Weekend Roundup: The Pleasure of Fossil-Hunting

By Anne Perry

Posted on April 21, 2014 in Fun Stuff with tags Dinosaurs, Fossil Hunting, Fossils, History, Lyme Regis, Weekend Round Up

Editor Anne Perry talks us through the slow-moving pleasure of fossil-hunting.

If you’ve ever wanted a nice, low-impact activity that doesn’t cost much (or, really, anything), gets you outside and sends you home with souvenirs, fossil-hunting might be the thing for you. All it requires is some patience, good will, and an eye for detail.

You can get really involved and buy books and hammers and heavy-duty boots and generally take it very seriously – but fossil-hunting is rewarding even if you go about it casually. It’s especially rewarding if you ever cherished dreams of becoming a palaeontologist (my life’s ambition from ages 6 to age 18) – but again, this isn’t necessary to having a good time.


Getting started:

There are infinite resources available to you online. Pick a location and Google it – e.g, “fossil-hunting in the UK” (253,000 results in .35 seconds). I tend to spend a lot of time down on the so-called ‘Jurassic Coast’ in part because it’s incredibly rich in fossils (and, as you might suspect, I like fossil-hunting). But there are an extraordinary number of places in the UK – indeed, all over the world – where you can go a’fossiling. Next time you’re going somewhere and you know you’ll have a little spare time, check it out beforehand to see if it might be a good place to go fossil-hunting.

What you need:

Good walking shoes. A willingness to stoop over and peer at things. Maybe a picnic lunch.

If you want to get serious about your fossil-hunting, there is all kinds of fancy gear you can treat yourself too. And, of course, many books. But honestly, you don’t really need any of them! (Though it is fun to bang on rocks with a hammer.)

What to be careful about:

436px-Mary_Anning_paintingCliffs! Fossils tend to be exposed on crumbling cliffs. Do not pull fossils out of an exposed cliff face. Seriously, this is incredibly dangerous. Mary Anning, who discovered any number of extraordinary marine fossils in the early to mid-nineteenth century (including the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils), nearly died in a landslide, and her pet dog didn’t survive. Honestly, cliffs are dangerous. If you’re fossil-hunting around cliffs, keep to the piles of rubble that are well away from the cliffs themselves.

Laws: There are strict laws all over the world about what to do when you find something, what you can take and whether you have to report what you discover. Make sure you know whether it’s okay to wander off with your new-found treasure! (You can check online.)

Rocks: If your search for fossils does inspire you to bang on rocks with a hammer, please be careful. Tiny shards of rock can fly into your face and eyes and cause a lot of damage. (It only takes being hit in the face once to teach you to value safety over any self-consciousness associated with wearing dorky eye-protection.) Also, try not to hammer yourself. But be aware that you will, eventually, hammer yourself. And tread carefully when you’re climbing around on slimy or unstable rocks; we don’t want you to break any bones! (My husband nearly snapped off a finger when he slipped on a rock, several years ago. BE CAREFUL.)

The fossils themselves: The fossils you find almost certainly won’t look like the specimens you see in museums, which have been professionally excavated and prepared. So don’t be disappointed if you don’t wind up discovering the perfect ammonite or some incredible new dinosaur on your first fossil-hunt! A fossil dinosaur in situ, for example, can be a giant tumbled-up mess (like this).

You’ll probably find small things, and often fragments. The fossils I most commonly find, belemnites, are little and grey and not especially prepossessing. Don’t be disappointed! You’ve just found something that lived millions of years ago, and has survived to be discovered by you thanks to some utterly staggering ecological, mineral and chemical processes. How cool is that?

So have fun and let us know if you find anything interesting! (I certainly will!)

burgess shaleAll images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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