On a comfortably warm and dry Sunday 12th May UKAFH was privileged to gain access to internationally renowned Smokejacks quarry – a large clay pit operated by Weinerberger located close to Walliswood 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 early flowering 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 dinosaur remains which can be unearthed here with a good eye and a bit of luck.
Our guides for the day were Weald Clay expert and PalAss English Wealden Fossils author 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 and 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 walked as a group to the pit head, from where UKAFH leader Sam was able to point out the stratigraphical layers and indicate where people might start hunting depending on what they might hope to find.
Some 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 and scales on previous occasions. Others chose to work the “dinosaur” plant debris bed 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. Mark Goble and Sam Caethoven returned to a small siltstone exposure in the lower part of the quarry which had proved fruitful on a previous visit and were soon finding blocks containing a very rich layer of jumbled fish bones which is overlain by insect remains. Some of the fish remains are articulated and very well preserved. Mike Webster also began to find some fine insect specimens. Many of the group came a long to see what was coming out of the insect bed and went on to find their own insects after seeing examples of the right stone and how and where to split it.
The area of the quarry we had access to has not been worked for several months and has been well-visited over that time, with little inclement weather to erode the surfaces. Consequently finds were less common than in the past, however no-one went home empty handed. Those digging into the plant debris bed like Andrew Marsh found some beautifully preserved seeds and leaves and surface hunters and diggers with keen eyes like Vicky Lane found Scheenstia fish scales and teeth. Adam Ward was rewarded for his digging efforts with the day’s only dinosaur bone find and Peter Waring did very well, finding part of a hybodont shark fin spine.
It is uncommon to have access to a working quarry where the extraordinary, fossil-filled stratigraphy of the Wealden clay can be observed and explored in a way that is impossible in a coastal cliff setting and everyone enjoyed the experience.
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 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 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!