ASHLAND, Va. -- Locals refer to Ashland, Virginia as the Center of the Universe. But just a few miles from the old train station downtown, a select few have embarked on a journey to learn more about what life on this planet looked like a long, long time ago.
They are searching for fossils in a one-of-a-kind creek bed that has attracted the attention of paleontologists up and down the East Coast.
"The Ashland site is a really remarkable place," said Dr. Adam Pritchard, assistant curator of paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. "It preserves these wildly different types of fossils within a very geographically localized area, and that provides us a whole different kind of window into what the world was like, in this case, over 225 million years ago."
And the hope is that this unique site might also produce dinosaur bones.
"There’s a ton of fossil material in Virginia, but if you are specifically a dinosaur hunter, you’re going to walk away somewhat disappointed," said Pritchard.
While the state has fossil material and rock from the age of the dinosaurs, the Mesozoic Era, so far, all we’ve found of those fantastic beasts are their footprints.
"There has never been a definitive dinosaur bone discovered in Virginia," said Pritchard. "But there’s certainly places where that potential exists."
Like the Ashland creek bed, which you might call "Triassic Park."
"This is the first time that we see reptiles in the oceans swimming in the waterways, in the trees, on the ground. The Ashland site is smack dab in the middle of this initial pulse of new diversity emerging."
The real-life "Land of the Lost" remained virtually unknown until just a couple of years ago.
"Finding that specific site was really sort of the brainchild of Michael Stevens," said Pritchard. "He is unlike any other paleontologist I have ever encountered."
In part, because Stevens, an amateur paleontologist from Henrico County, has autism.
The 34-year-old has long been deeply invested in the study of the Triassic period.
"I’ve dedicated over 12 years of my life to finding sites in these basins," said Stevens. "If you talk about East Coast paleontology, dinosaur age paleontology, this is the most important age."
Virginia actually has a sort of hidden strip that runs from the Washington DC area down to Danville that preserves rock from this time period.
A few years ago, Stevens struck up a friendship with veteran paleontologists Robert Weems and Paul Olsen, who had surveyed similar fossil sites in other parts of the region and state in the 1970s and 80s.
By studying their research, Stevens figured out that Triassic fossils could be preserved in this specific valley.
So in 2019, he made a cold call to the landowners and got their permission to come out and take a look. A short time later he dialed up the museum.
"He vehemently worked to get my attention and interest and because it’s the time period I know as well, he and I kind of trekked out there and started finding bits and pieces of fossil fish in some of the rocks that were just sitting out on the ground in this creek bed," said Pritchard.
"It became very clear very quickly, oh, yes, he knows exactly what he’s looking for."
You could say the rest is prehistory.
Pritchard and other members of the museum's staff now make regular trips to the dig site, where, in addition to fish and plant fossils, they have found ancient reptile teeth, and the bones of vertebrate animals, among other things.
Stevens travels to the site about once a month. To him, finding fossils has become second nature.
"He's got the eagle eye that allows him to spot certain things very, very easily," said Pritchard.
And while his autism presents some challenges, it may also be responsible for the passion and determination that has made all of this possible.
"When I step back and look at the focus and drive that it seems to have imparted in him, I can’t see another way that things would have happened and these discoveries would be made without Michael having that very specific way of thinking and way of approaching the world," said Pritchard.
Stevens' exploits have gained him a large circle of friends and fans. But his biggest supporters are still his family.
"I am so proud of my son," said Shawn Justis. "He amazes us every day."
She says his accomplishments are even more incredible when you consider the diagnosis they were given when he was young.
"We were told he wouldn’t read, there were so many things he wouldn’t be able to do."
But now there’s a chance future generations will be reading about a once hidden place that Michael Stevens has helped put on the map.
"I see no reason why not," said Pritchard. "The scientists who are writing those chapters in Earth’s history are excited about this."
The digs have not turned up definitive dinosaur material yet. But back in September, they found a mysterious chunk of bone embedded in a rock. It's currently at the museum in Martinsville.
Stevens thinks it could be from a phytosaur, a distant relative of the crocodile. Or it could be something brand new to science.
"There’s definitely more, we know there’s more," said Stevens. "We just have to find it."
To learn more about the Virginia Museum of Natural History, click here.
To contact Dr. Adam Pritchard and the museum staff, email email@example.com.
To contact Michael Stevens, email firstname.lastname@example.org.