"I've been trying to get these fossils for more than 16 years. When I first came to the Weinman in '96, I think within the first month I was on the phone with the Smithsonian," said Jose Santamaria, executive director for Tellus, which was built on the site of the former Weinman Mineral Museum. "... It is the most important fossil discovery here in Cartersville and one of the most important ones in Georgia. It was pretty massive. There were tens of thousands of fossils. We just [selected] some of the best and showiest ones [for our exhibit]. [So] first of all just the quantity [made the discovery important] -- a lot of different fossils of vertebrae and invertebrates -- but also the research that was done about them.
"The main thing is they were finding species such as jaguars and sloth bones of animals that now a days live only in the tropics in South America, in the Amazon, but they also found the bones of bears and certain types of turtles that live only in cooler climates, all together. And what they concluded was that just pretty recently, about 10,000 years ago, the climate in Georgia was a lot milder so that the summers didn't get too hot to run off these species that now live in the North. But it also didn't get too cold to run off the species that needed the warmer climate. So by studying fossils, you get a snapshot of what the weather was like at the end of the last Ice Age and that's pretty interesting."
From the 1960s through 1980s, the fossils were unearthed and collected at Ladd's Quarry by students, volunteers and faculty members of Shorter College -- now known as Shorter University -- in Rome. Mined from 1870 through the 1950s, the limestone quarry was not originally known for being a fossil-rich area on the west side of Cartersville. During their outings, the Shorter College group discovered more than 100 animal species dating back to the late Pleistocene Epoch about 10,000 years ago.
"Once in a while they encountered fossils, but it wasn't really known as a fossil site," Santamaria said. "You have a lot of caves at the quarry and in the mountain. When animals died either in the caves or right outside and it rained, you [would] have all these fossils that washed down into the crevices. Then they kind of just built up there. So what happened was in the early '60s there was some students from Shorter College -- by that time the quarry had been closed down except for use as a county facility -- and they were just poking around and some were finding fossils. And that's when it was brought to the attention of the faculty of Shorter College and it came to the attention especially of one biology professor, Dr. Emma Lewis Lipps.
"She was already doing some teacher training and looking for projects to do in the summer. So she thought, 'Hey, that would be a great thing, let's go explore that area.' So for a number of summers, she would haul her students down there -- and like I said a lot of [them] were teachers that were off for the summer but wanted to do some teacher training -- and so they would go down there and they located some of these crevices that were just jammed packed with fossils. So they found bat bones, jaguar bones and even bird bones, rabbit bones, turtle bones. Some species are still around today and some are extinct."
While visiting the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in August 2010, Santamaria and Tellus Curator Julian Gray were able to select the items for their exhibit.
"We were looking for cool-looking fossils," Santamaria said. "Fossils that people can look at it and say, 'Wow, that's a pretty neat-looking thing.' They're all of scientific importance but we wanted them to be of a certain display quality. But having said that, the process [was] we made arrangements to go there and visit with the curators. They were prepared for us so they took us to the exact area where the fossils were ... [in] cabinets about 8 feet tall with 10 drawers each and there were like eight of them or 10 of them.
"So we were just opening drawer after drawer after drawer and looking at stuff. It was a real trip. We spent half a day there and they did not say, 'No' to anything. Anything was in play. At the end of the day, we were reasonable. We envisioned filling a case but we didn't want to select too many things, things we couldn't display. [My favorite fossil is] the jaguar jaw. There's something about the idea of these big jaguars living here in this area with [their large] teeth. These [were] probably the top of the food chain at the time."
Encompassing 120,000 square feet at 100 Tellus Drive in Cartersville, Tellus is comprised of four main galleries -- The Weinman Mineral Gallery, The Fossil Gallery, Science In Motion and The Collins Family My Big Backyard -- a 120-seat digital planetarium and an observatory. Since it opened January 2009, the museum has attracted more than 500,000 visitors. Tellus is drawing about 200,000 people annually, a quarter of whom are students.
"We are delighted to have these fossils placed in a museum near the site from which they were collected," stated Harold A. Closter, director of Smithsonian Affiliations, in a news release. "Drawing on its expertise in research, education and ability to mount first-class exhibitions, the Tellus Science Museum will help visitors appreciate and understand the rich, and often unseen, history of the world around us."
To learn more about the Ladd's Quarry fossil digs, the Tellus staff is seeking interviews with people who participated in the specimens' discovery. Individuals interested in sharing their story are encouraged to contact Santamaria at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-606-5700.