By Kim Barto Meeks
More than 2,700 people turned out for a day of fossils and fantasy on Saturday, Oct. 19 at the third annual Dragon Festival hosted by the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
The Renaissance Faire-style event celebrated dragon lore with fire performances, sword-fighting, blacksmithing demonstrations, Vikings, live music performed by pirates, and talks on science and folklore. It was the festival’s largest crowd yet.
“It’s nice to see it grow every year,” said Dr. Dorothy Bell “D.B.” Poli, a biology professor at Roanoke College, research associate at VMNH, and director of the Dragon Research Collaborative, which spearheads the festival in collaboration with the museum.
So, why is a biologist involved in research about a mythical creature?
The Dragon Research Collaborative looks at how fossils may have influenced the development of dragon myths. The project came about six years ago when Poli’s colleague Dr. Lisa Stoneman, a folklorist, “asked about a joke I made about certain plant fossils looking like dragons,” Poli said.
The plant was Lepidodendron, which existed 300 million years ago and could grow as tall as 100 feet. The closest equivalent species today would be running cedar or club moss, Poli said. In fossil form, the patterns left behind by the leaves look like scales from a reptile — or a dragon. Imprints from the branches and trunks can look like claws.
“We looked at where dragon stories originated and where the fossils exist, and they overlap all over the world,” Poli said. The fossils are found with coal seams, and so “wherever there’s coal, there seem to be dragon stories.”
The collaborative pulls together researchers from a variety of disciplines, including plant biology, history, literature, computer science, business, environmental science, and more. The Dragon Festival is a way to showcase their work, Poli said, as well as to capture people’s imagination.
On Saturday, the parking lot outside the museum was full of tents and vendors selling dragon-inspired crafts, jewelry, and metalworks. Fitting the medieval theme, the beer garden featured mead, a traditional wine made with honey. Children made crafts, posed for photos, and played dress up with knight and princess costumes and foam swords.
Wesley Morgan, age 3, was one of many children attending the festival in a dragon costume. His family and friends came from Lynchburg on Saturday, said his mother, Elizabeth Brown. “We came last year and had a lot of fun,” Brown said. “We loved it. This year it seemed like they had more to do.”
Fire performer Meli Markham, from Raleigh, N.C., drew a crowd in front of the museum as she twirled a flaming baton and blew a mouthful of liquid onto the fire that made it explode in the air. After one of her performances, kids from the audience surrounded her to ask how she does it. Markham explained that the liquid in her mouth is very diluted lamp oil.
Michelle Witherow attended with her son, Kingston; her boyfriend, Charles McWilliams, and his two daughters: Cailyn and Charlotte. Witherow said the event was a good time for all of them.
“It’s hard to find something fun for kids of all ages,” she said. “Kingston is 3, Charlotte is 6, and Cailyn is 11, and they all had a blast.”
Cailyn McWilliams said her favorite part was “going to the museum. We got to see all the dinosaurs. We got to do crafts, and there was a game in there called Feed the Dragon.”
Her sister, Charlotte, piped up, “I liked looking at the snakes.”
Kingston was not interested in being interviewed — he was too busy sword-fighting the other kids with a foam pool noodle — but his mother said he enjoyed seeing the pirate band, Pirates of the Piedmont, perform throughout the day.