Did you know West Virginia’s state fossil is the skull of a giant ground sloth?

Date Posted: 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

MY BUCKHANNON - Make no bones about it: Buckhannon-Upshur High School students were ‘digging’ learning about Ice Age mammals and artifacts from that era Tuesday and Wednesday during a presentation by Mark Lanham, curator of the Stirrup Gallery at Davis & Elkins College.

Lanham was invited by B-UHS Librarian Angie Snyder-Westfall, and science classes were invited to participate in the fun learning sessions, dubbed “Ice Age Mammals.”

The most recent Ice Age is referred to scientists as the Pleistocene Epoch and generally defined as the time period that began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago; glaciers covered huge sections of Earth. 

During his presentation, Lanham shared facts about and fossils of narwhals (commonly referred to as “unicorns of the sea” because of a giant tusk that protrudes from their heads), woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers, woolly rhinoceroses, Irish elk and a cave bear. 

One of the collection’s prize artifacts is the skull of an extinct giant ground sloth.

“This is the West Virginia State fossil,” Lanham told students who gathered for his presentation Wednesday. “This is the skull of a giant ground sloth. Since 2008, West Virginia has had a state fossil. He was huge and his name is Megalonyx Jeffersonii.”

He said a farmer in western Virginia, which is now West Virginia, found the bones in a cave and took them to Thomas Jefferson, who was president at the time. “Some people say Jefferson is now the father of paleontology in the United States. He identified those bones as the giant ground sloth. They named it ‘Megalonyx’ for giant claw and Jeffersonii for Thomas Jefferson.”

Snyder-Westfall science classes attended the presentations.

“I sent out emails saying what Lanham was bringing, and checked what content standards these covered,” she said. “We have had ninth and 10th-graders in – yesterday was a packed house and today will be a packed house as well.”

Snyder-Westfall said the presentations were a hit, not only with the students, but with B-UHS instructors as well, and she said there were so many classes that wanted to see the Ice Age mammals, that one class had to be split up. 

“We simply didn’t have the room for everyone to see this,” she said. “The kids are so excited. Not everyone can get to a museum – so the museum came to us. What a wonderful opportunity this is for our students. And in a museum, it’s hands-off. But he passes the artifacts around – it is very exciting.”

“We hope to work more with Mr. Lanham in the future,” Snyder-Westfall said.

B-UHS student Zack Mayle said he really enjoyed Lanham’s Ice Age mammal presentation.

“This really appealed to me,” Mayle said. “I really enjoyed this program and enjoy the hands-on aspect of the presentation.”

Lanham is the curator of special collections at the Stirrup Gallery at Davis & Elkins College.

“I graduated from D&E College in 2014 and was the oldest student at that time because I did 25 years in the Marine Corps first,” Lanham said. “I was a student, and I heard they were going to open the Stirrup Gallery. I grew up in Elkins and collected Native American artifacts. I knew they had a lot of Native American Artifacts.”

Lanham said he has taken his show on the road for the past few years and goes to schools in Randolph and the surrounding counties. 

“A few months ago, I sent out letters to all of the schools in Randolph and surrounding counties detailing what I could do for them for free,” he said. “I let them know they could travel to the gallery or I could travel to them. I have been to five schools so far.”

Along with the Ice Age mammals, Lanham does presentations on Civil War artifacts. 

“I try to make it a learning experience when I do this,” Lanham said. “There is always an educational aspect about it. For me, if one kids gets a spark in their eye and it inspires them, it is worth it.”

Lanham said the Stirrup Gallery houses 2 million years of history.

“The oldest thing we have is a Stegodon tooth that is 2 million years old. We have the largest collection of Ice Age mammals’ fossils in the state of West Virginia,” Lanham said. “We have one of the top 20 collections of Roman Coins in the United States, and we have the Darby Collection – the largest collection we have – with 10,000 artifacts, including 6,000 Native American artifacts dating back to the Paleo Indians, the first people on this continent. We have more than 200 guns dating from the 1600s up through the Civil War along with swords.”

The Stirrup Gallery is located on the campus of D&E College in Elkins. Visits to the gallery or for the gallery to come to schools may be scheduled by calling 304-637-1980.