Mystery fossil in Sibley Mill might be prehistoric whale rib

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 6:28 PM
Last updated 7:51 PM
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One of Sibley Mill’s oldest mysteries is stored in a dusty boiler room building, still unsolved after decades.

A large bone, thought to be a whale rib, sits in the boiler room office of Sibley Mill. A 1955 letter from the curator at the Charleston Museum in Charleston, S.C., says the fossil is likely 100,000 to 250,000 years old.  EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
A large bone, thought to be a whale rib, sits in the boiler room office of Sibley Mill. A 1955 letter from the curator at the Charleston Museum in Charleston, S.C., says the fossil is likely 100,000 to 250,000 years old.

“It’s been around here longer than me, and I’ve been here a long, long time,” said Billy Power, a 40-year mill worker who now maintains the vacant landmark and its hydropower turbines.

The heavy, curved fossil, mounted under glass inside a wood-framed case, measures 97.5 inches at its longest point and gleams with a patina that only time can create.

“About all we know is that it was dug up out here somewhere,” Power said, “It sat up in the front office for as long as anyone can remember, and when the mill closed they put it back here in storage.”

For a textile setting, it is an out-of-place artifact whose origins have spawned plenty of conjecture. In 1955, it was shipped to experts for identification, first to Albert J. Lansing, the chairman of the Anatomy Department at Emory University’s School of Medicine.

“From the general characteristics, the suggestion has been made that it is one of the mastadons – a mammoth,” he wrote in an Oct. 12, 1955, letter to mill managers. “However, this is only a guess.”

The next stop for the fossil was the Charleston Museum in Charleston, S.C., where curator Albert Schwartz suggested it was a rib bone from a prehistoric whale, likely a juvenile, that perished during the last epoch.

“Since the rib was taken near Augusta, it probably was deposited there when the ocean reached as far inland as the Fall Line – at that time, the seashore,” he wrote in a Nov. 3, 1955, letter that remains inside the glass case.

Its age, he said, was less than 1 million years, and it was more likely between 100,000 and 250,000 years old.

The rib, he said, “compares most favorably with specimens of whale ribs from the Charleston Museum.”

If the fossil were from a prehistoric whale, it wouldn’t be the first time such a creature’s remains were found near Augusta.

In 1983, a 40 million-year-old whale skeleton was unearthed during construction of the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Burke County.

The specimen, named Georgiacetus vogtlensis, was donated to the Georgia Southern University Museum and has become the focus of scholarly interest throughout the world.

Sibley Mill, built in the 1800s, is owned by the Augusta Canal Authority, which hopes to redevelop the historic building, possibly as a centerpiece to a new university campus.

While there are no formal plans for the fossil, Canal Authority Executive Director Dayton Sherrouse said it might someday fit into a canal-related display because the Fall Line that once marked the prehistoric seashore is also the reason for the elevation change that led to the canal’s construction.


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