Fossil Festival on the Jurassic Coast | Earth sciences

by Chris Hughes, Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum

Every year in early May the Museum participates in the Fossil Festival at Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.  It’s an event involving thousands of members of the public with an interest in the ancient marine fossils found in the rocks along the coast near Lyme. Museum scientists occupy a large marquee on the sea front and engage in a whole range of outreach activities. The idea is to enable everybody to meet scientists, to talk about real fossils and enjoy exploring the geology and natural history of this area.

A wonderful view of Lyme Regis bathed in May sunshine – before the snow!

We headed down to Lyme Regis on the Tuesday before the Fossil Festival commenced. This allowed us a day to carry out some fieldwork in this world famous fossil locality before we led an outreach event at the Thomas Hardye School, in Dorset. On our field visit we had a look at some of the great fossil sites that are found all around Lyme. We decided to head out west toward the famous ammonite pavement at Monmouth beach. This was my first time in Lyme Regis and I was very excited because I had been told that these rocks were some of the best in the world for these fossils.

This site is made up of hundreds of exquisitely preserved fossilized ammonites as well as many other marine invertebrate species nestled in a grey limestone which means they really stand out and are very easy to see.

Ammonite beautifully preserved on Monmouth beach
A gastropod fossil from the Ammonite Pavement

The weather wasn’t great but it was all going well until the rain decided to turn into snow! Our expedition was therefore unfortunately cut short, though luck was with us and we had reached the ammonite pavement and so were able to get some great photos. With further fossil hunting put on hold we decided to try out the local cream –  rather tasty – and the day ended very nicely with some well-earned and fish and chips and preparations for the next day!

Thursday, the first day at the Fossil Festival, was made up of many visiting school groups from the local area coming to the Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester. After filing into the assembly hall the young people were split into smaller groups for different activities. Zoe Hughes and I were looking at using simple taxonomic characters to identify brachiopods from a large group of other marine invertebrate fossils.

We were not the only members of the Museum team present. Robin Hansen, Mineral Curator at the Museum, was talking about the many different minerals that are used in the construction of mobile phones. Dr Zerina Johanson, a fossil fish researcher from the Museum, with the help of her research assistant Brett Clark, used 3D CT scans to show how sharks evolved their fearsome dentition and their different feeding strategies, using real specimens, which the pupils enjoyed close up. Emma Humphreys-Williams, an analytical chemist, and Eloise Harman, a research assistant, showed how the viscosity of lava affects the type of eruption a volcano produces.

The day was a success for all, everyone enjoyed themselves and a lot was learnt! I really enjoyed the day, it was a wonderful experience and I hope that some of the students came away from it as inspired as I had. It was great to read in the feedback forms that when they were asked if they had learnt anything from the day, they mostly said that they now knew what a Brachiopod was.

Thomas Hardye School day – group photo

Day two of the Festival was Friday and it was all go from the very beginning.  We all arrived at the big Natural History Museum tent early so we could get everything set up for primary schools to visit, and as they all started to arrive we quickly discovered how enthusiastic and passionate they were about fossils.

I spent most of the morning working at the Abbey Wood activity which was run by Scientific Associate David Ward. This activity allowed the students to sieve through material from a 54 million year old fossil bed, found in Abbey Wood, SE London. The aim was to find and identify shark teeth, bivalves and gastropods which were all very common from the site.

The children really thought it was fantastic that they were able to keep what they had discovered, though one child did find part of a lizard jaw which came back with us to the Museum for further identification as this was a rare and exciting find. This was a great activity and everyone who did it found it both entertaining and educational.

Myself and a visitor engaged in the Abbey Wood activity, sorting sharks’ teeth

Other activities that were at the tent included all those from the Thomas Hardye School, as well as a few others. Kieran Miles and Amy Trafford, both Conservation Technicians at the Museum were talking about the effects of pyrite decay in fossils, and solutions to prevent this. This is part of an on-going project at the Museum called ‘Project Airless’, where we are conserving collections affected by pyrite decay. Alex Ball, Head of Division (Imaging and Analysis) had an interactive table where everyone could view CT scans and visually dissect specimens on the screen.

Zoe and myself enjoying talking to the public about fossils

Alessandro Giusti, a Lepidoptera Curator in our Life Sciences Department at the Museum, and Laurence Mason, one of the Museums many volunteers, were looking at the diversity of butterflies and moths. We had some great activity from the Museum’s Learning team: they organised the school groups and had a really fun activity which allowed the children to become palaeontologists digging up fossils – everyone who did it enjoyed how interactive it was.

Fiona Fearnhead from the Museum’s Angela Marmot Centre for UK Biodiversity was carrying out identifications of fossils that visitors had brought in with the support of Scientific Associates Jerry Hooker and Noel Morris. Though it was a very hectic day, with a couple of hundred enthusiastic school children, the day was great fun.

We were all very thankful for the support from Emma Bernard (Curator of Fish), Martin Munt (Head of Palaeobiology Collections) and Nichola Nicholson (Earth Sciences Departmental Coordinator) and volunteers from Learning, who worked with us on  many activities.   Sadly this was also Martin’s last year at the festival with the Museum, but we are sure that we will see him there again.

Robin presenting her mineralogical activity

On Saturday and Sunday the event was open to the public and they came in their thousands: at one point there was even a queue for the tent! We were fortunate to be joined by Victoria Burton, a PhD student studying at the Museum. Victoria had live earthworms with her to show how scientists at the Museum are working with the public on this important group to see how human activity affects soils. The weekend was very intense but it was great to be able to interact with the public. We had so many questions and queries about all our activities; it was great to be answering them.

Zoë and I had a competition where we asked people to guess the number and weight of Spiriferids (a type of Brachiopod) in a jar. The winners, of which we had two, will get a tour behind the scenes of the fossil Brachiopods and Cephalopods collection. On Sunday Zoë and I took the opportunity to have a look around the different organisations which were at the festival. It was great to meet people at other organisations and see the wide range of activities that they had brought with them.

One of my favourite activities was at the British Antarctic Survey stand; I was able to discover what penguin I was the same height as (FYI, Palaeeudyptes klekowskii). Doing this gave me the opportunity to really see the town for the first time. I would recommend anyone considering going to Lyme Regis and the Fossil Festival to go!

Jerry and Noel with some fossil examples

By the end of the weekend and the festival we were all pretty tired but it was a great experience and I really enjoyed the whole festival.

The view from our window on the morning that we headed back to London
The Museum team at the end of the Festival