Dorset Stories and Tips

The Romance of the Blue Lias: Fossil Hunting at Lyme Regis

Layers of fossil-bearing lias Photo, Dorset, England

Where, why, when, and how?

The cliffs at Lyme Regis are rich in Jurassic sea fossils, making it relatively easy for even novice collectors to find ammonites, crinoids, belemnites, and perhaps even more spectacular creatures. Because the cliffs are notoriously unstable, new rock is constantly being exposed to the sea, allowing exposed fossils to wash onto the shore where they can easily be picked up. The best time to find fossils is in the winter after a storm, as not only have new fossils just been exposed but there are fewer people on the beach to find them. The fossils are embedded in a crumbly blue-gray clay known as the Blue Lias.

The easiest place to look for fossils is east of Lyme on the beach below the cliffs known as the Black Ven. This area, about a mile from the edge of town, is accessible only during low tide, so consult a tide chart or ask at the local information centre for the time of low tide before setting out. The BBC Weather site also maintains a page of tide times for Southwest England. Generally it’s safe to be on the beach about an hour and a half on either side of low tide, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the sea as winds or aberrant swells occasionally bring the tide in faster than usual.

A few pesky preliminaries

Those who intend to hunt fossils should read the Fossil Code of Conduct. Basically, this code urges fossil hunters to use common sense, respect the property rights of landowners, and to bring any potentially unique fossils to the attention of the authorities.

While fossil hunting is a fairly placid activity, it does have its dangers. At Lyme Regis, collectors are warned not only about the tides but also about the instability of the cliffs and are told to keep well away from them as portions frequently collapse without warning. Fossil hunters, alas, are not noted for their caution, and I spotted several diehard fossil hunters clambering up the unstable cliff-faces wielding rock-hammers. Speaking of rock hammers, remember that they can be dangerous, too. Flying shards of rock are a hazard, so be sure to wear safety goggles when using a hammer or chisel. Finally, I conclude this litany of precautions by noting that many of the rock slabs along the beach are covered with slippery green seaweed, so be careful when walking over them.

Having said all this, I’d highly recommend a walk along this beautiful stretch of coast, even for those who haven’t the slightest interest in fossils. Once the tide recedes, a lovely expanse of shoreline is exposed, full of tide pools and interesting rock ledges. Children in particular delight in poking about on the shore, while the ever-present fossil hunters prowl slowly along the base of the cliffs, intent on their quest for interesting specimens.

The romance of the Blue Lias

On a beautifully calm March morning, I set out eastward from Lyme Regis along the beach, anxious to try my luck below the Black Ven. While I’ve hunted fossils in any number of places in the U.S. and elsewhere in England, the lure of Lyme Regis comes from not just the prospect of plentiful fossils, but from knowing how important this place was, historically, to paleontologists and to the development of evolutionary theory.

Mankind is always looking for something, be it fossils or answers. And our species is nothing if not curious. Long ago, people speculated about what the strange objects they sometimes found along the coast, in mines and quarries, and in various other places could be. Petrified in the rocks near the shore at Lyme Regis were odd shapes, looking sometimes vaguely familiar yet otherworldly at the same time. Some objects looked like vertebrae, perhaps of some enormous, unknown creature, while others resembled the coils of serpents and became known as "snake-stones." There were long, tapered objects said to have once been thunderbolts used by God or "St. Peter’s fingers." Local legends infused these strange objects with supernatural powers – "St. Peter’s fingers" were said to have special healing powers, while other artifacts assumed darker, Satanic purposes.

There were among the curious a group whose curiosity was even more marked than normal; today these people are called scientists, though this term did not exist at the time. Those with money and leisure collected the strange "fossils" in their curio cabinets. At that time, the word simply referred to any curious object, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. Gradually, the word took on a narrower meaning, but not before a long and rather contentious scientific battle over what fossils were and (more importantly) when they had been formed.

The view of the earth’s creatures before then was harmonious with the Biblical account. The concept of "extinction" did not exist. Naturalists were struggling to reconcile the number of new species that were being found around the globe with the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Geologists led the vanguard, hinting that the world might indeed be much older than 6,000 years. But these were still rumblings on the edges of society; the concept of evolution and of the vastness of geological time was but a glimmer in Erasmus Darwin’s (Charles’ grandfather) eye.

I’d read a number of accounts of the fossil age of discovery and knew, for example, of the discoveries and theories of such 19th century worthies as Richard Owen, William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, and the celebrated Georges Cuvier, who is now regarded as the founder of the science of paleontology. The development of natural history during the late 18th through the 19th century makes for colorful reading, but what fascinates me most are the men and women who searched for the meaning of fossils.

Many of these early fossil pioneers are almost completely forgotten today. Others, such as Mary Anning, have become legends. Anning grew up poor in the 19th century sense, which is very poor indeed. She found that wealthy collectors would pay handsomely for the fossils she found in the cliffs and along the shore at Lyme Regis. At first her role was that of mere procurer, but despite her lack of formal education, she became as knowledgeable if not more knowledgeable than the men whose curio cabinets her specimens filled. Her grasp of anatomy was as impressive as her keen eye. She became, in the words of one biographer, "the Mozart of paleontology," the prodigy who discovered the first complete ichthyosaur at the tender age of twelve and who later found the first plesiosaur and pterosaur. Anning was at the right place at the right time, but more importantly she had the wits and gumption to overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles facing a working-class female naturalist in a society that scorned her class, was dismissive of her sex, and had ambivalent feelings toward her profession in general.

As I stroll down the beach at Lyme Regis, I can’t help but think of Mary Anning and all the others who walked here before me. And I am susceptible, as she no doubt was, to the romance of the Blue Lias. I am rewarded by finding a few small ammonites embedded the dark gray-blue rock. Unexpectedly, I find a lovely fragment of crinoid, those elegant sea lily-like creatures that once populated the ancient sea floor. But these bits of rock are mere symbols of what I have really come to find–that intangible connection with the past that pulls each of us to the shore and that calls like a distant seagull from the fringes of our imagination.

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