Fossil Hunting

The current exhibition at Abingdon Museum “Sea Dragons and Giant Monsters” has been greatly enhanced by specimens lent to us by Dr James Etienne from his private collection. While installing the exhibition, we talked about collecting fossils, how he found some of the most impressive items in his collection and how he is looking for more fossils now. There were a few questions I wanted to put to him, which I thought other people might be interested in as well. So, today’s blogpost is an interview of sorts with James Etienne: the questions I asked him, and the answers he provided.

How do you go about looking for fossils? You can’t just walk into a gravel pit and start collecting. So how do you organize it? And how do you know where to look?

That’s right – fossil collecting requires a bit of organisation first.  The first thing you need to decide is what kind of fossils you would like to collect.  Rocks of different ages contain different kinds of fossils (in fact the uniqueness of fossils is used as the basis to correlate rocks of the same age).  You therefore first need to find out where rocks of right age are exposed.  This can be done by reviewing a geological map (available from geological surveys like the British Geological Survey), but for those starting out, the best resource may be to go to recommended well-known sites such as those highlighted on the UKAFH website.  Some of these locations are world-famous (for example Lyme Regis), and it is possible to go on organised fossil walks with knowledgeable local experts.  In any case, it is necessary to understand who owns the land, to get permission before visiting, to understand any collecting code of conduct or legal restrictions on collecting, Health and Safety considerations and logistics.  You should certainly never enter a quarry without first getting permission and having a Health and Safety orientation – they can be dangerous, especially if you do not know what you are doing. 

Beach west of the Cobb at Lyme Regis – excellent territory for fossil hunting. (Image from geograph.org.uk under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

How do you find the fossils? How do you recognise them in the ground? Especially if you find a lot of associated ones, how do you recognise what you’ve got? And how do you get them out of the ground?

It depends what kinds of fossils you are collecting and the nature of the rocks they are found in, but for the most part, the best tool is your eyes.  Since fossils are the remnants of animals and plants, they tend to be symmetrical in shape which tends to make them stand out compared with the local rock.  It is worth looking at some books/website images or visiting a museum first to understand what kinds of things to look for. However, understand that most of these fossils have already been prepared – they may have been found embedded in rock, or covered in dust or mud and many fossils (especially dinosaur and marine reptiles) can be found in hundreds or even thousands of pieces that need cleaning, preparing and gluing back together!  Shape, colour, texture and density can all be diagnostic for recognising fossils.  Collecting is very varied depending on what, and where you are collecting.  Some of the best places are beaches where you can just walk along and pick them up off the ground (indeed if you go the Isle of Wight, you can pick up pieces of dinosaur bone straight off the beach with ease)!  Other localities you may require a hammer to break open nodules, or a trowel/knife to cut into soft mud.  Some fossils can be extremely challenging to collect and prepare, so if you find something that looks important but don’t know what to do, contact your local museum or geological society for support.  

Once you’ve collected your fossils, what happens with them? What sort of preservation/preparation is done on the specimens?

The style of preparation and preservation required for each fossil depends on the nature of the specimen and the sedimentary rock in which it is encased. Most professional level preparation requires advanced equipment, experience and a lot of patience. If you need that level of preparation, there are highly skilled preparators who you can pay to do it. You can also buy the equipment needed and learn how to do this yourself, but like any complex skill this needs time and patience. Most kit needs to be operated by an adult, or at least under adult supervision.

Ichthyosaur vertebrae set into mud from the Kimmeridge Clay Formation where they were found. From the Etienne Collection.

Not all fossils need this level of preparation though. For many specimens the simplest preparation can be done with water and an old toothbrush, or weak vinegar (acetic acid). Specimens collected from beaches need to be soaked in fresh water to remove any salt which can cause rocks to deteriorate. Fragile specimens may need to be dried slowly. Beware pyrite – it often degrades over time due to oxidation. Once soaked to remove any salt, and thoroughly dried, coat with Paraloid B72 or use an inhibitor to stop pyrite degradation. Paraloid B72 can be purchased online ready-mixed in acetone for easy application. It is cheap, goes a long way and is an excellent thermoplastic resin. Paraloid brings out the natural colour of specimens, doesn’t yellow or degrade with age and can be completely removed through dissolution in acetone solvent. It’s a great preservation tool. Alternatively, beeswax is often used to polish larger ammonites and nautiloids which can bring out their natural colours and detail to great effect. For more information, there are lots of instructional videos on fossil preparation online, and distributors of equipment and chemicals are good at providing safety information and advice.

Large bones are often found in pieces and have to be glued back together. Here a Pliosaur limb bone from the Etienne Collection.

If I want to become a fossil hunter, how and where do I start? What is the best way of building up the knowledge and skills I need?

To get started it’s important to consider what you are targeting to collect, and for what purpose. If you have an interest in a specific group of fossils, do some research first to find where best to start exploring if you don’t already know where to go. There’s a wealth of information available online through social media, or connect with your local professional or amateur societies, many of which provide access to organised excursions. In the UK a great place to start is the UKAFH (UK Association of Fossil Hunters) that has a great website highlighting some key localities with information on the geology, likely find frequency and logistical considerations for site access.

An illustrated book like this can help you identify what you find. This one is a Natural History Museum publication.

Collecting fossils can be exhilarating fun and academically rewarding. Remember that fossils provide the basis for our understanding of the age of rocks and provide a lot of palaeoenvironmental information. You should always record where you found a fossil as accurately as possible, both the physical location, and, if possible, what stratigraphic unit it was collected from. You never know – you may have just picked up something that no one has found from that location before, or it could be something completely new to science! The value of a fossil is significantly enhanced by good information on where it came from.

With many thanks to James for sharing his knowledge. You can still see many of the specimens from the Etienne Collection on display at the museum until 25 September 2022.

Some of this content was adapted from an article James wrote for GeoExPro, which you can find by following the link: https://www.geoexpro.com/articles/2022/05/-gone-fossil-hunting

To see some examples of how to find fossils and some ‘before’ and ‘after’ preparation shots, check out je_fossils on Instagram where James posts video shorts of some of his finds.

Featured image: a long row of Plesiosaur vertebrae and other bones, all found by James Etienne and on display at Abingdon Museum until end of September 2022.

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