Why the The Hands on! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site Is the best museum in Tennessee

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The Hands On! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site, located just outside of Johnson City, Tennessee, is definitely one of the most interesting and informative museums we have ever visited.

The Discovery Center is a hands-on, all ages, science center that offers everything from immersive exhibits like a musical Tesla coil, an engineer center, and kinetic sand that changes the landscape of the map you are working with. Additionally, fossils that have been found on site are on display here and the incredible staff has all the answers to your questions about these animals that would have lived millions of years ago. The center also allows visitors to color a plane, car, or other subjects and they are placed in a scanner and your masterpiece can be seen interactively on a large screen. Even as adults, we acted like kids in this section.

The musical Tesla coil has world-wide fame and is officially certified by Guinness World Records as the World’s Most Powerful Musical Bi-Polar Tesla Coil. We had the pleasure of receiving a private concert from the coil, which uses electromagnetic frequencies and really cool lightning bolts to play 18 different songs. Our exposure to the coil was brief but totally spellbinding the same!

The Gray Fossil Center is also located on the site of the discovery center and was discovered in May 2000 during road construction. When it became clear that the fossils being found during the road construction were unique and unusual to that part of the country, a community effort began to preserve the site. Eventually, ETSU had to create a new Department of Geosciences and soon after they established the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and began construction for the museum that also houses their research facilities. The special site became part of East Tennessee State University and the Gray Fossil Site and Museum was opened on the site in 2007. The is an Early Pliocene assemblage of fossils that date back between 4.5 and 9 million years. The ancient habitat of the Gray Fossil Site was a pond formed with a sinkhole. The fossils found at the site represent the ancient plants and animals that lived and ultimately died in and around the sinkhole. This incredible place is a neat glance into the past and some of the discoveries here have been nothing short of amazing. Researchers and archeologists have discovered a new species of red panda, rhinoceros, pond turtle, and a hickory tree. This site also has the largest known assemblage of fossil tapirs.

In 2019, the Gray Fossil Site rhinos were identified as a new species, named the “high-bodied” Teleoceras for their longer front legs compared to other species. The red panda was named as a new species in 2004 and two nearly complete skeletons makes this one of the best known fossil pandas. The Eurasian badger was named alongside the Gray Fossil Site panda as a new species in 2004. Additionally, the site has yielded two species of extinct rabbits, an unknown species of sloth, and likely a new species of mastodon.

This museum and archeological site is one of the most incredible places you could visit and is somewhere you could literally stay all day exploring. The address of the site is 1212 Suncrest Drive, Gray, TN 37615. If you have any questions, please call (423)-424-4263 or email Admission rates are $10 for ages 4 and up and under that age, free! They are open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 1pm-5pm. During March, June, and July) they are open on Monday’s 10am-5pm.


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