Birthplace of Robert E. Lee
10:05 am
Thu August 8, 2013

Ancient Whale Skull Found in Virginia

The recent discovery of a prehistoric whale skeleton along the shore of the Potomac River may help scientists understand life and climate change millions of years ago during the Miocene Epoch. The dig lies 150 feet below ancient cliffs at Virginia's Stratford Hall, the birthplace of General Robert E. Lee.

Listen to Pamela D'Angelo's report from Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Wading along this pristine shoreline, over fallen trees and under ancient cliffs Jon Bachman, who works at Stratford Hall was with a group of scientists in June when he found the 15 million-year-old whale skull.

"We're walking along the beach when I notice something that looks like a gray hubcap sticking out about 3 ½ feet from where the cliffs meet the beach," said Bachman.

The Calvert Marine Museum across the river in Maryland was called and a team of scientists and students led by paleontologist Stephen Godfrey removed the 6 ½ foot-long baleen whale skull last month. Now they're back for the 25 foot skeleton.

"These cliffs give us a portal into that 10 million year block of time that's represented by the depth of the sediments here from about 18 million years ago to about 8 million years ago. So as close as to Washington we know what creatures were living here at that time," said Godfrey.

The discovery was kept quiet until the prized whale skull was removed. Stratford Hall didn't want patrons near the unstable cliffs. There was also talk of fossil raiders. John Nance, another paleontologist with the Calvert Museum said it was about preserving the site.

"Because we don't want to have a lot of people coming around and possibly disturbing it. It holds a lot of scientific value but on the market these bones wouldn't sell for very much at all. Big sharks teeth. That's what sells," said Nance.

The skull and some of the bones are now  on display at the Calvert Marine Museum.

You can watch a video of the excavation, posted by John Nance at the Calvert Marine Museum here.