I’ve heard many discouraging tales from people in recent years that have set out in search of good fossil finds and come home with pitifully little. It’s true, more people are looking these days, so your competition is stiffer, but there are still good finds to be had, you just have to do your geological homework, research outcrops others might not visit, or be first on the beach on a low tide or after a good storm.
With this in mind I wasn’t expecting to find much at Charmouth in Dorset, England, at the height of summer, but my six-year-old daughter Ella was pestering me to take her there and for once we were in the neighbourhood. Parking in the stone-cobbled car park and heading eastwards, over the River Char to the cliffs under Stonebarrow Hill, I recalled my visits with my parents as a kid. I was just five years old the first time I visited the Lyme Regis area and it’s basically the reason why I’m a professional palaeontologist today. Dad always said, ‘Find something you like doing, then look for someone stupid enough to pay you to do it.’
I can still feel the excitement of finding my first golden ammonites at Charmouth, and it’s the same thrill I still get anywhere there are good specimens to be found. On a field trip a friend once remarked, ‘You’re usually such a nice guy, but you get so competitive when you’re fossil hunting.’ All I know is that it grabs me like nothing else and hours can pass in the blink of an eye, whether I’m finding anything good or not, the potential is always there.
‘What are we looking for daddy?’ asks Ella.
‘Well we’ve got the Black Ven Marl Member here at the base of the cliff with the Belemnite Marl and Green Ammonite Mudstones Members above.’
‘Not these then?’ she asks, holding up a well-preserved irregular echinoid. I’d assumed it would be me finding the fossils, but it’s a good first find.
‘No, those are from the Cretaceous chalks west of Lyme Regis, much higher in the section.’ Despite reading all about them in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, I had never actually seen them here before.
‘This whole section is from Early Jurassic marine environments, so we’ll find pyritized ammonites, crinoids, and belemnites mainly. The cliffs are protected, but we’re allowed to collect what we like from where the cliffs slump down onto the beach.’
‘So is this more what you were expecting then daddy?’ she asks, almost before my monolog on the Dorset stratigraphy is done. And she’s holding out a small pyritized Echioceras raricostatum ammonite.
‘That’s exactly what we’re after,’ I say.
‘And the belemnites are the pointy ones?’ she asks.
‘That’s right,’ I say. Twenty-five years of study and research and she’s got all she needs from me in two sentences and thirty seconds at the location. I’m redundant and she’s off down the beach ahead of me, stooping to pick up what’s no doubt going to be an embarrassingly good selection of specimens by the time I can catch her up.
An hour later, she’s covered the main area where the good stuff slumps down to be washed clean by each tide. I’ve found a few bits of crinoid, three small ammonites, and some belemnites (that I only picked up to show her really). But she’s got a bag full of pyrite spirals and can’t really be bothered to inspect my meagre collection. I guess my fossil-hunting days are over, but not due to the lack of specimens to find. I’m just too old and my eyesight isn’t up to the competition.