KC Currents
11:37 am
Mon May 13, 2013

Reading The Rocks In Kansas City

An interview with Richard Gentile, professor emeritus of geosciences at UMKC.
Credit Susan B. Wilson / KCUR

Imagine a Kansas City covered by ice sheets, oceans that ebb and flow, or lush rain forests with soaring ferns and palm trees. 

These were some of the different landscapes that covered this area millions of years ago.  UMKC geosciences professor emeritus Richard Gentile says we learn all this by “reading the rocks” beneath our feet.   

Gentile curated the exhibit, Kansas City Millions of Years Ago: What the Rock Record Tells Us at Commerce Bank’s Box Gallery through May 31, 2013. 

The exhibit displays fossils discovered throughout the region, and murals, designed by illustrator John Babcock, depicting what the Kansas City might have looked like through several different prehistoric eras.

In the beginning

Gentile's interest in rocks and fossils started when he was a young child. He says he went to the circus when he was about 6-years-old and there was a display of a man turning to stone. 

Though fictitious, he said the exhibit fascinated him.

"I decided I wanted to make a fossil," he says.

Gentile decided to put an apple and a potato into a tree nearby his house, but when he returned the food had not turned into a fossil, it had only been picked at by birds.

Next, he asked his dad how to make a fossil. His dad told him fossils were made in caves.

"I took another apple and a potato and I put it waaaay back in the cave," he says.

But he didn't create a fossil. When he went back to the cave the apple and potato had disappeared. Likely eaten by animals.

Perhaps Gentile has never created a fossil, but he is creating a picture of what they tell us.

Representing the past

The exhibit at the Box Gallery attempts to recreate the geologic history of the greater Kansas City area, as it is seen in the rock record.

"These are the rocks that you see when you drive along the major highways," says Gentile, "and of course they are in layers and those rocks go back about 300 million years."

At that time most of the interior of North America was covered in vast seas, and following that there were vast rainforests. These forests were also known as "coal forests" because much of the vegetation became beds of coal.

Those beds of coal contained fossils of trees and leaves that have been collected.

Those fossils are what informed researchers about the organisms and species that once inhabited the Kansas City area. And out of that knowledge comes the current exhibit at the Box Gallery.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.