On Monday 13th February I visited the Etches Collection, a museum of Dorset fossil finds in Kimmeridge, East Dorset. It was a gloriously sunny day and as I wound my way through the undulating geology of the Dorset countryside towards Kimmeridge I was treated to panoramic views of a vast swathe of the Dorset coast with its famous cliffs spanning over 130 million years of Mesozoic rock layers and associated fossils.
Steve Etches, whose name the museum takes, is the discoverer of all the fossils contained within. An amateur fossil hunter, he is self-taught and has collected from the Kimmeridge clay in and around Kimmeridge bay for over 30 years. His collecting has yielded over 2000 extraordinary late Jurassic Kimmeridgian specimens. Each specimen was collected, identified, researched and prepared by Steve in his spare time in between his job as a plumber. He has identified several new species and made discoveries new to science including a barnacle which was the “missing link” in one of Darwin’s hypotheses and still retains original colour, ammonite eggs and ray clasper fins used in reproduction. Steve was awarded an MBE and numerous academic prizes and, now retired, can devote himself full time to his passion.
Steve’s collection was previously housed in his garage then overflowed into his home, when the plan was conceived to leave his collection in trust to the nation. As a result this fantastic, state-of-the-art museum was created. He has a well-lit and spacious preparation space and is hands-on with the collection including spending time with visitors and leading tours of Kimmeridge bay. When I visited, three generations of Etches family were on site meeting, greeting and assisting visitors. The museum’s activity and operation is supported by volunteers and volunteer opportunities of all kinds are available.
The building itself is elegant and sits perfectly within its surroundings. It isn’t only a museum – the building has meeting and hall facilities so is capable of operating as an educational facility as well as a community space which is available for hire. It puts the building at the heart of the community as well as making it pay for itself by being an excellent, multi-purpose resource. An art class was taking place on the day we visited. Beyond the physical presence, the website has a collection database which is great for researching finds, downloadable pdfs and lots of information on the museum, the building, activities and the local area. You can even book a tour of Kimmeridge bay with Steve Etches himself!
When you enter the large reception area there is a welcoming reception area, a small gift shop and a large amount of space available to sit, relax, enjoy drinks and snacks (self-service) and for children (and adults) to read discovery panels and handle real fossils and examine them in close detail under microscopes. There are information sheets and activity packs and colouring kits are available.
Heading upstairs, the exhibition space occupies a single, long room which is intelligently laid out to maximise quality display blended with interactive information panels, a seated cinema-style area showing film of Steve Etches at work and speaking about his fossils and ending with a glass wall dividing the exhibition space from the well-lit and expansive preparation area where Steve Etches and any assistants go about the painstaking work of extracting and conserving fossil finds. Finally, look up and you find yourself underneath the rippling waters of the Jurassic oceans thanks to room-length CGI panels showing what we imagine might have been the constant parade of Jurassic marine life going about their daily business. A shoal of ammonites; a vast pliosaur filling the water above us; belemnites being pursued by a predador; ichthyosaurs, marine crocodiles and plesiosaurs.
The exhibition space and exhibit captioning are thoughtfully conceived along themes rather than fossil types, bringing together the story of all life in the teeming Jurassic oceans as a whole. The displays tell the story of species identification, food chains, eating, processing and expelling waste (my favourite! From food to poo!), defensive attributes and learning what the fossils tell us. There is no display showing a hundred ammonites with labels identifying each species; instead we are shown ammonite eggs and asked how we tell the difference between males and females. We see tiny, innocuous fossils which are in fact unique to science and are some of the most important discoveries ever made concerning Kimmeridgian fossil records and completing Darwin’s research and theories. Another display shows us an exquisitely preserved ichthyosaur with immaculately preserved stomach contents and we are encouraged to look closely and determine what had been its last meal (revealed by the presence of fish vertebrae and belemnotheutis hooks). There are fossils showing ammonites that have been predated – all bitten in the same place to snatch the flesh out of the shell at the back of the body chamber – and lobsters that have taken refuge in the empty shells of ammonites. There are even large marine reptile fossils showing clear evidence of being attacked and killed by bigger, stronger marine reptiles. Finally there are displays of the unlikelier fossils found in marine sediment such as pterosaur and sauropod bones.
The displays are easily relatable to the dynamics of modern life; the food chain, adaptations to the environment, even some characteristics are close to identical to this day. We see the Coelacanth, a Jurassic fish thought extinct until a modern one was discovered in the last century. We see pristine fossil sea urchins which were already so perfectly evolved to their environment 150 million years ago that living urchins are almost identical today. And speaking of urchins, at the very end we see a tiny, marble-sized specimen, carefully protected in a small, clear vial. This tiny, perfect penta-symmetrical fossil is the very one that captured the imagination of a five year old boy who would never cease to marvel at the wonders of deep time preserved in the rocks of the Jurassic coast. That little boy was, of course, Steve Etches.
Whilst visiting the Etches Collection we were able to observe Steve Etches at work is his preparation room, which is a glass-walled extension to the exhibition space. While visitors enjoy the displays, videos and interactive information panels Steve can be observed going about his daily business of preparing his own and others’ finds. Steve was generous with his time in allowing me to speak to him about the museum and his work.
During our visit he had a partial Ichthyosaur laid out on the considerably sized work surface undergoing preparation. He explained to us that the creature would have been much larger than the 2-3 metres on the table as the hind portion of the animal beyond the ribs, including the hind limb paddles and down to the tail fluke was missing. Only part of the front paddle was present and the digit bones had been prepped out individually by the owner. The specimen had since been unwisely stored in a hot, bright conservatory. Steve said he hoped to find more of the paddle on the underside of the specimen and showed us how the specimen was not lying flat. His plan was to see how much more of the specimen he could detect then protect and cover the specimen totally then turn it over and prepare the specimen from the other side, so that with careful and sympathetic preparation from the unexposed side a better, more perfect skeleton could be revealed and displayed. The rostrum was present but detached from the rest of the skeleton and prepped out so Steve’s conservation work would include re-positioning the head and paddle based on his vast knowledge and experience to make the final result as complete and accurate as possible.
Aside from the Ichthyosaur, there were a couple of ammonites
already covered and labelled ready for preparation from the reverse and part of a crocodile skull and jaw. We spoke a little about the UKAFH hunt the previous day at Lyme Regis where several members found Ichthyosaur vertebrae and I showed him a photograph of the enormous coprolite found my member Martin Curtis. Steve was immediately intrigued and impressed at the size and quality of the specimen, observing the spiral definition characteristic of shark poo and that there were bones visible within the coprolite. The enthusiast’s curiosity was sparked and his enquiring mind was immediately processing what he could see and what could be learned from it.
Steve is famously self-taught. When I asked him about this he said that no course or lecture can ever be a substitute for real, hands-on experience. Of course you still need resources to identify and describe your fossil finds and at this stage he will turn to reference books. A blend of fieldwork and research over 30 years has made him the expert he now is. The same goes for fossil preparation. Although many conservators will advocate certain materials and methods for durability, reversibility and so on, it is generally highly unlikely that a specimen that has required repair will ever need to be “unrepaired” and preservation of the specimen is paramount. Steve has his own methods and techniques for extracting and repairing fossils which have come from trial and error with glues, air pens, abrading tools and so on. A spot of surplus glue can be removed with an air pen without damaging the fossil.
We spoke a little about fossils offered for sale, especially the large, valuable pieces seen at big auctions. Steve cautioned that some of the exceptional specimens may be so because they have been enhanced, repaired or prepared to appear better than they are but that from a scientific point of view the integrity of the fossil is of greater value than the aesthetic. I asked Steve about the “Weymouth Bay Pliosaur” Pliosaurus Kevani, which is the largest marine reptile that ever lived and on display at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Steve Etches was involved in the recovery of the portion of the specimen still in situ high in the cliffs after the fragments collected over 8 long years of gradual erosion and rock fall had been amassed from the beach by a local café owner. The specimen had originally been for sale but the price obtainable was around 1/3 of the cost required to assemble and prepare the specimen adequately.
Steve Etches is a man with an enquiring mind with a passion for his hobby that is driven by curiosity, and problem-solving. After over 30 years his love is still to head out to the beach whenever he can and the conditions are right, seek out new specimens, identify and prepare them and look at his discovery and say “what does this mean?” and “why is this different to the others?”. When asked why he chose to donate his collection he said simply that he can’t take it with him when he dies and he doesn’t care for whatever money the collection may be worth because he simply doesn’t need it. You need enough money to get by. Steve Etches is a man of simple, human needs with a passion he is glad to share. He spends time with the museum visitors and enjoys diffusing his passion and curiosity amongst them. He is the amateur collector any UKAFH member can become if they find joy in fossil hunting and it makes them ask questions, seek out the answers and keep hunting.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and came away with a lot of new knowledge. I hope you will all visit and have the same experience! The ticket can be retained for re-admittance within the year and I definitely plan to go back. Visit details are:
The Etches Collection, Museum of Jurassic Marine Life, Kimmeridge, Dorset BH20 5PE http://theetchescollection.org/home
Adults £8; Children (5 – 16 years) £4; Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £20.00; Family ticket (1 Adult + 3 children) £ 16.00; Children under 5 years – free
Thank you to Steve Etches and Carla Crook for making me feel so welcome and giving up time to talk to me during my visit.