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Can you keep the fossils you find?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Let's face it, people love the idea of going out and finding their own fossils. However, many might not see the point if they're not going to take any home (something I wholeheartedly disagree with). This isn't often the case, but I really think the most important bit of knowledge to have when you're looking for your own fossils is whether or not you can keep them.

There's often a lot of confusion around this, so I'm going to break down how to decide whether you can keep that fossil you just picked up out in the field.

A pyrite ammonite being held against a beach background
Image credit:

Can you?

A sign on a wooden gate saying 'private'.

First up, let's look at this from a legal standpoint. You'd be surprised how much legalities can surround finding fossils and we don't want you getting sued do we?

The two types of areas you want to watch out for are private property (obviously) and SSSI's. SSSI stands for 'Site of Special Scientific Interest', which means that, while the public can visit the area, it is protected for scientific or conservation reasons (or both). With regards to finding fossils, that does also mean that you cannot hammer anything or take anything without the express permission of the area's governing body and permission is usually only granted if your reasons for hammering/collecting are to contribute towards science. SSSI's are not often signposted, so always check the area online.

The private property part is, again, obvious, so keep an eye out for the signs and google is you're unsure. In the most extreme scenarios, such as the 'Sue the T.rex' incident, bad blood is created in courtrooms and people can end up in prison! Not to scare-monger you, situations like that happen very rarely. The unpleasantness you'll likely face would be an awkward telling off from the land owner, but better to be safe than sorry!

Should you?

This is one that people think about far less.

If, let's say, you find yourself on a fossil site that is public property and you would face no legal repercussions in taking whatever you wanted, I would argue that doesn't mean you necessarily should take whatever you want.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with amateur fossil collecting, but people get a little too preoccupied with the collection part and less about the actual science. I don't even want to know how many breakthrough discoveries we have missed out on because someone took what they was just a nice looking fossil to add to their collection on the mantelpiece.

SSSI's try to inhibit this happening, but many slip through the cracks. Don't get me wrong, a rare scientific find is just that: rare, so most of the fossils you find will be fairly commonplace and won't tell us anything we don't already know, but if you want to keep any of the fossils you find, always go out with as much fossil knowledge as possible so you can distinguish the difference between a keepsake and a breakthrough find.

If in doubt, take it to your nearest museum and ask them. They may ask to keep the find for further research and I understand your reluctance, I really do, but it can contribute a lot more in their hands.

If you can't, it's not all bad...

Apart from the rare occasion where greed is involved, the rules on whether or not you can/should keep the fossils you find are there for a reason. If you come across a rare find that can make new scientific finds and can't keep it, you still went out and had the fun of fossil hunting, still gained a lot of knowledge from it and, who knows? Maybe the scientist that describes the specimen will pay tribute to you in some way. What's better, having a fossilised paperweight on your desk or potentially being immortalised in the naming of a new species?

Until next time!

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23 avr. 2023

this really helped! ive been curious about fossil hunting and a bit confused about the legal side of it so this was really interesting!

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