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Exhibit – and New Construction – Expose Cincinnati’s Unique Underground

Cincinnati and its place names – Bellevue, Corryville, Eden, Fairview, Mt. Auburn – are used the world over as the scientifically prescribed identifiers for fossil layers. Come and find out why – and get some hands-on experience – at an upcoming UC exhibit.

Date: 3/29/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: David Meyer, Lucy Cossentino-Sinnard, Jeff Weimar

UC ingot   Construction recently began on a new University of Cincinnati football practice field – the Jefferson Avenue Sports Complex – and that work will almost certainly uncover a small treasure trove of fossils for geologists.

So, the timing could not be better for an unusual exhibit – “Cincinnati: Beneath the Streets, Under the Cleats” – to run April 1, 2010, to May 14, 2010, in the University of Cincinnati’s Philip M. Meyers, Jr. Memorial Gallery, located in the Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center.

  • Come join us for the exhibit opening at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 1, 2010, with new UC football coach Butch Jones, up to five members of the Bearcat football team, and the Bearcat himself.
  • Get up close and hands on with fossils – the shells and skeletons of plants and animals like coral, sea lilies, sea stars, brachiopods (shellfish), trilobites, mollusks and more. Touch and see a 16-foot long “Cincinnatian” layer of fossils. The layer is so named because these fossils from the Ordovician period were first found in large numbers right here in Cincinnati.
    Fossilized coral
    Fossilized coral, found in the local region, that is part of UC's "Cincinnati: Beneath the Streets, Under the Cleats."

  • Get the big picture via aerial photographs and a geologic time scale. And view lighted columns that recreate the soil layers of the Ordovician period of 450 million years ago.

“Beneath the Streets, Under the Cleats” will also bring to light the city’s internationally acknowledged heritage and leadership in the field of geology.

In fact, so famous are the Ordovician fossils and rocks of the Cincinnati region that geologists worldwide use the term “Cincinnatian” for the fossil layers that date back some 450 million years (250 million years before the dinosaurs lived) when a shallow sea covered North America. And major layers within that “Cincinnatian” are similarly  identified worldwide by the local place names where they were first uncovered in the 19th century: the Bellevue, the Corryville, the Eden, the Fairview and the Mt. Auburn layers. There are also layers known as the Miamitown, Waynesville, Whitewater and more.

Most local residents who have picked up fossils in their back yards don’t realize the rarity of what – for them – is a commonplace experience. Most of the world has nothing to rival the fossil riches of our region, and fossils from Cincinnati can be found in every major museum in the United States and overseas.
Fossilized trilobite
A trilobite fossil, found in Adams County, that is part of UC's "Cincinnati: Beneath the Streets, Under the Cleats" exhibit.

So, why was Cincinnati so lucky? Well, it can be ascribed to “location-location-location:”

  • The abundant marine life that settled into the region’s sea beds during the Ordovician period weren’t subsequently buried deeply.
  • Major mountain ranges didn’t emerge in our region to disrupt fossil and rock formations.
  • But a very gentle uplift did occur (known as the Cincinnati Arch). This gentle uplift (a ripple of the rise of the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains) continually eroded soil, stripping away layers above the Ordovician fossils embedded in the region’s hard limestone, which itself was resistant to erosion.

And so, making fossils from 450 millions years ago readily available today throughout the Cincinnati region.

  • About Cincinnati, 700 feet of shaly limestones of Hudson age contain abundant fossils. – Albert Perry Brigham, A text-book of geology, 1903
  • Despite the great age of these formations exposed in the Cincinnati Arch, upwards of 400 million years, there is an amazingly perfect preservation of the life types which lived in the oceans in which were built up the limestones and shales of our bed rock. Fossils of beautifully complete preservation are not only found actually by the millions, but there is a great variety of forms. – William H. Shideler, “The Cincinnati Arch: A Creator of Early Geologists,” 1952
  • Of the many prolific collecting grounds in the continental interior, none excels the Ohio River bluffs at Cincinnati, Ohio. Here the Upper Ordovician rocks are almost literally made of fossils; many are as perfectly preserved as fossils can be. The river banks, road cuts and even the soil in the gardens are replete with fossils more common than pebbles. Almost every museum in the world has specimens from this locality. – William Lee Stokes, Essentials of Earth History, 1966
    One wall of the
    One wall of UC's "Cincinnati: Beneath the Streets, Under the Cleats" exhibit.

  • Cincinnatian. The youngest of three epochs of the Ordovician Period; also the series of strata deposited during that epoch. – The American Geological Institute, Dictionary of Geological Terms, 1975
  • Cincinnati…is built on a veritable storehouse of fossils, a storehouse that seems inexhaustible. The Cincinnati area has been a collecting ground for a century or more… . – Aurele La Rocque and Mildred Fisher Marple, Ohio Fossils, 1977
  • …Cincinnati with profuse exceptional fossils in its Ordovician hills. – John McPhee, Rising From The Plains, 1986
  • In contrast to these barren deposits are others in which fossils are abundant or actually form most of the rock. Limy shales from the Cincinnati region and southeastern Indiana are crowded with shells. – Carroll Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton, The Fossil Book, 1987
    Illustration by John Agnew
    An illustration by John Agnew of the shallow sea that was Cincinnati 450 million years ago. The illustration was completed for the book, "A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati" by UC's David Meyer and MSJ's Richard Davis.

  • Any museum worth its weight in salt has a collection of Cincinnati fossils. – Cincinnati Magazine, 1996
  • The Cincinnatian is famous for the abundance and quality of the fossils. All are marine invertebrates, but there is a tremendous variety. – Erich Rose, New York Paleontological Society, 2000
  • The Upper Ordovician of North America is the Cincinnatian Series, named for the richly fossiliferous beds...surrounding Cincinnati, Ohio. – William I Ausich, Fossil Crinoids, 2003

UC's Philip M. Meyers, Jr. Memorial Gallery, located in the Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center, is free and open to the public from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday thru Friday; and from noon-4 p.m., Saturday. For more information, call the gallery at 513-556-3088.