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The remains of the day

Reminders of a hoary past.  

The journey has been long. We stop in front of a longish mound of white chips that looks like carelessly dumped construction material. “This is the Gunduperumbedu village in Sriperumbudur Taluk and these are plant fossils,” our guide Balu tells us. Plant fossils in the open, running the length of a medium-sized road? The mound is a solid pile of small rocks, mostly white, some dirty, some sporting pink markings. We clamber up, to find a valley ahead that ends in a settlement. We start browsing around, looking for “evidence”. What we need are rocks with clearly etched plant markings. Till then we reserve our judgement on whether this is a fossil site.

“Look at this!” goes a shout, in only five minutes. We crowd around and the cameras click. The leaf marking is clearly visible on a block of white stone. It is an incredible feeling. We found a fossil! Soon we find more, some with just a hint of a fossil, others with visible plant parts, much like paintings. With palpable excitement, we throw questions at Balu. “This is part of the Gondwana plant fossils,” he says. “Locally called pookal. It is a marine-transgressed site (was undersea once).” As we digest that information, we wonder: All these priceless things of the past, thrown around in the open? Almost at once we get to know why that is not a good idea. A boy walks up, bag in hand. “Want rocks with paintings?” he asks pulling out several small rocks with clear markings. He quotes a small price for each. We pounce on him with questions. “These chips are everywhere, in homes, roads, farms around this area. We collect them because they are grabbed by visitors.”

Back home we dig in with research. “These belong to the upper Gondwana period, 250 million Years Before Present,” says Singanenjan Sambandan, director, Geological Survey of India. “It is sedimentary shale rock carrying plant fossils formed through petrification.” The fossils can be found in a vast area around Sriperumbudur, he says. Known as the ‘Sriperumbudur bed’, the site is spread across Gunduperumbedu, Pondur, Kaavanur, Poonamallee, Mosur and Vallam. Home builders dig the soil and dump the rock fossils in empty spaces to form landfills. There are more such fossil sites in Tamil Nadu, he adds.

Meanwhile, Ramjee of the Environment Education Centre sends close-ups of our finds to archaeologist Shanti Pappu. “These appear to be cretaceous plant fossils associated with the Sriperumbudur formation shales,” she mails back. “It is a shame they are being collected and sold as souvenirs, as they are of great scientific importance.” The site obviously needs immediate cordoning off. There is every possibility the mounds of fossils will vanish. “Urbanisation of the area will bury the fossils somewhere away from the site,” fears Balu. With kids picking up these rocks, what will be left? This could be a fossil park, says Ramjee. Will we one day walk into a well-protected, well-marked fossil park here to watch a sound-and-light-show of information?

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 9:20:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-remains-of-the-day/article5940255.ece

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