After a morning of fossil hunting along the beach at Lyme Regis, I cannot escape the feeling of being Charlie Brown at Halloween. The geologist was polite as he dismissed my sure fossil finds as flint, beef limestone, a clay waterpipe—and in one instance—a piece of wood.
Gentle as the Lyme Regis Museum geologist was, all I heard was, a la Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.” It was a familiar refrain among the three of us on a misty Sunday morning, when about a dozen amateur fossil hunters joined Paddy Howe for a dinosaur walk.
Although we pulled out a bagful of ammonites, belemnites (ancient squid-like critters) and a single ichthyosaur (big fish) vertebrae from the sand, the rocks and the muck, Paddy was most apologetic we didn’t find more stuff. His preferred fossil hunting weather is high winds and pissing rain, so we didn’t feel too bad we didn’t pull a giant ichthyosaur from the cliff face.
She really sells fossils
Unless you had a kid enthralled by all things dinosaur, you may not realize the significance of Lyme Regis. Do you know the tongue-twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore?” That’s actually a reference to Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis during the 19th century and was credited with discovering the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur, which roamed the area 200 million years ago.
To support her family, Anning actually sold fossil bones and ammonites by the seashore, but hey, that doesn’t rhyme quite as well. We passed by Anning Lane while walking from the car park to our flat, so it’s apparent that she remains relevant today.
The Natural History Museum in London has many fossils that Anning collected, including a complete ichthyosaur, that we’ve seen (and photographed) on a previous visit to London. It if weren’t such a pain to access our backup files, I’d go looking for it.
Lyme Regis is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which stretches for 95 miles along England’s southwest coastline. If you’ve ever visited a heritage site, you’ll probably remember hearing about how you can’t touch anything or take photos with flash, and how you must watch your kids and mind your manners—basically, touch something and we’ll kill you.
Polishing the turd
Lest you think we were stealing fossils, Lyme Regis is not a typical world heritage site. As Paddy explained, since the tides continually both uncover fossils and erode parts of the cliff every year, the authorities just want to catalog significant finds, and what nearly everyone finds is of no significance. You can’t dig into the cliff face, but if there’s something sticking out you want to dig out, you can—with permission. But if it’s in danger of being carried away, you can dig it out first, then seek permission.
And if you find an entirely new skeleton, it’s yours to keep, to sell to the highest bidder, donate to the British Museum or to do whatever you want with. So instead of leave no trace and take nothing but photos, here it’s haul off all you can carry and just watch out for the cliffs.
Marilynn gets the credit for finding the ichthyosaur vertebrae on the way back to the flat after the fossil hunt was officially over. This is one of the more rare finds. I had seen so much beef limestone that I didn’t believe her, so we had Declan run the specimen back to Paddy, who said it came from near the creature’s neck.
But I don’t think anyone found any coprolites, fossilized dino poo to us ordinary folk. Paddy explained that they are commonly found and were particularly prized as jewelry during Victorian times. The fossils were polished and made into necklaces, so as Paddy wryly said, it is possible to polish a turd—and wear it, too.
I’m trying to imagine those highly stylized women, like those on those PBS series that Marilynn makes me watch, wearing hoop skirts and brocade while basically wearing a piece of shit around their necks.
Side note: That afternoon, we traveled to West Bay along the Jurassic Coast to see the cliffs. Those who watched the UK version of “Broadchurch” would recognize the cliff face immediately as the scene of the initial murder. While you’ll never find me on a “Walking Dead” tour in Georgia or the “Games of Thrones” tour in Northern Ireland, it is pretty neat to see the same perspective in real life that you’ve seen on the small screen.