A recent family visit to the Stratford Hall Historic Preserve reminded me that we are constantly connected to the past, often in surprising ways. It can happen in East Hampton whenever we notice a local historic house that’s for sale, visit a business that’s been around for generations, or try to identify the East Hampton Star’s “Recovering the Past” photograph. As the historian, David Thelen has described it, we need and depend upon the past just like we need food and oxygen.
Stratford Hall, located in Stratford Virginia, overlooks bluffs on the bank of the Potomac River. These bluffs date to the Middle Miocene Epoch over 11 million years ago. As my nine-year-old son and I walked along the river, we encountered two people standing in the shallows, bent down to peer into the water. Introducing themselves as Kelly and Josh, they had come from Western Virginia to look for fossils. While the staff at Stratford Hall had shown us fossilized megalodon teeth and part of a whale head that were discovered in the bluffs, it never occurred to me that it was possible for a couple of amateur fossil hunters to find them in the same river that flows past Washington, DC. After Kelly and Josh showed my son what to look for, he soon discovered fossilized shark teeth and ray dental plates plus petrified wood, which are shown in the above photo. Since a shark loses over 20,000 teeth during its lifetime, it’s not surprising the teeth are so plentiful in the Potomac. Finding fossils was the highlight of his trip to Stratford and my son couldn’t wait to share what he discovered with his classmates at John M. Marshall Elementary School.
Like the East Hampton Historical Society, Stratford Hall presents both natural history and cultural history in its education programs so that students may connect with the past in a variety of ways. While I especially liked “walking in the footsteps of the past” by visiting Stratford Hall’s historic buildings, my son had the chance to walk among the past’s teeth.