Unseen Wesleyan: Fossils in Plain Sight in 4 Places

We all know there are thousands of fossils and splendid minerals on show in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum on Level 4 of Exley, but with the gazillion obligations in life, it is hard to visit as often as we like.
Not to worry, we got you covered: the Wesleyan campus is a fossil treasure trove. Here’s a quick guide to four places where you can look into the deep past and marvel at life forms that exist no longer.
Stop 1: Centre for the Arts. Paleontologists often boast that they can time travel with a shovel, unearthing fossils from which outlandish landscapes of the distant past are recreated. This cannot be more true for any place than it is for the CFA at Wesleyan. This complex was constructed out of Indiana Limestone, a commonly used trade term for the limestones from the Salem Formation. These rocks are made up of the remains of  small, shelled marine organisms living on the ocean floor, and preserved there after they died. The buildings here are thus built essentially from a fossilized seabed of a shallow Carboniferous (Mississippian) reef, alive ~350-320 million years ago. To see this palaeontological wonder, you may have to look closer than usual, and you may want to have a magnifying glass ready. Most of these fossils are rather small, and some are simply too outlandish to decipher as recognizable life forms without an introduction in paleontology.


Take a really close look. Every wall is filled with trillions of skeletal fragments (from relatives of clams as well as of brachiopods – lamp shells), unicellular foraminifera, snails, corals, sea lily stems, bryozoans and moreMake sure your nose is only a few inches from the wall.


Some fossil organisms with two valves, perhaps bivalves or brachiopods, have been halved by stone-cutting, revealing the calcite crystals that have formed inside over time; present in a sea of remains of bryozoans, the ‘moss animals’.


Fenestella sp. bryozoan fossils have a distinctive netted appearance. They are quite common in walls of the CFA.



Stop 2: Allbritton Center. This classic Beaux Arts building maintained its original 1904 façade, then the Physics Building, The John Bell Scott Memorial, despite multiple renovations of the interior. The beige parts of the building were built from the same fossiliferous Indiana Limestone as the CFA, and parts of 200 Church and the Olin Library are constructed from the same Indiana Limestone. The stone cutting techniques used in the early 1900s rendered the fossils far easier to discern than the ones in the CFA. Next time you walk through those majestic doors, take a moment to marvel at the ancient life embedded in the pillars that frame the doors.


Reflect on the history of Wesleyan and the history of life as you take a closer look at the pillars that flank the wooden doors.


The John Bell Scott Memorial building, Wesleyan Physics Laboratories, in 1904, showing the original facade.


Stop 3: Shanklin Laboratory. This site bears witness to the unfortunate male-dominated history of the sciences and Wesleyan’s non-coed history (see here for its coed history). Built in 1928, this building sports but one original bathroom, and regrettably, the ladies’ room in the building is a later addition tucked away in the attic. Behind a door on the first floor bluntly labelled ‘MEN’, there are three stalls constructed out of a fossiliferous stone. Their highly polished surface helps the eye to tease out biogenic patterns quite easily. We are in the process of working out the precise locality and age of this rock.


From top to bottom: straight nautiloid, brachiopod, rugose coral (and perhaps bivalve to the left?), clam. The latter is almost ubiquitous in the cubicle partitions.


Limestone is formed from calcium carbonate skeletons of marine invertebrates such as corals, clams and snails, and has been prized for centuries as a building material. This is how most fossils find their way into walls and pillars.


No 4 is a no brainer: Exley Science Center. Shelley the Glyptodon awaits in the lobby by the Science Library. She is the celebrity of our collection of  Ward’s fossils casts, and one of the first of the revived specimens to be put on display after restoration. In the spring, her legs will be reunited with the rest of her body for the first time in over 60 years, after the closure of the former Wesleyan Museum in 1957. Shelley hails from the Lujan Formation in Argentina, where she lived 11,000 years ago. The last of her kind perished as humans migrated into her homelands. The building also sports a large number of local Connecticut dinosaur tracks from the early Jurassic.



And there you have it, four fossil sites on the Wesleyan campus. We hope you will never see the campus landscape in the same way again, and keep looking for as yet undiscovered fossil sites on campus.