Fossil Follies 

Cleveland shark fishermen cast their shovels.

Prehistoric fish are biting for Gale (left) and Gall. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Prehistoric fish are biting for Gale (left) and Gall.
The white, sparkly pebble is just common gravel, the kind sprinkled around wishing wells and miniature golf courses. Yet John Gale studies it intently, as if it were the Hope Diamond.

"Oooh," he coos, momentarily rapt. A Cleveland schoolteacher, the man can barely walk to the mailbox without happening upon some small geological masterpiece.

But he looks for the big stuff, too, like 350-million-year-old fossils. Every weekend, he and another Cleveland earth science teacher, Lindsay Gall, are out "reading the rocks" on the city's West Side. In the name of science, they've used up hundreds of tubes of Super Glue and a child's toboggan. They've also unearthed amazing things, like prehistoric shark fossils and two of the most complete armored-fish fossils anywhere in the world. One, a Dunkleosteus, is fondly called "Dinky"; the other, a Heintzichthys, they've nicknamed "Heinzy."

"They've made some remarkable finds," says Glenn Storrs, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at Cincinnati's Natural History and Science Museum. "Cleveland shale is internationally famous for the fossil fish that it contains, and they're really the only ones hunting it in a systematic way."

A few years ago, the teachers were the only laymen to present abstracts at the annual convention of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. The Cincinnati museum recently snapped up one of their shark fossils and plans to acquire more.

The fossils date to an age of aquatic monsters, when the earliest life forms were making the leap from fish to amphibian. About 350 million years ago, during the Upper Devonian period, what's now western Cuyahoga County was covered by a silty, oxygen-starved sea that was the shallow destination for primitive sharks and great armored fish with razor-sharp jaws. It definitely wasn't Lake Erie, which is only 12,000 years old.

Nobody knows exactly how the creatures got here, but they died soon after they drank their first mouthful of silt soup. Though it couldn't sustain life, that muck exquisitely preserved death. Since sharks are soft-bodied, they usually don't leave much behind. But the Cleveland black shale recorded cartilage as well as bone, in astounding detail.

In one of the teachers' best specimens, you can see the hard black skull of a fetus in its womb. In another, its last meal, only partially digested. They're working on extracting a shark that they estimate to be about 10 feet long.

And there are plenty more discoveries yet to be made in the Cleveland black shale, predicts William Hlavin, a fossil nut and Harvard-trained paleontologist who heads the teachers' nonprofit Paleotechnics Institute of Cleveland.

"There are a lot of rare things out there that nobody's seen," he says. "Rare fish we've only seen pieces of -- nobody's found a complete specimen. And there are several fish we know by just one specimen.

"If you were a fisherman in this Devonian ocean, you would not want to fall overboard. There were at least 30 different kinds of sharks, plus the armored Dunkleosteus, the geological equivalent of the great white shark. If that thing got you, one snap, and there's only half of you left."

Gale and Gall "have a knack," he adds. "They can read the rocks. The more you do it, the better you are at doing it, and these guys do it all the time."

Since these fossils are unique to Cleveland, the logical repository would be the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the teachers say. Too many prize collections have already left the area, going to places like the Smithsonian and Yale University. "It's Cleveland material; it belongs here," declares Gale.

Odds are against that happening. "We will never work with them," says Mike Williams, the Cleveland museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology. "There's too much bad blood between us."

Williams acknowledges they've got some "nice specimens," but doesn't think their people skills are so nice. He blames this on Hlavin, their mentor, who left the museum on unfriendly terms some 30 years ago.

When you're used to dealing in millions of years, you can hold a grudge for a really long time.

When Gale and Gall started fossil hunting, they decided they needed a guru, someone with academic credentials to back up their work. They approached the museum's then-director, Jim King, but he wasn't interested. So they asked Hlavin, who had written his Ph.D. dissertation on Cleveland fossil fish. They'd met him through other fossil collectors.

Hlavin once worked for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, but was "asked to leave" after he "got caught up in politics" three decades ago, when directors changed, he says. Since then, he's worked as a geologist for an Akron oil company -- and longed from afar for a return to the golden age of Cleveland fossil hunting, which he dates from about 1890 to 1970.

"I still try to keep my fingers in the pot," he says. "Looking for these fossil fish is the closest anybody could have to a treasure hunt. Not a monetary treasure hunt, but the chance of finding a new species. John and Lindsay remind me of all the things that I did when I was their age. I'm a little older now, but not that much older. To do the things that they do, you have to be a dreamer. If you have a vision and you surround yourself with the people that have like thoughts, something good has to happen."

Hlavin's vision is mainly concerned with sticking it to the museum, counters Williams, who doesn't know the "gory details," because he was hired in 1975, after Hlavin left. Still, Williams simply cannot work with Gall and Gale. "They carried on his irritation with the museum. They go out of their way to badmouth us."

Gall says they've tried to be congenial. But when you're a rock renegade, it's hard to resist a dig of another sort. "The museum's a joke in the industry. They have a great collection, but most of it's kept behind closed doors. Nobody can see the stuff. Did you ask [Williams] how often he's out in the field collecting?"

Only a few days "here and there," for a few weeks in the summer, Williams acknowledges. Since the teachers are scoping the shale every week, maybe it's time to declare a truce.

Gall and Gale began collecting in 1992, when they were both teaching at Maple Heights High School. Now, they work at different schools, but meet up for their digs on Saturdays. It's not light labor. They cross fast-moving rivers and climb steep cliffs to scary heights.

"John's saved my life a couple times," says the 47-year-old Gall, who's got the slighter build. Gale, 31, is a big guy with gold-rimmed spectacles who likes to expound on everything. When they climb, they don't use a harness, and several times the man on the ground has had to catch his falling partner. "I saved his life once or twice, too, but it's better the other way around," quips Gall.

The area where they collect feels more post-World War II than Precambrian. A low-rise apartment complex, painted bright beige to accentuate its boringness, obscures the blue-black crags that they scrutinize. The apartment manager lets them park their pickup truck on the property and extract whatever rocks they need.

"People sit on their balconies watching us," says Gall. One man asked if his kid could observe. "Uh, shoot, no way, we're giving him a hammer and a chisel. He's gotta dig."

They collect mostly on private property. You need a permit to collect in the nearby Metroparks, and they don't have one. "I don't wanna jerk around with no rangers," says Gall, loosening up his grammar on weekends, when he's not around his pupils. "What we do is walk the creek until we find something that looks interesting. Then we find out whose property it's on, and we talk to 'em."

"It's a lot easier to ask forgiveness than beg permission," adds Gale.

To score brownie points, they've given residents tips on how to keep their backyards from eroding. They're also planning a special ceremony to honor a retired fireman who was really nice to them, letting them snag a shark fossil from his property without any hassle.

Once, in the town where they dig, they even crashed the mayor's wife's birthday party. "It was a goodwill gesture," says Gale. "It just so happened that we had a shark with us. That's a good way to liven up a party: show up with a dead fish."

Gale and Gall sometimes talk big, but what's a fossil hunter without an attitude? Paleontology is a young science; its 19th-century forefathers were adventurous spirits who reveled in the thrill of the conquest.

In the Cleveland area, the early collectors were simple folk with insatiable intellects -- a whetstone maker from Berea, a fruit gardener/hotelier from Oberlin. "To them we owe almost all these remains that have been recovered," wrote Cleveland Museum of Natural History Curator Jesse E. Hyde in 1965. Hyde affectionately refers to this group as The Brotherhood of Fossil Collectors.

Not that they left the sisters at home. Fossil-hunting parties were often Sunday afternoon affairs, planned around a picnic lunch. In their dusty basement lab, Gall and Gale have a photograph from those days. The historic entourage includes parasoled ladies in long white dresses and at least one servant, standing stone-faced in the background.

Now, the brotherhood convenes at a local "post-dig" watering hole, where Gall and Gale shoot pool, suck down jumbo drafts in tribute to Ichthyus, the fish god, and sometimes even spread their finds on the pool table for further study. In exchange for tolerating their mud-caked waders, the proprietor has been promised a reproduction of a Dunkleosteus jaw, suitable for mounting behind the bar.

"I'm basically teaching science in a garage right now," Gale shares after a few beers. He teaches at John Marshall High School. "But we've made it one hell of a classroom. I sent my students on a scavenger hunt all over the building. They came back with 30 desks, all the same color."

A regular saunters over. "Dig up any crustaceans lately?" he asks. "That's concretions," Gale corrects, explaining the scientific term for the mineral mass that may distinguish fossils from other rocks. "See, we educate the bar patrons!"

They've also brought their fossil ministry to Boy Scout troops, speaking at Camp Stigwandish in Madison and at the Metroparks. And they've made a disciple of Dean Bredenbeck, another guy who let them dig up a shark fossil in his backyard. Teachers to the core, they turned Bredenbeck on to their bible, the Ohio Fossil Book. His personal copy is now well-worn, with Post-it Notes lovingly marking the important pages.

Sometimes, they bring their students along on digs. "One of the kids got claw hand," remarks Gall, who teaches at the Cleveland School of the Arts. "That's where your fingers lock up on the bar when you're digging. We had to pry him off."

They've used a toboggan to lug their big finds to the truck -- and when the toboggan gave out, a wheelbarrow. And that was the easy part. In Gall's unfinished basement, they do the detail work, chipping away at rock, dirt, and debris to bring out the nuances in each fossil. Super Glue is used to mend crumbled fragments.

Gale once spent a mind-numbing 1,200 hours picking away at a Heintzichthys, which, according to Hlavin, is possibly "the most complete specimen to exist right now." He's warned his wife not to make him choose between her and the fossils.

"It's such an integral part of our lives," Gall says. "Not like a job or something you do because you have to."

Sometimes, their wives have to be wondering just what those guys are doing downstairs. One time, they spent "100, 200 man-hours" chipping away at a rock, and all they had to show for it was a piece of fossilized turd.

"We have that turd," says Gale. "It's in the basement. We said, 'We're gonna keep this piece of shit.'"

More by Laura Putre


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