Underground doesn’t mean just dirt, it is the basement on which today’s Virginia is built. The Virginia Living Museum’s Underground Gallery is a journey back through Virginia’s ancient past, a past that has created a rich and colorful present.
The Virginia Living Museum exhibits a trackway left nearly 210 million years ago in what was a vast swampy plain near Culpeper, Virginia. Named Kayentapus, the tracks are the largest meat-eating dinosaur tracks found in Virginia so far. The trackway, with four tracks, was part of almost 2,000 fossil footprints of dinosaurs and other reptiles uncovered at the Culpeper Stone Company quarry near Stevensburg in 1989.
The museum also exhibits a sculpture of an adult dinosaur that is an artistic interpretation of a living, hunting, dynamic predator in action – a dinosaur that would have been similar to, but not exactly the same as, the dinosaur that left the trackway. The sculpture was created by Keith Strasser of Middle Island, N.Y.
The outdoor Dinosaur Discovery Trail, opened in 2016, displays life-like replicas of 16 dinosaurs. The area also includes a Paleo camp, dig pits for amateur paleontologists, and displays of dinosaur and other fossils, including an actual whale specimen from Hampton Roads.
Fossils, Gems and Minerals
Using living animals and environments today, we can compare fossils to creatures alive today to estimate what life was like in ancient times.
The museum’s fossil wall is a cross section made to resemble sites along the James River near Chippokes State Park. The wall starts at the top with today’s topsoil and goes down through the fossil-poor sediment from the ice ages to a fossil-rich layer from 3.5 to 5 million years ago when the ocean extended to Richmond, to lower layers filled with large scallops, oysters and clams common to 5 to 7 million years ago.
The Morefield Gem Mine in Amelia County is the site of ancient volcanic activity. Hot molten magma squeezed into native rock. As it cooled slowly and stayed underground, it formed a pegmatite from which minerals settled out. The majority of precious gems come from pegmatite that has cooled very slowly.
Caves are so important to their inhabitants and surrounding ecosystems, both above and below ground, that they are protected by state and federal laws. Caves form in Virginia primarily in the limestone regions of the Appalachian mountains. Water combined with carbonic acid can enter the limestone through cracks and slowly eat away at the rock. Eventually large rooms, passages and drip stone formations can form over thousands of years.
In addition to displaying cave formations, the museum exhibits some common cave creatures that live part of their lives in caves, such as pack rats, long-tailed salamanders and cave crickets and those animals, called troglobites, that spend their entire lives inside caves.