The days of the dinosaurs: Podcast unearths story behind Mantua Township fossil park

Pindrop ‘opens up a different type of exposure’ for fossil park

As he stands on a ledge above the site, Dr. Ken Lacovara discusses the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University. The Mantua Township site was the recent subject of a TED Pindrop podcast. (Kristen Dowd/The Sun)

Pindrop is a podcast of adventure, uncovering inspiring – and unexpected – stories around the globe. TED debuted its newest streaming series in late May, and the first episodes take listeners to Nairobi and Mexico City, Bangkok and Oberammergau, Germany.

It also makes a stop in Mantua Township.

For those not in the know, this may be a rather unexpected locale for a podcast also delving into an art movement challenging stereotypes in Africa and a 2,000-year-old German passion play. But for those in the know? There is much more to this charming, cozy South Jersey suburb than friendly people and vibrant sunsets.

Mantua also gives visitors a glimpse into the days of the dinosaurs.

“It is a little surprising,” Pindrop host Saleem Reshamwala said about the Mantua episode, “but pretty much anywhere is interesting if you’re looking at it the right way.”

And in Mantua’s case, that also means looking in the right spot, which just so happens to be in the backyard of a Lowe’s. A quarry tucked into a forested landscape a short walk from the hardware store on Woodbury Glassboro Road gives way to 66 million years of discoveries, with thousands of fossils dating back to the mass extinction of dinosaurs and 75 percent of Earth’s species.

“Once I heard the pitch for this story, I just got really excited that there’s a place where you can find ancient fossils behind a Lowe’s hardware store,” Reshamwala said. “That’s magical, right?”

It is magical, and almost had a disappearing act of its own. If it weren’t for the efforts of Dr. Ken Lacovara, this remarkable site would have been bulldozed.

Aerial shot of fossil park in Mantua
An aerial shot depicts visitors at the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University, located in the acreage behind the Lowe’s in Mantua Township. (Special to The Sun)

Saving science

Nearly a decade ago, world renowned scientist Lacovara heard that the acreage behind the Lowe’s was slated for mixed-use redevelopment. Wondering if Mantua Township was aware of the historic significance of the site, the paleontologist headed to the municipal building, finding himself in front of township economic development coordinator Michelle Bruner.

He made his case. Bruner listened.

“He said, ‘Would you like a tour?’ And that’s all it took,” Bruner recalled.

Lacovara’s calm manner and even disposition do nothing to hide the passion in his voice when he discusses paleontology. At the Mantua site, he candidly explains to visitors (of which there have been nearly 15,000) the color of the soil showing the change in time period – the orange upper layer filled with land, or terrestrial deposits, and the lower grey/green layer representing marine deposits, formed during the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, when the area would have been covered in some 70 feet of sea water.

“This then constitutes the best window into the Cretaceous period, in the last moments of the dinosaurs, east of the Mississippi,” Lacovara said. “So, it’s a great exposure.”

Bruner said the property owners at the time were very willing to protect the resources at the site, and they were able to get the Gloucester County Department of Economic Development and members of the freeholder board supporting the project, too.

“Through my office, we figured out how to protect the site,” Bruner said.

But there was still something missing – funding. Lacovara and Bruner got creative, creating tours and what would be the first of many public dig days, giving visitors the opportunity to uncover and bring home their own fossil. But it was when Rowan University purchased the site in 2016 that things really began to pick up speed.

Rowan’s connection

Rowan President Dr. Ali A. Houshmand asked Lacovara – a former colleague when both worked at Drexel University – to get breakfast. The rest, as they say, is history.

“By the end of breakfast, we had a plan to build a fossil park and a plan to build the new School of Earth & Environment, which now has 22 professors and a new building going up,” explained Lacovara, the founding dean of the new school.

For Houshmand, the decision to bring Lacovara to Rowan and get the school involved in the fossil park was an easy one.

“The uniqueness of it is so important,” Houshmand said. “Knowing what I know about Ken as a good scientist, it really was a no-brainer for me that this was the move I was going to make. I can bring a great scientist here, and more than that, energize young minds. It was so exciting.

“I just couldn’t say no.”

In January 2016, Rowan purchased the 65-acre fossil site property.

“We passed the torch,” said Bruner, who became the municipal liaison to the fossil park.

In October of the same year, alumni Jean and Ric Edelman announced a $25-million gift to the university in hopes to make the site a world-class destination, and the name was changed to the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University. The Edelmans then expanded their commitment to the park, purchasing a 40-acre property next to the existing site in May 2019.

The plan is to continue developing the site by building a 45,000-square-foot museum on the top of the hill, with exhibit halls, nature trails, a cafe, playground, a community garden, the fossil dig experience, and lots of hands-on spaces for the kids.

“We’ve seen how transformational it can be with a muddy kid and a fossil here. What we see is that little clam a kid digs up for themselves, or a snail or a shark tooth, they become more significant in that kid’s life than all the T. Rexes in all the museums, because they discovered it,” Lacovara said. “They’re the first ones to bring that fossil literally to life in tens of millions of years.

“They become scientists when they’re here. They become discoverers when they’re here. And it really energizes them.”

The podcast

Pindrop podcast host Saleem Reshamwala (Special to The Sun)

“The TED podcast is amazing, because it opens up a different type of exposure to our property and our efforts,” Bruner said. “They were able to feel and live and breathe Mantua and really understand us and our community. And they were able to go to the site and physically understand what it really means.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic kept Reshamwala from visiting all of his Pindrop destinations, the Durham, North Carolina, resident feels fortunate Mantua Township was the first stop on his itinerary.

“It’s such a rich spot, and Mantua is this perfect, pristine little town,” he said, “and it’s just great to put on some boots and get ankle deep in the mud and find ancient history right there.”

He recalled asking Lacovara how quickly he could find a fossil, and before being able to start the timer on his phone, the scientist had one in his hand – a tiny sponge, indicative of the largely marine-based fossils found at the site, which includes shark teeth and sea turtle shells, clams and snails.

In the podcast, Reshamwala, who is a filmmaker by trade, dives into the fossil park’s story, from Lacovara and Bruner first meeting to Rowan’s involvement to what the future may hold. With no imagery to aid him, Reshamwala’s colorful commentary, interwoven with comments from Lacovara and Bruner, is an immersive experience for the listener, a half-hour visit to Mantua packed with engaging detail and intrigue.

Of course, it couldn’t have been done without Bruner – whom Reshamwala called “a very enthusiastic guide to the city” – and Lacovara.

“Ken helps people see a place in a totally, totally different way,” Reshamwala said. “If you go to the forest with someone who is a bird watcher, you will hear it differently. If you go to a record store with someone obsessed with music, you will find totally different things.

“And if you walk into a giant hole with Ken Lacovara, you will see history in a different way, prehistory in a different way.”

Pindrop podcast episodes are available through Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or any preferred service for podcast listening. To learn more about the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University, visit www.rowan.edu/fossils, www.facebook.com/EdelmanFossilPark, or find the park on Instagram @edelmanfossilpark and Twitter @EdelmanFossilPK. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the park is currently not open to the public.