When plumber Steve Etches began collecting fossils as a young man, he could hardly have imagined that one day he would open the doors to his own fossil museum.
Since the 1980s, when he started hunting for fossils in his spare time, Steve – now aged 66 – has dug up more than 2,000 specimens, some of which are rare examples of ancient species that experts believed did not previously exist in that area. The £5m Etches Collection Museum of Jurassic Marine Life – to give it its full title – is the pinnacle of this Dorset plumber’s remarkable achievements. As well as showcasing his impressive collection, it uses CGI displays to recreate the marine environment of 150 million years ago, allowing visitors to see how the creatures would have moved and interacted when alive.
The word ‘fossil’ comes from the Latin word ‘fossus’, which literally means ‘something obtained by digging’. There are different types of fossil: ‘body fossils’ include the petrified remains of animals, fish and plants and even microscopic organisms such as bacteria. Another type of fossil is the ‘trace fossil’, which shows an imprint of something that has once lived, such as a human footprint.
A fossil is usually formed when an animal or plant dies and is rapidly buried by sand, soil or mud. Fossilisation occurs when the circumstances for preserving the body are just right and an ancient seabed – where bodies are quickly covered up – is one of the best places to look.
Steve Etches was fortunate to live near Dorset’s Jurassic coast … but you don’t need to live near a rich excavation site to make fossil collecting your hobby. Fossil collectors are a diverse group and vary from the casual collector to the dedicated hobbyist, who might even travel the world looking for rare specimens. Some individuals even combine a fossil hobby with collecting crystals and minerals.
If you’re not sure where to start, you could visit displays at the Natural History Museum in London or explore www.fossilmuseum.net: a virtual museum of fossils with timelines, records and information on fossil sites throughout the world. Alternatively, visit one of the hundreds of locations in the UK that are known for fossils. During the summer many fossil-rich coastal resorts offer opportunities to go hunting with an experienced guide and that is a great way to establish a basis for your collection.
Fossils are commonly found on the beach, or in quarries, but others have been found in more unusual places. Be aware that if you are entering a farm field or a quarry to search, you may need to obtain permission before you can enter. There are some places – for example, where fossils form part of the construction of sea defences and walls – where you may be breaking the law if you try to remove them.
A sharp pair of eyes is the best tool for finding new specimens, as most fossils are lying in plain sight amongst the stones on the beach (although you may need help to identify likely fossils at first). Special geological hammers can be used to gently crack open the rock encasing them if necessary.
If you intend to hunt for fossils in the great outdoors, make sure you are well equipped. You’ll need:
- A tide timetable, so you can avoid getting trapped by the tide.
- Sturdy plastic bags for your specimens.
- Old newspaper to wrap up delicate finds.
- A mobile phone.
- A camera.
- A geological hammer and safety glasses.
- A notebook and pen to record your finds.
One of the best sources of information about fossil collecting is www.ukfossils.co.uk. Here you’ll find a list of activities taking place throughout the country, including organised fossil hunts and fossil shows where you can chat to experts and buy specimens. Alternatively, discuss your finds with other fossil hunters at www.discussfossils.com.
If you are buying items to add to your collection, then it’s best to stick to recommended sites, as forgers can create spectacular fakes out of resin that are almost impossible to differentiate from the real thing. You can pay anything from under a pound for a fossilized shark’s tooth to hundreds of pounds for a really good specimen but the sky’s the limit when it comes to the rarest examples. The highest price ever recorded for a fossil was $7.6 million, paid for a T-Rex skeleton nicknamed “Sue” in 1997.
As a fossil collector you can scale your hobby exactly as you wish: either keep a few items in a display box at home or make a trailblazing contribution to science like Steve Etches, who is now considered a worldwide authority on fossils and has even been awarded an MBE for his work.
As this article began by describing Steve’s extraordinary achievements, it’s only right that he should have the last word: “You don’t need to go to university to do this. You can’t learn what I’ve learned from a three or four year degree. You can do it as a hobby and take it from there.”
by Kate McLelland
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