common reed,” is the bane of Testa’s existence. It’s an invasive species whose roots can sink up to 30 feet deep, preventing the erosion of shale on spoil piles, and it grows up to 20 feet tall in wide, impenetrable thickets. It’s made fossil collecting impossible in many areas.
The long, slow decline of fossil collecting in Mazon Creek began with phragmites and other tough plants creeping over the mines as soon as they were abandoned. The problem was compounded by state and federal reclamation laws passed in the 60s that required mining companies to return the land to some semblance of its original state by bulldozing flat the peaks of the spoil piles and seeding them with plants. The thick overgrowth–which teems with ticks–makes it hard to get to prime collecting spots and halts the erosion that gradually exposes the concretions. In 1975 Testa was hired for a month to plant trees at Pit 11. “I’m happy to say they all croaked,” he says.
When ComEd announced in the mid-70s that it intended to build a nuclear reactor and flood a large section of Pit 11, it was required to file an environmental-impact statement with the Atomic Energy Commission that was supposed to detail any scientific resources that might be affected. Collector John Anderson was stunned to see that it barely mentioned the fossils at the site. He decided to try to persuade the company to sign a formal agreement ensuring that Pit 11 wouldn’t be lost to the collectors. He and another rock hound contacted paleontologists, who sent back letters about the importance of Pit 11, and he showed the letters to ComEd executives. He says he got the impression that the suits considered him a nuisance until he contacted the AEC and told them about ComEd’s oversight. ComEd officials met with Eugene Richardson and agreed to allow collecting before and during construction.
In 1980 and ’81 the pit was flooded, covering nearly three-quarters of the collecting area, leaving a few islands that were accessible only by boat. The DNR signed a long-term lease with the power company to manage the lake and about 1,000 acres south of it, creating a state park intended primarily for hunting and fishing. Collectors were still granted access to the lake and the leased land, though only from mid-April to mid-November. Other areas were gradually declared off-limits as private clubs began leasing pieces of Pit 11 from ComEd.
Anderson says the rules got stricter once the DNR began managing the lake. At first rock hounds were allowed to row out to the islands, but by 1983 they had to have boats with motors. The collecting season was also shortened; it now runs from March 1 through August 31, after which hunting season begins. “Each spring when the collecting season would start,” he says, “we would be dreading what the next set of rules were going to be.” They complained that the DNR knew how to deal only with hunters and fishermen.
“The DNR, they were smart,” said Andrew Hay, coeditor of Richardson’s Guide, last fall, shortly before he died. “They don’t want collectors. We had pressure on them to let us on, but all they had to do was let the grass grow over. Pretty soon you can’t find fossils. You know bureaucrats–all these collectors are a pain in their rear. They just want to have fishermen.”
Testa can identify places all over the Mazon Creek LagerstŠtten that were once good for collecting but have since been overgrown, bulldozed flat, or covered with expensive waterfront homes. None was as important as Pit 11, but many yielded fossils with distinctive characteristics. “That produced wonderful fossils,” he says, pointing toward the site of a former spoil pile near Coal City. “But they had a problem with kids on dirt bikes. So they use it for fill and a sewage lagoon. There’s a whole museum of fossils now that nobody can ever pick.”
A former strip mine just north of Morris produced fossils similar to those at Pit 11. It was known as Chowder Flats because of the large numbers of fossilized clams found there, but all manner of marine life, insects, and plants could be picked out of the spoil. It was one of only two places in the world outside of the state park where the Tully Monster could be found. (The third was a former shaft mine in Fulton County; part of it is now overgrown, part has been reclaimed and turned into a cattle farm.) Chowder Flats was bulldozed in 1988 under the state’s reclamation program, and today little can be found there. The land, which has new housing developments on three sides, is platted for commercial use, though the owner says there are no immediate plans to develop it.
ESCONI leads periodic field trips to an enormous spoil pile on private land near Braceville that’s slowly being hauled off by its owner for road fill. Many private landowners don’t allow fossil collectors on their land and will call the police if anyone ventures across the property line. Dresden Lakes, another former strip mine near Morris, was famous for its enormous plant concretions; the former owners once charged amateurs a few dollars a day to collect there. Today it’s a gated community, and trespassers are forbidden.
Other landowners are careful about whom they trust. The Mazon flows through Ken Benson’s farm, which is now a National Historic Landmark because it’s where fossils were first collected in the 1850s. He allows researchers onto his farm, but only if they sign liability waivers. His father began insisting on them after a fisherman broke his leg near the family’s stretch of the river and tried to sue.
So many sites are now flattened or inaccessible that those that are publicly owned have become even more important. Just south of Braidwood Lake in what’s now called the Mazonia Braidwood State Fish & Wildlife Area, a bare hill rises above waves of phragmites. This is the former site of Peabody’s tipple–the area where coal was separated from rock brought from all over the mine. Collectors always loved the tipple because it yielded the greatest diversity of fossils in the pit. Concretions can still be found there, but not many. The hills consist of millions of tons of highly acidic waste coal, and not much grows on them, not even phragmites. The ground is stable and erosion minimal, though the acidity is slowly eating away at the buried concretions.
When Testa stands at the crest of the hill and looks around he doesn’t see a nature preserve. He sees overgrown areas he once used to collect in, locations he keeps to himself. “I’d tell you,” he says, chuckling, “but I’d have to kill you.”
Yet he’d be willing to lead researchers to the places if they could persuade the DNR to bulldoze the hills. “The state owns some of the most important fossil locations in the world,” he says. “They don’t understand.” He believes a whole host of new species could be discovered here. “We could probably get another of my collections–maybe twice as much over a period of years.”
Testa says he’s already proved that one can still find scientifically important specimens at Mazon Creek by digging for them. About five years ago he shoveled through a cubic yard of earth south of the park. “I got a very important Tully and fragments of others,” he says, “and there were nice shrimps and nice worms.” Two years ago a trench was dug for a power cable at one of his private clubs, and Testa collected about ten gallons of concretions from it. Inside were more shrimps and worms, a couple of the rare Mazon Creek lampreys, and an even scarcer insect.
In 1999 the state bought a 1,662-acre piece of Pit 11 from ComEd, by then a subsidiary of Exelon, for $7 million. It included the tipple and an area south of it that had been leased by a private club. Andrew Hay and the Mazon Creek Project members saw an opportunity to build a fossil park–a potential tourist attraction and educational resource. A similar park in Ohio allows the public to collect Devonian fossils from an old rock quarry. The MCP members proposed that the state set aside a small area south of the tipple for fossil collecting, then regularly disk it, loosening the upper few feet of earth and letting them be picked through.
“We are not in the destruction business,” says site manager Mark Meents. “We are in the rehab business. We’re into growing things, not destroying things.” The DNR’s position is that vegetation prevents erosion from the hills and pollution of the lakes. In 1998 it turned over the earth on a ten-acre section of park and allowed collecting. But it also planted the area with broam grasses to attract waterfowl, and within one season it was uncollectible. Rickard Toomey, a geologist who studied the idea of a fossil park when he was a curator at the Illinois State Museum, isn’t worried about the fossils trapped in overgrown spoil piles. “See, from a paleontological protection standpoint,” he says, “the nodules will still be there, whether they’re collected or not.”
Jack Wittry, a collector who lobbied for disking the area on behalf of the MCP, says, “They’re trying to make this like some kind of a nature preserve, when it’s the most unnatural situation you could imagine. It’s not topsoil anymore. It’s the shale from 60 feet down. The soil is very acid.” Besides, he says, the state has a responsibility to ensure that at least part of what is publicly managed land be accessible to ordinary people who want to collect fossils. “This is about trying to get kids interested in science. It’s a beautiful opportunity in northeastern Illinois to do that, and there’s no effort put into it.”
Meents counters that several thousand collectors, mostly beginners and children, still take field trips to Mazonia Braidwood every year. But, says Dave Dolak, a geology teacher at Columbia College who often leads trips for the Field, “Nobody is going to use these field trips to assemble a big collection. There just is not enough stuff available to do that anymore, not in a group experience in a relatively accessible area.”
One warm day in the spring of last year, Keith Holm stood at the base of the Braceville spoil pile, frowning as he listened to Dolak tell a group of students on an ESCONI field trip about the Tully Monster. Holm, who’d had differences with club members in the past, had followed the group to the pile, even though the trip was open only to members.
“You can find Tullies at Chowder Flats,” Dolak told the students.
“I don’t believe that,” said Holm.
Dolak firmly but politely stood his ground, then continued the lecture.
“Are you with ESCONI?” interrupted Holm.
“Well,” said Dolak. “I’m a member.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” said Wendy Taylor, an invertebrate paleontologist who’d brought the students from her geology class at the Morton Arboretum. She introduced herself to Holm, and within minutes they’d found something to agree on–the orientation of the Tully’s tail fin. Before long she had him nodding and smiling and offering to donate fossils to the University of Chicago, where she works. And because of her, Dolak ended the afternoon at Holm’s house taking pictures of his collection.
Taylor is one of the rare professionals amateur collectors seem to approve of unanimously. Some people even see her in the role of a new Richardson. “I’ve often wondered if Wendy Taylor might be the person,” says Gordon Baird, who now teaches at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “Because she knows fossils, and she has a personality that is probably very good with amateurs.”
Taylor was an undergraduate student of Baird’s in New York. Her doctoral work focused on the earlier fossil deposits of the Silurian and Ordovician periods, but when she came to Chicago in 2000 to be manager of the Field Museum’s invertebrate collection she wanted to know what was going on at Mazon Creek. “I always did a lot of outreach with amateurs wherever I worked,” she says. “When I came here the first thing I wanted to do was get involved with the amateur community and check out ESCONI. Gordon told me the first thing I should do is contact Tom Testa.”
Not long after her arrival she persuaded Testa to volunteer at the Field Museum. He went through its drawers of Mazon Creek specimens that hadn’t yet been cataloged and identified unlabeled fossils, separating the good ones from the ones that could be given away. Testa says Taylor’s down-to-earth nature won him over. “She can talk English,” he says, “as opposed to pontificating, demanding your obeisance.”
She also persuaded him to donate about 3,000 jellyfish and lower-grade fossils to the museum. “I see it as a duty to the fossils to save them,” he says. She turned them over to the museum’s education department, which gave many of them to teachers. And she gave Testa a microscope and a computer.
Taylor says that when she first arrived in Chicago she was inspired by what Richardson had done. “I felt like, wow, I could work to get things rolling again,” she says. “I’m not saying I could be the next Gene Richardson–no way. But at least I could be someone that could take a positive role and get people excited about the collection.”
Taylor left the Field to work with Paul Sereno two years ago, though she still volunteers at the museum. Much of her Mazon Creek advocacy is now done with her own money and on her own time. She’s bought the Internet domain names mazoncreek.com, mazoncreek.org, and tullymonster.com, and she’s worked with Testa and a few other amateur collectors to design a comprehensive Web site on Mazon Creek. She hopes to use tullymonster.com to hawk millipede and Tully Monster T-shirts, with the proceeds going to fund other Mazon Creek projects.
Relations between the amateurs and the Field have improved over the years, and many rock hounds now volunteer at the museum. Taylor says, “We’ve been working very hard to build the bridges back up that got torn down.”
While most Mazon Creek fossil sites have disappeared over the last three decades, people can still collect plenty from Testa’s scrap pile. He figures it contains close to a quarter million pieces of rock–29 years of discarded duds and fragments, but also thousands of jellyfish, clams, worms, and plants that weren’t up to his standards. He might have thrown a few good fossils on the pile too. “I think there’s a fish head in here someplace,” he says. “That would kill me.”
He would like other collectors, especially beginners and children, to take fossils from the pile, which is on the side of a road near the village of Godley. “I like to think that not only have I created an impressive collection, but I’ve created an archaeological site,” he says. “What kind of maniac would do this? What in the world would this baboon collect all these rocks for?”
Testa wants his collection to stay intact. “I don’t have a family,” he says. “I like to think of this as my legacy, something that will live on after I’m gone. I like to think of some curator 200 years from now who actually has something nice to say about me because I saved these things–in other words, so I don’t die in obscurity.”
Selling the collection is the only way he’ll part with it. “I don’t have a lot of money,” he says, “so I’d rather not freeze to death in a cardboard box.” He won’t say how much he’d be willing to accept but says no amount of money could ever compensate him for 29 years of labor. “The best price I could get for it would still be a loss. If you count the entire volume of my collection, I did it for less than minimum wage. There’s way more hours in it than I could possibly get back.”
He knows he could easily unload the collection with a single phone call to any number of commercial fossil dealers, but he wants to see it in a secure permanent collection such as the Field Museum’s. Few museums have money readily available to buy a collection such as his. Institutional acquisition processes are also long and complicated. Generally when curators at the Field want to purchase a collection or even an individual specimen they must estimate its market value and make a case to the museum’s administration. If a decision is made to buy the item and the money isn’t there, a benefactor must be found.
Scott Lidgard, the Field’s invertebrate curator, has seen parts of Testa’s collection. “It’s an extraordinary collection for one person to have accumulated,” he says. “I think it would be a tremendous addition to our fossil holdings here, and a tremendous addition to science.” He won’t say more.
Wendy Taylor has been talking to Testa about where his fossils will wind up, but she won’t say what they’ve discussed. “He’s working with the museum on his collection, and I’ll leave it at that,” she says. “We’re trying very hard to see that it comes to the museum. And we’re gonna do everything possible to make that happen.”
Testa says whatever he decides it’ll be years before anyone gets ahold of the fossils in his collection: “Parting with them would be like losing my children–selling my children.” He says he loses sleep thinking about their future.
Wherever his fossils end up there’s a good chance the chiton he tried to sell last year will be there too. He asked many other collectors if they were interested in buying it, but there were no takers. So he finally put it back in its plastic box. “I decided I valued it more than everybody else.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, courtesy Field Museum; illustration/Elizabeth M. Tamny.