Workers uncover link to ancient time

Published 9:42 am Saturday, April 11, 2009

COURTLAND—Imagine going to work one day and finding something that was millions of years old.

That’s what happened recently to Julian Johnson, the director of utilities for Southampton County, when he was at the site of the new Courtland wastewater treatment plant.

Johnson said workers had begun moving excavated earth into a large pile when the discovery happened.

“One of these rolled out,” Johnson said, pointing to a large white shell. “We found more of them after that.”

As it turns out, the shell is the Virginia state fossil: Chesapecten Jeffersonius, an extinct scallop.

According to the Web site, Chesapecten Jeffersonius was a mollusk that lived in the shallow water of the continental shelf during the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene Epochs, about 4 to 5 million years ago. It went extinct about 4 million years ago, possibly because of the ocean cooling.

The first settlers at Jamestown noticed that Native Americans used Chesapecten shells as bowls and scraping tools. Chesapecten was also the first fossil from North America to be illustrated in a scientific publication, Martin Lister’s 1687 book “Historiae Conchyliorum.” The fossil was given its scientific name in 1824, and the General Assembly named it the state fossil in 1993.

Johnson said the shells were found in a layer of green mud at the wastewater treatment plant site. He said other shells were found during excavation work near Shady Brook Trail and U.S. Route 58, and at the Southampton Agribusiness Park.

Several pieces of vertebrae, believed to be from a whale, were also discovered at these sites.