How to explore the prehistoric past: Expert advice from earth scientist Molly Miller

Travel back 450 million Years to Middle Tennessee’s Beginnings

Beachfront property is probably the last thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Nashville, but then again none of us was around 450 million years ago. During what geologists refer to as the Ordovician period, Middle Tennessee wasn’t just closer to the ocean—it was below it, submerged up to 100 feet in spots.

“I picture it like the Bahamas,” explains Molly Miller, professor of earth and environmental sciences. “Low islands, clear ocean water, but not as many different kinds of animals.”

While some might dismiss 450 million years as impossibly remote, Miller argues that the past, no matter how distant, has a direct bearing on the present day, particularly when it comes to the environment and our place within it. “It’s good for people to think about the past,” she says, “because it propels them into the future.”

Although her research focuses on Antarctica, Miller enjoys studying the geology of Middle Tennessee and encourages others to do the same. She led hundreds of Nashvillians on a geology walk with the city’s mayor two years ago, and in April she organized what she hopes will be the first of many fossil hunts in the area for kids.

“Nashville has seen a parade of different environments and life over a long time period,” says Miller, who received the Chancellor’s Cup in 2007 for her contributions to education outside the classroom. “I remind people that we are just a small part of that very big parade.”

Illustration of Nashville 450 million years ago

Watch Molly Miller discuss the Nashville fossil hunt: