Fossiling by example

I made up my mind to instil an enthusiasm for fossils in my children.

After all, fossiling had brought many benefits to me, on the spiritual side as you might say, so I felt that my children should not miss out on these same benefits.  Fossiling had taught me my place in the universe.  How would it be if my children grew up with some kind of distorted perception of their place in the universe?  They might come to think of themselves as too important, too special.  They might, as my mum would have said, “think their body every self” by which she meant entertain a spuriously elevated sense of self worth.  Only fossiling could avoid this spiritual disaster.

I would take them fossiling with me, visiting the places that I had scoured in my teens, and they would become filled with inspiration as they watched me discover rare and beautiful specimens, maybe being present when I would make new and important discoveries.  We lived only a couple of hours drive from the Jurassic Coast, quite close to various outcroppings of the Bracklesham Beds, and only a ferry trip away from the geologically enticing Isle of Wight.  Perhaps what I had found in those places as a lad was not especially wonderful but there was no telling what a little deeper research and a sense of didactic mission might produce. And all the while I would be building their defences against anthropocentrism, creationism, and muddle-headed religiosity; I would be, through my diligent example, an advertisement for conservation, for sustainability, for ecology.

They would join me in the search.  They would be there as I uncovered long-extinct starfishes, ichthyosauruses, ancient sharks, bony fish, and maybe ones with fewer bones too.

We began down in Charmouth and Lyme Regis.  Here in abundance lie ammonites, belemnites, and crinoids, and my children found pocketfuls of each.  I would clamber up the cliff face, meanwhile, and worry at the mudstone with a hammer.  It was a normal claw hammer, not a geological hammer, as the one I had had had broken one day on the Island as I struck at a boulder, perhaps a little petulantly, as a result of not having found very much of interest on that occasion.  With so many fathers and offspring scouring the beach, whatever the weather, what chance was there of replicating Mary Anning’s discoveries down there on the beach? No, like Mary, like the professional fossil-finders of Lyme, you surely had to roam the screes of the cliff, dodging the quagmires bravely, if you were to discern those first tell-tale signs of a plesiosaur backbone, or an ichthyosaur flipper, or a pterodactyl’s dactyl.  Then, I imagined, I would summon my family to the slope and say “Just look at that bulge down there would you?  Does it strike you as unusual?  No?  Well, in point of fact that is an upper vertebra of a marine reptile, and I expect that when we dig away at it we shall find the whole of the rest of the skeleton.”  As it happened, I never did actually make any such finds, and I also lost my hammer.

My son, Alex, seemed to share my disdain for the all-too-available fossils on the beach.  Taking a plastic carrier bag he began to collect those essentially random globules of pyrite abundant amongst the pebbles.  I did tell him, of course, that these had no scientific importance, but he persisted and talked me into carrying the bag back to the car.  Back at home, I dumped the bag on the bench outside, but he took no further interest in them, so after a week I decided, on his behalf, to throw them away.  Only as I examined each one before discarding them, did I see that one of them was an inch-long fragment from the tip of the snout of an ichythyosaur.  The top and bottom sections of jawbone had been replaced by pyrite material, sparkling as you turned it, and sixteen miniature black teeth could be counted, eight each side.  I called Alex and excitedly showed him his accidental discovery, trying to convey to him its immense significance.  “Oh wow!” he said, or it might have been “Oh, really?”  We rushed off with it to Dorchester County Museum to confirm the identification, ready, of course, to leave it with them if they felt it to be too important to remain in private hands.  However they allowed us to keep it, seeming, indeed, anxious to turn to other matters, possibly to their lunch.

In the fullness of time that specimen succumbed to pyrite disease, and disintegrated.  This also happened to almost every fossil that we later found on the Isle of Sheppey.  These included nipa palm fruits, twigs, gastropods, seeds and nuts.  All exploded after a certain time, crumbling into so much smelly grit, responding eventually to the oxygen in the air outside of the London Clay, even despite being coated with expensive Reeve’s Artists’ Varnish.

The Isle of Wight beckoned us for our next trip.  The Geological Association pamphlet, or monogram, on this site clearly indicated the probability of my finding reptilian remains in the horizons exposed along the south west coast, so we went there.  To access the horizons we had to clamber down a precipice called Whale Chine at the foot of which the various strata ran obliquely, or slantingly, into the beach.  To the uninformed eye these looked like layers of different kinds of dried mud, but studying my Geological Guide I set out to discover which one had the dinosaur bones in it.  As I was thus examining the strata, Alex called my attention to something sticking out of the matrix just where he was standing.  This turned out to be the nine inch fin bone of the Hybodus, or Hydrangea, shark.  Cartilaginous in life, in its fossilised form it was equally ephemeral, and it fell into many pieces which I later was unable to stick together with any of a variety of available adhesives, including super glue.  I congratulated Alex on this find, and returned to scouring the gravely slopes for the dinosaur remains that had to be there.  But Alex called my attention to another object, in his bit of mudstone, a shiny hard black cylinder – a bone!  We carefully excavated it.  It was seven inches long, completely smooth, with joints at either end.  It broke only once, in the middle, revealing a crystalline fossilisation of marrow, yellow in colour.  A dinosaur bone, we were sure, and perfect in preservation.  We rushed it to Sandown Geological Museum, where the curator, Steve Hutt, was thoroughly impressed.

“Can you show me,” he asked, “exactly where you found this, right now?”  We drove back in convoy to Whale Chine where Steve made an exact note of the location, which was not exactly where I had thought the fossiliferous beds to have been.  The bone, Steve reckoned, was from the medium-sized dinosaur called Hadrosaur, or something like that, but certainly not an Iguanadon.  It would be preferable, from the point of view of advancing human knowledge, if the bone could be kept by the Museum, but he would make a plaster cast of it and send it to us.

Three years later, after Mr Hutt had become famous for discovering whole dinosaurs in S.W. Wight, we had still not received the plaster copy.  So I wrote him a postcard, using a quote from Sam Goldwyn who once apostrophised the set hands on the studio lot as follows: Plaster faster, you bastards.  And he sent it.  We still have it, and it turned out to be the forearm bone, or ulna, of a crocodile, aWessex one.

Steve was very helpful to us in our quest for fossils.  He seemed to think it a good idea for us not actually to return to Whale Chine.  We could, however, find Quarternary fossils, or Pleistocene ones, scattered about the beach in Hamstead, north east of Yarmouth up the other end of the island, and he recommended us to go there. Crocodile teeth and bits of turtle shell could be found there, he pointed out warmly.

So one day Lucy, my daughter, then about five, and I, did go there.  For some hours we scoured the pebbles, but with no result.  In my intense desire to find specimens that she could then use as targets or goals, I rather overlooked her bodily needs, and there came a time when she needed to make water.  As she crouched to do so, bemoaning the lack of fossil finds, she picked at the pebbles with her right hand, raising them, saying “I ‘spose this isn’t a fossil,” and flicking them away.  The second one that she picked up took my attention.  It was stone, and it was organic, and it had a detailed bony structure.  Yes.  In randomly selecting a stone as an example of a non-fossil she had found the scale, or scute, of a crocodile.  She went on discover several shark vertebrae, some small crocodile teeth, and many pieces of the shell, or carapace, of the freshwater turtle, although I was personally able to find only a small number of such things.

I look back on my campaign to imbue my children with a fascination for fossils with gratification and pride.  It so happens that neither of them actually took up paleontology, and they search for fossils only on joint nostalgic trips with me.  It is almost as if they feel that fossiling is something I wanted to do for my own sake, not for theirs.  How bitter it is to be so completely misunderstood.


Written in Penang, Malaysia. A later edit of this piece will contain illustrations. This piece will be followed by others, less mendacious, centred on specific locations where we have fossiled and fossicked.

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3 Responses to Fossiling by example

  1. We learned so much from these trips, not that you cared about that in your transparent attempts to gain fossil fame. The structure of things is apparent when you look at a fossil. It makes one think about materials, processes, and time; lost creatures and plants. Luckily our youthful eyes could easily tease out the shapes of then-organic items from the gravel, otherwise all we’d have learned about is the physics of water and mud, the tides, erosion, how to make dams, patience and futility, contemporary beach fauna and clambering.

    I’ll certainly be taking my children, when they appear, fossiling on the beach. I’ve been thinking we should all go again soon actually.

  2. I seem to remember it was a crab that I found, a whole one. Really beautiful, every detail of the textures and protrusions of the shell preserved immaculately. Searching for fossils, and indeed any other treasure, instills in you a sense of wonder which never leaves you. Paleontology is a science, but the quest for wonder is a creative act, and I have no doubt that these trips were formative in my becoming an artist and appreciator of museums and natural history.

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