Fossil Hunting

Fossil Hunting in the Peak District

As a rule, the older and rarer an object, then the greater it’s monetary value, but there are exceptions to every rule, and whilst you might pay a small fortune to obtain a thousand year old relic, or a couple of hundred pounds for a Georgian teapot, you can buy an artefact which is over 300 million years old for under a fiver at the National Stone Centre near Wirksworth!

It may surprise the majority to learn that fossil hunting comes relatively high on the list of `Hobbies and Pastimes’ indulged in by the UK population, and that in fact, there are in existence a number of organisations, including a National Fossil Hunting Association, which acts as a catalyst for thousands of budding paleontologists, geologists and students of natural history – as well as those who simply hunt and collect and hunt fossils.

So what exactly is a fossil and where is the best place to go hunting for them?

The National Stone Centre at Middleton-by-Wirksworth is a site designated as being of Special Scientific Interest and crammed with ancient tropical reefs. Site paleontologist, Geoffrey Selby-Sly gave me a conducted tour of the unique 330 million year old exposed fossil reef, and explained what the fossils were and how they were formed.

Fossils are a vital and valuable resource for scientists who study the Earth’s history, for they help determine the record of past events that are preserved in the rock, and in effect, the layers of rock are like pages in the Earth’s book of history.

The fossils found in the limestone are mainly marine types, like bryozoa, crinoids, trilobites, brachiopods, goniatites, bivalve molluscs and coral – with plant debris found in the coal measures toward Chesterfield. The most common early Carboniferous fossils found in the limestone reef at the National Stone Centre are crinoids and brachiopods, which together with other microscopic marine life formed the bed of the shallow tropical inland lagoon here about 330 million years ago – they and and their shells became the carboniferous limestone dome of the White Peak.

Brachiopods (Gigantoprocuctuc) – a shell fish which could attach itself to the sea bed by a stalk emerging from the rear of its shell, and bryozoa, a tiny colonial animal which resembles a small coral and grows in net like fronds, are numerous in the limestone and can be clearly seen in the exposed reef at the National Stone Centre. The broken stems of sea-lilies (crinoids) have the common name `Derbyshire Screw’ because when exposed in the rock, they look just like an embedded wood screw!

The Story of Stone, and specifically that of the limestone bedrock of Derbyshire is told graphically in a series of informative educational displays and illustrated guides at the National Stone Centre. Students and interested parties can see the fossils in situ and can actually take casts of certain fossils from the exposed limestone reefs. The displays explain the dating process of the rock and thus, the fossils that they contain, many examples of which can be purchased from the NSC `Rock Shop’ for under £5, along with a fabulous collection of gem stones and other fossils from all over the world.

During the carboniferous period, the landmass that is now Britain was situated about five to ten degrees south of the Equator and enjoyed a warm tropical climate similar to that of the Pacific Islands today.

Over a period of about a hundred million years, during what is known as the Permian and Triassic period, the British Isles gradually moved to it’s current position fifty degrees north of the Equator – and this explains why the fossils found in the Derbyshire limestone were once living creatures which thrived in what today seems a completely alien climate.

Fossils offer us a fascinating glimpse back into the past, in fact the earliest fossils provide our only knowledge of life on Earth in a time long before we ever set foot on the planet, and the unique Peak District fossils found in the reef at the NSC are some of the oldest in the world.

Fossils are the prized possessions of a growing number of avid collectors and come in all shapes and sizes; from bees in amber to dinosaur eggs, and from leaves and fish skeletons in coal seams, to ammonites and sea-lilies in limestone.

The National Stone Centre has a wide range of fossils for sale on display from around the world – including a collection of dinosaur eggs – and a visit is highly recommended!