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A Short Guide to Fossil Hunting

Updated: May 12, 2023


Man hammering rocks in the ground

So, you’ve seen the films, documentaries and the online videos of fossil hunters and paleontologists taking to beautiful landscapes to dig up dinosaurs and thought ‘that’s for me!’. Whether you're a kid or an adult, it looks awesome and you should believe the hype; it really is.


However, it isn’t just a case of popping on your favourite field hat, grabbing a hammer and hitting a few rocks until something turns up. Unfortunately, you can't just find a fossil anywhere. In reality, successful excavation of the really exciting stuff takes years of experience and knowledge, weeks of hard work and teams of people helping. However, it doesn’t seem to stop some people from unintentionally ruining potentially ground-breaking finds at best and, at worst, injuring themselves.


You’re going to be different though, simply for reading this blog post.


So, how do you find fossils? And how do you do it correctly?


First, let's establish what a paleontologist does. A paleontologist is someone who specialises in the study of past life, primarily through the use of fossils. Whilst dinosaurs are mostly associated with them, this study can apply to any form of life, whether that's mammals, bugs, plants or even micro-organisms. These guys are usually professionals with qualifications, but there are amateur paleontologists who see this as a hobby but are experts nonetheless.


Whilst it is extraordinarily rare for a lone amateur fossil hunter to stumble across a ground-breaking find, that doesn’t mean they can’t go out and discover some exciting fossils to add to their collection.


Outlined below are 10 tips for working in the field and doing it right!:



Risk assessment

First and foremost, you need to be safe! You might be surprised how dangerous these conditions can turn out if you’re not careful. Trust me, I’ve seen some nasty injuries occur such as broken hands and ankles, I’ve heard shocking stories of professional geologists being struck by lightning, I’ve even dodged a bullet or two myself (just ask the Hastings coastguard).


Hazards are uncontrollable, but disasters are almost always avoidable. If you take a logical and sensible approach, you should come out of this unharmed. So how can you stay safe when looking for fossils? One habit that was drilled into us by lecturers on field trips was writing down a risk assessment in our field notebooks before even laying eyes on a rock. Not only does this mitigate any lawsuits for them, but it also brings certain hazards to the forefront of your mind so you can work around them safely.


Working in the middle of the Moroccan desert? Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and protective clothing and try to time it so you’re taking a break at peak heat (around noon). Excavating in the freezing and wet climate of Northern Scotland during early March? Plenty of warm clothing and being sure to tuck your socks into your boots to avoid catching lymes disease from pesky ticks. Prospecting along a beach? Have the tide times committed to memory so you don’t get caught out. Other general hazards normally include rough terrain, uncooperative weather and isolated locations.


Whilst this post would be waaaaay too long if it described every hazard you may come across, it does illustrate the general mind-set one must adopt. The three main takeaways from this would be: always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back so they know if there is a problem due to you not returning; equipment can be a life-saver (more on that further on) and...don’t get cocky.



SSSI’s

A wire fence.

SSSI stands for ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’. It is a specific term used in the UK but its principles still apply to other places. Whilst it sounds fascinating and exciting, you shouldn’t let the name tempt you. These are areas of special conservation, due to the biological or geological nature of the area and are conserved for a reason.


In the UK, if an area is designated a SSSI, it means it is in fact illegal to hammer, take from or otherwise tamper with anything that is naturally from that area. Unfortunately, many are either not aware of this, or simply do not care and will end up taking specimens that could have led to massive breakthroughs in the science for their own keepsakes, or just flat out ruining them. Not to mention the risk they may pose to wildlife of a biological conservation by excavating.


Don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly easy to miss this when you are starting out, simply because you don’t know the ins and outs of things like this (something I have been guilty of in the past myself). However, all it takes is a little bit of homework on the area you plan to explore. If you are free to roam the area and take from it what you wish, go right on ahead, but if the area has been classed as a SSSI or equivalent, you shouldn’t carry out any paleontological work unsupervised. Having said that, nothing is stopping you from exploring the area (if it isn’t private property) or even finding out who is working on the area and seeing if you can volunteer to work with them (especially if you want to dip your feet in a more professional setting).


Fitness

Women running through mountains.

A lot of people are actually surprised at this one. If you’ve ever been hiking, you know that a certain level of fitness is required in order not to feel like you're about to keel over. No one is saying you have to pass armed special forces fitness tests, run a marathon or be able to bench 300lbs, but paleontology and fossil hunting in the field does mean hiking across difficult terrain for (sometimes) several hours before getting your hands dirty digging up fossils, then hiking all the way back.


If you’ve never broken a sweat in your life, you could end up leaving with the enthusiasm of a dog chasing a ball and wondering if you're about to see the afterlife half an hour later, so it’s best to get your fitness levels up to a certain degree so you can take the punishment. You can always hit the gym or go running, but the best workout you can get for this is simply hiking. Start off in easy areas whilst packing light, then gradually build up as you go along. Just make sure you're careful with any injuries you may have (knee, hips, back etc.) and be sure to consult a doctor.


It may never be a breeze (I go to the gym, spent a few years in boxing/mma training AND have quite a few trips of this nature under my belt and I’m still pretty worn out after a long day of this stuff), but it is another string on your bow to get the most fulfilment out of this hobby/job.


Another trick of the trade I’ve learnt in my degree is to refuel afterwards in a pub....



Geological knowledge

Image of a mountain landscape.

Another common mistake that amateur fossil hunters often make when they first start out (again, was guilty of this myself once upon a time) is underestimating the importance of geological knowledge. You can’t simply walk to a place with rocks and expect to find a dinosaur sticking its big snout out of the ground, especially if the rocks are an igneous complex from the Precambrian (nothing fossilises in lava and nothing with bones even existed back then).


Fossils are in fact exclusively found in sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, mudstone, limestone and chalk. If you want the easier finds, the best place to look is where the rock outcrops have been cut into, eroded or otherwise disturbed. Some good examples of these are disused quarries, beaches, sides of river or streams or road cuts. As long as the rock is exposed, sedimentary and being eroded, you stand a chance of finding a loose fossil. A loose fossil is often an eroded one, however, so many of the looser finds are small and lacking in detail. More high quality finds are found in situ, or found in the rock. This is where knowing more about geology comes in handy.


Can you recognise marine sediments? Do you know how to take a strike and dip so you can find out which direction the rocks get younger/older in? Can you recognise a fault system to know if anything has displaced so you’re not thrown in the wrong direction? Do you know…..well you get the picture.


Sandstone showing wavy markings (foliation).

Truly advanced geological knowledge isn’t necessary for amateur paleontological work, however you do need a base knowledge so that you’re not wasting your own time looking for fossils where there are none. Again, this does require a little homework on your intended area. Find out how to identify a sedimentary rock (the only rock type that can yield a fossil), what the age of the area is and what kind of environment it was deposited in (in turn, finding out what kind of fossils you may find) etc.


This knowledge may have been reserved for the elite back in 1839, but we are blessed with the power of the internet, so you have all the resources you need! The importance of geology overall is covered in another one of our posts looking at the importance of geology.



Anatomical/cladistic knowledge

Model of vertebra and a sacrum.

Oh joy, something that requires more background reading!


This one should come as no surprise really. Nonetheless, I’ll tell you a fun story:


A friend of a friend once became incredibly delighted,

For what she believed to be a fossil, she had sighted.

She collected the sample with frantic haste,

Making sure nothing went to waste.


She sent the sample to London’s Natural History Museum,

Was it a femur, ulna or ischium?

After careful deliberation and comparison with other pieces,

They replied with ‘species: Feline, specimen: faeces’


Not only an original piece of work by yours truly, but also a true story.


The point is, anything can look like a fossil to the untrained eye if you really want it to. So what is meant by anatomical and cladistic knowledge? Well, anatomy is the science that studies the structure of a body. This includes bones and shells and someone with a good level of knowledge in anatomy can spot fossils and diagnose its type much easier. Cladistics is a form of biological classification in which organisms are categorised into groups that share a common ancestor, usually based on certain characteristics found in their anatomy. Combining anatomical and cladistic knowledge will mean you will be a fossil whizz and far more likely to know just what they are looking at!


Take the time to research what a fossil in the field actually looks like, as well as all the different types. You can have anything from a coprolite (fossilised poo) to crab carapaces to dinosaur teeth to even trace fossils (such as footprints or feeding traces). You can even have fossils made of different stuff, such as a pyritised ammonite (a shell made of 'fool's gold'), aragonite shell (shells with an iridescent shine), or ‘bog-standard’ bone. If you're looking for a full list of fossil types, we'll have a post on that soon.


You have most likely walked past fossils so many times in your life already, so they’re notoriously difficult to spot, or perhaps picked up something thinking it was a fossil when it in fact wasn’t (like the aforementioned young lady who sent her neighbour’s cat’s ‘present’ from the garden to London's Natural History Museum).


You’ll never know everything, even after a 50 year long career (that’s why specialists exist), but if you have done your research in the area and know what you should expect to find, you can do some anatomical research on the species that are common there so you know what to look out for. If you're struggling where to start, we do have a post detailing just what a fossil actually is.



Equipment

Backpack, hiking boots and clothes in a forest.

This is another important one, on many different levels. Equipment will make your life easier, safer and more efficient. Many of these things can get expensive but, if they last you for many years to come, they’ll be invaluable. Here’s a short list of what I believe to be the most important equipment to have in the field:


These are the basics that you’ll need when working on your own, all of which can start off relatively cheap before saving up for the higher quality stuff. You may also feel you need to add to this list as you do more and more trips, so feel free to tailor the experience to yourself. We have a full comprehensive guide list of field equipment here.



Contacts

Picture of people shaking hands at a work meeting

Sooner or later, you’re gonna need to get in touch with someone who is ‘in the know’. It could be someone who works in a museum, a university professor or even someone who has been an amateur fossil collector for decades, as long as they’re an expert. Someone like this can be invaluable to guiding you along and helping you distinguish the right/wrong way of doing things. They can tell you great areas to explore, give you guidance on how to read the geology of the area, help you in figuring out just what has been found or be able to let the relevant people know if it is a specimen that requires more research by experts.


It doesn’t have to be someone that you have to go up to in person and charm your way into their inner circle to be invited round for dinner and drinks. Hell, you can simply reach out online for advice. As long as they are an expert in this field.


Navigating the world of fossil collecting, believe it or not, can be a minefield. The amount of knowledge you feel you may be lacking can be overwhelming, you may be fairly inefficient or may even be breaking certain laws without realising (more on that below).


At the end of the day, guides like this can be a great ‘step 1’ but you will inevitably grow more and more questions as you progress, so it’s great to have an expert be able to answer those questions.


It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!



Legalities

Picture of scales associated with the law.

Here’s one that often trips people up.


Ever heard the story of Sue the T.rex? It’s a long enough story to warrant an hour long documentary of the incident (search up ‘Dinosaur 13’, it is a good look into the harsh reality of legalities) but, in short, Sue is the largest and most complete T-rex specimen ever found and resides in Chicago. She was first discovered in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson and the Black Hills Institute.


I won’t put across my own opinions on the events that transpired after that, but the specimen was soon seized by the government and, following a ten year long battle between the Black Hills Institute vs the FBI, National Park Services and Maurice Williams (the land owner who had initially given his permission for excavation to be done), Sue the T-rex was moved to Chicago for a grand unveiling, thousands of other specimens were confiscated from the Black Hills Institute and Pete Larson (one of the lead paleontologists) spent 18 months in prison. No one who had helped discover Sue the T.rex was even invited to the opening in Chicago.


This is a very extreme example and highlights the difference between legality and morality (again, watch the documentary). You shouldn’t be scared about so much as picking up a pebble, but the point still stands that many people do not take into account the legal implications of what they find. Whether it’s right or wrong, the fact is that you can get into a lot of trouble for taking what the law may deem as not yours, especially if it is high in value.


The best way around this? Just re-read the previous points! Avoid taking from SSSI's and get in touch with paleontologists with years of experience who have all learned valuable lessons from stories like that of Sue the T.rex. Cover your back when it comes to the law! An expert can give you the lowdown of what can and can’t be done by who in a certain area, so you can save all that hard earned cash rather than spending it on lawyers.



Morals

Image of a ying-yang symbol.

Continuing nicely from the previous point is morality. Don’t worry, I’m not about to say that you should be careful not to hurt the rock’s feelings.


There are only two main things that need touching on here. Firstly, be aware that, in certain places in the world, people are horrendously exploited for the ‘lucrative’ fossil trade. Take the amber trade for example. Ukraine has had trouble with illegal amber mining, needlessly ruining the earth and using questionable employment techniques. The Burmese mines in Northern Myanmar have also been a hot topic, with amber mining having disgusting and very dangerous conditions (many have died) and employing and exploiting children. Unfortunately, by buying the amber specimens that contain a wide array of fossils either for research or jewellery, people have unknowingly funded the decades-long Kachin conflict, furthering the bloodshed. Many stories like this are unfortunately true when it comes to the fossil black market. Where there is money to be made, criminals exist.


I very much doubt that any who are reading this are planning to employ/force those younger or less fortunate to make their millions from the fossil trade, but it pays to be aware of such harsh realities so you can be careful about where you buy from and what you collect. The more fossil collecting is conducted the correct way, no matter how small the step is, the more it will mitigate incidents like this.


Secondly there is the point of science over greed. Arguably, this was a point that Maurice Williams skipped out on when Sue the T.rex was discovered. The explanation is quite simple: the discovery of fossils is more important for science than it is for money making or personal collections. Not to say that you shouldn’t make money or have personal collections, but if you have a massive and ground-breaking discovery that could make huge contributions to science, you shouldn’t keep it to yourself. Again this is where a good contact comes in handy, as they will know whether further study is needed and who to hand it over to. I know it’s tempting to hold on to it, especially when you feel a great sense of achievement from it, but try to get into your head that you are a scientist first and a collector second. Conduct yourself with enough integrity and the scientist that studies the specimen might even name the species after you if it's a new discovery (it’s been known to happen!).



Patience

Cliché, I know, but still true. Even the best of the best paleontologists can spend weeks and weeks in the field looking for fossils and turn up absolutely nothing. You may find you have more trips like this than you do actually finding anything. Trust me, I know how much it sucks having faced a helluva lot of disappointment in the field myself.


Just be patient. Finding absolutely nothing doesn’t mean you're bad at this and it makes finding something all the more worthwhile (something much more likely to happen now you've read this!). As cheesy as it sounds, you started this journey because you enjoy it, so have fun!


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