As a child, you might have picked up a rock and pretended it was a dinosaur bone or a precious artifact.
As an adult, you can find out the real story, thanks to a handful of museums, parks, and research centers around the country that host events where you can take your treasures and have a qualified geologist, anthropologist or paleontologist tell you whether it's real — or not. That's the chance you take.
Like 'Antiques Roadshow' for fossil hunters
For children and adults, these events are a chance to put a realistic spin on something that's usually kept in the realm of imagination. Some of these events are sort of like a natural history version of "Antiques Roadshow." Of course, the antique treasures featured on the popular PBS series only represent a small portion of the items brought to the live events by hopeful attendees. And most fossil ID days, such as the one held each summer at New York City's American Museum of Natural History (yes, that's the one from "Night at the Museum"), don't focus on the value of objects, but merely on identification.
The American Museum of Natural History’s paleontologist, Carl Mehling, who has participated in the New York venue’s ID day for the past two decades, says it’s not often that people bring in items of significant value. "It's incredibly rare that someone walks in with something genuinely scientifically valuable," Mehling told Atlas Obsura. "I get people coming in saying, 'I'm certain this is a dinosaur egg,' and I have to say, 'Sorry, no, it's a rock.'"
The real highlight for attendees is the chance to get hands-on with casts of real paleontology specimens and to mingle with professionals who often started their research and academic careers as fossil-seeking enthusiasts — just like some people in the crowd waiting to have their specimens assessed.
ID events are held all over the nation
If you're willing to do a little legwork, you don’t have to wait for an ID event. Natural history museums, nature interpretive centers, universities and similar venues often have an enthusiastic staff member willing to help you identify a fossil, plant or artifact.
Identification events in places like the American Museum of Natural History bring these enthusiastic experts together and make identification more accessible for people who would otherwise keep their finds in a drawer. For fossil collectors who don't live near a museum or college that offers such ID services, there are other options. The University of Utah, for example, has an online submission page where people can upload pictures and descriptions for a staff paleontologist to look over.
In upstate New York, the Paleontological Research Institution holds ID events on the second Saturday of each month in its Museum of the Earth. The group also runs fossil-collecting trips. Another institution of higher education, Rutgers University, has an annual event at its geology museum that's much like the American Museum of Natural History's ID day. The New Jersey school's geology venue also has ID sessions during its monthly Late Night at the Museum event. These themed nights focus on different specialties, so their appeal goes beyond fossil hunters. For example, an upcoming night will feature minerals, while another will offer insight into volcanoes.
National Fossil Day
Your best chance of finding a nearby fossil event is on National Fossil Day, which is held in October each year. (In 2018, the event falls on Oct. 17.) The National Park Service (NPS) facilitates a number of events during this rock hunter's holiday, all of them related to fossils, but not all related to identification. At Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, for example, visitors can create plaster casts of fossils.
According to the NPS, the mission of National Fossil Day is to provide information about fossils from both a scientific and conservation perspective. The NPS creates events to "promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational values."
The American Museum of Natural History's Mehling puts the allure of fossil events in simpler terms, saying that for himself and the kindred spirits who come to fossil ID days, it's all about following the urge of "picking things up and trying to figure out what they are."
You can do the first part on your own, and now there are a surprising number of resources to help you achieve the second. Happy hunting.