Unseen Wesleyan Special Edition: An Interview with the last Student Curator

In this special edition of Unseen Wesleyan, we interviewed Mr. Paul Hadzima ’59, the last student curator of the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History. He worked at the museum in 1957, the year when the Judd Museum ceased to exist. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Geology, and a MAT with a concentration in history, he went on to teach earth science and history in the high school at Woodbury, Connecticut for 36 years, before retiring. Here is our interview with Mr. Paul Hadzima.  


Mr. Paul Hadzima ’59 MAT’61, the last student curator of the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, before it closed down in 1957

Melissa M.: How did you get involved with the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History?

Paul H.: Since the Geology Department was responsible for the museum, it was normal for a geology student – a sophomore or a junior – to help out with the museum. I was there at the time as a sophomore geology major student, and there was not any other applicant, which was why I took up the job

Melissa M.: Was it just only one student working in the museum at that time?

Paul H.: Yes, actually. At that point, the museum had really faded, and the interest was not there anymore. In truth, it was not very clear why we had the natural history museum by that time. At the founding of the Orange Judd Museum, it was believed that natural history was a subject that everybody should know about; so, you want to have every aspect of natural history in it. By the end of the 19th century, you wanted to develop a specialized field like Geology or Physics where one has razor-like focus on that particular field. The museum’s place in the University [as it was quite an all-encompassing natural history museum] became vague and difficult to define.

Melissa M.: How long did you work in the museum?

Paul H.: I worked in the museum for a year. I had hoped I could have worked in the museum for longer than that, but the museum disappeared from under my feet – so to speak. So, I worked in the museum for a little more than a year altogether.

The team and Mr. Hadzima surveying the current Joe Webb Peoples Museum

Bright P.: So, what was the museum like? What was your favorite specimen in the museum?

Paul H.: As I mentioned before, I was attracted to some of the Native American artifacts in the museum. I was impressed with the Glyptodon and Megatherium – the giant armadillo and the giant sloth – mainly because it gave me the imagination of how large the fauna was in North America during the fairly recent period. The fact that a sloth could be that big, from something a foot long to eight feet across; it was no wonder that Mammoth and Mastodon could have been that big. As I said, as far as fossil was concerned, I liked the fossil fish mainly because it was such an unlikely animal to be fossilized.


Plaster casts of the Megatherium (extinct giant ground sloth; above) and the Glyptodon (extinct giant armadillo; below) as they were in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, middle [Images from Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.]
Bright P.: To follow up, what was the Glyptodon like? We actually found the same replica in the Foss Hill tunnel, and we would like to know what was it like when it was in the Orange Judd Museum.

Paul H.: You see the size of the carapace of the shell?

Both: Yea

Paul H.: It was enormous, and you had the tail coming out at the back; and unlike the armadillo, its shell was like a turtle. And it had its head coming out – maybe you gotta look for the head now.

Both: Oh yea! [Chuckle]

A carapace of the same Glyptodon’s shell replica, now in the tunnel under Foss Hill

Paul H.: I believed there was a foot coming out. It was like maybe six to eight feet across?  After sixty years it was pretty hard to remember things now. You should look into the photo from the time, so you know what other pieces to look for. So, where are you thinking of putting the replica now? Maybe you could set it up in the lobby with the fossil foot prints?

Melissa M.: Oh yea maybe, Professor Ellen was talking about that and I said “what if some drunk student start climbing up on it?” [Chuckle]

Paul H.: That’s true, maybe you should build a fence around it or something? [Chuckle] It was very impressive. The stuffed animals were nice, but you know, they are mostly gone.

Melissa M.: We still have some I think, they were rescued I guess. We found some peacocks and a pelican in the storage room.

Paul H.: What is your buffalo called?

Melissa M.: I think his name is Greg.

You can visit Greg at Wesleyan University’s Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History.

Paul H.: There was a wolf I believed; and as the young lady said in the Thank You note, there was a fawn and maybe a mother to go with it.

Bright P.: I think the wolf went to the Smithsonian, according to the record.

Paul H.: Ah, maybe.

Melissa M.: Can you describe your typical work day at the museum?

Paul H.: Most of the time, I would be there for two days a week; usually I would in the afternoon and stay through dinner time. Normally, we had a sprinkling of people come. But in almost every week, we had a Boy Scout group and a Brownie group, some younger people.

Thank-you note to Mr. Hadzima from Middletown Brownie group.

And in many ways, the museum was of greatest interest to them. Although some collections, predictably the minerals and the fossils, were such that students of that would be interested and would come up. Most of the other things – and I believed this was the idea of it – were a natural history extravaganza, to get the kids to maybe get an interest in science.

Mr. Hadzima looking at the archaeological archive, some of the specimens are still at Wesleyan University today, in the Archaeology and Anthropology collections, 3d Floor, Exley.

Bright P.: Was there any active research or cataloging of the museum’s specimens while you were working in the museum?

Paul H.: Not at all. I think, by that time, people saw the end coming. The idea of eliminating the museum went back quite a way. People were always saying “Why do we have this, why do we have this?” The museum either had to get bigger to make it more significant, or we had to get rid of it. And some of the articles [in the news at the time] said that the Psychology Department needed space. They were becoming more than a class room type of discipline. They wanted room for their lab rats. They expanded quite a bit in the post-World War 2 period. They had basically one floor, maybe a floor and a half. At that point, Judd Hall – in the basement floor – was a Music Department.

Melissa M.: Oh, so the Judd Hall was just the museum and the Music Department in the basement? Or was there also a Psychology Department in there?

Paul H.: There was at that point: Music in the basement, Psychology on the first floor, Geology on the second and third floor, and the museum above that. So, there was an awful lot in there. And no major changes were made to the sciences until Exley, which was built in the 70s I believe. So, you had, and this was in 1957, around 15 years when nothing was proposed and nothing was built. So, poor museum had to go, I think. When all of these science disciplines needed space, there was not enough space for the museum. So, when they reopened, the Music Department was gone and the Psychology Department had the first and second floors, and the Geology Department had the third and fourth floors.

Melissa M.: You talked about this earlier, but you were not involved in packing up the museum?

Paul H.: No. I did a little of the prep-work; then I know that they needed this to be done right away, so I had another job during the summer. Even though I thought I saw myself in one of the pictures, I was not involved with packing up.

Melissa M.: An imposter! [Chuckle]

Paul H.: [Laugh] I don’t think I was there.

Mr. Hadzima and Prof. Joe Webb Peoples, after whom our museum is named.

Bright P.: How has your work experience at the museum influenced your career afterward?

Paul H.: Well, in some interesting ways, I think the thing I had decided by that point, by the end of the sophomore year, was that I would not become a geologist in the sense of a researcher, hunting for oil in the plains of South Texas. One of the thing I enjoyed doing, I found out, was instructing the groups that came in. And what this did, was to lead me to become a teacher. Also, the idea of teaching earth science in a broader sense, because in high school, at that point, was about geology, the weather, and paleontology. Unlike what I would have ended up in if I had become a researcher, where you would do something in a very specific area of geology. This instruction experience appealed to me quite a bit. And then also, I probably recognized at that point, the Native American stuff began my interest in anthropology, which continues to this day.

Melissa M.: Did you have any interesting story from the museum?

Paul H.: I tried to think of the specifics, but after sixty years, all the little ones tended to disappear.  It tended to be a fairly quiet thing. We did not have people doing wild stuff and stealing the mummy or anything else at that point. Most of the crazy things that happened came after the mummy was unwrapped. And, I guessed they did not find much when they unwrapped it, is that correct?

Melissa M.: Jessie [Ms. Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager and Repatriation Coordinator, Archaeology and Anthropology collections, 3d Floor, Exley] told us that they did an x-ray at the Middlesex hospital. They found out that he was a man in his twenties who was probably of high status because he did not have wear-and-tear in his hands. [Note: the X-rays were made in 1978, and are available in the special collections at Olin Library]

Paul H.: And by the fact that he had a coffin and he was fully mummified, which was an expensive proposition. But most of that happened after my time. So, I can’t really come up with any stories, although I can make up some stories, but I don’t think that’s what you are looking for.

Mr. Hadzima and Ms. Jessie Cohen examining the archaeological specimens

Both: [Chuckle]

Paul H.: The experience itself was, to me, very worthwhile. I did not get paid very much. You said you got the book that said how much each was paid?

Melissa M.: Oh yes, I believe Ellen [Professor Ellen Thomas, Faculty Mentor on the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Project] has that. [Note: these records have been moved to the Special Collections at Olin Library earlier this year].

Paul H.: I would like to see that sometimes. See what the pay was. Working with the department, and professor Joe Webb Peoples himself, because he was much of a people’s person himself; he did great things.

Melissa M: I guess you have to be that if you have that last name.

Paul H.: I guess you had to; I think he had some southern roots and all. He was responsible for a lot of important stuffs [for the people and Wesleyan University], including the establishment of the Dinosaur State Park. I believe he had a lot of contacts in the state legislature; so, that made it very much worthwhile, even though it was a dollar per hour or however much it was.

The Dinosaur State Park at present

Bright P.: What advice would you give to colleges and universities working to maintain and display their museum collections?

Paul H.: The first thing I would advise them is to stop and think “Why do we do this?” I mean, granted, at this point, you have a wonderful collection of materiel; and it is really great that you are moving ahead with having it be more available to the public to see. But, in a way, unless you have a very sizeable collection to start with, to put together a museum is almost impossible. What people did a hundred year ago on these expeditions and came back with all kind of stuff, this can’t happen anymore. You can’t go into the Native American cultural area anymore and have this happen. You are not going to find, Ellen was talking about the other day, an area where they are putting road to and come back with several enormous fossils of the Pleistocene period. It’s just not gonna happen. There must be a reason for [establishing a museum] if you are trying to bring people into your school and advertise what you have. But, with the number of museum around right now, I don’t think I advise anybody to start one. But, maybe if you have a collection and you cannot be bothered to do a decent job on it, maybe it is best to give it away; I don’t know. What do you think?

Melissa M.: I feel like it is important to have a lot of people exposed to the material you have. Even if you don’t make a museum, maybe display cases for class would be useful.

Professor Ellen Thomas [Left] and Mr. Hadzima [Right] talking in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum
Paul H.: You think it is important for a university museum to try and bring the public in?

Melissa M.: Yea, It could help, especially school groups. I think if I was a school student I would love that.

Paul H.: I suppose you could say, in a way, it was too bad in 1957 that this had to happen. That somebody couldn’t have found a rich donor who could have given the money to have a modern building or section of a modern building put up. And for the collection, you couldn’t have brought in a curator, because we didn’t have a professional curator for the last years of the museum, to go through the collections. So that they could find some attributions, because some of these things are lacking in details. Like red stone from South Dakota

Melissa M.: Or some unidentified mammal.

Paul H.: And that was the point, if someone was willing to spend some money. You could have probably done something or got some grant and so forth. But I didn’t think there was any real interest at that point doing that.

Melissa M.: I guess because of the lack of resources.

Paul H.: Right right. I don’t know if you are familiar with what was going on with the educational philosophy, and the battle that was going on at that time. The president, who was a guy name Victor Butterfield [Note: Wesleyan’s 11th president, 1943-1967], who was an advocate for a liberal art education for everyone, fought against the various departments who wanted to really emphasize the great knowledge of their particular field, and the people who wanted to do that. And you had this big tug-of-war between the two. Basically, the museum probably fell between the tension of the two groups because it didn’t fit with either one [vision]. Well, I guess Butterfield would have liked it, but he didn’t have the money needed to do things that further liberalize the education. It was an interesting time period.

Victor L. Butterfield, the eleventh president of Wesleyan University [credit Wesleyan University]
Bright P.: I see, I think this is it for our interview with Mr. Paul Hadzima. Thank you so much for coming.

Melissa M.: Thank you so much for answering our questions.

Paul H.: I enjoyed it a whole lot. Obviously, with my interest in history and genealogy, I enjoy seeing the part of the university which is still here from the time that I was here. It was very surreal to walk around the campus in 2017 when I was here in 1957, and seeing something that still look the same.

Melissa M.: Does the bison still look the same?

Paul H.: The bison looked better actually [chuckle]

Melissa M.: It had a spa treatment recently [audible laugh]

Paul H.: [Seeing] the buildings that look the same, and the buildings which, you know, the complex that nobody really thought of at the time. We had everybody essentially living in three dorms.

Melissa M.: Which three dorms?

Paul H.: Clark Hall, North College, which was a dorm at the time, and Harriman Hall, which was above the PAC – the Public Affair Center – that was a dorm. Everybody was living in either these three dorms or in a fraternity house, and there were thirteen fraternity houses. And everybody wanted to live in a fraternity immediately, because there was not enough room for everybody to be living in college facility. And everybody ate in fraternity houses, there was no college general eating place like Usdan [The Usdan University Center at Wesleyan University].

By Sajirat Palakarn

Unseen Wesleyan Part 3: The Tunnels of Wesleyan

There is always something mystical about going underground. Since antiquity, people have always pondered the possibility of a subterranean realm – a sort of magical or hellish place right beneath our feet. In all world’s civilizations and religions, from the Greek Underworld to the Christian Hell, people have been fascinated the world’s underground. In the ancient Indian epic Ramayana – a literature this blogger read since childhood – there were verses on the many underworlds, which can range from a literal hell to prosperous kingdoms. This obsession with the esoteric subterranean civilization continues to these days, with a sub-genre of pop culture devoted to this topic. For instance, the 2008 film Journey to the Center of the Earth ostensibly captures our lasting obsession with the underworld. It is thus not surprising that some of the tunnels beneath Wesleyan, that is the tunnel systems beneath Foss Hill and Butterfield College, would generate a great deal of interest among the Wesleyan student body. While the tunnels could be freely accessed in the past, they have been sealed off for decades, and the mystique of the tunnels captures all students imagination ever since.

Something sinister is lurking behind that door

There were many rumors on the tunnels of the Butts and Foss Hill; one story posited that two unhappy roommates moved all of their belongings to an alcove in the Butts’ tunnel, never to return. However, another rumor caught this blogger’s attention: that there may be fossil specimens within the tunnels. As a part of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Project, a natural history museum on the 4th floor of Exley, this rumor intrigued us and got us ready for another round of expedition. In truth, that rumor was rooted in facts, as our resident technical expert, Mr. Joel Labella, visited some of the tunnels in the past, and transported some dinosaur footprints from the tunnel to the specimen storage area many years ago. However, we were informed that there might still be fossils left behind. Thus, as is the tradition with this blogger, we went down underground to look for these for the potentially lost fossils.

Making our way across the campus from Exley to WestCo
Getting inside

Our day started underneath the morning sun of Connecticut summer. The expedition team was checking the necessary gear for venturing into the forbidden tunnels: this included a crowbar, reliable flashlights, and a good camera for the possible emergency selfie situation. We met with our expedition expert, Jeff Sweet (facilities management) in front of a locked gate near WesShop, seemingly a harmless yet mysterious steel door. True to his credentials as tunnel terrains expert, our expert was able to produce the coveted key, allowing us to get inside the Foss Hill tunnel system. Once inside, we were greeted by with a copious amount of graffiti. Running from the ceiling to the floor, every inch of the surface area in the entrance area and tunnel was full of various murals, graffiti, and general messages, probably put in place by generations of earlier Wesleyan students. Due to our preparation and the presence of our guide, we were able to activate the light system inside the tunnel. Nevertheless, the art from the bygone eras gave us a sense of unease underlying our expedition.

The Entrance into the Abyss
When you stare into the abyss…
Wise words from generations past
An anthropological evidence of the anti-culture sentiment among the Wesleyan students; apparently, our weirdness is rooted in the past








A way forward?

Walking deeper inside the Foss Hill tunnels, we could instinctively feel the byzantine and often claustrophobic nature of the tunnel. While spacious enough for two people to walk side-by-side, the oppressive concrete wall with many disturbing illustrations kept us a little on edge. Furthermore, certain sections of the tunnels were partially flooded, creating a picture of an enclosed and haunted tomb. As we moved onward, we were pressured to keep our eyes open for any little pieces of possible fossils, even with the ominous uneasiness. The many shadowy rooms opening off the tunnels were sometimes full of abandoned furniture and sometimes creepily empty; some were filled with an unnaturally large number of sofas, while others were left with bare concrete wall and dust-caked floor. Then, we arrived at a large room at the end of the tunnel.

Something does not feel right
How did you escape?

The first thing that caught our eyes were a giant wooden pallet box, off to the right in the room. The condition of the box, while familiar to our experienced expedition team after our trip to the penthouse, was barely recognizable with our dim lights. Curiously, graffiti inscribed on the wall right above the box told us something crucial: “Clobbersaurus was here.” After being alerted of that fact, our expedition team began scrutinizing the box more closely. We discovered what appears to be the plaster cast of a giant shell part of the Glyptodon, whose tail we had found in the Penthouse of Exley, chronicled in our first part of Unseen Wesleyan. It was quite surprising and delightful to find another large part of the same replica thought to be lost from the records. That posed an interesting question whether more parts of the Glyptodon replica – the feet and the head to be exact –would still be stored somewhere on campus.
In addition to this gratifying and surprising discovery, we found two massive steel cabinets with partially broken locks. What drew our curiosity to these two archaic containers is the Ammonite-looking mural drawn near the vicinity: its existence told us that our treasure might lie inside the locked drawers. We looked over the cabinets and noted they had been fire-proof cabinets, thus possibly contained asbestos so that we could not seriously use the crowbar. This prompted our technician specialist, Mr. Joel Labella, to promise a return to the room for a more “powerful” retrieval method, to check whether museum-related paper documents might have been stored in these cabinets. We saw our discovery of the Glyptodon carapace as an early success of our expedition into the tunnels.

The big room at the end of Foss Hill tunnel
The graffiti “Clobbersaurus was here” tipped us off
A wooden pallet box of a thought-to-be-lost Glyptodon‘s shell replica
Another angle of the Glyptodon replica
The locked cabinets which could not be opened










Exiting the Foss Hill tunnel, we set our eyes on the next target: the Butts’ tunnels. We navigated our team up the slope of the Butts into the Butthole – a silly nickname of the Butterfield College’s courtyard. Without much fanfare, we descended down the Butts C stairs into the hauntingly-lit tunnel entrance. This time, the corridor of the tunnels was much more unwelcoming, with narrow passageways and ever-present swarms of graffiti decorating the wall. Truthfully, the bright light lining the tunnels accentuated the creepy details along the route: the blinding lights cemented a sense of discomfort by highlighting every strange detail inside the tunnel, from the creepily written plea for an escape to artworks of bloody heads. The presence of locked doors dotted along the path almost plunged our expedition into paranoia, with the thoughts of someone or something being inside edging our minds. “A weak mind does not belong to this place,” the tunnels seemed to scream.

Our expedition team getting inside the Butterfield’s tunnels
Walking along the hallowed tunnel
A cry for help?

After walking a long while down the lengthy and convoluted corridors, we stumbled upon an orange-tinged room with loose wires and open stacks of servers. Whereas the jumbled mess of the deserted electrical equipment might have intrigued others, we were more fascinated by the pile of rocks, steel drawers, and a lonely steel cabinet sitting at the other far side of the room. Fascinated, we went in to investigate. It appeared to be the collections of geological specimens from Wesleyan’s own Professor of Geology, Wilbur G. Foy, professor of Geology from 1924 to 1935. Together with Professor William North Rice, he studied the geology of Connecticut. The specimens were his numbered samples indexed to the geological map of Connecticut, with various sediments and minerals comprising the drawers and the pile. Most of these historical rock specimens seemed to be discarded in disarray, which further reinforced our expedition goal to retrieve discarded specimens and collections for the museum. Wooden pallets adjacent to Foye’s geological specimen pile contained a variety of rock cores. We still do not know where or from which expedition the cores came, but they may be specimens from the core collection in the penthouse. Their quantity and even the mere existence in the tunnel suggested that there are many more treasures on campus of which we are not aware. These geological specimens, both the rocks of Connecticut and the survey cores, underscored the importance of organization and curatorship within the University’s museum; indeed, our project for the Joe Webb Peoples museum intends to provide that assistance to the Wesleyan University.

Paleontology and the Machine
An orange-tinged room with curious objects
Various geological specimens from Prof. Foy and Prof. Rice
Our expedition technician expert holding a big piece of geological specimen
Various rock cores from geological surveys

Moving on from the abandoned geological collection, we trek deeper into the abyss to search for the famed fossils underneath the Butts. The terrains we faced were certainly dangerous: we moved from corridor to corridor, room to room, crevice to crevice, and alcove to alcove. Passing countless steel gates, we walked along the narrow, copper pipes laden corridors. Taking a turn at an intersection, we again moved alongside a huge number of graffiti and locked doors. In one room, a normal-looking kitchen was vandalized by ancient arts from the legion of Wesleyan student generations. Another room was left almost untouched, saved for a makeshift table in the center of the room, giving the appearance that someone might have been here in times past. A dimly-lit bathroom, one of the many in this cavernous tunnel, gave off a tickle in the spine with its punky murals. A room we stumbled across had a set of never-played beer pong and a pile of discarded vodka bottles; bemused, we were slow to realize the weirdness of this environment: who would have set up a beer pong table in a dark tunnel, then decided not to play it? We may never know the sinister end of the players, whoever they were.

As we walked through the abyss
No turning back now

For sale: Beer pong, never played

As we plunged deeper into the tunnel in search of fossils, we came across yet darker and more unsettling rooms. One room was filled with unidentified black bags and mattresses. We were told by our expedition expert that those were left behind by the janitors of the Butts, an acceptable explanation, perhaps. Walking past a brighter section of the tunnel, we were greeted by a hallway with a dusty glass wall dividing what appeared to be an abandoned underground cafeteria. It certainly looked the part, with decapitated chairs and tables, broken soda fountain, and a puzzling box of biohazard clean-up kit. The graffiti on the wall “Get to the Bunker” and “Put the lotion in the basket,” both references to a movie concerning a nuclear apocalypse and serial killer respectively, seemed to imply the reason behind this cafeteria’s closure. Reaching the end of the tunnel, one fact became apparent to us: despite our extensive search for the fossil, we failed to find the rumored Butts’ fossils in this expedition. Except for our notes on the geological collections, we sadly returned empty-handed.

An abandoned and haunting toilet
A room of very not-suspicious-looking black plastic bags
You have to wonder, people used to eat here?
An abandoned cafeteria
Yes and no

While not all our expeditions yielded a significant number of fossils, the specimens we found were no less important to the museum and Wesleyan University. The Glyptodon replica was once a part of the historic Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, an institution of Wesleyan University since 1871. When the museum was closed in 1957, the Glyptodon, along with many valuable fossils and specimens, were thought to be lost forever; that is until now. With closer analysis, we might even discover something far more important with regards to the geological collection underneath the Butts. The pieces and collections we found are the fabric of Wesleyan itself. Thus, as a proud Wesleyan student and a lover of everything history, I cannot appreciate the Joe Webb Peoples Museum enough.

By Sajirat Palakarn

Special thanks to Mr. Jeff Sweet, Associate Director of Facilities Management, Wesleyan University, and Yonathan Gomez ’18

Unseen Wesleyan Part 2: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

The Joe Webb People Museum at Wesleyan University has many fossils and some natural history exhibits, but it pales in comparison to the massive Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The Peabody Museum occupies a three-story building, and has an extensive storage space for specimens in the adjacent Environmental Science building and even more at the Yale West Campus Collections Storage Center. In total, the geological-paleontological specimens at the Peabody greatly dwarf the size of Wesleyans collections, with an estimated 13 million total specimens. Therefore, the Peabody Museum is a go-to destination for learning about paleontology for people in Connecticut and beyond. According to the museum, there are  about 140,000 visitors annually, an impressive number for a natural history museum. The Peabody Museum is said to be one of the world’s most well-known museums of natural history (especially for its dinosaurs), and graduate students and faculty at Yale, as well as visiting scientists, are engaged in prolific research. Therefore, this blogger wanted to learn more about the success story of this museum, and get inspiration to replicate such success, and promote our under-appreciated Joe Webb Peoples Museum. For this issue of Unseen Wesleyan, we thus went on an expedition to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Yale University – where the Peabody museum is situated – is actually in New Haven, and not in Yalesville.


Our day started early in the morning in the Exley Science Center loading dock. We packed all our gears into the red Chevy Suburban, a signature color of Wesleyan University, and sped to the highway (I-91). The morning traffic was, on this day, not as treacherous as the waters of the Amazon River, but the congestion in New Haven almost made us late for our rendezvous at Yale University. Hurrying, we started the more unusual part of this expedition in the group of three buildings: the Kline Geology Laboratory (KGL), The Environmental Science Center (ESC) where there are museum storage and study rooms, and the Yale Peabody Museum. We walked through KGL into the connected ESC, to start our behind-the-scenes tour of the Peabody Museum.


The view before we got into the ECS from a connecter from the KGL

The theme of this expedition was education, and before we started our peek in Yale’s famed museum, our faculty guide presented a talk to a group of Peabody Museum summer intern students (undergraduates and high school) on her field of research. Professor Ellen Thomas, an expert in paleo-oceanography and unicellular lifeforms, gave an introduction into general paleontology and the unicellular Foraminifera, a type of marine microorganism. She started with a discussion of taxonomy, working to debunk the oft-repeated but now outdated idea of “Five Kingdoms of Life”, going through the Domains which were popular afterwards (Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya), to end up with the (unfortunately) much more complex groupings used today, in which unicellular and multicellular Eukaryotes are combined in groupings rather than splitting Eukarya into animals, mushrooms, plants and protists. Predictably, her repudiation of the long-accepted notions of taxonomy as generally taught in high school elicited some surprised reactions from the audience. Next, Professor Thomas tackled the hard question of “What is a Foraminifer?” She covered the origins of the recognition of Foraminifera in human history, starting with a mention by Pliny the Elder (Roman Empire), first documentation in 1648 by Ulisse Aldrovandi in his work Musaeum Metallicum, and the formalization of taxonomy by Linnaeus in 1758. Professor Thomas then went on to explain the nature of Foraminifera (‘foram’ for short), extending her description from the general concept of Foraminifera as an Amoeboids with reticulose pseudopods, the shell formation types of the typical foram, to the differences between benthic (living on or in the seafloor) and planktic (floating in the water column) foraminifers. All in all, the talk was captivating in that it illuminated the not widely known subject of unicellular lifeforms in paleo-oceanography.

An illustration of various Foraminifera featured in the talk
A picture of professor Ellen Thomas – an expert in benthic Foraminifera – holding two 3-D printed models of forams
A group of Nummulites fossils – a type of large Foraminifera –  in the Joe Webb Peoples museum at Wesleyan University
Slabs of stone from an ancient Egyptian Obelisk in Alexandria with various specimens of Foraminifera, now in the Joe Webb Peoples museum’s official collection. The obelisk is now in Central Park, New York City.

After the talk, we began our primary purpose of this expedition: investigating the success of the Peabody Museum. We started off by reviewing one of the museum’s main invertebrate paleontology archives in the ESC, which had been fitted with state-of-the-art archival infrastructure. The specimens, ranging from unicellular organisms to brachiopods and giant ammonites and bivalves, are stored in new, easily accessible cabinets, with doors that insulate the specimens from the environment. The archives are directly connected to the specimen-processing, photography and study laboratory, allowing easy access to the collections. In addition, these laboratory rooms have digitization equipment, microscopes, camera set-ups and 3-D printers, further maximizing the capacity of the museum to upload and replicate data so that they can be made available to researchers worldwide. Not only is the general storage quite easy to access for research, but the teaching specimens used for general paleontological-geological classes are ready on-demand in the facility. As we toured the storage area, we were introduced to many specimens which are valuable for studies in paleontology, ranging from pristine crinoids and Nautilus to giant ammonites and tiny Cambrian-era trilobites, and to specimen of mysterious, unidentified sponges. The expedition members were extremely impressed with the Peabody Museum’s behind-the scene operations, and greatly appreciated Susan Butts, the senior collections manager of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, who showed us around.

Susan Butts (center), our expedition guide, and the expedition team’s Professor Ellen Thomas (right) and graduate student Melissa McKee (left)
Inside the Peabody Museum Archive’s Operation Room


A row of specimen storage cabinets
A beautiful plaster cast of a crinoid
A beautiful cross-section of a large ammonite
A specimen of a mystery organism, probably a sponge

Of course, our expeditions would not have been a complete tour of the museum if we had not experienced specimens as they are shown to the public. Our team was allowed to sneak in to the main area of the Peabody Museum through the backdoor. We were greeted by a giant wall of crinoid and arthropod fossils, and a model of a giant deep-water squid hanging from the ceiling. Trekking down to the first floor, we came to a fork in the road: one way would lead to the Archaeopteryx and Paleo-art exhibition (a temporary exhibit), another to the permanent fossil exhibitions. Professor Thomas led us through the impressive hallways of Mesozoic and Cenozoic fossils, commenting on the dinosaur exhibits and the large murals. Pointing at the famous world-through-the-ages murals, she commented on the evolution of dinosaurs and plants, from the beginning of the Mesozoic through the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and flowering plants. True to the Peabody Museum’s reputation, the exhibits of the dinosaurs – and the later mammals, also with their mural of animals through Cenozoic times –  were mesmerizing. The arrangement of the dinosaurs’ bones in the middle of the hall conveyed the sense of enormity extremely well. In essence, the dinosaurs’ actual skeletons were arranged at the center of the hall, which contrasts the tiny visitor with the enormity of the dinosaurs. Moving past the main dinosaur exhibit to the other rooms, we saw that each was filled with a sense of the impressiveness of life-forms from bygone eras. From the many Ichthyosaurus to the Diplomystus dentatus of Wyoming (of which Wesleyan maintains a sizeable collection in the Joe Webb Peoples museum), the exhibition represented the paleontological worlds with great detail and pristine beauty. The team and I were greatly impressed by the Peabody Museum’s main exhibition halls.

The giant deep-sea squid at the entrance of the Peabody Museum
A group of dinosaurs skeletons throughout the ages displayed at the center of the permanent exhibit’s hall
An exhibition on the Triassic fish’s fossils of the Connecticut River Valley
A mural of mammal life through the Cenozoic era
A picture of the possible siblings to Greg, our resident bison in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum; also pictured is Melissa McKee,  expedition member.
A giant slab of fossilized fish and a palm leaf from the Green River Formation, Wyoming. The Joe Webb Peoples museum also has specimens from the Green River Formation, including fish and palm leaves.

Taking a different turn at the intersection, we visited the temporary exhibition of Archaeopteryx –  a type of animal which has features from small dinosaurs (non-avian dinosaurs, that is) as well as from birds (better called avian dinosaurs) – and the paleo-art created as inspired by these fossils. This non-permanent paleontology exhibition represents the interdisciplinary space between paleontology and art, showing re-imagination and recreation of Archaeopteryx and their environment, by different artists in colorful and fun ways. Due to the fact that many people still think of dinosaurs as scaly, reptile-like creatures, the Archaeopteryx – with its avian features and feathers – presents a new public education challenge for scientist and artist alike: how to show the very close family relations between ‘birds’ and ‘dinosaurs’, many of which we now know to have been feathered? The result was this exhibit: an imaginative series of artworks and creative imagination of Archaeopteryx. The artworks wonderfully educate the public through colorful illustration of various birdlike Archaeopteryx, their natural habitat, eating habits, stature, and living characteristics. We saw Archaeopteryx accompanied by fossils of other organisms: the animals had been buried in limestones deposited in shallow marine lagoons, and these limestones contain beautifully preserved fish, horse shoe crabs, echinoderms, and insects. Our Joe Webb Peoples Museum has a collection of such beautifully preserved specimens from that famous locality where Archaeopteryx was found, Solnhofen in Germany, obtained by curator S. Ward Loper through exchange of specimens with famous German paleontologist Karl von Zittel. As we walked into the exhibition, we were welcomed by artworks illustrating the evolution of Archaeopteryx into modern avian creatures. The painting replicated the famed style of Darwin’s human evolution to display each stage of transition of Archaeopteryx into modern birds.

A pristine specimen of the Archaeopteryx 
An illustration of the various Archaeopteryx (Picture courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)
A plaster cast of the Archaeopteryx from the Penthouse of the Exley Science Center

Next, we saw an interactive illustration of various Archaeopteryx throughout the Mesozoic, simplistically explaining the various species of the creature through accessible technology. And as usual, we were amazed by the fossil specimens of the Archaeopteryx, beautifully preserved and presented by the Peabody Museum. Both of the exhibits – the Mesozoic dinosaurs and Cenozoic mammals, as well as the paleo-art of Archaeopteryx – impressed us greatly.

An illustration of the evolution of the Archaeopteryx (Picture courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)

Our expedition to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History gave us new insight into the function of a successful museum, and how we can cooperate to create a great center for paleontological studies. The cooperation between museums, scientists, and the public is key to create a great and publicly-appealing museum, as we saw from the talk given by our professor Ellen Thomas. In addition to visually-impressive yet educational exhibitions in the museum, organized archive and accessible collections of specimens are key to a successful museum. Armed with this knowledge, we will make the Joe Webb People Museum as great if not better than the Peabody Museum – Stay tuned!

By Sajirat Palakarn

For more information, visit: http://peabody.yale.edu/

Special Thanks to Mrs. Melanie Brigockas, Public Relations & Marketing Manager, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The Connecticut River Valley

For many, the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England, is a serene waterway, enriching Middletown and Wesleyan University with its broad expanse of quiet waters. The main artery of the Connecticut River Valley can be traced from ‘Fourth Connecticut Lake’ in New Hampshire (with its watershed reaching into Canada) to Old Saybrook/Old Lyme in Connecticut, where it flows into Long Island Sound.

The Connecticut River as seen from Middletown’s Harbor Park

However, among the geological-paleontological community, the Connecticut River Valley – the basin encompassing the area around the Connecticut River – is also known as a prime site for fossil collection. Since the early 19th century, Connecticut has been one of the many prime destinations to study and collect local fossils, ranging from dinosaur footprints to insect tracks, from fossil fish and plants to coprolites (fossilized poo). Many famous geologists and paleontologists, from Professor Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College to Wesleyan’s own Professor Joe Webb Peoples, were part of the community gathering large collections of fossils from the Connecticut River Valley. So, we want to understand the history and evolution of the Connecticut River Valley, the reason behind the occurrence of the Valley’s plentiful fossil specimens, and Wesleyan University’s relation to the preservation of remains of the ancient Valley.

Map of the Connecticut River Valley – Credit U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

During the Mesozoic Era, which started 250 million years ago, the supercontinent ‘Pangaea’ started to split into the fragments which more or less form the present continents. This split was a violent process and did not result in clean borders of the fragments. When the North Atlantic Ocean opened late in the Triassic to early in the Jurassic (204-205 million years ago; the Triassic-Jurassic boundary is at 201.3 million years ago, large cracks formed in the Earth’s crust (one of which became the North Atlantic Ocean), and several other cracks marked places where the crust started to crack but did not open into an ocean. One of these formed in the region where we now see the Connecticut River Valley. The Earth’s crust stretched during the split of Pangaea so that several faults formed, and blocks of crust between faults could sink, forming a ‘rift valley’ (similar to the one in present-day East Africa). On the East side of the Connecticut River Valley, the Eastern Border Fault (which can be traced from Keene, NH to New Haven, CT) is the contact between the sediments that were deposited in the rift valley, and the much older rocks further to the East. Note that the Connecticut River as we know thus flows out of the old rift valley (which continues to New Haven) into the older rocks, and continues further to the East, to Old Saybrook.


An artist recreation of the Connecticut River Valley during the Mesozoic Era

Within the sunken rift valley, which was close to the equator in Triassic-Jurassic times, sediments were deposited, in alluvial fans spreading from the Eastern border fault, and in sandstone and shale bodies, deposited in the lakes, large river bends, and floodplains, which came to dominate the surrounding valley. These water bodies became both the home and the grave of many lifeforms from the late Triassic and early Jurassic times in Connecticut. As a consequence, many of the Mesozoic creatures indigenous to Connecticut, from the various dinosaurs as known from their footprints to ancient fish and even insects, were preserved in the sediments which were deposited in and around the lakes.


Cross section of the Connecticut River Valley – Credit U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

In essence, some of these lifeforms  (dinosaurs) left deep marks in the muddy floodplains, which then became encased in sediments after the area reflooded, as we can see in the case of Eubrontes giganteus. Countless fish died in the lakes (which suffered periods of oxygen loss), then became encapsulated by the sediments.

Professor Joe Webb People

Wesleyan University, under the guidance of eminent curators and professors from Mr. S. Ward Loper, Mr. George Brown Goode, Professor W. N. Rice, to Professor Joe Webb Peoples, was at the forefront in preserving the old environments of the Connecticut River Valley. Beginning in the late 19th century, Ward S. Loper, Browne Good, and North Rice were instrumental in establishing extensive geological and paleontological records of the Valley. Through their collection of Connecticut River Valley fossils, they amassed an extensive selection of local specimens and displayed them to the public at Wesleyan University. Important fossils in the Wesleyan Collection are the type material of the footprint called ‘Otozoum moodii’, a footprint which is much rare than those of other dinosaurs, and which had been thought to be missing, but is in fact built into the wall of Exley Science Center (Wesleyan Collection number 183, as cited by Hitchcock in 1889). In addition, there are jaws of the rare coelacanth Diplurus longicaudatus, first described by Newberry in 1878 and collected by S Ward Loper in Durham, CT.

A specimen of Otozoum moodii – now installed into the wall of Exley Science Center

At one time, hundreds of Connecticut’s fossils were proudly shown (and many hundreds more preserved in the collections) in the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Sciences. In addition, Wesleyan University and Professor Joe Webb Peoples played a significant part in erecting the biggest fossil preservation area in the Connecticut River Valley, appropriately named ‘Dinosaur State Park.’ Later, Nick McDonald and Peter Letourneau contributed significantly to the study of the fossils from the Connecticut River Valley. Presently, some beautiful specimens of these priceless collections are available for all to see at the Joe Webb Peoples Museum on the 4th floor of Exley Science Center.

The Dinosaur State Park at present

In addition to its beauty, the Connecticut River Valley is scientifically priceless, with its deposits of numerous delicate, beautifully preserved fossils. The formation of the rift basin during the Mesozoic era created one great condition for fossil accumulation. The sedimentary materials and the various deposits from the rift valley lakes created a perfect environment for preservation of life throughout the ages. Wesleyan University, through the leadership of great paleontologists, helped solidify the eminence of Connecticut’s paleontological credentials.
Our river has more than meet the eyes, but its present course became established only in a geological instance, after the melting of the great ice sheets which covered our area during the last glacial maximum (or ice age), about 24,500 years ago.

By Sajirat Palakarn

Unseen Wesleyan Part 1: The Penthouse

Exley Science Center does not exactly seem to be the most mysterious place on the Wesleyan campus, but few people know about the existence of ‘The Penthouse’. If you have ever taken a class in one of the natural science fields, frequented the lovely Science Library, or patronized the comfort coffee of the Pi Café, you have experienced a bit of Exley. However, even among the hard-core science students of Wesleyan University, few have ventured to the rooftop storage place appropriately named “The Penthouse.” The almost-mythical elements of the Penthouse, with its treasure house-like allure of abandoned scientific equipment, piqued this blogger’s curiosity. In addition, the Penthouse was rumored to host valuable and large plaster casts of fossils, being an ancient place filled to the brim with scientific history.

A corridor within the ‘Penthouse’

For a research assistant in the fields of Paleontology and Museum Science, going on an expedition is a necessity. So, the aforementioned rumors of the existence of plaster copies of rare fossils, which have not seen daylight since they were moved into Exley (~1970) in such a rarely-seen place goaded us into activity. As a part of the project to increase the visibility of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum, the mineralogy and paleontology museum on the 4th floor of Exley, I ventured to the mysterious Exley’s Penthouse, the topic of this first blog on Unseen Wesleyan.
The expedition started at around 1:30 pm on Friday, June 16, 2017. We popped into the creaky service elevator, using a special key obtained from an unknown source. The key barely registered any confirmation signal of activity, but our source assured us that it would work. The elevator pulled itself frustratingly slowly past the top (6th) story of Exley, and we arrived at the Penthouse. The thick, unventilated air mixed with layers of dust from Exley’s history threw me for a loop. The long corridors, lined with scattered steel cabinets were covered with heavy layers of dust, accumulated during Exley’s history of almost 50 years. We barged through scattered remnants of furniture and scientific equipment in search of the reported collections of fossil casts. Unsurprisingly, an obstacle got in our way: a locked gate in a steel fence. Our expedition specialist was able to produce a key to that lock, and the view in front of our eyes was breathtaking.

A specimen of Cenozoic life upon which we stumbled upon during the expedition. While still early in the analysis, experts believe that this was an evidence of the Science In Society Program’s earlier-than-expected arrival to Exley.


An obstacle before the treasure

In front of us was a mountain of old scientific equipment. Looking at a pile of discarded Apple II computers and rows of iron cabinets with mysterious materials inside, as well as piles of cardboard boxes, we knew that it was going to take some time to find all the rumored fossil casts. Luckily, we easily distinguished some of the fossil casts among all the other things, mainly due to the sheer size of the wooden pallets holding some of the casts. Even so, the actual data collection on the casts, and identification of the fossils, required a considerable amount of time, muscle, and expertise.

Buried Treasure


The Excavation

Then, something dramatic happened: while we were clambering over the dusty cases containing the plaster casts, all the lights went out. While we were not in danger of tripping over the mountain of unused equipment, the darkness stopped our operation entirely. Understanding the major problem we were facing, I volunteered to make the track back down the Penthouse elevator in search of help. With the help of our technician, we were able to restore the light to our excavation area. Who would have thought that working in a museum could be this dangerous?

Picture of the courageous expedition crews retrieving a rare specimen of ancient light bulbs in  the Penthouse. In the picture: Professor Ellen Thomas and Mr. Joel Labella

Our grimy and dusty expedition yielded substantial results. We were able to document the presence of valuable fossil plaster casts of unusual fossils not seen for more than 40 years. We discovered more than 50 fossilized fish casts, mammal skulls and crocodile teeth, and even a life-sized cast of a Homo sapiens skeleton – human skeleton in laymen’s term. One particularly interesting specimen was a cast of a tail of a Glyptodon, an extinct giant armored mammal which lived during the Pleistocene epoch, a relative of the living armadillo. According to the official records from the 1970s, the plaster casts were supposed to include a full body replica of Glyptodon, which means a complete set of tail, body, head, and limbs. Judging from the size of the tail, we estimated that the complete cast of a full-sized replica of a Glyptodon would be around the size of a small city car or a classic Volkswagen. We did not find the other parts – the body, head, and limbs – so these may have been lost or still out there somewhere, around the campus. Besides those, we also found a number of Ichthyosaurus fossil casts, a marine reptile looking a bit like a dolphin (but not related to it), which lived in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic. Lastly, we found a plaster cast of  Andrias scheuchzeri, the famous fossil of a giant salamander discovered in the early 1700s which were thought to be a man drown in the biblical Deluge. All in all, the expedition was a success.

A well-preserved cast of Archaeopteryx macura – a life form transitional between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds.
A cast of Homo sapiens – Human skeleton
A plaster cast of Andrias scheuchzeri – a fossil of an extinct giant salamander

Many might think that museum work is about a few curators watching people, telling them not to touch the artifacts or the paintings. While the job could involve a little bit of that, curators are actually enthusiasts on their subject matter, and they preserve crucial scientific specimens for the good of humanity. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum at Exley is no exception. However, my job is not over yet. We caught another rumor that a cache of fossil may have been stored in the tunnel system below Butterfield College and Foss Hill dorms. Another journey awaits!

By Sajirat Palakarn

The Connecticut State Fossil

On an otherwise mundane and maybe even a little boring and long list of state symbols, ranging from the state flower: “mountain laurel” to the state song: “Yankee Doodle,” Connecticut has an unusual symbol which is not well-known among its inhabitants: a state fossil. The Constitution State’s very own state fossil is Eubrontes giganteus, commonly known as a (large) example of dinosaur tracks or footprints.  Wesleyan University proudly displays these fossils (among other dinosaur footprints) in a very visible spot on the wall of the Exley Science Center, in its first-floor main corridor next to the science library and the ‘Fish Bowl’, where many people pass by them every day. Connecticut and Wesleyan University played an instrumental role in the academic field of paleontology in America, as documented by the discovery of our state fossil.

One of the Eubrontes giganteus at Exley

Now, you might wonder as to why a quiet New England state such as Connecticut would have a dinosaur footprint as state fossil: the quaint colonial-era towns and rustic environments do not appear to mesh well with the Jurassic-Park-settings such a fossil seems to evoke. In truth, Connecticut is home to one of the earliest-known and most prominent fossil-bearing formations in the United States, with red rocks in the Connecticut River Valley being the destination for American fossil hunters since 1836. The fame of Connecticut’s fossils started when Edward Hitchcock, professor of Geology at Amherst College, was made aware of what appeared to be gigantic bird footprints along the river bank near the border between Massachusetts and Connecticut. At that time, it was not known what dinosaurs were: their huge skeletons were first described as ‘dinosaurs’ (terrible lizards’), that is, now-extinct, gigantic relatives of modern lizards, by the English paleontologist Sir Richard Owen in 1842. Professor Hitchcock remained convinced that these gigantic 3-toed footprints were made by prehistoric birds. It was not until 1954 that Richard Swan Lull finally described the maker of these footprints fossils as a carnivorous theropod, a type of dinosaur. Connecticut might have been famous for the clam chowder and the friendly New England towns to the public, but for the paleontological community, Connecticut’s fame as a destination for research was anything but “new.”

The Dinosaur footprints along the wall of Exley

The name assigned to the fossil which is now the Connecticut state fossil was Eubrontes, in classical Greek “true thunder,” possibly to indicate the heavy impact of the footsteps of these “thick-toed birds”.  However, we now know that Hitchcock’s early idea was, in fact, closer to the present scientific theory about relationships of dinosaurs to living animals, i.e., they are close relatives of birds, rather than of lizards. In fact, scientists now talk about ‘avian dinosaurs’ (that is, birds), and ‘non-avian dinosaurs (dinosaurs), and many species of dinosaurs are known to have been feathered. Professor Hitchcock’s original theory, while inaccurate, expressed an observational idea that was not far from our modern understanding.

A Connecticut River Valley dinosaur footprint displayed in Exley (Otozoum moodii)

The discovery of the fossil footprints and their collection in the 19th century made the Connecticut River Valley widely known as a key fossil-hunting area in the New England region, and in the 19th century American scientific community, Connecticut was a prominent location for research in paleontology. In addition to the dinosaur footprints, thousands of fossil fish have been found, which were living in the lakes in the dinosaurs’ habitat.

In 1966, workmen from the Connecticut State Highway Department found hundreds of specimens of the three-toed dinosaur tracks (and other tracks) around Rocky Hill, Connecticut. This led to the establishment of the “Dinosaur State Park” just three weeks later by the then-Governor of Connecticut, John N. Dempsey. The museum in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (4th Floor Exley) was named after the late Professor Joe Webb Peoples, who was instrumental in the establishment of Dinosaur State Park. If you are interested in who Professor People was and what role Wesleyan University played in the shaping of American paleontology, visit the Joe Webb People’s Museum on the fourth floor; there are more surprising stories of our University waiting to be told.

To commemorate that dinosaurs once (about 200 million years ago) walked in Connecticut and that their footprints are abundant in Dinosaur State Park, Eubrontes giganteus was designated the official state fossil in 1991. For any curious students wanting to see our state fossil for themselves, just look along the wall of Exley; you will find several enormous pieces of history right before your eyes.


By Sajirat Palakarn