Tag Archives: fossil hunting

Pyritic Ammonites and Dino-Poo

Pyritic ammonites – I found the first one by accident. We were at Charmouth on the Jurassic Coast. We’d just had lunch at the Heritage Centre Café and crossed the bridge heading up the beach toward Golden Cap. The mountain of mud rose up above us on our left and the sea on our right. Raymond, in his goggles, with hammer in hand was ready to find the pterodactyl we were sure we’d find.

Instead, I found a tiny pyritic ammonite. At first I thought someone had lost a charm off an earring or a bracelet. The ammonite was shiny and metallic, but it was a fossil, no bigger than a five pence piece, and perfectly formed. Pyritic ammonites, Raymond told me, were formed when the shells of the ammonites were gradually replaced in the fossilization process with iron pyrite.

A very helpful gentleman walking his dog on the beech told us that we needed to look for

the black places in the sand. That’s where the mud had washed down with the last tide or last night’s rain. Raymond put the hammer away, took off the goggles and the ammonite hunt was on.Lesson number one: Look for the black wash-outs in the sand. That’s where the mud has washed out from the Jurassic mud mountain.

Lesson number two: Look for the dino-poo. Okay, it’s probably really ichthyo-poo, but you get the picture. We discovered that once we found the mud wash-outs, then the best places to look for the pyritic ammonites were the places where we found coprolites. Yep, that’s right, fossilized poo – which was also pyritic.

Why on earth am I telling you about dino-poo, you may wonder. Well because of the way the pieces fit together. You know, the pieces of any puzzle, what has to happen in order to see the whole picture. First we looked for the dark spots in the sand, then we looked for the fossilized poo. Then we found those exquisite, pendant perfect pyritic ammonites.

Somehow our eyes got used to finding the mud then the poo then pulling back just enough to see the delicate curved edges sparkling in the sand. It was sort of like playing the slot machines in Vegas, just one win could keep you going for ages. Just one little ammonite could totally focus our attention for however long it took until we found the next one lying round and perfect and bright amid the coprolites. And then we were off to look for the next one until the tide came in and we had to retreat, always shaking our heads, always thinking about all those loveley ammonites washing out to sea.

They were all tiny – every pyritic ammonite we found. A low-tide beach combing would net us less than a palm full and yet they were exquisite, perfectly formed, looking like they’d come from a jewelry store rather than just washed out of the mud with the fossilized poo.

I can’t stop thinking about it, treasure in strange places. Not just treasure, but ancient treasure, and we carried them back to our cottage in the palm of our hand, feeling the weight of them pressed like coins in a child’s clenched fist. Our week in Lyme Regis was amazing. There were so many good things; laughter and friend and writing and fish pie and good ale in local pubs, but it’s the pyritic ammonites I’ll remember most, and the delightful treasure hunt of finding them.

Mud Mountains and Jurassic Treasures

It’s a mountain of mud, Black Ven, constantly flowing and collapsing and being washed into the sea. It’s the largest mud slide in Europe. On one end, at a place called Church Cliffs, Mary Anning found her famous ichthyosaur fossil in 1811. It’s impossible to stand on the beach looking up at its towering black mass and not be a little bit weak-kneed.

Black Ven far left

The cool thing about Black Ven is that it’s not JUST a mountain of mud. Black Ven is a mountain of prehistoric mud, a mountain of mud filled with fossils. Raymond and I walk along the beach with the other fossil hunters beneath this intimidating wall of mud hoping we’ll get lucky and find something positively Jurassic.

Bright yellow signs warn fossil hunters to keep off the unstable mud cliffs, and even from a safe distance, occasionally we can feel the mud shifting beneath the sand and rock. Just a reminder that this is a landscape in flux.

We’re on holiday in Lyme Regis. We have our official goggles to protect our eyes from flying rock fragments, and we have our official hammers and chisels to create said flying fragments in search of the surprise in the middle. I keep my focus on the litter and debris under my feet, not just looking for fossilised treasure, but also to keep from falling on my butt.

Raymond’s beautiful Crinoid

The best find of the day is an exquisitely detailed crinoid Raymond finds while standing a little bit closer to the threatening mud mountain that I’m particularly comfortable with. But then after he finds it, I’m willing to risk a closer walk. A bloke from Brazil is there with his wife. He

The day’s treasures

points us to a right smorgasbord of belemnites closer. It’s like picking up small bits of pointed rock bullets, and the more we pick up, the more we want to pick up – even while we’re wondering what we’re going to do with a pocketful of belemnite bits.

A lot of the bigger rocks, the boulders too big to stick in our pockets and bring home are covered in trace fossils of

Ammonite in a boulder. Not Titanitus giganteus, but still very impressive.

ammonites. We take snapshots to remember how amazing they are, and we stand for a long time admiring their beauty and their size. While we eat our sandwiches looking out to the changeable sea, Raymond reads to me from the fossil book that some ammonites got to be two meters across. I’m stunned. He reads the name from the book –Titanites giganteus, which we both agree is a good name. Most died out before the Cretaceous, he adds.

As the tide begins to come in, we work our way back toward Lyme Regis and end up in the Pilot Boat Pub for a pint and some chips – our reward for the successes of the day. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, and we’re told the worse the weather the more fossils wash out of Black Ven.

Now back home in our cottage, as we look over our stash and sip coffee, we talk about

Ammonite in boulder

what a perfect day it’s been, eagerly looking at other fossil hunters’ treasures and sharing our own, sifting through the rock that’s been washed from Black Ven by the sea and the rains, and experiencing the rush of finding bits of the ancient past before they wash out to sea and are lost forever. It was a good day. It’s supposed to rain tonight. Who knows what treasures will wash free from the prehistoric mud? Someday the whole mountain will wash into the sea, along with all of its secrets of the past. But as for today, we took home a few of those fabulously ancient secrets tucked away in the pockets of our walking trousers.

Some experiences have nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with widening and deepening my inner world so that I have something to write about. Finding Jurassic treasures that Black Ven has given up to the sea is one of those experiences.