Simply put fossils are cool, can teach you a lot and in many places the activity is free!
Much like my hedge hunting guide (check that out too, surprisingly good fun. I watched a spider eat a shield bug once) this guide ain’t one for the kids. This is one for the parents of kids who want a cool activity to do that they can all enjoy, and that can knacker the little’uns out so they don’t argue over who gets the last fucking piece of the chocolate orange!
It’s also aimed at people with no damn money, so you can shove your fine air-brushes, little soft-bristle tooth brushes, hammers and chisels up your arse. Not everyone’s got £50 to spend on a brand new hobby that they don’t know if they’ll like.
“What do I know about fucking fossils, though?” a lot of you are saying. The thing is I know a lot of you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about because, until I took some time, read some shit, watched some shit and researched it – neither did I!
Nobody is born knowledgeable – so this is my way of saying it’s okay to not know. Make not knowing part of the fun of the process. Don’t want to look stupid in front of your kids, yours nieces, your nephews, whatever mates you might be with? It’s as simple as confidently saying “I don’t know, let’s go home and look it up!” Or even whack your phone out there and then, figure it out. That’s called ‘research’ and it’s basically how all the smart people you know got to be smart.
Make your ignorance part of the fun, make the learning part of the experience, make sharing that knowledge part of it too! Get on your social media “I just found a cool fossil, looked it up, it’s a such-and-such!” This is how we promote knowledge and understanding, by first accepting our stupidity. Be the Curious Idiot™!
The fact is this; here in Britain at least we are blessed with some of the finest cliff-bottoms and shorelines for finding certain types of fossil. If you get lucky, maybe you’ll score something rare, or big. If you don’t? Well you’ve had a day out by the seaside and had something to do besides argue with your partner about the bills and kept any children and/or dogs occupied by getting them tired and mucky.
I will start with warnings, however.
WARNING: Some areas with good fossil hunting are tidal. That is to say it might seem lovely and accessible at low tide but that tide creeps in and the next thing you know you’re stuck at the bottom of a cliff liable to erosion being battered by waves. Get your timings right.
WARNING: Some areas for fossil hunting involve scrambling over rocks, some of which may be quite slippery and/or covered in barnacles that are very sharp. Make sure you wear sturdy shoes and trousers, the last thing you want is sore feet and gashed legs. Also prepare for your hands to get dirty, scuffed and scraped. If you’re going to go alone take a phone, make sure you’ve got reception, bring plenty of water and be fucking careful.
There’s a lot in life you don’t want to miss out on. But nobody wants the ‘Been There, Done That’ t-shirt for having to call out the coastguard to rescue you because you got trapped by the tide or snapped your ankle whilst looking for tiny dead shit. Use your common sense. If you don’t have any of that, pretend you do.
Fossils? What are They?
They’re the remains of old dead shit in some form or other, preserved remains, impressions or traces of once living things. For all that they may be ‘common’, fossilisation, as a process, is very rare. When a fossil is common it implies both that there were a lot of these organisms and the conditions were good in that area for causing fossilisation – The process by which a fossil is made.
How the Hell is a Fossil Made?
There’s a lot of ways, but you don’t need to hear words like ‘Authigenic mineralisation’ right now. If you wanna nerd out on this shit you can do it once you know you’re into it. The basic gist is stuff dies and somehow leaves remains. The three main ways this can happen are;
A cast – sediment falls around a dead thing, compressing around it, the dead thing remains for some time – long enough for the sediment around it to harden to stone but by the time the dead thing has decayed it’s left a mark, a trace of where it used to be, in the stone. These can be fossils like shell casts, or they can be what’s known as ‘trace fossils’ – not parts of the animal themselves but evidence they have been there, such as dinosaur footprints.
Compression – Think of this like preserving flowers in books, especially since this is common with fossil plants like ferns. The fern ends up buried somehow, there’s that compression, the fern ends up squished in layers where it can either, like the cast, merely leave an impression. If you’re lucky, though, the remains themselves will undergo a chemical process that leaves a film behind, so more than just an impression you get a bit of plant left behind. Often, both occur – this has its own special term, adpression.
Mineralisation or Carbonisation – There are multiple forms of this but they all rely on the same basic thing happening. This is where aspects of the make-up of the dead thing get replaced, by chemical processes, with other minerals (mineralisation) or elements like carbon (carbonisation). For this to happen with, say, a detailed body (as has been seen in some fossils) that dead thing’ll have to be buried pretty sharpish before decay starts to happen. That is why fossils with feathers, fleshy bits and films (like mentioned above) are so rare. They basically require an event where a whole organism dies by, or very shortly after burial and in a fashion where microorganisms aren’t able to break down the fleshy parts. This is, though, why a lot of hard, already mineralised parts of organisms will be found – Bones, shells, teeth, corals etc. These are already hard, mineral rich structures that don’t decay quickly. What happens is, over time, their mineral structure is replaced by the mineral structure of the rocks they’re in.
There’s other stuff, and detail I’m leaving out for simplicity’s sake but that’s the basic gist of it. What you find is usually not the organism, the shell or bone itself, but a chemically changed version of it.
Where Can You Find Fossils in the UK?
Realistically, if you dig deep enough, anywhere! But mostly you’re not allowed to dig deep enough. In the UK most fossil finds, particularly casual ones will be from along the South and East coasts, the Jurassic Coast down in Dorset, through to the chalk and clays of Sussex and Kent, and the London Clay in North Kent and the Thames Estuary area by Essex.
There are spotty areas around other coasts – Southwest Wales in Pembrokeshire, the Northeast coast around the Yorkshire, Durham way, and in Scotland around Fife. If you’ve had a quarry or major ground excavation work near you the spoil heaps (where they dump all the earth they dug up) can also be a goldmine for fossils. Some of these have specific events where equipment and guidance and advice on how to find fossils is provided, but these services often cost money.
For specific locations, the UK Fossil Network has some great information on their website. They’re a much more knowledgeable resource than I am and provide much more detailed information on divided by regions and areas, so once you’re done reading this guide they’re a good place to head.
What Can I Expect to Find?
Look, you ain’t just gonna drive your old Fiesta out to Dorset, loaded with buckets and spades and trip up on a Tyrannosaurus Rex leg! As with everything, every hobby I endorse, I urge you curb your expectations and enjoy the process.
Disappointment only comes when reality does not meet expectations and unrealistic expectations are the biggest cause of disappointment.
As mentioned, fossils are rare. So the fossils you are going to find are mostly going to be of stuff that ends up buried in the sediment a lot.
It also changes based on where you are, and what layers of rock (strata) are there.
Where I am, for example, I don’t find a lot of shark’s teeth, but if I drive 40-60 minutes up the coast they’re all over the bloody place. Again, the UK Fossils Network has a lot of detail on what’s available at each specific location. Where I am, though, we get a ton of some of the most commonly found types of fossil in the UK so let’s have a run through.
In the phylum Echinodermata along with creatures like starfish and sea urchins, these creatures still exist to this day, being the relatives of creatures that survived one of Earth’s most extreme extinction events – the Permian-Triassic extinction event that happened around 250 million years ago!
A sort of plantish-animal they attach themselves to a rocky area, where a stalk is built up so they can suspend the arms of their tops, called the ‘crown’, that contain feathery tentacles that catch food.
Finding whole crinoids and crinoid crowns is a tricky business but you will find is a fuckload of parts of their stalks.
These are generally thin cylindrical shapes with ridges running down them, where the stalk was formed in layers. When they are well preserved (see my example that is partially pyritised – the minerals replaced with iron-pyrite or fool’s gold) the structures are distinct. However they can also be well eroded and quite difficult to spot from just a thin pebble.
I’ve got a photo of a bed of iron rich fragments of crinoids, where you see things like this always have a mooch around – in amongst that lot I found a couple of crackers that we’ll get to later.
But crinoids, or at least fragments of crinoids, at least near me, are one of the most common things to see.
I know, it’s hardly the height of exotica. These molluscs are related to modern mussels, scallops, clams, oysters etc. They’re basically molluscs with two hinged parts on their shell (hence the name bivalve, basically means two-shell).
The thing is some of these are spectacular and, around a certain part of my area there were loads of them. You see, serious fossil hunters have already got a ton of these, better examples, so they let these small fry sit – but it’s the perfect shit to encourage someone just starting out fossil hunting or to make your kids happy.
Don’t forget, kids are happy with a trip to fucking Build-a-Bear, or their favourite packet of crisps! Serious fossil hunters may take these little beauties for granted but there are some gorgeous examples available and they’ll leave a nature-hungry child chuffed to bits that they found so well preserved a fossil.
There are multiple varieties, different species, different time ranges so it’s difficult to tell you specifically what to look for but think cockles and mussels, you know? Some of them have smoothish shells like the Gryphaea, some of them have ridged shells like the Neithea. If it looks like a shell but is made of rock, chances are you’ve got a bivalve, unless…
Brachiopods are a bit like bivalves, except different. They live exclusively in the sea (whereas there are freshwater bivalves) and modern brachiopods tend to live in the deep sea in cold waters.
Frankly, without getting technical it’s hard to explain the differences between other shelled shit from the sea and brachiopods.
The same rule applies as to bivalves, if it looks like a shell made of rock it could be a brachiopod. Unless…
Remember those beauties I found in amongst the crinoid remains I told you about? Well they come from this group.
Gastropods are the class of organisms we know as slugs and snails, so they clearly survive to this day, and obviously some of these, especially marine species, can have amazing shells.
In my case I found a tiny little screw-shell, almost whelk-like, and a tiny little round shell almost like a modern periwinkle.
To me these are one of the most satisfying types of fossil to find because they are usually well preserved and solid.
An extinct group of Cephalopods, the same class as squid and octopus, the fossils they leave behind are not the whole organism. But rather what’s known as the ‘guard’ of the ‘rostrum’ which was sort of like a big spike at the back end.
I mean, some of these can come with whole belemnites attached, some of them include other structures such as the phragmacone – a pyramidal segmented structure from the lower-middle of the rostrum, often at the base of the guard.
What I mostly find near me are very fine, almost hair-pin like structures that almost look like plastic and, again, they are usually in fragments. These are belemnite fossils, the rostra of these extinct squid.
Larger examples are found along the Jurassic Coast, where they have their own strata! The Belemnite Marls, from the early Jurassic period, about 190-180 million years ago.
As far as organisms go corals are amazing. To most people we think of a ‘coral’ as one organism but they are actually colonies of creatures called Cnidarians, the same phylum as things like jellyfish. They work together to build an exoskeleton to house their community, from which they can gather food. But that’s an article for another time.
Needless to say, if you’ve ever seen an Attenborough documentary on corals you’ll know they come in all shapes and sizes. Generally the fossils you will find will be the mineralised exoskeletons, or imprints of where the exoskeletons used to be.
As a result trying to identify individual coral fossils is, frankly, a nightmare for beginners. Look for out-of-place looking structures in or imprinted on rocks, organic looking patterns, ridges, bumps etc.
These are your sea urchins. In the phylum Echinodermata along with starfish and the aforementioned crinoids unless you find a really good example these might be hard to spot.
They are generally in a rounded shape, with a symmetrical pattern, made up of multiple plates.
I have never found one of these where I am so, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to where to look for them and how to spot them.
Another now-extinct group, from the phylum Arthropoda with the insects and crustaceans, these look like big sea woodlice.
They first appeared over 500 million years ago, and seem to disappear from the fossil record around 250 million years ago.
I have never found one of these either, but they are pretty distinct. With a three-segmented body, segments along the body (again, like a woodlouse) whilst they are diverse in size, species, lifestyle and habitat they all have a similar body form so even if you can’t identify a species you can probably identify the bug-shaped thing.
In case you didn’t read my Top Ten Sharks articles (which you should) there are two reasons shark’s teeth as so common as fossils. The first is that they’re fuckin’ ‘ard! They don’t break down easily, decompose or break so it doesn’t matter as much if they’re buried slowly or quickly, they’ll last. The other reason is sharks continually regrow and lose teeth. Their entire mouth is a slowly growing conveyor belt of teeth and so not only do they sometimes fall out, snap off or break during feeding events but they also just naturally grow out to be replaced with another set.
As a result certain areas are rich in shark’s teeth. The London Clay formation, for example, is dense with them – you can often find them along the beachside or at the bottom of the cliffs of North Kent near Whitstable, Herne Bay or Reculver or the southern coasts of Essex, particularly round Walton-on-the-Naze.
It’s not just sharks though as you can find teeth from all sorts of cartilaginous fish like rays and skates, too. Their shapes can also be relatively distinctive so whilst you may not be able to find a species-level identification you may be able to find out roughly what the shark was, and what it may have liked to eat.
It’s rare, but the teeth of the largest shark ever known to have lived, the incredible Megalodon (read my article about it – and why, yes, it’s definitely extinct…) have been found in the London clay! You never know, you might get lucky.
I put these near the end because I know it’s the one you’re all waiting for! Commonly referred to as ammonites these are the fossilised shells of an extinct marine mollusc from the same class as squid and octopus, the Cephalopoda.
These guys are old, fossils have been found from as early as the Devonian period, beginning around 420 million years ago, and they disappear from the fossil record at around the time of the K/T extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago.
This is your textbook ‘fossil’ – and there are reasons for that. For one, as mentioned, they have a long history. This means they can be used as what’s known as an ‘index’ fossil – if you can identify the ammonoid you can generally pinpoint a time or era, an age, of the rock strata it was found in.
They’re also just beautiful! These astounding ridged shells with a visually pleasing golden-ratio spiral pattern. Sometimes secondary structure can be seen, the way in which the shell was built, or the iridescent trace of the ‘mother of pearl’, or nacre – the hard substance that lines the shells.
If you want to find huge ones two warnings; 1) You will need equipment; 2) You will probably have to donate it to the local museum.
So to save yourself that effort look around for smaller ones. You can find some quality examples.
Of the ones I found on the day I went (and any of my photos are from the same day’s fossil hunting unless I say otherwise!) the small examples were found in between rocks, just washed by the sea.
The larger examples I did pull out of the clay, but I didn’t have to go digging, a part of them was exposed and I simply pulled it out and gave it a quick wash off in a pool of seawater in a rock nearby.
You will also find a load of fragments of these.
They are the textbook fossil, they are the one everyone wants so you may have to search and scour a bit for a good example. I was struggling to find one, writing this article in my head and thinking of ways to explain how usually there are loads of good examples but I got unlucky but, once I reached the more remote parts of the beach and, certainly the freshly washed clay (the tide had just gone out after a couple of, for summer, relatively rough and windy days) was a treasure trove of them.
Fossil hunting is a weird thing when you’re not an expert because you will find a lot of stuff that just…looks…off. Fragments of ‘stuff’ that don’t look like shells but have patterns, have shapes, have grooves that seem…organic.
What you might have is a fossil shit, or coprolite. If you imagine how rare fossil events are, and consider how many times an organism might shit in its lifetime – well then there are that many times more likely to be fossils of shit than there are of the organism itself!
No doubt it’s everywhere and from ichthyosaurs to crabs, from T-rex to fish, everybody poops! It might not be the first thing on your list of fossils to look for and they’re obviously tough to distinguish from just a rock but a fossil turd is sure to give a few people a giggle.
Sometimes you find small round things with holes or dimples in. I don’t know what these are? They could be parts of some crinoid or other, they could be vertebrae.
I’ve got some tubes, some bumpy tubes that I don’t know if they’re parts of coral, old bits of pipe or other parts of crinoids.
My greatest find is a chunk of what I’m fairly certain is petrified wood. A quite rare find from our strata.
I also have this broken off tapering thing. By the looks of the structure it could be anything from a well-worn phragmacone of a belemnite to a tooth fragment.
If it looks unusual, why not grab it? At worst you’re taking a pebble home and at best it might be something cool, weird, gross or amazing.
Like with every hobby, in fact for We Lack Discipline it’s like with everything in life, there’s great joy in not knowing and finding out. UK Fossils Network has forums, I haven’t used them but I’m sure they have plenty of people willing to help out. I hope they don’t have people who are going to be patronising arseholes to newbies but if they do, We Lack Discipline sent ya!
We tell those people to fuck off because they effectively gatekeeping hobbies to people who already have some knowledge of the subject, attempting to maintain and elitist stranglehold on something everyone should be able to enjoy. This kind of patronising behaviour only promotes ignorance and discourages people from getting involved and learning about things. They can fuck off!
To Sum Up
Fossil hunting is often as easy as a piss-about by the beach. Take some drinks, some snacks and make a day of it. It doesn’t need fancy equipment, although if you’ve got the cash and don’t mind forking out you can get a few rock hammers and shit.
Do be careful where you’re hunting and what you’re hammering though. Cracking pebbles might be fine but my fossil beds are on a Site of Special Scientific Interests (SSSI) so it’s illegal (and just fucking stupid) to hammer at the cliff sides or the bedrock. I know other places like the Jurassic Coast have rules about what fossils you can and can’t take home with you but they also have ‘fossil wardens’ for advice. A general rule of thumb is if it’s bigger than you it needs to be donated to a local society or museum.
You can even do as my sister does. My niece loves wandering about collecting fossils and combing for ‘sea treasures’. I like that she uses this term because it makes me think of her as a tiny pirate. Her treasures are actually just unusual stones, beach glass, pottery fragments, tile fragments etc. But my sister has turned these fragments of ‘sea treasures’ and various fossils and their fragments into collages. More than a day out, she makes little works of art that she can hang on the walls.
But just…get out there and do it. It’s good fun, a great way to get involved in the hands-on science of palaeontology, a great way to encourage a curiosity about life, the past and evolution and I couldn’t imagine a better activity if you look after a lot of kids, your own or someone else’s. It’s fucking free and comes with free souvenirs! It’s great fun with a bunch of mates, too! Make a competition, see who can find the most fossils, the best fossils, etc. Have a few drinks, keep it sensible and heed my warnings from the start but have some fucking fun with it. Get out there and find some old dead shit!
Why should kids have all the fun? Want to learn about more fun activities! Read my Grown Up’s Guides
Grown Up’s Guide to Hedge-Hunting for Bugs