Monday, 14 August 2017

Alternative fieldwork

The summer is here, and it's field season for all palaeontologists (and field scientists) in the Northern Hemisphere. My Facebook and Twitter have been inundated with photos (including articulated dinosaurs, ankylosaur skulls, tyrannosaur teeth, etc etc.). Check the Twitter tag #fieldwork for an idea for some of the things. Sadly I don't have any field plans and am busy with my mysterious experimental work for the rest of the year. However, I was craving my fieldwork fix so organised a trip down to the Jurassic Coast with a few friends from RVC and UCL to go find some fossils.

If you've missed my previous posts, I have a soft spot for the Jurassic Coast. This stretch of coastline spans 95 miles of Dorset and Devon and ranges in age from the Triassic to the Cretaceous (185 million years). It was made famous by Mary Anning finding large numbers of fossils near her home in Lyme Regis, and is today a World Heritage Site. It was also on the coast at Charmouth where I first went fossil hunting when I was a young kid.

Our car consisted of 5 enthusiasts with backpacks, a couple of rock hammers, and a chisel. None of the usual pick-up trucks filled with pick axes, shovels, plaster, tents etc. We even failed to bring the usual supply of beers (although that was rectified from the field site). A 3 hour drive turned into 4 after a decision to drive by Stonehenge (where traffic was awful), but we eventually made the beach at Charmouth in the rain.

This section of coast is famous for it's ammonites and marine reptiles, although many other things are found here including belemnites, crinoids, starfish, fish, sea urchins, and occasionally dinosaur bits. We parked in the Charmouth car park and worked towards Lyme Regis, focussing on the area around Black Venn. Although not as impressive as it used to be, the slide still gets eroded daily and fossils continually wash out. Highlight was finding my first ichthyosaur vertebra (at a massive 1cm), although found some lovely pyrite (fool's gold) ammonites too.

We repeated this on Saturday, when the weather was far nicer, with another ichthyosaur vertebra being found and lots more ammonites across the group. Sunday we decided to mix it up, and walked to Lyme Regis overland (tide was in) so everyone could see the famous little town and pay respects to Mary Anning at her grave.
Mary Anning and her brother share a grave site. Easily identified in the cemetery as it has a fossil alter at the bottom that we duly added to.
We also had a quick walk around the town, one of the fossil shops (a trend seems to be increasingly less of the local stuff, and far more imported fossils), before lunch on the sea wall before heading down onto the beach and walking back towards Charmouth. The offerings to Mary Anning seemed to have helped as two nice ichthyosaur vertebrae were found in quick succession as we walked along the beach admiring all the ammonites in the rocks (and failing to extract many from the rock falls). As we got back to the Charmouth side, we passed a group of people going for the first time with a guided walk from the heritage centre at Charmouth. The group of 30 or so people (mostly kids) had found a bunch of fossils, and one lady found a pair of articulated ichthyosaur vertebrae.

Then we bundled back into the car and drove down to Lulworth Cove, where faulting and folding have created this beautiful natural cove as the softer chalks inland get eroded.

Bright sunshine over Lulworth Cove. Portland just visible off in the distance on the left of the sun.
After that it was a long old drive back up to London and getting some sleep before work began again in earnest in the office on Monday. I did find some time to take some photos of all the fossils I collected on the weekend:
The random little collection. Everything from millimetre sized ammonites/gastropods to bits of bones. There could have been hundreds of more pieces but I leave many bits on the beach now (particularly the belemnites), and try to give away a good number of finds to kids who are struggling to find their own so they aren't paying for them at the shops.
Piece of pyrite ammonite shell showing off sutures
A small pyrite ammonite showing more sutures.
Nicest two ammonites.
Nothing spectacular as far as science is concerned, but always love finding fossils, and some of them are gorgeous (if I do say so myself). I never tire of finding pyrite ammonites, although it can be tedious finding them when the beaches are so heavily picked across the summer. If you want to find your own, go search! I can offer my limited advice on where to find these sort of things (get in touch), but am still needing to go with some of the local pros to see what they do.

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