Jackson Hepner stands at the edge of Honey Run Creek in Millersburg, Ohio. Like most other 12-year-olds would, he walks along the water, inspecting the banks as he goes. And that’s where he spots it – a strange-looking rock that stands out from the rest. He plucks it from the creek bed, making a stunning archaeological discovery in the process.
Jackson and the rest of his family were gathered together for a reunion at The Inn at Honey Run in the summer of 2019. The boy’s uncle, Jason Nies, served as the property’s innkeeper. So, the group knew just where to stage all their family photos, as part of the day’s activities.
The family arranged themselves on a bridge that stretched across Honey Run Creek. And the photo session carried on as Jackson stepped away from the lens, taking a chance to explore the babbling waters beneath him. However, the young man wouldn’t return to the bridge empty-handed. He discovered something incredible in those few minutes along the creek.
You can find The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg, Ohio, which sits towards the state’s northeastern corner. It’s a picturesque spot, surrounded by rolling hills and dotted with quaint Amish homesteads. The property uses the natural rise and fall to its advantage, as its honeycomb-style suites are carved right into the landscape.
The Inn at Honey Run has other natural wonders for its guests to explore. They boast well-cultivated gardens on-site, as well as access to walking trails that guide people on treks throughout the countryside. To make matters even more peaceful, the inn usually has an adults-only guest policy.
In short, there’s plenty to see and do at The Inn at Honey Run. No one would know that better than innkeeper Jason Nies. Indeed, in July 2019, he brought his family to the grounds for a day-long reunion. They lucked out with perfect, sunny weather, which meant they could enjoy the hotel’s many natural amenities.
Of course, the family wanted to commemorate their reunion with a group photo, too. So, they gathered on the bridge that spanned Honey Run Creek, this gave them the perfect backdrop for their pictures. The group posed for a series of snaps, taking a break between shots at a certain point.
And that’s when 12-year-old Jackson Hepner got the chance to explore the waters passing beneath the bridge. He wrote for The Inn at Honey Run’s blog that he meandered “about ten yards upstream from the bridge we had our family pictures on,” when he spotted something out of the ordinary.
Jackson recalled the exact location of the strange object. He wrote, “It was partially buried on the left side of the creek. It was completely out of the water on the creek bed.” The Inn at Honey Run’s blog explained further why it stuck out to the pre-teen. They described it as “a strange-looking solid object covered in ridges.”
Jackson’s uncle, Jason Nies, recalled to News 5 Cleveland how the boy “came back with this, thinking it was a cool fossil.” Of course, the 12-year-old “didn’t know what he found,” his uncle added. But Jackson’s dad and other uncle had a suspicion that the pre-teen had happened upon something noteworthy.
With that, the grown-ups wasted no time; they logged onto the internet and started searching. As Nies remembered, they quickly came across an object that looked very similar to the one they found. If they were right, Jackson’s discovery was something truly extraordinary, so they called in the experts.
Luckily, Jackson’s dad and uncle could reach out to in-state experts to examine the boy’s discovery. Specifically, they spoke to Nick Kardulias, a member of the College of Wooster’s archaeology department. They also consulted Ashland University’s Nigel Brush and Dale Gnidovec, who worked for The Ohio State University’s Orton Geological Museum.
Kardulias, Brush and Gnidovec examined the jagged, rock-like object, which measured in at just over seven inches in length. And each expert came back with the same conclusion. Just as Jackson’s father and uncle suspected after their web search, the boy had pulled an ancient relic from the creek bed.
To understand how a remnant of this type would end up in northeastern Ohio, one has to reach very far back into the state’s history. Nearly 2 million years ago, the world was in flux as its climate shifted from the temperate Cenozoic Era to the frigid Pleistocene Ice Age.
As temperatures dropped, massive continental glaciers began forming around the planet’s northernmost points. The frozen sheets grew thicker and larger, which pushed them down toward land. Some of the glaciers creeped onto the North American continent, eventually covering two-thirds of Ohio.
The Ice Age completely changed Ohio’s natural landscape. For instance, before the glacier iced over the state, the eleventh-largest lake in the world, Lake Erie, did not exist. And the icy mass brought sediments and nutrients to the soil it covered, which is why only certain parts of Ohio are agriculturally intensive.
But the Ice Age didn’t just bring rich soil and massive lakes to Ohio – it also brought a new slate of species to the area. Indeed, the state had the perfect habitat for many of the creatures that roamed the earth during this period. Not only was it frigid and covered in ice, but it also had lots of foliage, too.
Namely, Ohio had both forests and grasslands, both of which appealed to two different species of Ice Age animal. As Gnidovec explained to Newsweek, “During the Ice Age there were two kinds of ‘elephants’ living in Ohio – mammoths and mastodons.” But the landscape catered to the latter slightly more than the former.
Gnidovec went on, “Mastodons are much more common… and mammoths are much more rare. That is because Ice Age Ohio had much more forested areas, which the mastodons lived in, that it did open grasslands preferred by the mammoths.” Knowing this made it easier to narrow down where Jackson’s discovery came from.
Indeed, as Nies told News 5 Cleveland, Jackson’s dad and uncle got close to identifying the jagged, rock-like object themselves. He said, “We quickly found out this might be a mammoth or a mastodon tooth.” It took Ashland, Kardulias and Gnidovec’s expertise to confirm that it came from the former.
All three experts agreed that Jackson had found a mammoth’s tooth; specifically, its upper third molar. It had all the signs of being a prehistoric chomper. The parallel ridges along the tooth identified it as belonging to a mammoth, as their teeth had such striations to help them grind up the grass and seeds they typically ate.
Mammoths lived in the Ohio area between 110,000 and 12,000 years ago. They made the trek to North America from Asia more than two million years ago, but the remnants of beasts more than 13,000 years old are hard to come by. Gnidovec told the New York Post that “glacial advances” effected the preservation of their skeletons.
Fortunately, even a later woolly mammoth skeleton can tell archaeologists a surprising amount about the species. The experts know that the species stood at about the same height as an African elephant. Males reached up to 11 feet in height, while female mammoths stood just below the 10-foot mark.
A full-grown male woolly mammoth could weigh up to 6.6 tons, while the relatively lightweight female weighed in at 4.4 tons. Of course, the species had an early advantage at growing to be so huge. Baby woolly mammoths came into the world at a whopping 900 pounds each.
Even without a description of the rest of their physical features, many people can conjure up an image of a woolly mammoth. They’re among the best-known prehistoric species, and that’s due to the fact that their remains have been found in abundance. And, sometimes, frozen bodies still had their soft tissue intact, painting a perfectly clear picture of what the species looked like.
Such finds also proved that the woolly mammoth had all of the tools it needed to survive in an Ice Age, too. Beneath an outer layer of fur, the animals had a shorter undercoat for extra warmth. They had exterior ears and a tail, but both were relatively small to prevent heat loss and frostbite.
Even in the midst of an Ice Age, the woolly mammoth maintained a diet of grasses and sedges (grass-like flowering plants). They used their giant tusks to forage and their ridged teeth helped them to grind up their herbaceous diet. Such being the case, woolly mammoths only had four teeth, all molars, and they grew six replacement sets over their lifetimes.
Nigel Brush, an anthropology professor at Ashland University, explained the process on his Facebook page. He wrote, “Ice Age mammoth had four large teeth (two upper and two lower). As the ridges on each tooth were worn down, the tooth was shoved forward in the jaw by a new tooth until the old tooth fell out.”
Because of the mammoths’ propensity for replacing its ridged teeth, dental remnants are more common than skeletal ones. Even so, Ashland University geology professor Jeff Dilyard scanned the area where Jackson found the tooth, but there were no other signs of mammoth remains in the creek bed.
Mammoths became extinct with the conclusion of the Ice Age, as many of the species adapted to such a severe climate died out. Indeed, the woolly mammoth faced more than one threat before they disappeared from the face of the earth. Hunting may have also contributed to the species’ demise as well as the rising temperatures.
So, the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age approximately 10,000 years ago, wiped the majority of wooly mammoths out. However, further research has found that two populations survived longer than that. One herd of mammoths lived on St. Paul Island in Alaska until 5,600 years ago, while another group lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until approximately 2,000 BC.
As such, Ohio’s woolly mammoth inhabitants likely perished as the ice started to melt, along with the majority of their species. This meant that Jackson had found a fossil at least 10,000 years old. Such a magical find was not lost on his uncle Nies, who described how he felt about the discovery to News 5 Cleveland.
Nies told the news outlet, “It’s just a neat find. It’s not every day you get to touch and feel and see a mammoth tooth!” The Inn at Honey Run shared a similar sentiment. Their blog stated, “The unearthing of the Mammoth tooth shows that there are definite pieces of ancient history hidden around us, connecting us to an interesting past.”
The Inn at Honey Run’s blog continued, “We just have to be in the right place at the right time to find them, like Jackson.” With that, they wondered what would be next for their hotel and its rich natural surroundings. The blog concluded, “The Honey Run team can’t wait to see what cool item turns up on our grounds next!”
For his part, Jackson drew the experts a map, so that they could return to Honey Run Creek for further exploration. He indicated that a small creek ran beneath the wooden bridge and attached a note to further guide them. “I found the mammoth tooth about ten yards upstream from the bridge we had our family pictures on,” he wrote.
Jackson added that he had found the tooth “buried on the left side of the creek.” Then, he added a personal plea to the archaeologists who would inspect his find. “I would like to have my tooth back in my hands as soon as possible. I want to show it to my friends,” Jackson wrote.
Even without the mammoth tooth in hand, news coverage of his discovery made Hepner even more giddy at discovering such an ancient remnant. His father, Josh, told CNN in August 2019, “He has been very excited since the find, and that excitement has grown with the increasing interest in the story.”
On August 27, 2019, The Inn at Honey Run provided an update on the story through their Facebook page. It read, “Since 12-year-old Jackson Hepner discovered the Mammoth Tooth on the grounds of The Inn, the story has exploded. Local and regional publications picked up the story and before he knew it, Jackson’s photo appeared on national news outlets!”
The post continued, “Throughout the whirlwind Jackson was excited by the coverage and the process, but remained steadfast in his primary objective: getting the tooth back so he could show his friends!” Flipping through the images attached to the post, it became clear that Hepner’s wish came true. One picture showed his father handing him back his fossil discovery.
And, although that’s the last update on the mammoth tooth on The Inn at Honey Run’s Facebook page, Hepner’s uncle, Nies, had his own vision for the fossil in the future. He looked forward to his nephew bringing it back to the place he found it so that all of the hotel’s guests could take a look at it.