York River State Park
Photo credit: York River State Park

With small waves lapping over my feet, I bent over for the bajillionth time and eyeballed a piece of black something in the sand. Most people would have ignored it. Some would have examined it, hoping to discover a shark’s tooth, then tossed it aside when they realized it wasn’t one. Having grown up with a fossil-hunting mother on a barrier island in South Carolina, I knew better. I could tell, even before I touched it, that I was looking at a whale vertebra from the Pliocene period.

While other tourists in the Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, Va., were visiting places where the American dream ignited, I stood on a scruffy spot of land beneath the Indian Field Creek Bridge in Colonial National Historical Park, holding in my hand a fragment of history 2 million to 6 million years old, I admit it. I’m a fossil dork. I haven’t yet donned a safari jacket and shouldered a pickax to tap through bedrock looking for T. rex. But I am making my way up the Atlantic coast to see what I can find. (I’d been tipped off about this spot on the York River by a fellow fossil dork’s website, www.fossillady.com.)

In South Carolina, I had become accustomed to finding mastodon molar fragments, saber-toothed tiger tusks, equus bones (remains from the scientific family that includes horses) and more. What might the area around the Mason-Dixon Line yield? The distance between South Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic area is roughly 500 miles. The difference on a geological timescale could be up to 43 million years. Up here, I’d dig for fossils of animals that roamed the Earth during a period when North and South America were just linking up via the Isthmus of Panama, when rhinos, three-toed horses and other hoofed animals became extinct, when rodents the size of sheep thrived on land, while bivalves (oysters, clams, scallops, mussels) began to claim the oceans, along with sea lions, seals, sea cows, porpoises and whales. And, yes, sharks.

Sharks’ teeth are probably the most impressive marine fossil you’ll find. Along the York River, they’re abundant. In fact, I found a tiger shark’s tooth the instant I looked down during my shoreline visit. Five minutes later, I spotted a sand tiger shark’s tooth, as well. Five minutes after that, I remembered my friend Margaret, who had never fossil hunted in her life and was standing beside me, wondering if I’d forgotten she was there. We had only stopped for a bit in the morning, since the tides were high. To fossil hunt properly, one has to follow the low tides, which offer more area to search and newly churned-up items to find. I’d just wanted to get the lay of the land. But already I’d been swept up in the thrill of the hunt.

We got back into the car and drove to our accommodations at the Kingsmill Resort to take a brief break until the tides had gone down. Low tide in late spring was at 4 p.m. It’s best to fossil hunt before the tide is at its lowest point, as once the tides are fully out, the water is already coming back and sweeping away interesting items.

Back under the bridge later, we found a lot of large bone fragments (probably marine mammal ribs) that weren’t readily identifiable. There were also chunks of petrified wood. And Margaret discovered something I hadn’t seen before, but was excited to learn about: tubes of boring clams (white, tubular shells that look like something Native Americans might have strung onto necklaces).

After we had thoroughly combed the water beneath the bridge, we hopped back into the car to cross the Colonial Parkway, the 23-mile scenic drive connecting Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. The area is gorgeous, with lots of greenery and what seem like miles of old brick walls and gates. On the other side of the bridge where we stopped, people were pulling in bushels of crabs, swimming and having fun. Two young siblings chattered loudly about an upcoming trip to the Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg while their mother warned them away from a patch of poison ivy. We appeared to be the only fossil hunters.

The shore is lined with huge, slippery rocks called riprap, and fossils can be found on either side of these rocks. Margaret forged ahead and began finding all the best bones and teeth. She had studied up on the Internet, so she already knew how to identify some of the fossilized items: small fish vertebrae, scutes (dimpled plates of crocodile skin), a porcupine fish mouth palate, a dolphin tooth, and so on.

Meanwhile, I was snapping photos of manmade items I couldn’t quite identify but also probably shouldn’t take out of the park. Later, after some Internet research, I tagged them as Indian pottery fragments, a bullet fragment from the Civil War and a rifle fragment from the Revolutionary War.

It was hard not to get lost in time as I turned over the bullet and rifle bits in my hands, letting them clink against my rings. Though some fossil hunters grab interesting fossils merely to sell them (often illegally) on eBay, I was intrigued purely by their history. Here were traces from a war our countrymen fought just a few centuries ago, lying next to vertebrae that were millions of years old in some cases. The same place where our compatriots fought for and won our independence, rhinos, three-toed horses and rodents the size of sheep lost their battle to survive millions of years earlier. It was magical.