The 150-foot high Stratford Cliffs contain fossilized remains of marine plants and animals dating from the Miocene Epoch, approximately 15 to 10 million years ago. Geologist John Finch visited Stratford in the 1820s and was possibly the first to write about the significance of the fossils he found here:
The cliffs at Stratford present a bold excarpment to the view; they extend five miles along the bank of the river, and are accessible at low water… we…found…the first fossil bone of a manatus discovered in America. Some bones are washed out by the waves, and left on the shore by the tide. Sharks’ teeth are found on the beach and in the cliffs…Every geologist who wishes to acquire a knowledge of the tertiary formations of the United States, should visit the cliffs at Stratford.
Some large endangered specimens, such as whales and crocodiles, have been excavated from the cliffs by paleontologists from The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, Virginia. However, the cliffs are off limits to amateur collectors and visitors and any excavation in the cliff face requires permission from Stratford Hall.
Visitors are welcome to pick up fossils along the Potomac shoreline in the area designated for this activity. Several times a year curators from the Virginia Museum of Natural History organize special beach walks for supervised collecting along the water’s edge.
Educational Adventures for elementary students are offered an activity called “The Fossil Record” as one of the choices for their school program.
The majority of our fossil specimens were collected by, and are on loan from, Jane Allard McKenzie, who lived on the plantation with her father Gerald Allard, Stratford Hall’s Superintendent of Historic Buildings and Grounds. For more information on the paleontological collection, contact Stratford Hall’s Director of Research & Library Collections.