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A guide to collecting fossils


Fossil hunting is a seaside holiday adventure that many of us have enjoyed but what exactly is a fossil and where are the best places to find them?

What is a fossil?

The dictionary definition of a fossil is “the remains or impression of a prehistoric plant or animal embedded in rock and preserved in petrified form”, while modern usage of the word is generally accepted to be the remains or traces of prehistoric life forms preserved by natural processes.

Common types of fossils

Fossils are categorised according to how they were formed and there are three main types. Impression fossils are formed where a plant or animal has created an impression in mud, silt or sand which has subsequently hardened preserving the impression. Trace fossils encapsulate the trace of an animal such as a footprint, which has left an impression in the soil or sand. Similar to an impression fossil, a trace fossil is formed when the soil hardens, so preserving the trace. Where living creatures such as trees or sea life have become trapped and died in mineral rich water, their organic parts are replaced by silica as they rot. The silica forms a replica or replacement of the living thing, known as a replacement fossil.

Where to find fossils

In the UK, fossils can be found along the length of our coastline from the chalk cliffs of Kent and Sussex, to the famous, 95 mile stretch of Jurassic coastline in Dorset, as well as on the Isle of Wight, the richest source of dinosaur species from the Early Cretaceous period in the world.  Fossils are not confined to coastal areas, however, and they can also be found at inland locations such as quarries.  

Famous fossil hunters

Paleontology is the study of fossils and many early fossil hunters were also scientists. Mary Anning (1799-1847) worked around the Jurassic coast, and is widely considered to be the unsung hero of fossil discovery, having discovered at the age of 12, along with her father, the first known example of what would become known as an ichthyosaurus or fish lizard.  

Fossil hunting – the law

While many novice collectors will pick up fossils on beach holidays, anyone actively searching on privately owned land such as farms or quarries, needs the permission of the landowner. Some sites that are important for wildlife may be restricted and will show clear signs to this effect. At other sites such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Jurassic coast in Dorset and Devon collecting is forbidden from the cliff face and the advice is that any finds should be photographed and the location noted and passed to a museum or expert, to allow new finds to be studied. Of course, you are free to collect from the beach and many experts encourage this in a bid to save fossils that would otherwise be lost to the sea. Collectors are free to keep any common fossils they find but more significant finds – Category 1 fossils – must be reported first. Category 1 fossils include new species or specimens which represent new species, extremely rare fossils, and fossils that exhibit exceptional preservation, and must be offered for sale to museums before they are offered to private buyers.

Prehistoric fossils for sale

Thanks in part to the popularity of mainstream dinosaur films at the cinema, more people are selling their finds to shops or collectors as interest in this area of collectables increases, making this an ideal time to start a collection for those unable to go fossil hunting in person. As recently as 2020, the auction house, Christie’s, broke records with a dinosaur exhibit that realised a hammer price in excess of $3million.

At Hemswell Antique Centres, we have several dealers of Antiquities and Fossils who display items dating back to prehistoric and ancient times, and alongside rare dinosaur teeth and stunning examples of ammonites, you can also find wonderful examples of quartz and other minerals.

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