Sweet Success! - Geoffrey Proudly Cleans a Large Haul of Somerset Ammonites

Chambers Fit For A Queen
Hunting For Fossils In The English Rain
Story by Geoffrey Notkin - Photos by author and Jackie Ho

Most evenings began in the same way: After sunset we'd look for a country pub with an "Accommodations" sign out front. My girlfriend Jackie and I would be damp and covered with mud. I'd apologize in advance to the landlord, "Please excuse our disheveled appearance. We've been hunting for fossils in the rain." A round of smiles always followed, amid assurances that it didn't matter if we got the carpet dirty, as well as offers of help with our bags, which were, of course, full of rocks.

I spent my childhood in southern England, and my favorite early memories revolve around family expeditions to the south coast in search of ammonites--long-vanished chambered cephalopods from the Jurassic, but related to today's nautilus.

Enjoyable as our family trips were, we were not very successful at finding fossils. So, in March of this year, I set out with Jackie to journey through the country of my youth and, with luck, determination and umbrellas, find the ammonites that had eluded me as a child.

A band of Jurassic shales, ranging from 146 million to 208 million years old, runs in a diagonal line across England, from Dorset in the southwest, to Yorkshire in the northeast. The older strata, bluish in color, are known as the Lias. Inland, these fossil-rich layers lie mostly below the surface, but the narrow strips of coastline where they meet the sea make for excellent fossil-hunting localities.

Half a day's drive north of London, huddled in a steep-sided valley close to the Yorkshire moors, is the picturesque fishing port of Whitby. A ghostly abbey, ruined since the 1500s, sits starkly on the hilltop above the town, like the bones of a gigantic beached whale.

At right is a view across Whitby harbor.

Bram Stoker stayed here, and set part of his novel Dracula in this town where the tombstones look oddly--not coincidentally?--like bats. Eccentric residents claim that Dracula really is buried up there in an unmarked grave. Whitby jet, a semiprecious gem much prized by local jewelers, comes from here.

Dactylioceras is Whitby's most distinctive fossil: a black, tightly coiled ammonite, preserved in hard oval concretions. The ammonites are more resilient to erosion than the surrounding rock is, and they weather into egg-shaped nodules that can be found at low tide. A careful (or lucky) blow with a rock hammer will split these nodules, revealing exquisitely detailed fossils.

We arrived in Whitby late in the day and immediately began our hunt, without thought of food or a place to stay. The rain had started, so we carried colorful, oversized golf umbrellas for shelter. We also took two buckets: one for tools and gloves, and a separate one for finds. (The Lias fossils are often coated with a slimy, viscous blue mud that clings terribly to tools and clothes.)

We clambered down the seawall and across the wet brown sand. The tide was far out, exposing great sheets of shale. "We're looking for oval stones," I told Jackie, "fist-sized or larger. The ones containing ammonites have a faint green cast."

Of course, the beach was littered with nodules. They're very hard, and it took much hammering to crack each one open. But hidden among the boulders were some stones with matrix worn down enough to reveal the sliver of an ammonite's outer coil.

I traipsed up and down the edge of the bay, following a line of stones at the high-water mark. There were encouraging signs--fragments of broken ammonites--but nothing complete.

Shown at left is our first find of the trip, a nodule from Sansend containing the ammonite Dactylioceras.

Jackie and I separated and, from time to time, I heard her rock hammer tapping in the distance. As the daylight began to disappear, Jackie walked up to me with a pair of symmetrical grey stones, one in each hand. She'd found one of the nodules, and by hitting the spine with her hammer, had split it almost perfectly into two halves: positive and negative imprints of the same fossil!

We started our next rainy day at the eclectic Whitby Museum, where an extensive collection of local fossils sits side by side with muskets, stuffed birds and nautical relics.

Fossil hunting around Whitby is nothing new. Numerous holotypes have been found there since the 1800s. (When a new species is discovered, and its first published description is based on a single specimen, that specimen becomes the holotype.) And there were many on display, with obscure names like Peronoceras turriculatum and Ovaticeras ovatum. Other impressive local finds included five skeletons of the sea-going reptile icthyosaur ("fish lizard") and a plesiosaur the size of a small whale.

Of particular interest to me was a detailed geological map from 1876, listing an assortment of fossil types and showing the exact location of each find. This antique map led us to Robin Hood's Bay, just south of Whitby.

At right is a view of fossil bearing Jurassic strata in the cliffs near Robin Hood's Bay.

Alternating layers of clay and shale along this section of coastline create a striking banded appearance. In areas that are predominantly soft clay, the sea has formed charming bays littered with rocks from the surrounding shales. Robin Hood's Bay is just such a place, dotted with red-tiled, Mediterranean-style cottages.

As the tide receded, we walked up and down the beach, cracking nodules . . . and finding nothing.

The cliff walls here are very unstable. Yet, despite three rockfalls that afternoon, I saw a woman patiently picking through the fine shingle that had collected at the base of a 300-foot cliff.

I asked what she was looking for. "I don't know how you call it in English," she answered in a strong German accent, showing me a container of crinoid stems. There were also gryphea and belemnites mixed in with the stones. She stopped sifting long enough to show me her other finds: a couple of ammonites and one nautilus.

"The best ammonites we find are farther north, at Port Mulgrave. You'll find many collectors there. Old folks with nothing to do go out at every low tide. But you will certainly find something."

We took her advice and followed a narrow country lane, through farmland, to a dead end atop a windswept cliff. The sea lay far below us, hardly visible through the rain and fog. We could hear breakers coming in, veritably cracking against the rocks.

"Could this be it?" Jackie asked. "It looks really far down to the water."

At left is the view from the cliffs above Port Mulgrave. It was a long and difficult climb down to the beach, where many of our finds were made.

Yes, this was it, and it was low tide--the best time for searching. So we braved the steep descent, climbing down hundreds of feet with our tools and buckets, both of us repeatedly slipping and falling in the mud. We found ourselves wondering how the "old folks with nothing to do" could possibly manage such a trek.

Port Mulgrave is silent and deserted, but an article by E.J. Sandland, posted in the local pub noted that it was ". . .once a busy port from [which] Palmers Ironstone Company shipped its ironstone to the Tyne."

The boarded-up entrance to the mine can still be seen high up on the cliff face, but gone are the massive, elevated, iron railway towers. "All rusted away," one of the old locals told me. Only a few fishing boats and lobster traps remain.

Within minutes of reaching the base of the cliff we began finding nodules with telltale ammonite spines showing. We searched among boulders and raked through shingle along the wide, half-moon bay until it was almost dark.

At right, a weathered nodule with a clearly visible ammonite spine in a rock pile at Port Mulgrave.

Jackie and I covered opposite shores and, as I headed back to the cliff path at dusk, I saw her carefully picking her way toward me. She looked tired and cold. Her hooded jacket was splotchy with mud and water. She'd carried a heavy, loaf-sized block of greenish slate a good half-mile, from the far side of the bay, to show me.

"I think there might be something in this one," she said. "I found it in a rock pool."

This "loaf" was too heavy to carry back up the cliff face, so I knelt down and braced it in between two large boulders. An unusually large ammonite spine snaked across its face, but there was no way of knowing if I would be able to break it cleanly in the fading light. I tapped the stone a couple of times and then hit it hard, immediately behind the exposed spine. Nothing happened. I hit it again . . . and again. The fourth blow split the stone. Almost afraid to assess the damage I'd done, I carefully separated the two halves with my gloved hands. The shale had cleaved perfectly to reveal a marvelous Dactylioceras, with a cascade of spirals and ridges, jet-black and shiny like a giant millipede.

We spent that night at the nearby Ship Inn, where I sat up late with Sam Simpson, a retired fisherman--tall and contemplative, with sad eyes and long hair pulled back into a ponytail.

"When I was working, I'd see someone up on the cliffs--'rock-tappers,' we'd call 'em, and we thought they were crazy. And now they come from all over for the fossils. The kids used to bring up bucketloads, and I'd just chuck 'em in[to] the garden. I knew one man who found a skull of a dinosaur or something up there. He said he knew where the rest of it was, but he was killed in a car crash and the secret died with him."

At left is a Hildoceras ammonite from the Somerset fields, cut and polished to show the internal chambers.

And there were other tales, as well. Two paleontologists were due in a few days, who knew the cliffs "like the backs of their hands." They'd apparently found 10 or 15 ammonites "like this," Sam said, curving his arms into the shape of a large dinner plate. "There [are] more up there, but it's too dangerous."

I believed him. I wanted to meet the paleontologists and see the skull and the rest of it, but we were moving on the next day. Sometime past 2 a.m. Jackie and I fell asleep with the laughter of Yorkshire fisherman drifting up from the bar below.

To my great delight, the next morning arrived sunny and warm. I crept out early, and rushed back down to the beach to catch low tide. The climb was far more pleasant in the sunshine, and by the end of the morning, I'd found several more nodules. I'd even been bold enough to go halfway up the "dangerous" cliff where Sam had seen the big ammonites. However, between the frequent rockfalls and the massive quantity of seagull droppings that rained constantly down from above, it was too risky even for a reckless enthusiast like me.

We spent the morning back in Whitby, walking along the rocks where Bram Stoker's fictitious ship, Demeter, had been wrecked in the novel Dracula, and on up into the graveyard beside a ruined abbey.

Around A.D. 657, Abbess Hilda--later, Saint Hilda--became the source of an apocryphal tale explaining the origin of the many black ammonites littering Whitby Beach.

The myth is retold on a card in the Whitby Museum: At one time, it was believed that ammonites were originally snakes that had been cast over the cliff by Abbess Hilda, using a magic wand. They lost their heads during the fall, and were turned to stone. . . . In order to support this legend, obliging jet workers in the past carved heads on ammonites for sale to the unsuspecting. . . . An unlikely tale, but hundreds of years later, paleontologists with a sense of humor (or irony) named the ammonite Hildoceras after her.

Next, our journey took us south towards Dorset. For most of the way we followed the Lias, now buried far beneath us. But a glimpse into those hidden strata can be seen in a muddy farmer's field near Swindon, in Wiltshire, a couple of hours' drive west of London.

Although the Jurassic strata run some 70 feet below the surface, movement of mud and water in the area has brought unusual fossils close to the surface. Here, the Lias is softer and, over time, dissolves completely in water.

The author excavating a Wiltshire river bed and digging through Jurassic mud in search of elusive pearlescent ammonites.

In the bed of a forgotten stream in the corner of a muddy field, we found the most exquisite mother-of-pearl ammonites, perfectly preserved in the ancient mud. We had to stand knee-deep in cold water, our waders sinking into the soft bottom, and dig up heaps of sticky blue mud from the riverbed. At first we tried forcing it through a large sieve, but the mud was too viscous, so we shoveled it onto the bank and picked through it wearing rubber gloves.

Dozens of translucent auburn belemnites came up out of the murky water, some of them several inches long. Every now and then, sunlight would catch on the pearlescent surface of a diminutive ammonite, illuminating it brilliantly against the wet mud.

Mother-of-pearl ammonites from the Wiltshire riverbed.

These are not stone fossils like those from the cliffs of Yorkshire. Here, we saw almost miraculous preservation of the shell itself. In those ammonites that had broken open we were amazed to discover chambers, not filled with limestone or crystals, as is the norm, but still hollow like they had been millions of years ago, when they were used to control the ammonites' buoyancy, just like so many miniature submarines.

It was tremendously hard work, with each dense shovelful weighing 20 or 30 pounds. But we'd found a calm and serene place. Surrounded by dense trees, the silence of the forest was disturbed only by the motion of the stream and a bird we couldn't see, who sang for us all afternoon.

Several hours' labor produced a half-dozen multicolored glimmering ammonites--each about the size of a stack of five dimes--and many fragments as well. We wrapped the luminous shells in tissue and plastic bags before heading back across the fields.

The following day, among low Somerset hills near the town of Ilchester, we caught up with the fossil-bearing rocks again, and this time they were almost at ground level.

Somerset is farming country, turning out much of England's dairy products and a strong alcoholic cider called "scrumpy." Orchards and small farms speckle the landscape. The villages consist of stone cottages with thatched roofs. In one particular area, where the Jurassic rocks are only a few feet down, it is possible to pick up fossils right off the surface.

Above left, the author with a fragment of a large ammonite in the fields near Ilchester, Somerset. Center, can you find Waldo? ;) A lovely Hildoceras found right on the surface, near Ilchester. The author poses at right with an exceptional find - a large ammonite just pulled from a Somerset field.

Timing is everything, though, as the fossils appear immediately after plowing. New crops sprout quickly in this fertile soil, so walking the fields must be done after plowing, but before the appearance of fresh seedlings.

The fossils come from a yellowish sandstone that is quite soft and easily broken up by the plow blades. Our visit to Somerset was accompanied by fine weather, with the sunshine pinpointing hundreds of bright limestone fragments scattered across the dark, freshly turned earth. Fossil hunting had never been so easy or so pleasant. We followed the recently dug furrows, buckets in hand, stopping here and there to bend down and examine something.

Over time, farmers had amassed rock piles along the field's perimeter, and we picked through them in the hope of finding larger, complete fossils. Most had been broken into fragments, and details of others had eroded out of the soft sandstone. However, one of the piles yielded a perfect Dactylioceras almost four inches across.

In terms of size, species and geological period, it was almost identical to the best Dactylioceras Jackie had found a few days earlier in Yorkshire. But, visually, it couldn't have looked more different: My find was composed of soft yellow sandstone--a sharp contrast to the hard black specimens from Port Mulgrave.

The fields also produced numerous small worn examples of Hildoceras, the ammonite named after the Whitby Abbess. When cut and polished, these ammonites show a lovely, colorful pattern of crystallized chambers.

Only a short drive away on Somerset's north coast, near Watchett, the fossil-bearing strata stand on end, sticking out of the sand like plates in a dish drainer.

At left, a shale reef laden with belemnites near Lyme Regis.

These great slabs are rich in ammonites and belemnites but, once again, the processes of fossilization have produced unique results. Paper-thin ammonites are visible almost everywhere, compressed by the great weight of now-eroded overlying strata. Exposed fossils have been worn by the sea, and are a dull orange, but cleaving the large slabs of shale might reveal brightly colored specimens.

They are fragile, but the colors are astonishing: rich blood-red, orange and violet, glowing in the sunlight like wafers of stained glass. They are difficult to remove from the stone, but we did manage to extract a few: Jackie by patiently tapping around one, and I by splitting large slabs with a mallet.

After spending the night in a cozy, wood-beamed 15th-century pub, we set out for our final destination: the beaches of Charmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset. John Fowles made Lyme famous in his novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. Anyone who has seen the film of the same name will instantly recognize the stone breakwater that marches from Lyme Harbor out into the bay.

Early-morning mist shrouds the Jurassic shales near Charmouth.

Like Whitby, Lyme is a gem of an old seafaring town. And, also like Whitby, the Lias is exposed here, shouldered against the sea in dark, fossil-laden cliffs.

Golden Cap, named after the bright sandstone at its peak, is the highest cliff on the south coast. Next to it is a dark, ominous hill with a unique place in the history of paleontology. It was under Black Ven, around 1811, that young Mary Anning and her brother found the first complete icthyosaur skeleton. Although she had no formal scientific training, Mary went on to become one of the most successful early paleontologists. She continued her work and discovered the first plesiosaur. Her superb finds can still be seen today in London's Natural History Museum and in other major collections.

Many regard Mary Anning as the world's first female paleontologist, in an era when it was not seemly for women to pursue such things. She is something of a local hero, and postcards of her portrait are available in the fossil shops, along with beautiful pyritized ammonites, and the real prize--icthyosaur remains--for which fossil hunters scour the nearby beaches.

Rain will not stop play: The author sifting through shingle near Charmouth. Our golfing umbrellas provided excellent shelter.

Signs along the seafront warn, "The cliffs are dangerous. The best fossils are found on the beach." They are right, but it can be an arduous search. Several professional fossil hunters live in the area. Between them, and the hordes of enthusiastic schoolchildren who pour in during the holidays, there is much competition.

We stayed for several days in a delightful, secluded seaside inn: flower boxes in the bay windows and breakfast served in our beds.

Each morning I rose earlier, quietly slipping on my waders and layers of coats, trying to sneak out without disturbing Jackie. Those mornings were the highlights of the trip for me. The beach was empty, and the early-morning sun illuminated the sandstone atop Golden Cap. As the tide receded, I carefully picked through the beach pebbles, rich with iron pyrite deposits. Every now and then the sun would catch on something. I'd reach down quickly, before the sea could snatch it away from me, and pick up a perfect metallic ammonite: heavy and brilliant, like a brass coin.

Fools Gold: Shown at right is a fine pyritized ammonite found lying on the beach near Charmouth.

In these sections of the Lias, iron has replaced the ammonite shells, transforming them into radiant natural sculptures. Most of them are small--it was rare indeed to find one larger than a 50-cent piece--but the weight and color made them particularly unusual and desirable fossils.

The afternoons were spent sifting through shingle and examining large nodules for the ammonite, Asteroceras, often found in the area. Here, the nodules are harder than those in Yorkshire, and that's saying something! But, even when an Asteroceras is found, it can require a good deal of preparation afterwards.

On my final morning, I went down to the beach well before 8 o'clock. As I waited for the tide to roll out, I shuffled along the slippery planes of the eroding Lias in my waders, thinking about Mary Anning and her icthyosaurs. I wondered if she'd died embittered because her contributions to paleontology were not recognized during her lifetime. She had wandered along this very same stretch of beach, year after year, wicker basket and chisels in hand, doubtless alone.

That image caused me to reflect upon the isolated nature of our work. Although there are societies and group field trips, for me, finding fossils is often a solitary experience--a time for contemplation and perhaps even a little reverence.

The waves washed around my booted feet, sliding time and again over a dark object I had barely noticed, that I took to be a thin piece of petrified wood. Eventually, another possibility crept into my mind and, casually, so as not to admit to myself what I was really thinking, I got down on my knees and peered at the piece of "wood." I was kneeling on an ancient Jurassic seafloor, so there could be no petrified wood here. In the layer of soft shale, just uncovered by the sea, lay . . . an icthyosaur rib!

Even with careful work, the ancient waterlogged bone came out in several pieces. But it was unquestionably part of an icthyosaur, just like Mary Anning might have found nearly 200 years earlier.

As always, it was difficult to turn our backs on the sea and return home, imagining what we might find if only we had "just one more day." We spent a final night in a rural Somerset inn. As we walked up to the door late at night, damp and dirty from the sea, carrying buckets of fossils, I smiled and gave my usual speech.

"Please pardon our appearance, we've been digging in the cliffs all day."

"Oh, there's no need to apologize," the landlady beamed. "That's what holidays are for."

The Author's Tips:

  • Almost every cove between Port Mulgrave and Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire yields numerous fossils, but some areas are remote and can only be reached by private vehicle. Ammonites are also found regularly on the public beaches in Whitby, a popular tourist destination, and well served by public transportation.
  • The ammonite stream and Somerset fields are on private land, so permission must be secured to fossick there.
  • Colorful ammonites are easily found along the beaches east of Watchett (near Minehead, in Somerset), embedded in large vertical sheets of shale.
  • The use of rock hammers is prohibited in some areas. Check with local authorities.
  • The beaches of Lyme Regis and Charmouth continue to produce great quantities of fossils--a fact well demonstrated by the number of professional and amateur collectors who frequent the area. The area can be extremely crowded during the summer months and on school holidays, so be forewarned.
  • Fossil collecting on public land in England is legal (except in a very few areas, which are posted to that effect), and no permits are required.
  • A museum and fossil shop on Charmouth Beach will show you what fossils to seek.
  • There are also two fossil shops in Lyme Regis, both with fine displays of ammonites and icthyosaurs.
  • On a side street in Charmouth is the excellent Old Forge fossil shop and workshop, owned by one of England's foremost fossickers. Lucky visitors will be shown around the workshop, where high-quality fossil preparation work is often being done.
  • The Jurassic cliffs in Yorkshire and Dorset are unstable and can be very dangerous. People have been killed in landslides and rockfalls; others have become trapped in the bays at high tide. Be sure to consult tide tables, available at local shops and pubs, and use caution when working near cliff faces.
  • For readers who would like more detailed information (including maps, and photographs) on the geology and paleontology of the Charmouth/Lyme Regis area, I suggest a visit to Graeme Caselton's excellent Jurassic Cliffs web site.

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Bob Keller