UKAFH exclusive interview with Chris Packham, broadcaster and naturalist, at Dinosaurs of China exhibition.
UKAFH reporters Aidan Philpott, Nicky Parslow and Sam Caethoven visited the press preview of Dinosaurs of China and gained an exclusive interview with BBC’s Chris Packham. Here he gives us his views on the exhibition and tells us about his own interest in fossils as an amateur collector. Chris has been a fossil enthusiast since childhood and still recalls modelling his first plasticine T-rex as a child, complete with teeth and claws but with a dragging tail (to stop it falling over) and keeps a diary of his fossil finds.
UKAFH: How did you start fossil collecting?
CP: I grew up in Southampton so as a child I used to regularly go to nearby Bracklesham Bay where I collected bivalves, shark teeth and turritella gastropods. I recall when they built the power station they dug a tunnel under the Solent which went through the Bracklesham beds. The spoil from the tunnel works was deposited at Warsash and I found my best shark tooth there. I still have it.
We used to have family holidays in Lyme Regis too and I was always begging my parents – unsuccessfully – to get up early to beat the crowds to the beach and Black Ven. I remember other fossil hunters being kind and I still have a good ammonite that a local collector gave to me when hunting there as a kid. Oddly, even though we lived in Southampton, we never went to the Isle of Wight. But now my partner owns a zoo next to Dinosaur Isle so I look out for fossils when walking the dogs at Yaverland and have found a few bits.
UKAFH: What do you think responsible amateur fossil hunters contribute to science?
CP: When I am on the Isle of Wight I see the enormous conflict between scientists and amateurs. But amateur collectors have found a lot of fossils. Fossil collecting should primarily be about science (an enquiring mind and a wish to preserve and study) rather than money (purely commercial collecting). Amateurs contribute a lot by being out there in numbers and finding fossils.
UKAFH: What fossils do you have on display?
CP: I have a collection of axe heads – human ichnofossils – on display. I also have a museum quality T-rex skull that was given to me once as payment in kind! Aside from that I have 1/3 scale casts of T-rex and Triceratops and a really great Ichthyosaur coprolite (fossil poo) from Lyme Regis. I also have a Carcharocles megalodon tooth which sits on top of my microwave. It isn’t huge but it’s really good quality and cost around £40. If investing in fossils I consider quality is a better investment than size. My dream is to own a banana sized T-rex tooth.
UKAFH: What next?
CP: Next week I’m off to the Black Hills, South Dakota, on a T-rex dig. I’m wildly excited as the Tyrannosaurus rex is an iconic dinosaur known to everyone and was the dinosaur I modelled from plasticine as a child. I’m making a show about the T-rex which is due to air at Christmas as a 1 hour special which will look at how our understanding and depiction of the dinosaur has evolved over the years. The programme is inspired by David Hone’s Tyrannosaur Chronicles. The programme will see what a wide range of contemporary scientific research and techniques is revealing to us about T-rex physiology, biology, behaviour, diet and environment. Best of all, by the time the programme airs it will already be out of date because our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly changing and growing so there is always more to know.
UKAFH: Tell us your thoughts on the Dinosaurs of China exhibition here at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.
CP: What this amazing exhibition really demonstrates is how our understanding of dinosaurs has transformed as scientific examination has improved and developed and more specimens have been discovered, including these extraordinary fossils from China which have remarkable soft tissue and feather preservation. The emergence of more specimens and our ever-changing understanding reminds us that we never have all the answers and that our curiosity of dinosaurs can endure and inspire future generations to constantly pursue better understanding. This exhibition principally serves to remind us that dinosaurs are not extinct and that they surround us every day in the form of modern day birds. In fact, the curation of the displays carefully blends the fossil specimens with birds from Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection, which is one of the most extensive natural history collections in the UK. WE don’t know if dinosaurs evolved feathers for warmth or display but can examine the clues And study the fossils and continue to learn.
UKAFH: The exhibition also focusses strongly on palaeoart. What are your views on this?
CP: Palaeoart is hugely important as the public face of palaeontology. People see dinosaurs depicted in books, pictures and films and it profoundly influences how we think of dinosaurs. I recall desperately wanting to see 1 Million Years BC as a child because I wanted to see moving, living dinosaurs portrayed on screen. I was hugely disappointed. Even at a young age I could see through the prosthetic horns on iguanas, enlarged tortoises and badly animated dinosaurs. Seeing specimens in the bone or, as with Dinosaurs of China, in the feathers and flesh, is hugely important to our understanding. Palaeoart can represent truth and beauty and reflect and portray animals according to the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, directly contributing to public perception. It is always disappointing when opportunities to achieve this are missed, such as Jurassic World persisting with the scaly, mis-sized beasts of the earlier and less informed original Jurassic Park.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott
On Sunday the 4th June UKAFH descended in number upon the Sussex shoreline for a fossil hunt from Pett Level towards Fairlight – a stretch of coastline famous for its dinosaur foot prints, foot casts and dinosaur bone.
We began with a short explanation about the geology and what could be found. Exposed in the cliff here is the lower part of the Wealden group of formations, a deposit of sandstone, siltstone, clay and conglomerates dating to the Lower Cretaceous, about 140 million years ago. It was deposited in a vast river system and flood plain at a time of exceptionally warm global temperatures and an area of extremely seasonal weather. The seasonal nature of the palaeoclimate helps explain why this deposit came to be so fossiliferous and preserve the famous foot prints and casts. We can imagine the area as a warm, wet, densely vegetated environment, indicated by the great number of plant remains found here. The numerous rivers and lakes were abundant with life, made apparent by the dense assemblages of bivalve fossils, abundance of fish bone, scales and teeth and most notably by the huge slabs of bioturbation found on the shoreline – the trace fossils of creatures moving through the fluvial mud. This mud was also deposited on the river banks where huge (and sometimes small) dinosaurs such as Iguanodons or Baryonyx would stop for a drink, leaving their distinctive foot prints. Then came the dry season, which was extreme enough to cause bush fires – indicated by the presence of charcoal in the formation – the rivers dried up and the lakes became anoxic, aiding preservation. This was followed by the wet season, with intense storms and flooding, depositing larger grained sediment across the floodplain, burying the foot prints to form foot casts and preserving the remains of plants and animals to be found here 140 million years later.
We didn’t have to worry about such seasonal extremes on this fossil hunt however, as the sun was shining while we enjoyed the summer warmth with a refreshing sea breeze. There was a lot to see as he headed west towards Fairlight. We saw large blocks of bioturbation and ripple marks preserved in claystone, the black remains of plant material were also abundant. The foot casts and prints were unfortunately sparse compared to previous UKAFH visits however a spectacular and rare theropod print was found. We also found huge slabs of Cliff End Bone Bed, a conglomerate which as the name suggests contains a lot of a bone fossils. These slabs contained clearly defined fish scales and teeth – those members lucky enough to find small pieces of bone bed took them home to treat with a mild acid such as vinegar to extract the fossils within. Other finds included bivalves, the odd rolled dinosaur bone, fish bones and of course Nicky Parslow found an echinoid preserved in flint, something that’s become a trademark of hers. Another unusual find was the barrel of a gun found by Chris Avis. It was debated as to whether it was an Air rifle, a pressure washer, or even a WW2 American paratrooper rifle! I hope Chris has it looked at and lets us know the conclusion.
Although the finds were few and far between on this occasion I hope everyone enjoyed a sunny and informative day on the beautiful Sussex coastline and I hope to see you all again soon on another UKAFH hunt.
Please note. This stretch of coastline is a SSSI. Do not dig into or hammer the bedrock or cliffs – only loose fossils along the foreshore should be collected and any significant finds should be registered with Bexhill Museum. The often abundant foot prints and casts must not be collected – instead take a photograph and leave them for everyone to enjoy.
Under a blazing sun a band of 34 of us gathered to enjoy a day at the seaside fossil hunting. Kitted out in hi-vis but otherwise lightly equipped, this family-friendly fossil hunt was ideal for beginners and old hands alike. Fossils are easy to find at Beltinge and require only a sharp pair of eyes and a little patience to find.
Beltinge beach yields fossils from the Palaeocene and Eocene epochs of 56 – 54 million years ago which were laid down in a warm marine climate.
The Paleocene rocks of the Thanet Formation are exposed on the foreshore and in the cliffs towards Reculver. The younger Palaeocene and Eocene rocks overlay this and are exposed in the gently dipping strata. At Beltinge, the Beltinge Fish Bed of the Upnor Formation (Palaeocene) is brought down to beach level. West of the car park, the Oldhaven Beds slope towards beach level, exposing the Oldhaven Fish Bed. The fossils at this location erode slowly from the cliffs and the beds which form the beach. Beltinge is renowned for a diversity of fossil shark teeth as well as marine vertebrate remains such as fish and shark vertebrae, eagle ray and chimaeroid fish dentition and bones and carapace of marine turtles.
On the date of our visit the tide wasn’t particularly low and the sea has been very calm, meaning that a lot of sand was deposited on the beach and the best search areas were covered by either sea or sand. However fossil hunters should not be deterred as a location like this is so rich in fossils that even a “bad” day will yield finds with a little patience and effort.
We had only been on the beach for a few minutes when first-time UKAFH hunter Jo Applegate found a shark or ray vertebra, an uncommon find.
Continuing along the foreshore, we searched the gravel and shingle on the foreshore for fossils and soon the group was finding shark teeth and other small fossils. Below are finds by Nicky Parslow and Olivia Birch.
As we proceeded we followed the tide out and headed towards Reculver where the “islands” of sand and shingle form, trapping fossils amongst the small pebbles. There are teeth from about 24 species of shark, ray and other fish to be found here, as well as the remains of crocodile and turtle. Poppy Hewitt found a beautifully preserved section of turtle carapace and Sam Caethoven found a nice piece of eagle ray palate, pictured below. Amy Everitt also soon found her first shark tooth!
Fossilised wood is also common at Beltinge although it is very friable and not worth retaining. Pyrite specimens are a little harder wearing but prone to pyrite disease (rust!). Members were able to find and enjoy numerous specimens.
Continuing onward and outward, as the low tide peaked we reached the Thanet Formation which we were fortunate to find exposed. Here it was possible to observe many bivalves in situ, although on the whole they are too fragile to remove, being supported by silty sand and mud. However, some of the bivalves have become pyritised inside so occasional examples of intact shell over solid centres or the beautiful metallicised casts of the bivalves can be safely collected.
Close attention to the areas between the pebbles and the clay on the foreshore began to reveal a greater number of shark teeth. These were larger and better preserved than those found in the shingle, being more newly eroded from the clay, and were predominantly Striatolamia macrota. This is the most commonly found shark tooth at this location and is black in colour and distinguished by striated faces. The best example was found by Aidan Philpott.
Aside from the shark vertebra found, the most unusual find of the day was identified after the fact as a partial snake vertebra found by Nicky Parslow. Nicky also found the partial echinoid pictured below, alongside a left mandibular plate from the chimaeroid fish Elasmodus hunteri found by Sam Caethoven.
We have received several emails with thanks and positive feedback from members who attended the event. We very much enjoyed hosting the hunt and are delighted that members had a great time too! As always, we look forward to meeting you again on future hunts.
Finally, could a sunny day at the seaside be complete without an ice cream?
On Monday 13th February I visited the Etches Collection, a museum of Dorset fossil finds in Kimmeridge, East Dorset. It was a gloriously sunny day and as I wound my way through the undulating geology of the Dorset countryside towards Kimmeridge I was treated to panoramic views of a vast swathe of the Dorset coast with its famous cliffs spanning over 130 million years of Mesozoic rock layers and associated fossils.
Steve Etches, whose name the museum takes, is the discoverer of all the fossils contained within. An amateur fossil hunter, he is self-taught and has collected from the Kimmeridge clay in and around Kimmeridge bay for over 30 years. His collecting has yielded over 2000 extraordinary late Jurassic Kimmeridgian specimens. Each specimen was collected, identified, researched and prepared by Steve in his spare time in between his job as a plumber. He has identified several new species and made discoveries new to science including a barnacle which was the “missing link” in one of Darwin’s hypotheses and still retains original colour, ammonite eggs and ray clasper fins used in reproduction. Steve was awarded an MBE and numerous academic prizes and, now retired, can devote himself full time to his passion.
Steve’s collection was previously housed in his garage then overflowed into his home, when the plan was conceived to leave his collection in trust to the nation. As a result this fantastic, state-of-the-art museum was created. He has a well-lit and spacious preparation space and is hands-on with the collection including spending time with visitors and leading tours of Kimmeridge bay. When I visited, three generations of Etches family were on site meeting, greeting and assisting visitors. The museum’s activity and operation is supported by volunteers and volunteer opportunities of all kinds are available.
The building itself is elegant and sits perfectly within its surroundings. It isn’t only a museum – the building has meeting and hall facilities so is capable of operating as an educational facility as well as a community space which is available for hire. It puts the building at the heart of the community as well as making it pay for itself by being an excellent, multi-purpose resource. An art class was taking place on the day we visited. Beyond the physical presence, the website has a collection database which is great for researching finds, downloadable pdfs and lots of information on the museum, the building, activities and the local area. You can even book a tour of Kimmeridge bay with Steve Etches himself!
When you enter the large reception area there is a welcoming reception area, a small gift shop and a large amount of space available to sit, relax, enjoy drinks and snacks (self-service) and for children (and adults) to read discovery panels and handle real fossils and examine them in close detail under microscopes. There are information sheets and activity packs and colouring kits are available.
Heading upstairs, the exhibition space occupies a single, long room which is intelligently laid out to maximise quality display blended with interactive information panels, a seated cinema-style area showing film of Steve Etches at work and speaking about his fossils and ending with a glass wall dividing the exhibition space from the well-lit and expansive preparation area where Steve Etches and any assistants go about the painstaking work of extracting and conserving fossil finds. Finally, look up and you find yourself underneath the rippling waters of the Jurassic oceans thanks to room-length CGI panels showing what we imagine might have been the constant parade of Jurassic marine life going about their daily business. A shoal of ammonites; a vast pliosaur filling the water above us; belemnites being pursued by a predador; ichthyosaurs, marine crocodiles and plesiosaurs.
The exhibition space and exhibit captioning are thoughtfully conceived along themes rather than fossil types, bringing together the story of all life in the teeming Jurassic oceans as a whole. The displays tell the story of species identification, food chains, eating, processing and expelling waste (my favourite! From food to poo!), defensive attributes and learning what the fossils tell us. There is no display showing a hundred ammonites with labels identifying each species; instead we are shown ammonite eggs and asked how we tell the difference between males and females. We see tiny, innocuous fossils which are in fact unique to science and are some of the most important discoveries ever made concerning Kimmeridgian fossil records and completing Darwin’s research and theories. Another display shows us an exquisitely preserved ichthyosaur with immaculately preserved stomach contents and we are encouraged to look closely and determine what had been its last meal (revealed by the presence of fish vertebrae and belemnotheutis hooks). There are fossils showing ammonites that have been predated – all bitten in the same place to snatch the flesh out of the shell at the back of the body chamber – and lobsters that have taken refuge in the empty shells of ammonites. There are even large marine reptile fossils showing clear evidence of being attacked and killed by bigger, stronger marine reptiles. Finally there are displays of the unlikelier fossils found in marine sediment such as pterosaur and sauropod bones.
The displays are easily relatable to the dynamics of modern life; the food chain, adaptations to the environment, even some characteristics are close to identical to this day. We see the Coelacanth, a Jurassic fish thought extinct until a modern one was discovered in the last century. We see pristine fossil sea urchins which were already so perfectly evolved to their environment 150 million years ago that living urchins are almost identical today. And speaking of urchins, at the very end we see a tiny, marble-sized specimen, carefully protected in a small, clear vial. This tiny, perfect penta-symmetrical fossil is the very one that captured the imagination of a five year old boy who would never cease to marvel at the wonders of deep time preserved in the rocks of the Jurassic coast. That little boy was, of course, Steve Etches.
Whilst visiting the Etches Collection we were able to observe Steve Etches at work is his preparation room, which is a glass-walled extension to the exhibition space. While visitors enjoy the displays, videos and interactive information panels Steve can be observed going about his daily business of preparing his own and others’ finds. Steve was generous with his time in allowing me to speak to him about the museum and his work.
During our visit he had a partial Ichthyosaur laid out on the considerably sized work surface undergoing preparation. He explained to us that the creature would have been much larger than the 2-3 metres on the table as the hind portion of the animal beyond the ribs, including the hind limb paddles and down to the tail fluke was missing. Only part of the front paddle was present and the digit bones had been prepped out individually by the owner. The specimen had since been unwisely stored in a hot, bright conservatory. Steve said he hoped to find more of the paddle on the underside of the specimen and showed us how the specimen was not lying flat. His plan was to see how much more of the specimen he could detect then protect and cover the specimen totally then turn it over and prepare the specimen from the other side, so that with careful and sympathetic preparation from the unexposed side a better, more perfect skeleton could be revealed and displayed. The rostrum was present but detached from the rest of the skeleton and prepped out so Steve’s conservation work would include re-positioning the head and paddle based on his vast knowledge and experience to make the final result as complete and accurate as possible.
Aside from the Ichthyosaur, there were a couple of ammonites
already covered and labelled ready for preparation from the reverse and part of a crocodile skull and jaw. We spoke a little about the UKAFH hunt the previous day at Lyme Regis where several members found Ichthyosaur vertebrae and I showed him a photograph of the enormous coprolite found my member Martin Curtis. Steve was immediately intrigued and impressed at the size and quality of the specimen, observing the spiral definition characteristic of shark poo and that there were bones visible within the coprolite. The enthusiast’s curiosity was sparked and his enquiring mind was immediately processing what he could see and what could be learned from it.
Steve is famously self-taught. When I asked him about this he said that no course or lecture can ever be a substitute for real, hands-on experience. Of course you still need resources to identify and describe your fossil finds and at this stage he will turn to reference books. A blend of fieldwork and research over 30 years has made him the expert he now is. The same goes for fossil preparation. Although many conservators will advocate certain materials and methods for durability, reversibility and so on, it is generally highly unlikely that a specimen that has required repair will ever need to be “unrepaired” and preservation of the specimen is paramount. Steve has his own methods and techniques for extracting and repairing fossils which have come from trial and error with glues, air pens, abrading tools and so on. A spot of surplus glue can be removed with an air pen without damaging the fossil.
We spoke a little about fossils offered for sale, especially the large, valuable pieces seen at big auctions. Steve cautioned that some of the exceptional specimens may be so because they have been enhanced, repaired or prepared to appear better than they are but that from a scientific point of view the integrity of the fossil is of greater value than the aesthetic. I asked Steve about the “Weymouth Bay Pliosaur” Pliosaurus Kevani, which is the largest marine reptile that ever lived and on display at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Steve Etches was involved in the recovery of the portion of the specimen still in situ high in the cliffs after the fragments collected over 8 long years of gradual erosion and rock fall had been amassed from the beach by a local café owner. The specimen had originally been for sale but the price obtainable was around 1/3 of the cost required to assemble and prepare the specimen adequately.
Steve Etches is a man with an enquiring mind with a passion for his hobby that is driven by curiosity, and problem-solving. After over 30 years his love is still to head out to the beach whenever he can and the conditions are right, seek out new specimens, identify and prepare them and look at his discovery and say “what does this mean?” and “why is this different to the others?”. When asked why he chose to donate his collection he said simply that he can’t take it with him when he dies and he doesn’t care for whatever money the collection may be worth because he simply doesn’t need it. You need enough money to get by. Steve Etches is a man of simple, human needs with a passion he is glad to share. He spends time with the museum visitors and enjoys diffusing his passion and curiosity amongst them. He is the amateur collector any UKAFH member can become if they find joy in fossil hunting and it makes them ask questions, seek out the answers and keep hunting.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and came away with a lot of new knowledge. I hope you will all visit and have the same experience! The ticket can be retained for re-admittance within the year and I definitely plan to go back. Visit details are:
The Etches Collection, Museum of Jurassic Marine Life, Kimmeridge, Dorset BH20 5PE http://theetchescollection.org/home
Adults £8; Children (5 – 16 years) £4; Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £20.00; Family ticket (1 Adult + 3 children) £ 16.00; Children under 5 years – free
Thank you to Steve Etches and Carla Crook for making me feel so welcome and giving up time to talk to me during my visit.
On Sunday 9th April, UKAFH met in Norfolk for a fossil hunt along the coastline of Overstrand, a village a few miles south-east of the popular holiday destination of Cromer.
We began with a show and tell presented by UKAFH leaders Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott, discussing the local geology and providing an example 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, there is the chalk. Maastrichtian in age, this chalk is some of the youngest exposed in the UK at around 70 million years old. The chalk sediment formed 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 – who’s calcareous plates formed the striking white sediment – but also in echinoids, belemnites, corals and sponges whose fossils we came to find today. Also present 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), 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 third geological feature here is from the last glacial stage, about 100 thousand years ago. The glacial stage has deposited thick areas of till and glacial clays but the most apparent action of the glaciation is how the underlying sediments of cretaceous chalk and interglacial crag have been affected. A process called glacial thrusting has lifted the chalk horizontally, so much so that at times the chalk appears above the younger sediments in the cliff, some strata appear unexpectedly horizontal and glacial lakes and channels cut through the underlying sediments, filled with till and glacial clay. The overwhelming force of glaciation is very apparent at Overstrand.
Fortunately for us, the ice has long receded and we were able to enjoy the warm spring sunshine of the current interglacial stage as we headed down on to the beach.
Fossil hunting conditions here have not been the best of late; several feet of sand have covered the foreshore for some time. Beneath this sand lays the Maastrichtian chalk from which many of our finds are to come from, however the chalk 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 many echinoids preserved in flint – mostly of the genus Echinocorys – as well as belemnites and no end of sponge fragments. I was particularly surprised by the number of mammal bone fragments that were found, washed out from the Wroxham Crag and Cromer forest bed. One find that I found exciting was a small fish vertebra in dark Cromer Forest bed sediment found by Clare Ashworth. As the tide retreated 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 sponges with beautifully preserved detail.
Unfortunately, as the chalk was exposed close to low tide, it wasn’t long before the sea turned and we were pushed back from the exposures, however we headed home very much satiated. Although the beach was in unfavourable condition, the hunt was unexpectedly productive with unexpectedly fine spring weather. 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 Wednesday 12th April UKAFH members were welcomed to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour organised by UKAFH leader Andrew Bayliss.
We met outside the museum at 10:30 and entered as a group to be signed in for our special tour. We were welcomed by Eliza Howlett and Juliet Hay who introduced us to the museum, its aims and its collections. OUMNH display as much as they are able to and include good quality labelling and information boards to provide an excellent learning and research facility for amateurs and professionals alike. Numerous specimens are “hand-on” so can be handled to aid familiarity.
The collection is formed from specimens that have been recovered by museum personnel as well as many, many donations from collectors, including items collected and curated by some of the pioneers of palaeontology whose curiosity and enquiry gave rise to the science at a time when the notion of earth science and palaeontology were seen as a blasphemy. The collection includes specimens found, documented or curated by such important figures as Robert Plot, first curator of the Ashmolean museum and author in 1677 of Natural History of Oxfordshire; William Buckland, geologist and scientist who first described megalosaurus, the first ever named dinosaur; and fossils from Lyme Regis found by renowned women Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.
Following our introduction we divided into two groups in preparation for our back-of-house tours. My own group began in the research laboratories with Juliet, who led us though corridors lined with fossils and displays to the back buildings and the palaeontology conservation and preparation lab. The room was lined with familiar equipment such as storage trays, microscopes, brushes and preparation tools, preparation stations and also specialist storage units.
Juliet explained some of the techniques used in scanning and preparing fossils, beginning by explaining how a pliosaur collected by museum staff from an Oxfordshire quarry was safely and carefully extracted. The marine reptile was discovered during a routine site visit and was found unexpectedly. It was very close to being destroyed by the work machinery excavating the quarry so the discovery was very timely and decidedly pleasing. Juliet commented that complete specimens are only very rarely recovered because of the highly mechanised and industrial nature of modern quarries where rock is quickly and expediently removed and many specimens that may be within the location are simply chewed up and destroyed by the plant. We were told of how the very fragile specimen was carefully extracted by first cutting a trench around the fossil in-situ, covering it with a layer of wet tissue then plaster-impregnated bandages to form a secure and immovable jacket before lifting the entire specimen, piece by piece, and transporting it to the lab. Once offsite, the specimen was CT scanned, still within the matrix, to discover the lie of the bones.
Juliet was currently working on the preparation of the skull of “Eve”, the plesiosaur famously found at Must Farm quarry near Peterborough last year, using the scan to assist her. Whilst this method may seem non-traditional, it does permit Juliet to appreciate where the bones are whilst carefully removing the matrix to avoid as much damage and loss to the extremely fragile skull. All of the preparation is done meticulously by hand with regular breaks because the focus and attention required is so exhausting. Juliet was using manual tools due to the soft clay but has air pens and abrasives for use on tougher matrix.
Next, Juliet told us a little more about her work, which not only includes fossil preparation but also fossil replication, making casts and replicas of fossils for display, sharing with other institutions and research. We were able to see the silicone mould Juliet uses to make identical reproductions of Buckland’s famous Megalosaurus jaw – a fossil of enormous importance as the fossil that gave birth to palaeontology and the naming of the Dinosauria. The silicone mould preserves every detail of the fossil and is more practical and sensitive than the techniques first adopted using clay. Juliet also showed us some 3D printed ammonite specimens and asked us to handle both the original fossil and also the 3D models and tell us whether we thought there was a difference. In fact, the 3D printed ammonite was rough whereas the ammonite was smooth; Juliet explained that this was an effect of the scanner reading incorrectly due to light refraction from the ammonite’s highly polished surface. So, although 3D printing is inexpensive and permits scaling of the object, it is not yet a perfect technique for fossil reproduction. However, for an item such as the ammonite in question, a cast is also imperfect as the body chamber cannot be moulded in silicone due to it’s delicacy so must be modelled as if infilled. Finally, we were shown a reproduction of an important fossil jaw, the original of which was lost to bombing during the second world war. Because casts were made the fossil can still be studied.
Before leaving the preparation lab, Juliet invited us to look under the microscope. What appeared to be a few tiny hairs to the naked eye proved to be belemnite hooks discovered in the clay recovered with the plesiosaur skull!
Moving on, Juliet took us deeper into the warren of back rooms to a large space which needs to be booked due to high demand for resource. Within was “Eve”, the incomplete fossil filling the entire room. Some of the skeleton has not been removed from matrix, particularly around the stomach area and also towards the tail, due to the matrix being too solid to risk extracting the bone without damage. Juliet told us the matrix around the stomach was likely of a different nature to the surrounding matrix due to the large volume of organic matter – flesh and intestinal contents – affecting the preservation in that area and also the chemical makeup of the fossilization. Another clast of more solid matrix had formed further down the skeleton and would also not be removed. However the University had been able to scan the entire skeleton and hoped to have both the original skeleton, as prepared as possible, and also a complete model skeleton on display by 2018.
After visiting Eve we returned to the main hall and handed ourselves into the care of Eliza Howlett who would show us the historical collections and explain their importance. We began in an Aladdin’s cave of fossils, the Jurassic room. This space filled to brimming with tantalising cupboards and drawers houses all of the collections from Jurassic Britain. Collections are carefully ordered and labelled and are visited around 100 times a year by visitors hoping to see and study the fossils. Eliza explained that the popularity of Tracey Chevalier’s historical novel, “Remarkable Creatures” had brought an increase in visitors hoping to see Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot’s famous discoveries in Lyme Regis at a time when fossils were only just beginning to be understood and explained. Eliza opened the drawers to reveal Elizabeth Philpot’s extraordinary fossil finds including possibly the most exquisite Dapedium fish of any museum collection. Elizabeth Philpot was a friend and supporter of Mary Anning whose specialism became fossil fish. She collected and prepared numerous exceedingly important and exceptionally preserved complete specimens from the Lyme Regis locality during her lifetime.
In the very same cabinet, and appropriately so for he was a contemporary and acquaintance of both women, were fossils which came to the museum from William Buckland’s personal collection. We were shown Buckland’s coprolites, a fossil which amused and intrigued the scientist. Buckland had a number of coprolite specimens cut, polished and set into a table in the manner of pietra dura for his own amusement; as well as in fact looking rather beautiful and interesting it tickled him to know his guests were unwittingly dining upon a surface made of dung! The table can be seen at the Lyme Regis Museum. More seriously, Buckland conducted a number of experiments to study and understand the formation of coprolites which involved obtaining and filling the intestines of extant species of fish, ray and shark with his own patented plaster named Roman cement to deduce that the shapes of coprolites – smooth, spiral, globular… – are determined by the shape of the intestine. His experimental pseudo-coprolites, still encased in their intestines, were also in the drawer.
While we all marvelled at the extraordinary fossils before us and their sheer quantity Eliza explained that the collections were amassed from some purchased items but in the main from many thousands of donated collections. It is a constant struggle to catalogue all of the specimens held, particularly those donated without clear labelling, however the museum always accepts donations and does not cherry-pick which specimens to take or leave. This is not only out of respect for the fossils and the collectors but also because our understanding of fossils and the fossil record is constantly changing and specimens that seem incomplete and unimportant now could prove to be otherwise one day. Eliza related to us a particular collection which has been donated which is, in the main, carefully and precisely labelled but has been donated because the donor can no longer manage his collection. Although now in a nursing home, he is still able to relate the details of each fossil so little by little the collection is being catalogued. Volunteers also assist with cataloguing.
We noticed some specimens were labelled to caution that pyrite oxidisation was present and Eliza told us about the museum’s preservation technique which involved providing as close as possible to an anaerobic environment for the specimens to avoid oxidization. Items are chamically treated and placed in a virtually airless bag along with silica gel to absorb any remaining moisture. A second and third sealed bag are added, enabling the specimen to be observed through the clear outer without gaining access to air. Specimens are checked and silica gel replaced annually.
Tearing ourselves away from the Jurassic room and itching to peek into every drawer (nay, every room!) we proceeded to a room holding historically the most important fossils in the museum’s collection and perhaps even the world. Before us were first editions of Plot’s and Buckland’s descriptive illustrated texts and – the actual megalosaurus jaw which Buckland described and which led to Owen naming the first ever of the Dinosauria. The specimen was as magnificent as it was awe-inspiring; beautifully preserved with its single erupted tooth and with further teeth evident and beginning to erupt. We were able to inspect and enjoy this extraordinary specimen from just inches away and it was a joy.
We also saw Plot’s early fossil descriptions, which included Megalosaurus fossils (although at the time it was unknown what it actually was) published some 150 years earlier. Although fossils had been known for thousands of years and held as precious, mythological or God-given objects of great beauty and mystery, they were yet to be understood. Plot realised, almost a century and a half before Buckland, that some rocks resembled living things and understood that, whilst some objects were truly just similar, others were almost certainly actual bones, shells and creatures turned to stone. He described these objects, with illustrations, as being of the appearance of this or that body part. In the illustration shown in the image below, the large bulbous object next to the “foot” was described as resembling a body part but Plot recognised it as a large bone due to the porous interior structure. It was not confirmed to be such by comparison to other bone specimens from suitably large animals such as horse and elephant. In fact, it was part of the limb of – a megalosaurus.
Other specimens on display in the “holy of holies” included a book where the paddle of an plesiosaur was first described, based on a fossil found by Mary Anning. although not entirely accurate it was a beginning both to describing this new creature and furthering the fledgling science of palaeontology. It is unknown whether the drawing led to Mary arranging the fossil or the fossil was arranged by Mary then drawn. However both the book and the original fossil are here, side by side, perfectly.
Alongside was the important, very early collection of fossils belonging to Edward Lhwyd, assistant to Robert Plot who went on to succeed him as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. The collection was formerly disbanded and spread out into different displays and stores. Now the collection has been painstakingly re-assembled. Seventy five specimens can be identified in his published catalogue of British fossils in the Ashmolean Museum, Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia, 1699. The book was written in Latin so it could be read throughout all of Europe.
With great reluctance we concluded our tour, peeking into a specimen store on the way to see some of the larger fossils including holotype specimens such as Stratesaurus taylori and a huge pliosaur skull.
Thus concluded our private tour, however we still had the whole of the museum to explore. Exhibits include a vast range of specimens, displayed both by age and also type, to give a clear understanding of the relationships between organisms and across time. I took a lot of photographs to assist me with cataloging some of my own finds once home. There are also exhibits specific to Oxfordshire, organised by strata, skeletal exhibits, minerals and scientific displays including Buckland’s collections, the Oxfordshire dodo and a great deal more.
UKAFH would like to express our sincere thanks the OUMNH for welcoming us and particularly to Eliza and Juliet for their time and wealth of information provided.
The collections at http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/ are well worth a visit!
As many of you know, Lyme Regis is one of the most famous and popular UK destinations for fossil hunting. For a lot of people including myself it was our introduction to fossils at a young age. I first visited there as a 7 year old boy with my Grandma, convinced I was going to find my own dinosaur skeleton! However it is not that easy, and despite many trips along that stretch of Dorset coastline over the years I have never been very lucky there. A combination of not knowing the best spots to hunt and the competition of thousands of eyes all looking for fossil treasure makes this beach quite a tough place to do well at.
Several factors need to coalesce for a successful hunt (time of year, tide timings, being in the right place and knowing what to look for) and I think it is safe to say that Craig and Steve gave us all the best chance when they arranged the hunt for mid-February on a very low tide with a local expert helping lead us to a great spot and assisting with identifications of the bits we found.
It is here that I must thank Brandon Lennon (our local expert for the day) for his time and sharing his expertise with us. Thanks Brandon, you really helped make the day!
The hunt was very well attended, and it was great to catch up with some like-minded fossil fiend friends, although I have to admit to having a twinge of paleo-envy when saying hi to Nicky and she bent down to pick up a beautiful tiny ichthyosaur tail vertebra not 6 inches from my foot! Great find!
It was a bitterly cold day, about minus 15 I think!! But the Chocosaurs that Sam bought did help some! What also helped was most of us found some really cool stuff.
Brandon took us to a stretch of beach between Church Cliffs and Black Ven and the hunt was on. I counted at least 5 ichthyosaur verts of various sizes that were found including a massive one that we had to leave as it was cemented into a block way too heavy to consider carrying off the beach. Sam broke her “ichthy vert virginity” after 4 years of hunting which was awesome. I was lucky enough to find a cervical vert – the first one after the skull (not sure of the scientific name!) and I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t one of those many FSRs (fossil shaped rocks!) but Brandon informed me that it was a cool find.
A Plesiosaur vert was also amongst the collective haul which was a beauty. Brandon found a woodstone nodule which he split, revealing a beautiful large partial ammonite and several Promicroceras ammonites. This was a proper Attenborough moment for me as it was the first time I’d seen a nodule split on the beach like this.
It might not sound it, but perhaps the most spectacular find was some poo! (fossil poo of course!) Craig had found a small one which whilst cool was overshadowed by the coprolite that Martin Curtis found. The massive and incredibly well preserved coprolite that he found would grace any museum collection. Well done to Martin for that wonderful find.
I was lucky enough to find some fish fin fossils from a Chondrostean, too. However I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a bit of fossil wood and broke it in half before asking what is was. (Muppet action of the day goes to me!)
As well as those great finds there were many Belemnites and small Ammonites found too, although I’m not sure how many of those were “take home” fossils!
Overall it was a great UKAFH hunt, a pleasure to have been a part of, and one I hope we do again next year.