Perhaps, before we provide some information on the fossil collecting code it may prove helpful to define what fossils actually are. A fossil is evidence of ancient life that has been preserved by natural processes within the minerals that make up the Earth. Fossils are normally found in association with sedimentary rocks, rock formations that have been laid down in layers, the remnants of loose sediment such as mud, silt and sand that has been compressed and changed into rock. However, this is not always the case, for example, in some metamorphic rocks (sedimentary rocks that have been altered as a result of heat or pressure), can still show evidence of preserved ancient life.
There are other substances found in nature that can preserve a record of life, such as natural tars and oils (La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles) or amber, the fossilised remains of tree sap. At Starunia in Poland, the remains of an ancient species of Rhinoceros was discovered pickled in a mixture of natural tar and salt water. This fossil dates from around 10,000 years ago, but it was so well preserved that residues from this animal’s last meal were found in the stomach.
Scientists do not limit themselves by placing a strict dividing line between evidence of life that is either organic or preserved as a fossil. The Starunia Rhinoceros and the preserved remains of Woolly Mammoths exhumed from the Siberian tundra demonstrate how blurred the definition between fossils and preserved organic remains can be. When pressed, most palaeontologists would probably consider any evidence of life greater than 10,000 years old to be a fossil. Speaking in rough terms, most items found before the Holocene epoch, the beginning of human civilisation would be regarded as a fossil. In practical terms the question of how to define a fossil is not really an issue as most fossils are millions of years old, indeed many are hundreds of millions of years old.
The Fossil Collecting Code
When collecting fossils there are some basic tips and rules that collectors need to observe. These rules have been devised to help protect individuals as they hunt their fossils and incorporate elements such as consideration for others and respect for land owners and the natural environment.
Here is our guide to safe and happy fossil collecting (points in no particular order of importance)
1). Always consider your safety and the safety of others with you. It is better to go fossil collecting with a group or partner than to go alone. Be aware of your safety, tell people where you are going and when you can be expected to return. Wear appropriate clothing for the weather and carry waterproofs even if the weather is fine when you start out. A pair of good, sturdy walking boots is a very sensible investment.
2). Remember that if collecting near cliffs or overhangs a hard hat is a sensible precaution. If you want to hammer away at rocks, wear safety goggles.
3). Check your route to the site, best to arrive early with plenty of time to search than to arrive late. Always check with the land owners and seek permission to collect from private land. Take note of any signage at the site, if a sign says don’t collect fossils at a particular place then don’t collect fossils from there. Always obey all site rules and signs.
4). Never hammer away at an outcrop for the sake of it. Remember, nature is very helpful when it comes to fossil finding, many fossils are waiting to be found in the scree on foreshore, do not ruin the outcrop or cliff face for others. Collect loose specimens wherever possible and take plenty of newspaper to pack specimens in for the journey home. Empty plastic margarine tubs packed with newspaper make excellent temporary storage facilities for fossils being transported in a ruck sack.
5). Do not be tempted to over collect, remember you have to carry them back with you, always leave some specimens for others. After a few hours fossil collecting we tend to hold what we call “beauty parades”, each one of us can show to the other members of the group what they have found. We then put some back for other fossil hunters to find.
6). Never climb on cliffs and always respect the countryside code and other users of the countryside. Close all gates as you go through them, just in case there are livestock around that may escape. Do take time to enjoy the scenary, a flask of hot tea or coffee plus a chocolate biscuit is always welcome and gives you the chance to take a break and take in the world around you, but remember to take your litter home.
7). Make simple notes in the field about your discoveries. Record the exact location, a brief description, the number found and the type of rock strata associated with them. It is also worth noting the other fossils found in association with them. If you have a camera, take some pictures, these will help you when it comes to curating your collection and provide you with some reminders of your day out.
8). When you get home, put some time to one side to sort your kit out as well as your fossil finds. Clean your boots, put some oil on your geological hammer and chisels, a few moments of care will help your fossil hunting tools last you a lifetime.
9). Curate your collection properly, keep records of the finds, the dates found and provide some information on each specimen. Invest in a simple storage box with trays so that you can keep them safe and sound. A simple data card for each specimen with basic information on what it was, date found, specimen number will suffice. Never discard your collection, offer it to others before you throw it away. Is there a niece of nephew in your family that might catch the fossil hunting bug?
10). Finally, remember that in your own small way you are contributing to the science of palaeontology. Your modest collection may become a sense of pride to you, but perhaps, just perhaps you may find something of real scientific value. If you think you have discovered something a little out of the ordinary or unusual take them to your local museum and ask the experts for your opinion. In our experience, museum staff are very helpful and never patronising and enjoy hearing about your fossil collecting trips.
So there you have it, some basic pointers regarding the collection of fossils. Fossil collecting is a fascinating and absorbing hobby, it gets people out into the fresh air and helps young people learn more about Earth sciences. Follow these basic rules and you will have many happy fossil collecting experiences, we have only one further point to add:
Happy hunting and the best of luck to you.