First of all, You have to ask, What sort of fossil hunter am I?
So, you’re on holiday over on the Isle of Wight, you need something to do, and you remember hearing that lots of fossils are found there, so a fossil-hunting trip must be in order. But how to go about it?
My first bit of advice would be to go on one of the fossil hunting trips organised by the local museums. That way, you know that you’re looking in the right place, and if you find something you think might be a fossil, you can ask someone.
However, if that doesn’t float your boat, and you want to go it alone, here is a bit of advice-
Stay away from the cliffs. They are very unstable in some places, and falling debris will do you serious harm. Now, you may think that avoiding the cliffs would reduce your chances of finding any fossils, and to an extent you would be right. However, you can find many fossils settled on the beaches, amongst the shingle. Rolled dinosaur bone can be found at most localities, which can be identified as such here.
You will only need two things. One is a magnifying glass, so you can take a closer look at what you’ve found, and lets you examine the structure, just be careful on the beach, as you may be out in bright sunshine, and you could damage your sight. The other, most important thing you need, is patience. It can take a while to find something, so if you haven’t found anything after an hour, just remember, you could give up just before you find something special!
Leave any other tools at home. I know it’s tempting to bring a hammer, and try to smash open a few rocks looking for fossils, but the chances are you either won’t find anything, or if there was something, you’ll smash it up. I’ve seen people hammering at the footcasts at Hanover Point enough times that you shouldn’t hammer unless you know exactly what you are doing. Any doubts, put it away.
So, you’ve loved dinosaurs since you were tiny, you’ve got loads of books and now you want to go out and find some. Where do you start?
As above, I will suggest going on a fossil-hunting tour with one of the museums, as even if you know a lot about fossils, they will have both local knowledge and experience, neither of which can be gained from a book. This will also help you get your eye in, so you know what you’re looking for. Also, consider joining Rockwatch, a fantastic geology club which has a regular magazine, fieldtrips and events across the country.
Obviousy, you will need some equipment. Well, the most important thing to remember is “Safety First”. You may think that I’m being over-protective, but this will save your life if you get injured.
You will need-
- A hard hat
- Sturdy boots
- High-visibility vest
While this last one will make you look like a plonker on the beach, you will be easier to see in an emergency, especially if you need rescuing because the tide’s come in!
You will also need stuff for finding fossils. The most important think to get is a handlens. This is basically a small, powerful magnifying glass, which usually folds into a protective case to prevent the lens from being scratched.
Your fossil hunting kit will not need to be too extensive, but the following items are often useful-
- Brushes – for removing debris.
- Small pointing trowel – Good for scraping away larger debris.
- Penknife – just be careful of the length of the blade, as it is illegal to carry a knife with a blade length above three inches in the UK. More can be found here.
Again, a hammer isn’t really necessary on the Isle of Wight if you’re looking for dinosaurs. The clays they are found in are quite soft, and can be broken up with a pen knife.
Other items you will need include-
- Kitchen roll
- Small, sealable plastic bags
These are to keep your fossils safe once you’ve found them.
- Compass – Preferably a proper orienteering compass, not to stop you getting lost, but to enable you to make a note of your exact location when you find a fossil – If part of a skeleton is in the cliff, there may be more, and you can tell one of the museums, who can organise a proper excavation. You can also use a GPS, but these are pricey, and not really necessary for a beginner.
Finally, you might need some guidebooks to help you identify your fossils. The local museums should have everything you need.
So, It’s your first time out in the field on your own, you’ve got to do logging, collect specimens and make maps, but you’re not sure what to do.
Most of what you need can be found in the above section, as many geology students are, and please don’t take this as abuse, a bit rubbish at fieldwork on their own. I, for example, was terrible, and probably still am, I just don’t get marked for it anymore.
Many of you, however, will have been issued with kit, especially the dreaded Geological Hammer. While the temptation is to smash open every rock you see or chisel out stuff you think might be bone, stop and think;
Do I Really Know What I’m Doing?
I’ve seen wonderful specimens being broken by students (I’ve even done it myself!) simply because they thought they knew what they were doing, but didn’t. If you find a bone embedded in a rock, don’t try and chisel it out, take the rock back with you (and if the rock is too big, and you’re worried the bone may get damaged if you leave it, chisel away from the bone, leaving about six inches between the bone and the chisel.)
Essentially, your hammer should only be used in emergencies, such as the one mentioned above, and then with care and attention. It’s for breaking up rock, not bludgeoning it into submission! Also, make sure you wear safety goggles when hammering too, as you don’t want to be blinded by flying debris.
Another thing, which I learnt the hard way, is to make sure you know what the strata you’re looking for looks like. There’s nothing more disheartening than spending a week logging a sequence only to find it;s the wrong one, and the beds you’re supposed to be logging are just down the beach. Ask for assistance from one of the museums, and don’t worry about looking unknowledgeable – better that than wasting a day or more!
I apologise for appearing a bit anti-student in this section, but you need to be aware of how bad you can be, before you can show how great you can be.
“I’ve got all the kit, I’ve done this elsewhere, Off I go!”
So, you’re a palaeontologist, you usually work with fossils from a different area, and you fancy a trip to the Isle of Wight. What do you need to do?
All I can suggest it study the geological literature before you arrive, find the best localities, and do what you normally do!
- Be sparing with your hammering- many good fossils can be found without hammering; I personally found a dorsal spine from a shark, Hybodus, which was lying on the beach within a pebble in perfect condition, requiring no hammering to find. I have also seen wonderful specimens destroyed by people trying to extract fossils- including by postgraduate palaeontologists!
- If you must hammer, use the right type of hammer. A bricklayer’s hammer is ideal, especially for the clays on the island, whereas a claw hammer is not.
- Record the exact position that you found your fossils- if they are part of something bigger then it may be useful to go back to the exact spot..
- If you plan to excavate then it may be possible to get permission from the landowner first. However, get permission first, as the landowners can get particularly miffed about this and will demand compensation and the fossils back.
- If anything good is found, it may be wise to take it to one of the excellent museums on the Island.
- Stick to the paths- during the tourist season, or just generally, the local farmers get fed up with people walking across their land.
- If you are not sure, and ask one of the experienced fossil hunters along the beach for help- PAY ATTENTION! A chap who I encountered misheard me when he asked if some mudstone nodules were bones, and I said I had a bit, he heard it as rib, and went home with a load of bits of mudstone nodule.
- and finally, if you see someone sunbathing topless, don’t loiter nearby or hammer the cliff right next to them. It tends to annoy them and their partners, who tend to be a lot bigger and tougher than you.