On Sunday 25th November, UKAFH members met for a fossil hunt along the coastline of Overstrand, a village a few miles south-east of the popular holiday destination of Cromer in Norfolk. Despite the time of year, the weather was dry and pleasant and lacking the strong, cold wind of the previous day.
We began with a show and tell presented by UKAFH leaders Sam Caethoven and Nicky Parslow, discussing the local geology and providing examples of what could be found.
Overstrand and the surrounding coastline is somewhat unique in its geology, providing a glimpse into three very distinct periods of time. Firstly, and most prolifically, we find the Boulder clay, a glacial till which consists of sludge, rock and chalk rafts. Campanian and Maastrichtian in age, this chalk is some of the youngest exposed in the UK at around 70 million years old. Chalk formed as a sediment in a relatively deep, warm sea which would have been close to the Mediterranean in latitude at the time. Life was abundant in the sea, not least in the profusion of coccolithophores, a phytoplankton whose calcareous plates formed the striking white sediment – but also in echinoids, belemnites, corals, brachiopods and sponges whose fossils we came to find today.
Whilst boulder clay and chalk is abundant along the Norfolk coastline, it is not local, having been gouged out and transported in huge rafts by advancing glaciers during the ice ages. As a result, the chalk represents an unconformity, overlying younger rocks. Below the chalk, but younger in age, at Overstrand is the Wroxham Crag formation and Cromer forest bed. These deposits are a lot younger than the chalk; in fact they formed 600-500 thousand years ago during an interglacial stage when Norfolk was a vast river basin and flood plain frequented by giant mammals such as the famous Runton elephant (steppe mammoth), woolly rhinoceros, bison and deer as well as small mammals, amphibians, fish and a plethora of freshwater bivalves – remains of which can all be found, washed out from these sandy sediments. The Wroxham and Cromer Forest beds are mostly covered by the slumped boulder clay of the cliffs or are at or below beach level, so are rarely exposed except in scouring conditions, however fossils of this age can be found, many washed ashore from exposures out at sea.
Fossil hunting conditions at Overstrand have not been the best of late; several feet of sand have covered the foreshore for some time and the wave baffles and sea defences significantly reduce coastal erosion. Much of the chalk from which many of our finds are to come from is currently only exposed on the foreshore at low tide as sparsely dispersed pockets. Despite these unfavourable conditions, UKAFH fossil hunters quickly began finding great fossils derived from both the chalk and crag deposits.
Among the shingle built up along the coastal groynes and beyond, UKAFH members found echinoids preserved in flint – mostly of the genus Echinocorys but also including Micraster and Galerites – as well as belemnites and sponges. Numerous Pleistocene mammal bone fragments were also found, several of them quite sizeable, washed out from the Wroxham Crag and Cromer forest bed.
As the tide retreated and we advanced beyond the sea defences we moved from the shingle towards the pockets of chalk exposed further on the foreshore. Here we could see a vast diversity of fauna preserved in situ: echinoids, brachiopods, corals and Ventriculites and other sponges with beautifully preserved detail.
Although the beach was in unfavourable condition, the hunt was unexpectedly productive, particularly as we progressed further along the beach. With fascinating geology and many superb finds, the group proved that even six feet of sand can’t stop our eagle-eyed intrigue.
Thank you to everyone who came and made the day a great success!
Please remember, the cliffs exposed at Overstrand are protected and should not be dug into. Fossils can easily be collected along the foreshore.
On Sunday 11th November, UKAFH met on the coastline of Co. Durham, just outside Seaham, a small town about 6 miles south of Sunderland.
Unusually for a coastal hunt, we were focused on the spoil heap of the former Dawdon colliery that operated close by. Dawdon colliery began extracting coal in 1907, mining the Carboniferous coal seems far below the Permian bedrock the cliffs at this location are composed of. The spoil from the colliery consists of inferior coal, shales and mudstone which were dumped over the cliff edge, creating, in places, a second cliff of carboniferous material in front the Permian cliffs. Although once the most productive colliery in County Durham, employing over 3800 people, Dawdon colliery ceased extracting coal in 1991. Since then, most of the carboniferous sediment had been eroded away by the sea, but there is still ample opportunity to find spectacular fossils here.
The spoil consists of Carboniferous material about 320 million years old. At the time the sediment was created, County Durham was a vast and boggy forest. The upper canopy was densely foliated with the likes of Calamites trees – related to modern day horsetails, and Lepidodendron trees – related to modern day club mosses, although their modern-day ancestors are diminutive, these trees would have towered over 100ft above the forest floor. The forest floor, where abundant pteridosperms (seed ferns) such as Neuropteris thrived was hydrated and boggy, an ideal environment to preserve the foliage and timber which over millions of years built up to create the coal seems which were so highly prized here during industrial times. Also present in this forest of giant tree like plants were the giant insects the Carboniferous is also famous for – huge dragon flies would have traversed the dense canopy while monstrous millipedes up to 6ft in length would have scurried below. Although insect fossils are extremely rare, it is still something to keep an eye out for.
In complete contrast, the cliffs behind the carboniferous spoil is Permian in age, about 290 million years old and is formed of limestone from a shallow marine environment. Although Seaham is one of the best locations to find carboniferous plant fossils in the UK, the limestone originating from the cliffs should not be overlooked as these can contain bivalves, crinoids, corals and rare but possible fish remains.
After some examples of possible finds provided by Mike Greaves, we took a steep path from the national trust carpark at Nose Point down to the beach. We didn’t know it until we were on the beach that the path we followed and the apparent shelf we were now standing on was in fact the spoil from the former colliery. Here, Katherine Combe MSc provided a talk about the geology and where we were likely to find fossils. It wasn’t long before fossils were found, although the first fossils were that of crinoids originating from the Permian limestone of the cliffs. As we stepped off the spoil onto the beach the first plant fossils were found. Alice Brooks found a great Stigmaria fossil (part the of rhizomatous root of a Calamites tree) and Terry Newsome found some incredible fronds by carefully splitting shale.
Later we headed towards the foreshore where large sections of Lepidodendron trunks could be seen. Here, denser mudstones could be split with a hammer to reveal an abundance of well-preserved pteridosperm such as Neuropteris within. Jake and Matt Ellison found some delicately preserved Calamites leaves, Ben Simpson found some great Sigillaria and Ethan Wale found some beautifully preserved fronds. Mike Greaves found a stunning example of Calamites amongst the shingle.
We were grateful for the calm weather, apart from a few spots of drizzle, the temperature was mild, the wind was light, and we saw a glimpse of sunshine at times.
Being remembrance Sunday, we gathered and observed a two-minute silence at 11am. As an important supplier of coal to Britain during the Second World War, Dawdon Collier was bombed by the Luftwaffe in August 1940 which killed 12 and left 119 people homeless. This then, was a poignant place and time to remember those who have given their lives, not only in battle but also supporting the war effort back home, such as here, producing the supplies needed to win the war.
Thank you to everyone who joined us. A great group of people and some fantastic finds!
We were blessed with a warm sunny day on the 21st October to Cross Hands Quarry which is located on private land owned by Mr Newman. Mr Newman had kindly created a couple of fresh spoil heaps especially for our trip, so our party had fresh pickings as will be seen below lots of fossils were found. As the trip is now centred around these spoil heaps, this location is perfect for families to visit. Therefore we had quite a few families on our trip.
The quarry was once used to supply building stone for the local town of Chipping Norton, which is located in the Cotswolds famous for its rich honey coloured stone buildings.
Cross Hands Quarry is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its geological features. The rocks exposed in the quarry faces are mostly limestones, formed from the remains of shelly creatures living in the warm tropical seas which covered large areas of England in the Middle Jurassic Period, about 175 million years ago.
Cross Hands Quarry exposes rocks of Middle Jurassic age that were deposited in a shallow marine environment, not too dissimilar to that of the modern-day Bahamas. These rocks belong to the Inferior Oolite and comprise the Clypeus Grit, overlain by the Chipping Norton Limestone and the Hook Norton Limestone.
Towards the end of Upper Lias times sea levels fell somewhat, bringing a change of conditions which initiated the Middle Jurassic. Low sea levels persisted for 15 million years and in clear, warm, shallow waters the most important sediment was calcium carbonate. The accumulations of carbonate mud and carbonate sand have been transformed into a variety of limestones which are grouped into two series called the Inferior Oolite and the Great Oolite.
The word Oolite refers to a rock containing a proportion of polite. These are little spheres of calcium carbonate, typically half to one millimetre in diameter. The name comes from the Greek word on – meaning egg – because a densely oolitic limestone has the appearance of fish eggs.
The Inferior Oolite group of formations is so called not because of any inferior quality but because it’s rocks are older than, and therefore stratigraphically below, those of the Great Oolite. This limestone makes excellent building material as has been used in the Cotswolds to give the buildings there distinctive golden yellow colour.
During the Inferior Oolite and Great Oolite times this area was low-lying between shallow sea to the south-west and a swampy, coastal region to the north-east. In these shallow, variable environments the deposition of sediment varied greatly in amount and type from place to place and time to time. As a result the strata exhibit rapid lateral changes in thickness and character and some beds may be restricted to small areas.
In the early 1960’s remains of a partial right femur from a Cruxicheiros(meaning “cross hand”) is a genus of tetanuran theropod dinosaurwhich lived in the Middle Jurassic of England. The type species is C. newmanorum,described by Roger Benson and Jonathan Radley in 2010. The 2010 paper recognized differences between the Cross Hands Quarry discovery and those attributed to Megalosaurus. These differences include lower and broader spines along the animal’s back, and differences in leg and hip bones. The authors renamed the Cross Hands Quarry specimens Cruxicheiros newmanorum; the generic name Cruxicheiros comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek, Latin crux meaning “cross” and Greek cheir meaning “hand,” in reference to the Cross Hands Quarry locality where the fossils were discovered. The specific name newmanorum honors the Newman family, who own the quarry. Cruxicheiroswas a large theropod, but the known material is very limited. The holotype, catalogued as WARMS G15770, is a partial right femur. Additional material from the site probably comes from the same individual as the holotype, based on examination of the matrix of sandy limestone and calcite which make up all the fossils. The additional material consists of “an anterior dorsal or posterior cervical vertebra; a dorsal neural arch; a partial dorsal vertebra; the anterior half of a middle-distal caudal vertebra; a partial right scapulocoracoid; a partial left ilium; the proximal end of a left pubis; [and] numerous rib and bone fragments”. The specimens are now stored at Warwickshire Museum Service (Source Wikipedia).
Typical fossils found at this location are bivalves, brachiopods, gastropods, echinoids (such as Clypeus ploti).
Many thanks to Mr Newman for allowing our party to visit his quarry.
On a very wet, windy and cold day UKAFH members braved the elements and visited Charmouth’s East beach. This Jurassic coast location yields many pyrite ammonites, belemnites and occasionally marine reptile bones. When in the right part of the beach, in the right conditions, it’s possible to collect many ammonites.
Once everyone met in the car park and got kitted out we walked to the beach where UKAFH leader Steve Snowball gave us a informative talk on the Jurassic coast and an explanation of the stratigraphy and ages of the Jurassic Coast which stretches from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in West Dorset – 95 miles covering 185 million years, showing a near complete record from the Triassic to the Jurassic and then the Cretaceous period. The cliffs on Charmouth beach are Jurassic in age (195 million years) and show us what life was like when the area was a shallow tropical sea with the fossils people pick up every day on the beach. Then, UKAFH Leader Lizzie Hingley explained where the group would walk to along the beach, to hopefully find some of these fossils.
Once we reached a good area of the beach, under Stonebarrow (where there was a large landslide in 2015 which resulted in a lot of pyrite ammonites being distributed on the beach) the group started looking through the areas of pyrite, which were scattered along the strand line and in among the rocks on the foreshore, as the sea retreated. Soon we started to find some brilliant small pyrite ammonites and belemnites. Here are some of our finds:
A small beach pebble showing Ichthyosaur bones – possibly a partial Ichthyosaur jaw.
A small worn piece of Ichthyosaur bone and a couple of smaller pyrite ammonites
Some pyrite ammonies – the large on the left is an Oxynoticeras and on the right an Echioceras.
A large Eoderoceras ammonite segment and a smaller Eoderoceras in it’s pyrite matrix.
Over the course of the hunt our numbers dwindled slightly, which was understandable as we were very exposed to the elements! Apologies on the limited photos – this was also because of the weather (as leader’s cameras would not work in the rain)!
Thanks to all who attended and we hope to see you on another hunt soon!
UKAFH were fortunate to gain access to this remarkable mile-wide working quarry on Saturday 13th October. A small group of us gathered on this unseasonably mild but breezy day for an excursion into the Middle Jurassic. We assembled in the site canteen for a briefing from UKAFH leader Sam Caethoven and the site management, taking time to enjoy the displays of some of the more exceptional finds to have been previously found at the quarry, before heading into the quarry itself.
Ketton Quarry is an enormous site which provides an extensive exposure of the middle Jurassic from rocks of Bathonian age (dating to around 165 million years ago) to Bajocian age (around 175 million years old). The mile-wide quarry has been worked for many decades and is now 115.6 hectares in size. With full access, this huge quarry provides opportunities to collect fossils from many different beds, however we were limited to an area of spoil where operations were not currently ongoing for safety and practical reasons. Despite this, fossils were still abundant.
The geology at Ketton is complex, with a range of Jurassic-aged rocks recorded. Mostly, three formations are visible in the quarries: the lowest is the oolitic Lincolnshire Limestone which was laid down in the middle Jurassic about 160 million years ago. This large, blocky, rock was formed from small grains of calcium carbonate which were deposited under a warm, shallow sub-tropical sea which was subject to reasonably strong currents. Above this is the Rutland Formation – bands of delta and shoreline muds and sands carried by rivers. Each band, with shelly remains at its base and tree roots at the top, was formed when sea-level rise topped the layer below. Many colours can be seen in fresh exposures of this formation. The exposures at the working quarry (Ketton Main Quarry) are the type formation for the Rutland Formation. Above the Rutland Formation is the Blisworth Limestone, laid down under quiet, shallow, warm conditions during a marine transgression. The Blisworth limestone is full of fossil corals and shells.
Ammonites can be found but bivalves, corals, brachiopods, gastropods, echinoids (such as Clypeus ploti), shark teeth and fish remains are more common. In the past, dinosaur footprints have been seen, along with fragments of their bones, but we were not that fortunate on this occasion.
Blocks of limestone are often full of bivalves, brachiopods, or corals but you need a good geological hammer and a chisel to extract them as they can be very solid, although some rocks will have weathered to the point that fossils can be easily picked out. There were also many loose fossils to collect. Throughout our time on site we were able to find many bivalves and echinoids as well as a few brachiopods and gastropods. Special mention goes to James who took the time to carefully search the fine matrial for quasi-microfossils and found numerous echinoid spines, fish teeth and an Acrodus sp. shark tooth.
At the end of our hunt we gathered in the canteen for refreshments and to enjoy seeing each thers’ finds. It’s quite unusual on a UKAFH hunt for us all to finish together and have somewhere to gather for show-and-tell afterwards and it is always a highly enjoyable part of the day. As well as seeing all the finds and learning more about the site, the quarry staff can also see what we have found, both to share in our enjoyment and to ensure that anything rare is reported and recorded.
UKAFH would like to thank Hanson Cement and the staff at Ketton quarry for allowing us to visit and taking care of us throughout the day, including briefing us, showing us the site and allowing us the use of their facilities.
We were blessed with a warm, dry day for our first hunt at Withington in ploughed farm fields. The proximity of the topsoil to the Inferior Oolite below in this locality means that ploughing brings rock to the surface which contains a large variety of fossils. A field hunt really is an excellent way to find fossils with little effort other than to look patiently and “get your eye in”. The weather conditions were dry and overcast, making it an ideal day to fossil hunt as the rock was relatively clean and easy to spot so plenty of finds were made.
Once assembled at the farm, which we obtained special permission to visit, our guest leader and local expert for the day, Mark Baggott, gave us an introduction to the local geology and fossils. After enjoying Mark’s display and introduction to the site the group spread out to hunt across the two newly cleared fields and finds were quickly being made. The lower field produced a good variety of abundant brachiopods, bivalves and regular echinoids and the upper field yielded complete and partial Clypeus ploti. A number of members also found ammonites, which was unexpected as ammonite finds at this location have historically been quite uncommon. Some beautiful gastropods were found and one lucky hunter even found a flint scraper!
The Cotswold Escarpment rocks are almost exclusively marine and were deposited mainly in warm tropical seas. Plate tectonics has transported this part of the Earth’s crust northward over the last 150-200 million years to its current location. The Middle Jurassic rocks here are the characteristic ‘Cotswold Limestone’; soft, yellow, sandy limestone at the base of the Inferior Oolite (literally egg stone), a sedimentary rock formed from ooids, spherical grains composed of concentric layers. Towards the top of the Inferior Oolite the limestone becomes more fossiliferous and is referred to as ‘grits’ due to its coarser texture. Such an Inferior Oolite exposure is exposed at the farm and the fossils that this limestone contains date from between 167 to 175 million years ago at a time when this farm was at the bottom of a warm tropical sea. The rocks exposed near the farm comprise the Salperton and Aston Limestone and, from a fossil perspective, the most interesting layers are the Grits (Clypeus, Upper Trigonia Grit and Lower Trigonia Grit).
The commonest fossil found at this location is the sea urchin (echinoid) Clypeus ploti. These are more commonly known as Chedworth Buns (after the nearby village where they were often found) or Pound Stones, because their weight was usually a good approximation to 1lb. Clypeus lived in burrows on the seafloor, and burrowed their way through the sediment to get nutrients. They had fine hair-like spines and are an example of what is known as an “irregular” echinoid because they are shaped, not rounded. Because these irregular echinoids lived in the sediment, they didn’t need the spiky and sometimes poisonous spines that the spiny sea urchins (known as regular echinoids) that we can see on the seafloor today have for protection. As well as the Clypeus Ploti we find other echinoid species which are “regular” and would have had sharp spines. Unfortunately the spines rarely fossilize still attached, but they can frequently be found individually in the same sediment.
Trigonia bivalves gave their name to the second grit since they are very common at this horizon. Trigonia are a family of saltwater clams, noticeable because the exterior of the shell is highly ornamented. Other fossils to be found comprise of brachiopods, bivalves and gastropods. Brachiopods are a marine animal that had hard valves (shells) on the upper and lower surfaces. They are distinguished from bivalves which also have two valves/shells but in a left/right arrangement rather than upper and lower.
Brachiopods are bottom dwelling marine animals and, although rare today, in Jurassic times they dominated the sea floor and were frequently found in large colonies. One characteristic unique to brachiopods is the pedicle, which is a long, thin fleshy appendage which is used to burrow into the sea floor as an anchor while the brachiopod could feed clear of the silt. Although the fleshy pedicle itself does not preserve in the fossils, the opening at the top of the animal from whence the pedicle connected (known as the foramen) is clearly visible. Brachiopods are filter feeders, gathering microscopic organisms and bits of organic matter from the water that flows by them using a specialized organ called a lophophore. This is a tube like structure with cilia (hair like projections). The cilia move food particles down the lophophore to the mouth.
Brachiopods are often known as lamp shells as the curved shell of the some classes look rather like Roman pottery lamps. There are two main groups of articulate brachiopods from the Jurassic, terebratulids and rhynchonellids. A common example of a telebratulid brachiopod found here is Stiphrothyris tumida; their main characteristics are their ovoid/circular shape, presence of a clear hinge line and a circular pedicle opening located in the beak. This brachiopod is a type example for lower Trigonia grit. The second of the main orders of articulate brachiopods is the rhynchonellids. The main characteristics are their strongly ribbed wedge shape, the absence of a clear hinge line, the line between the valves/shells is often zigzagged and a circular pedicle opening located in the beak. An example of such a brachiopod found here is Burmirhynchia sp. The rhynchonellids were able to extrude their lophophore out of the shell in water, whereas the terebratulids maintained their lophophore within the shell. The ability to extrude the lophophore led to more efficient food-gathering and is probably why rhynchonellids survived the mass extinction events better than the terebratulids.
Bivalves include such animals as clams, oysters, cockles, mussels, and scallops are also found at Withington. The majority are filter feeders and often they bury themselves in sediment where they can be safe from predators. Others lie on the sea floor or attach themselves to rocks or other hard surfaces, a few such as scallops are able to propel themselves through the water. The shell consists of two usually similar valves, and is joined at the hinge line by a flexible ligament with interlocking teeth on each valve. This arrangement allows the shell to be opened and closed for feeding without the two halves becoming disarticulated. Bivalves found here include Thracia (a member of the clam family) and Pleuromya (a member of the mussel family).
If we compare brachiopods and bivalves, although they resemble bivalves, brachiopods are not even molluscs. They are so unique that they have been placed in their own phylum, Brachiopoda. Brachiopods are shelled marine organisms that superficially resembled bivalves in that they are of similar size and have a hinged shell in two parts. However, brachiopods evolved from a very different ancestral line, and the resemblance to bivalves only arose because of a similar lifestyle. The differences between the two groups are due to their separate ancestral origins. Different initial structures have been adapted to solve the same problems, a case of convergent evolution. In modern times, brachiopods are not as common as bivalves. Brachiopod shells are often made of calcium phosphate as well as calcium carbonate, whereas bivalve shells are composed entirely of calcium carbonate.
Also to be found at Withington are gastropods. They are called univalves because they build a single coiled shell to protect their soft bodies. Ancient fossilized gastropods are related to living gastropods of today and are snails. Gastropods can be carnivorous or herbivorous. Their tongue is covered with thousands of tiny teeth to tear apart food.
UKAFH would like to sincerely thank the landowner for allowing us access to the fields. Special thanks also to Mark Baggott for organising the visit and providing a fantastic display of local fossils and information for us all to refer to throughout the day. Thank you also to Mark and to Alan Banyard for bringing along some very nice examples of undamaged and prepared Clypeus ploti and ammonites from nearby locations for members to take home.
On Saturday 1st September we ran a fossil hunt at Salthill Quarry, Clitheroe, Lancashire.
Salthill is a former limestone quarry, which ceased working in 1959 and is now a Local Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its geological features and wildlife. Salthill is famous for its crinoids and is one of the best sites for Lower Carboniferous echinoderms in Northern Europe.
The reserve is also known for its wildflowers, insects and birds and a variety of curious-sounding species can be found including cowslips, birds-foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, bee orchid, blackcap, willow warbler, garden warbler and chiffchaff.
Although they resemble plants and are often called “Sea Lillies”, crinoids are actually marine animals of the phylum Echinodermata, a group of animals that include starfish and echinoids. The name comes from the Greek word krinon, “a lily”, and eidos, “form”. Some species of crinoids are alive now and they can live in both shallow and deep waters.
Crinoids attached themselves to the seafloor by way of a holdfast, and at the top of the vertical stem would sit the calyx, which housed the gut, mouth and anus. From the calyx led the arms and cilia, which would gather food and pass it down the arms to the mouth.
Some crinoids would be free-floating in the water column and some were capable of “walking” across the sea floor.
We had a lovely mixed group of adults and children, who crowded around the “crinoid seat” – a bench made of crinoidal limestone with a sculptured crinoid back – where Andrew gave us a rousing talk on the site, crinoid structure and morphology, and how to identify them. It went something like this:
- Make a starfish out of your hand
- Put your elbow on top of your hand and put your arm upright
- Splay your fingers
- Wave your arm around in the air
- Now you have a crinoid!
Andrew also reminded us that shark’s teeth could be found in the area, but any teeth found were effectively his property as he mistakenly discarded one many years before.
Then we were off!
The whole exposure was jam-packed with partial crinoid columnals but with some careful looking through the soil we started to find more interesting fossils. Soon enough we found some large diameter columnals and we were very lucky to find quite so many crinoid calyces.
The award for bulk find of the day goes to Darren Simons, who found no less than 19 calyces!
Mike Greaves found this embedded rarer blastoid. This unfortunately had to stay behind as we are not allowed to collect from the bedrock (SSSI rules):
A massive thank you to everyone who attended this hunt. We hope that you enjoyed it and we will see you again!
Salthill LNR is managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust and is open entry | Hammering of the rock face is not permitted | Please collect responsibly and abide by the fossil code
On 19th August UKAFH visited King’s Dyke Nature Reserve at Whittlesey near Peterborough. This highly productive, family-friendly location is always a popular hunt and places quickly filled up so we had a full house of 35 with leaders Aidan Philpott and Sam Caethoven.
The geology of the location consists the Peterborough Member of the Oxford Clay Formation, representing the middle Jurassic period of circa 180 million years ago. The clay is quarried for brick making but a spoil heap is provided in a designated area for fossil hunting and it was to this area we were destined today.
We were fortunate to enjoy warm but overcast weather, making hunting comfortable and dry. We kitted up we headed down to the dedicated fossil-hunting area where Aidan gave the group an introduction to the fossils that can be found. The commonest finds are ammonites (especially Kosmoceras), belemnites (especially Hibolithes) and gryphaea, an oyster often called “Devil’s toenail” because of their curled, scaly appearance. However marine reptiles have also been commonly found in the quarry as well as teeth and bones from fish including the ray-finned Leedsichthys, probably the largest fish ever to have lived. An abundance of bivalves and brachiopods can also be found.
The location has an enormous quantity of fossils available and they are very easy to find, making it equally perfect for beginners who want to take home a treasure or two and for old hands who want to find something special, be it a bone, fish remains or a particularly large, complete or well-preserved specimen. The clay is easy to dig into and split so it is never a question of finding fossils; rather of narrowing down the large volume of finds into “keepers”. Soon we had good finds turning up, including calcite Kosmoceras ammonites, plenty of belemnite sections and an abundance of gryphaea.
Although on this occasion no-one was fortunate enough to find any reptile bone, a Hybodus sp. shark tooth was found by Silas Shaul – the first I’ve personally encountered from this site. Well done Silas! Some sharp-eyed hunters like Billy Currie found small fish scales, bones and vertebrae and Tracey Herod found a beautifully preserved calcite-filled gastropod with its aragonite shell still in place.
As events drew to a close we received many kind remarks from attendees who commented on how they had enjoyed their day and were pleased with their finds. We always love to hear your comments and see pictures of your finds, whether from one of our hunts or your own forays so please do share your news on our website and facebook pages! Also please do sign up to our mailing list or keep an eye out on our website for forthcoming 2019 hunts which will be published soon.
On a scorching, sunny Sunday 5th August UKAFH members and guests headed to the south east corner of Kent to Betteshanger Country Park (near Deal) to hunt for Carboniferous plant fossils.
Betteshanger is a RIGS spoil heap at the old Betteshanger Colliery, which was the largest in Kent but was closed in 1989. Betteshanger Country Park was created by regeneration of the former Betteshanger colliery site and provides a large green parkland and recreation area ideal for walking, cycling and other outdoor activities. However as part of Geoconservation Kent (http://www.geoconservationkent.org.uk/), there is agreement to retain a fossil hunting area within the country park. The fossil collecting spoil heap, which is northeast of the original site, is set aside for the study of the fossils to be found in the coal measures formerly mined there and this was our destination for the day.
Our group of 25 assembled outside the visitor centre, which offers toilets, showers, information on the park and a small cafe alongside a childrens’ play area. From there it was quite a short walk to the fossil hunting area where Andy Temple of GeoConservation Kent awaited us as our special guest leader for the day. Andy regularly supports school and group trips and visits to Betteshanger and other Kent locations and is expert on the many, varied plant fossils to be found in the coal deposits. Sam Caethoven welcomed the group and introduced Andy who gave an overview on the site and what can be found.
Betteshanger is Upper Carboniferous (Silesian) in age, from the mid-Westphalian Stage (Asturian Substage of 323.2–315.2 Mya) to the Stephanian Stage (Stephanian B Substage of 315.2–307 Mya). The rocks are from between 316–311 Mya and mostly consist of the Kent 5 coal seam, with some Kent 7. Kent 5 is assigned to the Upper Coal Measures (Warwickshire Group) and Kent 7 to the (South Wales) Middle Coal Measures. Fossils show that there were areas of forest and river levees, with overbank deposition taking place.
Fossils at Betteshanger are found either lying on top of the spoil heap or by digging into the spoil. Remains of Arthropleura, a large arthropod, have been found at the site. However, unlike other coal measures sites in Europe, no insects have been found at Betteshanger.
When we arrived at the fossil area we were delighted to be informed by Andy that a digger had just been in to turn over the coal spoil and dig out fresh areas, removing the old spoil that had already been examined many times previously. As a result we were extremely fortunate to be able to find abundant, varied plant specimens!
Fossils were quickly being found, both in quantity and variety. Kath Kemsley found a smashing Neuropteris seed fern and Aiden Philpott found an exquisitely preserved Alethopteris seed fern. Jake Ashley found a very nice example of Lepidodendron (also known as a scale tree) which is an extinct lycopsid club moss. Kaitlin Asher found a fantastic selection of plant fossils and Nicky Parslow uncovered a beautifully detailed example of asterophyllites horsetail.
The swampy Carboniferous landscape was dominated by three types of plant: ferns (true ferns and seed ferns), lycopods and sphenopsids. Ferns were at their most abundant and diverse in the Carboniferous period but persist today. Giant lycopsids – clubmosses – such as Lepidodendron and Sigillaria grew to the height of trees and their fossilised bark is characterised by leaf scars. The fossils of the root systems of both these plants are called Stigmaria because they look so similar. These are examples of form taxa, where a collection of organisms is given a taxonomic name but is known to be a grouping based on similar morphological characteristics, rather than more extensive biological similarity. Finally the sphenopsids consist horsetails which were gigantic in the Palaeozoic but persist today in much smaller and less diverse forms. The leaves of horsetails, which form in whorls around the stem, are termed annularia but the root fossils are known as calamites.
Huge thanks to Andy Temple for bringing a fabulous display, expert advice, identification and preservation tips and plenty of very useful spare newspaper for wrapping finds!
On Saturday 28th July, we landed at Gilwern Quarry, Powys, for the annual UKAFH trilobite fest!
Gilwern quarry is privately-owned and is situated on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, in beautiful and isolated terrain. Gilwern is known for its trilobites, which are generally very well preserved, and can be found in abundance. Gilwern Hill is made of Lower to Middle Ordovician volcaniclastic rock, which form part of the Builth Inlier. The site has rocks from the Llanvirn series (approximately 460 million years old) and exhibits the following beds:
- Upper Didymographus murchisoni Shales.
- Pale flinty, tuffaceous beds.
- Main Rhyolitic tuffs, with Lower Didymographus murchisoni Shales.
- Rhyolitic tuffs and agglomerates.
- Upper Didymographus bifidus Beds.
- Lower Didymographus bifidus Beds
The site has been interpreted as a near-shore, shallow water environment used as a breeding ground for the Ogyginus trilobite (pictured above), due to the number and range of ages of Ogyginus found here. However, other trilobite species such as Meadowtownella and Bettonolithus can be found, as well as graptolites.
Emma, the lovely landowner, greeted us at the shepherd’s hut as we arrived with hot teas and coffees, which was a lovely surprise, and was very welcome after the long journey that many of us had made. First stop of the day was the “trilobite wall” – a stack of fossiliferous rocks lining the shepherd’s hut car park – you know it’ll be a good day when you find your first fossils in the car park!
Once we were suitably refreshed and kitted up, Sam and Aidan gave an introductory session on the quarry and showed the group some example fossils from previous hunts, including various species of trilobites, graptolites, orthocones and conulariids. We then moved up to the main quarry, where the good finds started rolling in!
The quarry is packed full of loose rock so there was plenty of material for us to chisel and hammer our way through.
Although the weather looked promising on arrival, after several hours it had clouded over and distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. Unfortunately, this then developed into torrential rain and hailstones (in July!), which felt like being stoned to death with frozen peas! A mad dash to the safety of our cars was in order and with it, an unfortunately abrupt end to the hunt!
We would like to thank all for attending – we hope you had a fantastic day! A special thank you goes to Emma for her fabulous hospitality and we look forward to the next hunt!
Access to the quarry and rental of the self-catering shepherd’s hut can be requested via https://www.uppergilwernquarryhut.co.uk.
For further information on Gilwern fossils, please refer to https://www.asoldasthehills.org/oath_homepage.html
On Saturday 23rd of June 2018, UKAFH visited Breakheart Quarry, which is situated to the north east of Bristol just above the village of Dursley. The quarry and surrounding woodland is owned and run by the Breakheart Community Project and is always accessible when parking outside the gates. The car park is open when volunteers are on site during weekdays and most weekends, when the visitor’s center is also open. For our hunt Ray, the owner, had set up signs for us at the entrance and allowed us to park outside the visitor’s center, which gave us quick access to both the quarry and facilities.
Breakheart Quarry lies on a 54-acre site amidst a semi-ancient woodland on a hill where many species of flora and fauna can be found. There are two quarries – upper and lower – however, the lower quarry is unfossiliferous. In complete contrast the upper quarry is full of fossil bivalves, brachiopods, echinoids and on rare occasions, ammonites and gastropods. The quarry site provides excellent facilities including conference room, toilets, tea and coffee station and shelter from wind, rain and scorching sun and is suitable for children of all ages.
The weather was glorious and sunny, we all met just outside the refreshments hut where Lizzie Hingley, Lee-anne Collins and Nicky Parslow welcomed everyone. It was particularly gratifying to meet so many families who lived locally. Once we had all checked in Ray Pekala led us to the conference room and gave us a very warm welcome and explained the history behind the quarry. Over the years Breakheart Quarry has had many uses including testing non-hazardous explosives, WWII activities and more recently by British Nuclear Fuels who used the stone as a base for the M5 motorway and to build parts of the nearby Berkeley nuclear facility. The quarry was left disused from 2008 when it was taken over by locals who formed the Breakheart Community Project charity with the aim of restoring the area to its former natural state for visitors to enjoy. The charity relies exclusively on donations.
We then moved to the undercover picnic tables so we could see some of the fossils that we might be able to find in the upper quarry. Nicky provided a “show and tell” of some of the fossils that could be found which included echinoids, bivalves, ammonites and brachiopods. Nicky explained that although bivalves and brachiopods look extremely similar (both have shells and look like molluscs), in fact brachiopods are not related to molluscs at all but belong in their own family. Nicky explained the easiest way to clean the fossils is by soaking in warm water for half an hour and then scrubbing with a toothbrush. Once dry, if there was any remaining matrix, this might be possible to remove using a dental pick.
In the quarry the land has been taken back to a layer of Trigonia grit, which is a lower layer of the upper Inferior Oolite. The Trigonia grit was named after the triangular shaped bivalve that is commonly found in the layer. This was laid down approximately 176 million years ago in the Jurassic period when the location would have been much nearer the equator and more tropical than today. The warm sea would have been relatively shallow which is shown both by the fossils we found and the rocks they came from. Ooliths (the round particles in the rock) were formed when grains of sand or shell fragments were rolled around on the sea floor gathering calcium carbonate. Over time they grew in size and once fossilized, becoming the rock we now know as oolite.
We walked as a group along the path to the far end of the upper quarry just before the it disappears into an escarpment and dispersed into small groups among the young trees. The upper quarry has many young birch trees and a network of paths and BMX tracks which help with break the rubbly ground and allows the fossils to emerge. As the temperatures started to soar we found ourselves looking amongst the broken stones under the trees and bushes.
Very quickly we started to get our fossil eyes and were able to pick out the fossils from amongst the creamy white floor. Jenna very quickly found a handful of bivalves and brachiopods. To make sure everyone in the group could find a fossil, Nicky ran a couple of games of “find the fossil” helping those who hadn’t found anything. Luckily most of the fossils we found were loose amongst the rubble on the floor and most of them had very little matrix left on them; this is one location where having a hammer is not an advantage!
Jenna was the first person to find a handful of fossils. Zac Kitson found a lovely Terebratula brachiopod (lamp shell), Sophie Bryant found a beautifully detailed Rhynchonelloidea brachiopod and miniature wild strawberries growing under the trees. Probably the best find of the day was an exquisite echinoid found by Lizzie Coyne, which was very detailed and perfectly preserved. Terry Newsome and Zac Broderick found huge lamp shells. Several of the group found small echinoids and Nicky Parslow found part of a Trigonia bivalve.
At just after midday we moved back to the refreshment hut for lunch and some time to cool down under the cover of the larger trees on picnic blankets whilst the children played on the swings and slides.
After lunch, we walked back to the upper quarry and went to the middle area of the quarry for fresh finds.
Here are some photos of the days finds.
Sadly, our day came to end and it was time to leave and say our goodbyes. As we made our way back home many of us would have driven along the M5 and maybe a few of us would be thinking about all the fossils that would be buried under the concrete.
Thank you to everyone who attended this fossil hunt! It really was a great and friendly group of people and we hope that everyone enjoyed the day as much as we did and we hope that you will be able to return to Breakheart Quarry and find more lovely fossils.
On Sunday June 10th UKAFH visited Ramsholt, located on the river Deben in Suffolk. We met near the Ramsholt Arms, a popular pub with tourists and boaters, then walked about 2 miles north through woodland and along the river bank before reaching a shingle beach where fossils are abundant.
UKAFH leader Sam Caethoven explained the geology and pre-history of the site and provided an example of likely finds.
There are three distinct deposits exposed at Ramsholt. The base of the small exposed cliffs and the foreshore consist of London Clay, a roughly 50 million year old marine deposit commonly exposed on the south east coast from which many bivalves, gastropods, crabs, lobsters, shark and ray teeth, fish, reptile and mammal remains can be found. Above the London Clay sits the Coralline Crag formation, a much younger (~ 5 million year old) sandy sediment containing numerous bivalve and gastropod remains. As the name suggests, the formation does contain corals however more common here are bryozoans, which can often be found with corals seeded within their chambers. The 5 million year old Coralline Crag comes to lay directly on top of the 50 million year old London clay as the underlying sediment was eroded before the Crag formed, this has resulted in a diversity of derived fossils in what is called the Basement Bed, directly above the Coralline Crag and forming the base of the roughly 2.5 million year old Red Crag above it. Derived fossils are those which, having become fossilised in one deposit have since been eroded out, often transported by rivers or tides, and become part of a much younger sediment. This means that, within the basement bed, fossils from the Eocene and Miocene can be found and even Cretaceous belemnites and crinoids have been found within the basement bed. The effects of “refossilisation” of shark teeth here are striking; the teeth are often polished and the colours derived from exposure to different elements are diverse and vivid. Marine mammal bone fragments, often attributed to whales, are also common from this bed and have become silicaceous in their preservation. The iron rich Red Crag above is also noted for well preserved and often complete bivalves and gastropods.
Finding fossils here is relatively easy as they can be found in abundance among the shingle of the foreshore – the site is SSSI protected and so digging in the cliffs or the exposed clay on the foreshore is prohibited. With fine, dry and warm weather it was not long before the group began making discoveries. Gastropods and bivalves from the Red Crag and Bryozoans from the Coralline Crag were the first fossils we noticed as we progressed north along the foreshore.
But it was not long before shark and ray teeth were being found, some fantastically preserved and some with vivid red, orange and even blue colours. Daniel Austin found a particularly rare and large Isurus tooth while Eliott Mills found an uncommon large Otodus tooth.
Other notable finds included some large pieces of marine mammal bone and a delightful although heavily worn crab carapace found by Aidan Philpott.
The day was fruitful with many excellent finds including some of the rarer shark teeth from this location. Big thanks to everyone who attended and made the day so enjoyable and special thanks to Sam Caethoven, Eliott Mills and Salma Khaliq for doing a sterling job leading the hunt. Hope to see you all again soon.
Please remember when visiting Ramsholt that the site is SSSI protected and so digging in the cliffs or the exposed clay on the foreshore is prohibited.
We had the pleasure of returning to a very pleasant and dry Wrens’ Nest in Dudley on the 12th May 2018 to hunt for the elusive “Dudley bug”.
Wren’s Nest is composed of limestone from the Silurian Wenlock Group and is famous for the Phacopid trilobite Calymene blumenbachii, which featured on the Dudley County Borough Council Coat of Arms until 1974.
A former Victorian Quarry, which ceased operation in the 1920s, Wren’s Nest is now a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the fossils that can be found here. And what a site it is!
It is a fantastic site for fossil hunting as so many fossils can be found loose on the ground. Over 700 different species of fossils can be found here, over 80 of which can be found nowhere else on earth.
Wren’s Nest contains the most diverse and abundant fossil fauna found in the British Isles and the fossils are among the most perfectly preserved Silurian fossils in the world.
Many attendees were young, first time fossil hunters and looked fabulous in their new hi-vis! We had lots of families and newcomers, which was great.
We started the day with a potted history of the site and a “show and tell” of the types of fossil that could be found at the site. The first few hours of hunting were spent at the reef mounds, before moving onto the fossil trench, from where we had a lovely view of the ripple beds.
The group found some marvellous partial trilobites (heads and tails – shown above and below), gastropods, brachiopods, bryozoans, corals and sponges – a fabulous slice of a Silurian reef ecosystem.
To all that attended, we hope that you enjoyed your day, and to the first-time hunters, we hope that we have inspired you to begin a wonderful new hobby!
On a scorchingly hot Sunday 6th May UKAFH was privileged to gain access to internationally renowned Smokejacks Pit – a large clay pit operated by Weinerberger located close to Ockley in Surrey. The pit is famous for the near complete dinosaur specimens that have been discovered there including Iguanodonts and the first discovery of the spinosaurid Baryonyx in 1983 by amateur fossil hunter Bill Walker. Baryonyx and many other specimens from Smokejacks can be seen in the dinosaur hall of the Natural History Museum in London.
The pit cuts through a section of the Weald Clay member of the Wealden group, dating from the Barremian stage of the Cretaceous period about 130-125 million years ago. During this period England was located in the mid-latitudes and experienced a highly variable climate of alternating searingly hot dry seasons with forest fires and baked ground and stormy wet seasons with flash floods which created lakes in a floodplain environment. The resultant ecosystem was highly diverse, supporting a vast number of aquatic and land-dwelling organisms from tiny creatures like concostracods and multitudinous insects to large herbivores and predators like Baryonyx and Iguanodonts.
A great attraction of Smokejacks pit is the enormous diversity of fossils to be found here. Whether specialist or generalist, there are spectacular fossils to be found if you have the patience, work ethic and eye to locate them. There are beautifully preserved insects and the plant Bevhalstia in fine siltstones, concostracods – shrimp-like shelled creatures, abundant plant material, fish scales, teeth and death assemblages, as well as crocodile, pterosaur and of course dinosaur remains can be unearthed here with a good eye and a bit of luck.
Our guides for the day were Weald Clay expert Peter Austen and his wife Joyce and local Smokejacks regular Mike Webster, who has discovered a number of previously unknown insects at Smokejacks. Peter provided us with a fantastic, in depth presentation on the Weald Clay and showed us some fine examples of what could be found in the pit, as well as supplying a number of handouts describing the pit and the fossil discoveries made, illustrating the pit’s stratigraphy and providing drawn examples of some of the insect types commonly found. Peter’s roadshow introduced us to the diversity of insects for which the pit is known (7 new orders of insects and numerous species). He covered in detail the discovery of Baryonyx and also a juvenile Iguanodont which was found together with Baryonyx teeth, suggesting predation or scavenging, which was later recognised as Mantellisaurus atherfiedensis. Smokejacks is also known for a very rare, early flowering plant called Bevhalstia Pebja. We also saw articulated fish death assemblages, an arthropod trackway, gastroliths (the stomach stones swallowed by dinosaurs to aid digestion), plant remains and the well-known concostracans, small shrimp-like creatures which bear superficial similarity to bivalves.
We set off into the pit under a blazing sun, aptly reminding us of the type of conditions which might have been experienced during the early Cretaceous when the animals and plants whose fossils we sought would have populated the area. The pit is like a large, pale grey cauldron with a lake at the bottom so the reflected sun was intense and without respite due to the absence of shade. Our group had been briefed to bring sun cream and plenty of water so although conditions were somewhat arduous everyone was well prepared.
Many attendees began by walking the slopes in search of any fossils which had been brought to the surface by recent erosion. This is often fruitful and has yielded dinosaur bones and fish teeth on previous occasions. Others chose to work the “dinosaur” layer towards the top of the quarry; a rich seam of carbon and lignite where plants have been fossilised and which has been found to often also contain dinosaur remains. Those in pursuit of insect remains headed towards the bottom of the quarry to find and split the finely grained stones in which their remains are preserved.
Soon after our arrival; finds began to appear. Steve Lloyd was amongst those who found round, button-like crushing fish teeth from Lepidotes. Lower down, Mike Webster had begun to find some insect specimens.
After around an hour the first major discovery was made by Adam Ward, who found a beautiful small Baryonyx tooth in the upper carbon layer.
Shorty afterwards, Dave Clark found a bivalve in the upper layer and Aidan Philpott discovered some examples of the amber that can be found at Smokejacks in the fossilised wood beds.
Further down the quarry, Harry Rousham was receiving an education from Mike Webster on which blocks contain insects and shortly discovered a beautiful, large example of an insect wing which was provisionally identified as scorpionfly. This was a fantastic find as it was proving hard to find much insect-bearing material on this occasion. Sam Caethoven found an example of Bevhalstia, although rather indistinct, and some fish death beds which were found very close to the insect layer.
By this time some members were finding the heat a little too much and began to trickle away. However those who were determined to come away with a prize plugged on, digging into the carbon rich layer in pursuit of bone material. Mark Goble, who despite several visits to Smokejacks had so far failed to find any dinosaur bone, finally hit paydirt close to the end of the day when he found a large bone section, although fragmented, which was identified as an Mantellisaurus ischium. Congratulations Mark!
My own personal favourite find of the day, however, was the discovery at the very end of the session of a gastrolith by Mike Webster. I badly want to find one myself and Smokejacks is the perfect place to do so, because the stone can be determined as a gastrolith with near certainty when found in situ in an inland site. A gastrolith is a smoothly polished stone which resided in a dinosaur’s intestine and is often not local to where it is found. The stomach acid and the action of grinding against other stones polishes the pebble. Science is inconclusive whether gastroliths formed a gastric mill to help break up tough foodstuffs and aid digestion or were merely swallowed unintentionally. The stone found by Mike Webster is a stunner- the stone is unusually large and also rather beautiful! It was a great end to a successful day.
UKAFH would like to thank Peter and Joyce Austin, Mike Webster and Weinerberger for allowing us to visit and making the outing successful, enjoyable and informative!
On Sunday 13th May UKAFH met at Barton on Sea in Hampshire, a coastal village a few miles east of Bournemouth.
Before heading onto the beach, Chris Tait provided examples of likely finds and explained the area’s geology and paleoenvironment. The cliffs and slippages here comprise the Barton Beds, a series of clay and sandy clay that was deposited about 36 million years ago during the Eocene epoch in what was a warm shallow sea. The sea would have been further south during the Eocene epoch, similar in latitude to modern day Spain and so the climate considerably warmer. We were very fortunate to be provided an example of warm weather as the day was bathed in sunshine and temperatures pleasantly mild. The warm, shallow Eocene sea was a rich ecosystem and the clay provided a great medium to preserve the remains of creatures that lived there which means the area is incredibly fossiliferous. The area is noted for having over 600 named species of bivalve and gastropod and is also particularly abundant in shark teeth and fish remains.
We ventured down from the carpark to the beach which, in such fine weather, is very popular with tourists. We began by investigating the base of the clay slippages. Although ill advised to dig into the slippages, on the surface of the clay are many fossils already washed out. These include a whole variety of shells, especially bivalves which can be particularly ornate. Everyone found a variety of different species of gastropod. The shells here can be quite fragile, so it is important to bring a box, preferably with some padding to protect the specimens.
Later in the afternoon, many of us stopped for lunch which was an ideal opportunity to sit on the shingle and rootle through the flint pebbles in search of shark teeth. Once we got our eye in, many great examples of shark teeth were found, predominantly of the Striatolamia genus and Sam Caethoven found the dental palate of a fish, one which would have had shell crushing teeth, ideal for feeding on the abundant gastropods an bivalves here.
Later in the day, Chris Tait led a small group up onto the slippages to get a better look at the geology. It is extremely important that care is taken when on the slippages and it is not advised this is attempted without a guide as it can be easy to become stuck in mud. Evidence of this danger was provided by a number of abandoned wellington boots!
Thank you to everyone who attended and a big thank you to Chris Tait and Sam Caethoven for leading the hunt. I hope you all had a great time!
On 14 and 15 April 2018, UKAFH conducted its first weekend event of the year. UKAFH members from across the UK left the mainland behind and sailed across the Solent to the sunny and highly fossiliferous shores of the Isle of Wight.
On Saturday, 14 April, we descended onto Thorness Bay, which is on the north coast of the island. Access to the bay is through Parkdean Thorness Bay Holiday Park, where many of the group were staying in caravans or, the bravest amongst us in tents. The park has excellent facilities, such as toilets, and a bar and restaurant, as well as ample parking and a small supermarket, which made it a very comfortable start to the day.
The weather was glorious and sunny – the first really warm and sunny day of the year, which filled us with hope and anticipation. In fact, we couldn’t have hoped for better or more relaxing weather.
We began in the car park, where Chris Tait and Nicky Parslow displayed some of the fossils that we were likely to find from the Oligocene epoch, such as carapaces from Emys and Trionyx turtles, and scuta from Diplocynodon alligators. We also saw shiny fish bones and vertebrae, and the very rare mammal teeth of Elomeryx – a stout hippopotamus/pig like creature. In addition, we saw echinoids preserved in flint, which can be found derived from the much older Cretaceous sediments.
We walked as a group down the gentle slope from the carpark to the beginning of the bay, where Chris pointed out the Bembridge Insect Beds to the east and where, unfortunately, fossils are few and hard to find. So, we set off to the west, where we could see a gently sloping shingle beach, with some exposures of green/blue clay from the highly fossiliferous Hamstead Beds. Chris explained to us that the best collecting technique is to look carefully and move slowly, and that moving the gravel with a trowel would likely result in uncovering fossils. Chris also painted a picture of what Thorness Bay might have looked like during the Oligocene epoch, about 30 million years ago – a lagoonal area within an estuary, where alligators, turtles and fish would have swum and hunted. Elomeryx porcinus would have been seen grazing on the edge of the lagoon and also swimming out to eat the plants growing in the lagoon. It would have been much warmer during the Oligocene, averaging 20 to 25oC, as the location lay much further south, closer to the equator.
As we headed west, we found that the first part of the bay was less productive than further along, but most people found gastropods, bivalves and fragments of turtle and fish during the early part of the hunt. As we moved along the bay, the first major find was found by UKAFH leader, Elliot Mills, who found a rare E. porcinus tooth and a fish vertebra on the surface of the shingle, within a few centimetres of each other. The group continued to round the first two corners, where more and more fossils were found. Silas Shaul found a beautiful echinoid preserved in flint, high up on the tide line. As pointed out above, this would not have come from the Oligocene epoch, but from the much earlier Cretaceous period. Isabella Rice found part of a Diplocynodon alligator scute and Nicky Parslow found part of an alligator jaw.
As the afternoon drew late, we ambled back to the holiday park and got cleaned up before the evening’s entertainment. At 7pm, we met up in the bar area of Parkdean and, at 7.30pm, Aidan Philpott presented a quiz to four teams. This was quite challenging, but fun at the same time, and there were several prizes, which were distributed for achievements, such as the Best Team Name – “The Not Crocodiles” and the Best Wrong Answer – “Strawberry Daiquiri” in answer to the question “What Beverage is Sir Hans Sloane often credited with having introduced to the UK?” (The answer is actually hot chocolate.) The Yan family won the quiz with a fantastic score of 15 and claimed the golden hammer.
After the success and glorious weather of Saturday’s hunt at Thorness Bay, we met on a drizzly Sunday afternoon at Brook Bay on the west coast of the island.
The cliffs and foreshore at Brook Bay represent part of the Wessex Formation, which is a mixture of mudstone, sandstone and clay. This was deposited during the Barremian age of the Cretaceous period, about 127 million years ago, in what was a large river basin that drained the surrounding hills. At the time, the climate here was warm and intensely seasonal. This intense seasonality is key to understanding the type and abundance of fossils found here. The landscape would have had rivers and tributaries running throughout it, with ponds, lakes and boggy areas – notable in the fossil record by the abundance of fresh water bivalves and fish remains. The water source and warm climate meant the area was, for much of the time, densely vegetated – the abundance of plant fossils here is immediately noticeable in the form of black, shiny lignite that litters the beach.
The dense vegetation would have attracted herbivorous dinosaurs, such as huge iguanodonts, sauropods and the heavily armoured Polacanthus, and the presence of herbivores would have attracted carnivores, such as the enigmatic allosaurid, Neovenator salerii (the bones of which can be seen at the Dinosaur Isle museum at Sandown). These dinosaurs left their footprints in the mud surrounding the rivers, ponds and lakes. The dry season then came, rivers ran dry, ponds vanished and lakes became anoxic, with the footprints left in once soft muddy sediment becoming solidified among a parched landscape. Charcoal derived from brush fires found in the Wessex Formation, indicate just how intense the dry seasons would have been. The wet season then followed, which is key to understanding the abundance of fossils here. Intense storms would have caused massive flooding, rapidly depositing sediment in the area, burying plant remains, bivalves and bones, as well as filling the dinosaur footprints with coarse sediment, forming casts of the footprints. Brook bay is famous for its dinosaur foot casts, which, after scouring conditions, can number in the hundreds along the beach.
After a talk about the geology and examples of likely finds by Aidan Philpott, we headed north towards Hanover Point, looking amongst the shingle for ‘rolled’ dinosaur bone. Dinosaur bone is commonly found along this stretch of beach. However, it can be hard to spot amongst the abundance of similarly coloured lignite, but we were an eagle-eyed group and bone was soon being discovered. Dinosaur bone here is often described, as ‘rolled’, as it is most commonly found worn, weathered and rarely articulated – not only from being exposed to beach conditions, but also from the intense storms and flooding it experienced before becoming fossilised. This often makes it hard to identify what bone it is or what animal it came from. However, Silas Shaul made a cracking find of a clearly defined dinosaur toe bone. As well as dinosaur bone, other notable finds included a Sheenstia fish scale found by Emma Philpott and the impression of a pine or cycadean cone found by Elliot Mills.
As the tide fell, the group explored the exposed soft ledges for fossils lodged in the rock pools. Nicky Parslow found some beautiful small in situ footprints on these ledges, which we were able to admire and photograph before they are lost to tidal action.
Later in the afternoon, the drizzle stopped and the sun began shining. As the tide had now retreated, it was a perfect opportunity to show the group a dinosaur trackway exposed far out on the shelf, as well as the impressive Pine Raft. The Pine Raft helps to illustrate just how intense the flooding that occurred here was. Preserved amongst the clay and mudstone are the remains of huge tree trunks, which would have been transported by a flooding event and lodged within the river system, where plant debris continued to build up. It is fascinating to see these huge trees in situ, which really helps us to visualise the area 127 million years ago. The dinosaur trackway also helps to visualise the animals that would have lived here. Exposed far out on the ledge, almost directly opposite Hanover Point, is a series of five footprints from a relatively small herbivorous dinosaur. The strides appear short, so we could imagine perhaps a juvenile Iguanodon casually strolling past. Sadly, along this trackway, one of the footprints is notably absent, because it was recklessly removed some years ago with a rock saw. This gaping square hole served to remind us about the importance of responsible collecting and why we must always observe the fossil code and SSSI restrictions, to preserve specimens for all to enjoy and discover.
We would like to extend our warmest gratitude to everyone who attended the Isle of Wight weekender. It was a pleasure to spend the time with such an enthusiastic and dedicated group of fossil hunters. We hope you all enjoyed, learned and discovered. And congratulations again to the Yan family for winning the coveted Golden Hammer on the UKAFH quiz.
On 29th January UKAFH members were welcomed to London’s outstanding Natural History Museum (NHM). The grand, terracotta-faced Victorian museum houses one of the world’s greatest natural history collections, with outstanding specimens on public display and a programme of world-class special exhibitions. However, our visit was all about what is behind the scenes of this great museum.
Our fortunate group of fossil collectors assembled alongside “Sophie” – the most complete Stegosaurus fossil in the world – to meet our host for the day, Professor Adrian Lister, a specialist in mammals working in the Vertebrates and Anthropology section of the Earth Sciences Department. Following a brief introduction we were led into the museum (“follow the jazz hands!”) and through the door from the public areas to the true heart of the museum.
It would be easy to make the mistake of believing the only purpose of the NHM is to educate the public with its displays, interactive facilities, information boards, exhibits and exhibitions. However the NHM is in fact a vast repository of some 80 million specimens and functions as an incredibly important research facility. There is a great deal more behind the scenes of NHM than meets the eye; certainly there is an extraordinary amount of space hidden away from the public areas – a veritable labyrinth of storage facilities, laboratories and research offices. It would be impossible to see and absorb the true extent of this enormous hidden world in a day but our visit provided a brief glimpse into the real world of the NHM, it’s specimens and the people who study them.
We began in a special reception area laid on for backstage visitors which showcases some of the museum’s prized specimens. The small but exceptional display includes diverse examples of the world’s natural history, including fossils and minerals – a snapshot of time itself, if you will. Adrian provided an outline of the day’s programme and introduced us to colleagues Zerina Johanson and Paul Taylor who would lead our party round specimens showcasing their personal research areas.
The NHM repository has its own stratigraphy of a sort: the dinosaurs and marine reptiles fossils are at the bottom, then working up the floors you travel through laboratories, birds, mammals, fish, bryozoa, molluscs, ammonites and so on. Within those categories the arrangements can vary: mammals are arranged by geographical location; bryozoa by geological time; fishes by species. Aside from the many researchers working within the museum there is an army of volunteers who help identify, label and digitise the multitude of specimens held. The NHM is working on an extraordinary digital database which is publicly accessible and searchable and will provide an exceptional resource to professionals and amateurs alike, no matte their location. The digitisation process also facilitates metadata, empowering the indexing and cross-referencing of specimens to make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Introductions over, we divided into three groups to visit portions of the British mammal, bryozoa and fishes collections. We had the great privilege of seeing some truly exceptional fossils and learning more about their recovery, preparation, conservation and use as specimens for scholars all over the world.
I came away from the mammal collection with a greater understanding of the abundance and relative diversity of “ice-age” mammals, learning about acquisition of collections from private collectors, whether by donation or purchase. I also learned that mammoths possessed 6 sets of teeth during their lifetime, each successively larger as the beast grew, and that when the final set was worn down the animal was no longer able to feed adequately so the teeth determine not only the age of the animal but also its lifespan. Paul Taylor (who also regularly writes in our own Deposits Magazine) began by expressing great disappointment that Sir David Attenborough has never mentioned the sadly overlooked bryozoa; by the end of our fascinating tour of the collection we shared his mildly offended incredulity! Bryozoa are extraordinary colonial creatures which thrive in a multitude of ways, show multiple examples of convergent evolution through the fossil record and, despite being almost entirely obliterated by the P-T extinction event (the coloured dots on the specimen drawers told a tragic tale of this wipeout) managed a resurgence which means they still thrive today. Microscopic photography revealed the mysteries of their feeding, breeding and defences. Finally, visiting the fishes with Zerina we saw examples of extraordinary conservation, with the most fragile of fossils being parted from or exposed within their rocky graves. Such extraction can come at the price of fragility and loss of context (the matrix can be as important as the specimen in understanding the living environment, preservation and age of a fossil). We saw exceptional casts and replicas of precious fossils and extraordinarily detailed 3D imaging of rare fossils, all enabling specimens to be handled, observed and studied across the world without the risk of loss or damage in transit of the original, precious fossil.
Following our visit to the collections we visited the Angela Marmont Centre (AMC) for UK Biodiversity. Many of you may not be aware of this incredible free resource but we urge members to take the time to discover a little more by visiting in person or online! Located on the lower level of the Orange Zone of the museum by the Queen’s Gate entrance, the AMC provides a range of services and resources that benefits experts and amateurs alike. Services are as diverse as pest identification, which assists in detecting and preventing crop pestilence and monitoring the spread of pests around the globe; and CITES certification which identifies and prevents the trafficking of rare and endangered animals and the products of such trade. But more generally, they offer access to a large and diverse range of UK fossils which can be handled and studied and a vast array of UK biodiversity reference collection of such as insects, butterflies and bird eggs which can be examined.
The AMC has regular opening hours* for visitors to view the collections and also to make use of facilities such as the London Natural History Society’s library and also to bring in fossils and specimens for identification. Aside from the in-person identification service they offer an excellent free online identification forum at www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/identification. Further facilities include bookable resources such as microscopes, photo-stacking equipment, keys and field guides and workshop space suitable for meetings and training sessions. There are also handouts and information leaflets, including specimen labels, which can be taken away. This magnificent resource, which I have personally made use of on a number of occasions, is already benefiting a number of our members post-tour and we hope to welcome some of the AMC staff on future fossil hunts too!
Last but not least, of course we exited through the gift shops! NHM has a vast range of books and resources to purchase. You can even buy our own book, “A Guide to Fossil Collecting in England and Wales” in the British Geological Survey (BGS) shop inside the museum.
The passion and knowledge of our tour hosts was self-evident and we are most grateful to Adrian, Zerina and Paul and to Christina, Ben and Florin at AMC for their time. We also noted that our hosts had taken the time to understand our group and activities and had specifically shown us examples of specimens that we may have found ourselves, or been able to look for, on past and forthcoming UKAFH hunts. This thoughtful attention to detail did not go unnoticed! Thank you for giving up your time for us to create such a special day.
*The AMC’s opening hours are 10-12 and 2-4pm Monday to Friday, and the first Saturday of the month.
It was grey, cold and with weather forecasts that Captain Scott would have shuddered at the thought of! Undeterred, our group met in the Charmouth Road car park and descended to the beach, via the new sea wall next to Church Cliffs, with unsurpassed views of Lyme Bay and to Seatown and Golden Cap in the east. After a welcome to the delights of the Jurassic Coast location and an introductory talk, which took in the geology, Mary Anning, coprolites, public toilets, cliff falls, David Attenborough’s ‘Sea Dragon’, an introductions to UKAFH staff and our ‘guest helper’, Brandon Lennon, we all headed east.
The geology here at Lyme Regis is quite complex. The cliffs and foreshore between Lyme Regis and Charmouth represent three stages within the Early Jurassic (or Lias) period termed the Hettangian, Sinemurian and Pliensbachian, dating from approximately 199-189 million years ago.
Essentially the rocks at Church Cliffs are Jurassic-aged from the Sinemurian stage. The Hettangian stage rocks of the older Blue Lias slowly dips away eastwards beneath sea level and the Shales-with-Beef layer, capped by the Black Ven Marls (part of the Black Ven Mudstone Member) and in turn, part of thr Charmouth Mudstone Formation descend to the beach under Black Ven. The younger Pliensbachian rocks are best studied at Charmouth. During this time a shallow epicontinental sea (less than 100m deep), was present across much of Europe, including most of England, Wales and Ireland, and laid down alternating layers of clay and limestone. At that time, Lyme Regis (as it’s now known), lay closer to the equator, roughly at the latitude North Africa is today.
Armed with all the background, our intrepid explorers heading off. The best place to look for fossils is among the pebbles and rock pools on the foreshore, loose fossils including ammonites, belemnites and reptile bones can all be found with a little patience. Fossils can also be found protruding through the surface of the slumping clays along the top of the beach. At high tide the waves wash away the soft clay, leaving the more resistant fossils exposed and able to be collected by hand.
Our hunt took place on an exceptionally low tide and Lyme’s famous ledges soon began to appear. This is usually a great place to look, as fossils are washed out of Black Ven’s clays and are deposited in the rocks and boulders and in fissures on the ledges. But finds were remarkably thin on the ground and despite some of our party finding a few very small ammonites, along with fragments from larger specimens, not much else turned up. Andrew Baylis found an ichthyosaur vertebra, which is a common find at Lyme Regis. However, the rain, sleet and snow forecast did not materialise! How wrong can the forecasters get it?
As the tide extended further out into the bay, boulders with large ammonite impressions appeared, not dissimilar to those found on the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ on Monmouth Beach.
Finding fossils is never guaranteed and participants of this hunt were not disappointed with the few specimens that were found. The coastal scenery was dramatic and the forecast inclement weather held off! Many thanks o all who attended, many of whom went on to the Charmouth Heritage Centre, to see the newly displayed ichthyosaur skeleton, discovered recently at Lyme Regis and made famous by David Attenborough’s ‘Sea Dragon’ BBC documentary.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the room who isn’t accompanying children. The awaiting audience are chatty and excited. The child behind me already knows what most of the fossils on the table awaiting description are. “Baryonyx claw!” is exclaimed. “What is the word for fossil poo?” encourages dad. “Coprolite!” the excited boy declares loudly.
It is Friday 2nd February and palaeontologist and UKAFH patron Dean Lomax is about to take us on a journey back to the amazing British finds that sparked the original dinomania in the 1800s. From the ‘invention’ of dinosaurs to the great granddad of T. rex, he reveals British dinosaur and ichthyosaur discoveries, including recent identifications of new species and some incredibly rare finds.
The Royal Institution event, Jurassic Britain: Rediscovering dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs, welcomed all ages but was specifically aimed at ages 7+. These are children who know their dinosaurs and who, with encouragement for and enrichment of their passion, might become the next generation of palaeontologists.
Dean begins thus: Before Jurassic World and Jurassic Park was Jurassic Britain. This inspired him as a child to pursue palaeontology as a career. And it’s been quite a career so far, including authoring the outstanding book, Dinosaurs of the British Isles, along with Dr Nobumichi Tamura, on which this talk draws.
Dean captivates his audience with tales of Victorian gentlemen and scholars who strove to understand and describe the mysterious fossil bones that were being discovered, which were found to have some similarity to lizards and led to the term “dinosaur” being coined by Dr Richard Owen in 1842. Yes, dinosaurs are a British invention! Indeed, the first three dinosaurs ever described were British and because we were at the forefront of this new science as well as possessing a large number of dinosaur fossils, Britain had a good many “firsts’ in the record books of dinosaur discovery. Our unique geology means that around 60 dinosaur species are known in Britain from across the whole of the Mesozoic era, making up over 4% of all dinosaurs.
Dean talked us through the timeline of momentous discoveries, amply illustrated with images, artists’ reconstructions, video footage, genuine and replica specimens and visualiser displays. It has been quite a journey from Victorian times to today, as the poorly-understood fossils were imagined and brought to life as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs which are distinctly inaccurate by modern standards as the science of palaeontology has grown and drawn upon other disciplines to understand the fossils and many, many more specimens have been discovered and compared.
We then proceeded on a journey through the British Mesozoic, introducing many notable British dinosaurs, many of them ground-breaking discoveries at the time. From the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Wight we encounter British dinosaurs large and small, complete and fragmentary, early to late, carnivore, herbivore and pecscivore! We travel overseas too, finding examples of British dinosaur and marine reptile fossils in far-flung corners of the globe. Indeed, Australia’s first dinosaur, Agrosaurus, later transpired to be a Thecodontosaurus fossil from Bristol!
The topic of migrating fossils was prominent in Dean’s continuation into Ichthyosaurs, his personal specialism. Ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs but marine reptiles, having a common ancestor which predates the emergence of the dinosauria. Dean’s own “evolution” as a palaeontologist is closely tied to marine reptiles through his early fieldwork in Wyoming to volunteering in his local museum and discovering an exceptional genuine fossil ichthyosaur in the collections which was thought to be a cast! Dean’s subsequent work describes a journey of hunting down “lost” British fossils hidden away in archives, small museums and overseas, re-examining them and, in two cases, recognising new species. It is a tale of caveats: many fossils are repaired, enhanced or even composites, giving the appearance of a complete specimen but being scientifically inaccurate.
Once Dean had completed our journey from ancient to modern times via the Victorian, questions were invited from the audience. I’m not sure if I was more impressed by the quality and diversity of the questions from the rapt young audience or the fact that Dean could answer them all! Could T-rex jump? Probably, but if he landed badly he might struggle to right himself and a bad fall resulting in a broken limb could prove fatal so he likely didn’t risk it. I’d never considered the question and I’m fascinated by the answer!
I’d like to thank Colin Tucker at the Royal Institution for sending me a ticket to the event.
If you’d like to read more from Dean about British dinosaurs Dean’s article for Deposits magazine is here:
Dean Lomax is an internationally recognised multi-award-winning palaeontologist, science communicator and author. He has travelled the globe and worked on many fascinating projects, from excavating dinosaurs in the American West to describing new species of extinct marine reptiles. Dean is passionate about communicating palaeontology with the public and regularly appears on television, including as series advisor and expert co-presenter for ITV’s Dinosaur Britain. He has written two books, numerous scientific papers, and many popular articles. Dean is a Visiting Scientist at The University of Manchester and patron of the UK Association of Fossil Hunters (UKAFH).
On 14 January, UKAFH commenced its packed 2018 schedule with a long-awaited return to Aust in Gloucestershire.
Aust is a small village preceding the Severn River Crossing into Wales. From here, you can access the River Severn foreshore, and the iconic red and grey cliffs visible to commuters travelling from the Principality. The slipway from which access is gained to the foreshore was under maintenance for much of 2016 and 2017, so UKAFH had not led a hunt here for over two years – it was good finally to be back. And, as if we were all sticking to our new year’s resolutions, the hunt was perfect – great finds, great weather and a great group of intrepid fossil hunters.
We began with an explanation of the geology and were shown examples of likely finds by hunt leader, Lee-Anne Collins, and support leader, Sam Caethoven.
The cliffs either side of the Severn Crossing’s huge concrete plinths are visually impressive and illustrate a period of coastal transition, some 221-201myrs ago during the late Triassic. The towering red mudstone of the Branscombe Mudstone Formation represents a 15myr period of seasonal lacustrine deposition in which the depth and salinity of an ephemeral lake fluctuated dramatically. This is evident in the streaks of white evaporite gypsum that stutter throughout this section of the cliff. The environment was hypersaline and inhospitable, that is, an environment not suited to macrofauna and, as such, is unfossiliferous.
Above the red mudstone sits the Blue Anchor Formation. Although this green-grey mudstone represents a time of better sustained water level in a lake or lagoonal environment – evidence of an advancing shoreline – it was still hypersaline and so devoid of macrofossils. It is above these strata, at the base of the Westbury formation, where the fossils we hoped to find exist. At the base of the shale and limestones of the Westbury Formation is the Rhaetic Bonebed – a green-grey calcareous siltstone conglomerate about 205myrs old, which, in contrast to the underlying strata, is incredibly fossiliferous. The Rhaetic Bonebed represents a marine environment, which was shallow, brackish and subject to strong tidal currents and/or storm events. This is evident in the conglomerate nature of the deposit and disarticulation of vertebrate fossils, which commonly include the teeth and bones of fish, sharks and marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Although marine life was clearly profuse, the seafloor was anoxic (without oxygen), aiding the preservation of fossils, which is most notable in the accumulation of coprolites. The bonebed is about 15cm thick, so represents a relatively quick but dramatic coastal transition. Later in the Westbury Formation, the sediment becomes more homogenous, representing a less turbulent marine environment, while the seafloor becomes more hospitable, shown by the abundance of bivalves and the bioturbation of sediment dwelling organisms.
The bonebed is, however, inaccessibly high in the cliff and so we had to hope for recent rockfalls to have bought this highly fossiliferous layer to the foreshore. On this occasion, we were in luck. Some large boulders had recently fallen, while smaller pieces and isolated fossils from the bonebed were easily found amongst the shingle.
As we headed east along the foreshore, it was not long before finds were made. Mary Bite began proceedings by finding a remarkably large Severnichthys tooth – Severnichthys is a large, predatory fish named after the River Severn along which its teeth are often found. Soon, most attendees were finding examples of bonebed, which contained a plethora of fossils, including tiny fish and shark teeth, isolated bones and copious coprolites. As we approached the concrete plinth of the Severn Crossing, Mike Greaves found an Hybodus shark’s tooth, again, of remarkable size.
We carefully made our way around the concrete plinth to the east side of the bridge, where some large sections of bonebed had recently fallen. By breaking up these blocks, many
fantastic fossils were found, including several Hybodus fin spines and beautifully ornamented fish scales. It is possible to treat rocks from the bonebed with vinegar to extract the fossils they contain – placing the rock in a sealed jar containing white vinegar of 6-7% and replacing the vinegar every few days will dissolve the rock. Sieving the sediment at the bottom of the jar will yield dozens of isolated teeth and scales, which you can observe in detail under a microscope or magnifying lens. However, it is worth noting that coprolites and bone often become fragmentary during this process. As the hunt drew to a conclusion, Mike Greaves made a rare and exceptional find in the form of a large Severnichthys jaw section, which clearly contained a number of large teeth. Mike is in the process of very carefully prepping and preserving this fragile specimen, and we hope to keep you updated about his progress on our Facebook page.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for our first fossil hunt of 2018. It was a truly great start to the year and it was great to meet so many new fossil enthusiasts. We hope to see you all again soon on another fantastic fossil foray.
On Wednesday 13th December King’s College London, in association with the Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, hosted a pop-up palaeoart exhibition “The Art of Extinct Animals” featuring some of the UK’s leading palaeontological artists who showcased their artwork and talked about how they go about reconstructing extinct animals and lost environments.
The one-off event engaged with questions like: How can artists reconstruct and recreate the life of the past? What challenges, techniques and difficulties are there in this process? How does the history of palaeontological artwork affect current conventions in the field? And what does palaeontological artwork tell us about the relations between science and art? The palaeoartists featured were Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Beth Windle and John Conway.
The first talk, delivered by Bob Nicholls, was ‘No, we don’t make it up! Palaeo-reconstruction explained from the inside-out.’
Bob used his reconstruction of Psittacosaurus as a case study to describe his process of building a physical representation of a dinosaur from its fossil, beginning with taking many detailed photographs and measurements of the fossil, including 3D prints to help reconstruct the skeleton and whatever traces remain of details of skin and soft tissue. He then considers the soft parts such as musculature and skin, drawing on evidence on the fossil for them, and considers the creature’s respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous and other systems and how these might have been laid out in the creature’s body. We can draw on living creatures to help imagine this. Bob stressed that it is important to overcome preconceptions of what the animal may have looked like; in other words, let the science speak.)
Bob creates palaeoart both traditionally (paint and brushes), using software and also as sculpture. Psittacosaurus is a sculpture so the next steps were to create an armature and clay model which was then coated in silicone to preserve detail then in fibreglass to keep it stiff. The sculpture was then cast, after which it needs to be repaired and tidied up before the final stage of painting takes place.
When deciding which colours to use it can be difficult or impossible to know but scientific developments are progressing constantly and new techniques enable us to learn more from fossils than ever before. Melanin preserved in fossils indicate likely colours. A good deal can also be surmised by considering the environment inhabited by the creature, evidenced by the other fossils found alongside, trace fossils like coprolites and the geographical location of the creature at the time of death and likely climate. For example, countercolouration is determined by environment – the amount of light, affected by latitude and habitat, determines the degree, acuteness and position on the body of countercolouration. By placing the model in a similar environment to that it is thought to have inhabited you can assess and inform decisions on how to place countercolouration. Other considerations include carotenoids, porphyries, pterines and purines in fossils, which also inform colour, and patterns in nature.
Next to speak was Mark Witton, whose topic was ‘The science of extinct animal life appearance: why “what did it look like?” is not just a question for palaeoartists (or children).’
Mark observed that it is natural to look at a fossil and wonder “what did it look like?” – palaeoart is about answering that, not by making it up but through scientific research. Palaeoart is more than basic anatomy – lots of new science is constantly revealing more information. So is palaeoart only to inform the lay person/children (non-specialists)? Is it too unknowable/speculative/scientifically meaningless? Is it not relevant to other fields of science? Can palaeoart serve science? Yes. Mark took us through examples of how fossils lead to the artist considering what the remains tell us about the animal and therefore how to depict it. Considering Arsinoitherium (an extinct horned mammal from the Eocene), the horn bone is not dense so what covered it to make it strong? Nature tells us this was likely a keratin sheath. Keratin rarely fossilizes so we cannot see it in the fossil so this makes us ask “what did it look like?” and question how the horns were used. Different horn types exist in modern nature which can be compared to fossils for similarities and the type of headgear extrapolated.
Considering Triceratops, it is hard to predict shape of the horn from the bone fossil because it isn’t the complete story so you need to think beyond that and consider how horn grows. For triceratops the horn shape reconstruction tells us the shape changes with age as a result of how horn grows, adding layers within the horn and pushing the earlier layers out and up. Taking another example, Tanystropheus, the fossil might be interpreted as a marine reptile with a long neck or a shore-based angler. Studying the skeleton more closely, tong cervical ribs and a large scapular area for muscular attachment gives power to lift and support the neck. Since this musculature and skeleton would not be necessary in water because water alone would provide sufficient support to the neck we can predict that the creature was a land based fisher.
So, the inquiring mind of the palaeoartist informs the artist how to build the creature up from bone to flesh, which habitat to place it in and how it interacts with other creatures in battle, mating and feeding. At the same time this rigorous inquiry and the resultant art feeds back into science, providing new hypotheses and giving context to scientists to then inquire further too.
Finally, Mark drew audience attention to a forthcoming publication, “The palaeoartists handbook”. Which is out in 2018 and published by Crowood Press.
The next speaker was emerging palaeoartist Beth Windle, whose topic was ‘Illustrating Mammals from Specimens, Life & Location.’
Beth’s primary artistic focus is the Hyena, a creature known and rercognised by most people in its modern form but which would have looked dramatically different during the Pleistocene due to a far cooler climate. Although genetically the same species as modern Hyenas, those of the Pleistocene would have borne thick, fluffy coats and predated on different animals to today. Beth strives to understand intimately how this creature and its environment would have looked and portray this in her art.
Beth spoke with passion about how good palaeoart must be informed by drawing from real life observation rather than relying on past art or Google. As an example, when it snowed recently Beth went out and sketched to capture the English Pleistocene-like environment. She recommended artists visit museums and collections and handle and draw real specimens and visit zoos and wildlife parks and observe and draw from life and real animal movement. Whilst we might not know exactly what a creature looked like, if we can understand its build and it’s habitat, and we really know how to draw animals and landscapes which contain movement and life, we can create good palaeoart.
Finally the audience heard John Conway expound on ‘Paleoart is the Best Art.’
John is an artist who sometimes draws dinosaurs and sometimes doesn’t. John elected to argue that palaeoart has the potential to be a mainstream art movement. John provided a complete – and very entertaining – art history lesson taking us from the beginnings of fine art right up to the modern day, arguing that art has already done everything from realism to abstraction so what is left to be done? Can palaeoart be fine art? Is palaeoart impeded by being representational? Palaeontology provides a new subject for art. Yes, it is technical, but that’s not novel. Art has been technical, fantastical, realistic and everything palaeoart is. So why hasn’t palaeoart become mainstream? Is it because it’s never been pitched as art for its own sake? Palaeoart can inform and entertain. So what is stopping it from transitioning from the stuff of science at one extreme and of childrens’ playgrounds at the other? John didn’t answer the question but left it as food for thought. One thing was certain; the audience at tonight’s event would certainly be glad to see more palaeoart!
Following the presentations the audience was able to return to the art displays to appreciate with fresh eyes the palaeoart on display by the four artists, including items available for purchase. All the artists were open to questions about their art and about palaeontology and some very interesting discussions ensued, from the likely function of the hind paddles of a plesiosaur to which creature of highly limited fossil evidence would the artists most like to be able to understand and portray.
Thank you to the event hosts and organisers, King’s College London and Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, and the artists for putting on such an interesting and informative event.
On Sunday 12th November UKAFH met in Warden, a small town on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for the last UKAFH fossil hunt of the year.
Along the East coast of Sheppey is the largest exposure of London clay in the UK stretching over 6km from Warden to Minster on Sea. The London clay is a marine deposit roughly 52 million years old at this location, of the Eocene epoch. The fine sediment was deposited in a fairly deep, warm and placid sea which was relatively close to land – evident in the abundance of wood and plant remains and occasional but rarely terrestrial birds, mammals and reptiles.
After a fantastic explanation of the local geology and palaeontology by Sam Caethoven and a show and tell of some exceptional specimens by Eliott Mills, we were off in search of fossils!
We were bombarded by a strong, bitterly cold arctic wind but fortunately it was not long before we made some great finds. Lucy was first off the mark with a beautiful shark vertebra, found just a few hundred yards from the carpark. Gastropods, bivalves, nipa fruit and shark teeth were all found within a short time on the beach. We soon headed further north along the beach, staying clear of the tall clay cliffs which are particularly dangerous at the moment as large clay blocks are falling frequently – The site is prone to extreme erosion, most evident by the world war two pill boxes which once sat atop the cliffs but are now haphazardly strewn on the beach in front of us. Beyond the pill boxes, the great finds just kept coming. Numerous crab specimens in phosphatic nodules were collected, some of which were exquisitely well preserved. Shark teeth, ray teeth and fish vertebra were also abundant. Eliott Mills made the exceptionally rare discovery of a leaf preserved in clay.
The relentless biting winds made hunting tough, but we endured and were rewarded for our hardy nature. Thank you to everyone who attended, it was a great day and I hope you all thoroughly enjoyed yourselves!
See you all again in the New Year!!
UKAFH fossil hunt at Warden Point, Isle of Sheppey, 12th November 2017 – a preview of some of our group’s finds
On Saturday 14th October UKAFH took a group out to the Warren, Folkestone for day one of the Kent weekender. We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather as our group of 30 descended the (pleasantly dry) mud footpath down to the beach to begin our hunt through the Cretaceous period! Once on the beach, UKAFH leader Chris Tait briefed the group on the geology of the location and what we might expect to find.
The rocks at Folkestone represent the Albian stage of the lower Cretaceous, 110-105 mya. Lower Greensand is found at the base of the cliff with Lower and Upper Gault clay resting conformably atop, however the clay slumps over the Lower Greensand and is eroded at sea level to release large volumes of fossils onto the beach in this highly productive locality for fossil hunting. During the time these sediments were laid down the UK was at a more southerly latitude in the area of the modern day Mediterranean and a warm sea teeming with life covered the UK. During this time sea levels were transgressing, with the Lower Greensand being deposited as and continued to erode, to be replaced with fine clay sediments once nearby land was completely submerged.
The Lower Greensand is less fossiliferous as the near-shore environment it represents was less suitable as a habitat but still contains excellent fossils such as ammonites; the Gault Clay, however, is packed with diverse fossils, some with exceptional preservation. Ammonites, belemnites and molluscs are common; nautilus, crabs, crinoids, fish remains, shark teeth and scaphopods can be found, along with rare finds of reptilia. Examples of all of these were found by members of our hunt group!
Phosphatised preservation is typical but quality is variable, with examples often fragmented or in nodules. However many examples are preserved in superb detail in pyrite and those which are newly emerged from the clay can retain some or all of their nacrous shell. Bivalves and molluscs which are newly exposed are often extremely fragile and are rarely collectable unless carefully removed along with the surrounding clay, but ammonites are more durable and make marvellous specimens to add to a collection.
Soon after we reached the beach heading towards Copt Point the finds were already plentiful. Partial regular and heteromorph (partially uncoiled) ammonites and bivalves were quite common and finds increased as people “got their eye in”. Some of the group progressed quite quickly along the beach to inspect the slips of clay for freshly washed out fossils and check out the shingle between the large rocks and boulders on the foreshore. Others remained nearer the start of the beach, working methodically through the shingle by hand, with a trowel, or dry sieving, in search of smaller finds like shark teeth.
Several members of the group found shark teeth, with Isabelle finding the largest example. At the other end of the scale, Sam found a small but scarce Acrodus shark tooth while sieving using a 3mm mesh. Sieving is a good technique to remove sand and search for small fossils which wash out higher up the beach because they are lighter. Sieving and shingle-searching up the beach yielded crabs, solitary corals, urchin spines, shark teeth and vertebrae as well as fish teeth, a turtle bone and the day’s star find, a swordfish tooth!
By the end of the day we had a really great selection of finds amongst the group!
The following day we were greeted with yet another gloriously sunny autumn day, enhanced by the towering white cliffs of Dover above our meeting point as Samphire Hoe Country Park. We had another full house of attendees and headed west along the beach to hunt for fossils amongst the chalk boulders on the foreshore. Aidan Philpott, UKAFH Leader, explained the geology and identified local fossils to look for to the group. The lower chalk (also known as the grey chalk) at Samphire Hoe is from the Cenomanian stage of the Upper Cretaceous so yields fossils aged 100.5 – 93.9 Mya.
Common finds are brachiopods, bivalves and echinoids. Sponges, shark teeth, worm tubes, gastropods and fish can also be found and, rarely, ammonites. As well as beautifully preserved fossils within the chalk, some echinoids and shells and many sponges form flint casts which can be washed out of the chalk and found in the shingle. Attractive pyrite crystals can also be found in the chalk.
Our first find of the lay was an eroded echinoid inside a flint block. UKAFH leader Chris Tait then found a large section of clam. These giant molluscs are mostly found broken into small pieces so this was a really nice find. As the day progressed a good variety of finds were made including echinoids, shark teeth and brachipods.
Samphire Hoe isn’t the easiest location for fossil hunting as you need to scrutinise the loose chalk boulders on the foreshore carefully for signs of fossils and then extract them very carefully with a chisel to ensure they are not damaged. You can also hammer the boulders to break the chalk up in search of fossils so work, tools and care are needed to have a good chance of finding fossils here. Once extracted, however, preservation is usually excellent, with fine details clearly visible.
Cleaning chalk fossils is easy, requiring little more than dry brushing the remaining chalk matrix with a soft brush (a children’s toothbrush is ideal) to remove any chalk remaining on the fossil surface. As chalk is very soft, you can easily remove larger amounts of remaining chalk with a blunt knife or craft knife until you approach the surface of the fossil and switch to brushing.
Finds were pleasing but not abundant, however everyone enjoyed the hunt and the sunshine day.
Chris, Aidan and Sam, your UKAFH leaders, would like to thank all of our members and attendees for joining us on our weekend fossil extravaganza and we look forward to seeing you all soon!
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On Sunday 1st October, UKAFH ventured along the coastline of Seaford in East Sussex – a small town about 10 miles east of Brighton with towering white cliffs.
After a very fortunate summer meteorologically speaking, we had spent the week with a close eye on the remanence of hurricane Marie which crossed the Atlantic and now threatened our fossil hunt.
Fortune persisted however, as although a bit windy and the sea choppy, we began the day dry and mild.
We began with an in depth talk about the geology by UKAFH leader Daniel Slidel. Exposed in the towering white cliffs of Seaford is the Upper Chalk, a Cretaceous deposit (Santonian-Campanian) about 86-83 million years old. Formed from the tiny platelets of coccolithophores – phytoplankton that was abundant in the deep, warm sea that existed here. This striking sediment helped preserve the creatures dwelling on the sea floor, which included bivalves, sponges, corals, bryozoan and the echinoids (sea urchins) this stretch of coastline is famous for. Within the cliffs are horizontal bands of flints which are visible as far as the horizon allows.
After a short walk from the car park we descended some concrete steps onto the beach. The abundance of fossil echinoids was immediately noted as within the exposed bedrock on the foreshore were the tell-tale circular marks of weathered echinoids in situ. We could not extract these as the bedrock here is protected, however this gave us ambition as we traveled west towards loose boulders from which we could extract specimens. It was not long before beautiful echinoids were being found loose or extracted from boulders. There were two genre found, Echinocorys and Micraster. These were found in chalk boulders preserved with delicately thin calcite test – however the flints on the foreshore should not be overlooked either as more robust and often sea rolled specimens for found here too. Other finds on the day included small bivalves, shapely sponges, coral and bryozoan.
As the afternoon drew late the atmosphere became heavy with the approaching storm and the first rain fell as we ascended the concrete steps back to the car park. Looks like we did it again and avoided the worst of the weather!
Thank you to everyone who attended this fossil hunt. It really was a great and friendly group of people, it was a pleasure to guide you through the Cretaceous geological history of Seaford.
Hampton, M.J., H.W. Bailey, L.T. Gallagher, R.N. Mortimore and C.J. Wood 2007. The biostratigraphy of Seaford Head, Sussex, southern England; an international reference section for the basal boundaries for the Santonian and Campanian Stages in chalk facies. Cretaceous Research, v. 28, no. 1, p. 46-60.