It’s very difficult to go hunting for fossils on the Isle of Wight without any prior knowledge of the subject because you can end up picking up quite a lot of things that have no fossil remains in them at all. For this reason it is a very good idea to book onto a guided fossil walk from Dinosaur Isle or with Martin Simpson who is based at the Isle of Wight Pearl. These walks will give you a basic grounding in what to look for in the different locations around the Island.
Dinosaur bones are most often found where the Wealden beds are exposed and this is at two places on the Island: down the west coastline between Compton and Atherfield and at Yaverland beach on the east coast. Walks can be taken at many places on the west coast by Martin Simpson and Dinosaur Isle offer many walks on nearby Yaverland beach as well as the west coast.
Bear in mind the fact that the anything above the high water mark is owned by the landowner and for most of these locations that is the National Trust. It is illegal to dig fossils out of the cliffs without the owner’s permission but some of those leading walks have arrangements with the landowners, and this is another good reason for going on one first. The south west coast is all designated SSII and if you go up the cliff with a shovel you will be arrested.
Picking up fossils from the beach is not generally frowned upon and you’re unlikely to be challenged, although loading up buckets and wheelbarrows is not acceptable. But if you start chipping away at the bottom of the cliff you are in dangerous territory – you could be apprehended or the cliff could fall on top of you. Beware!
Compton Beach is a good place to start a fossil hunt because there are several types of fossils that you can find on the beach. One of the easiest to find is a grey rock embedded with seashells that is strewn all over the beach so needs no digging. You are also likely to find fossilised wood from the forest that once stood at Hanover Point – it looks just like coal and is often layered with ‘fool’s gold’ a mineral called iron pyrites that looks like crystals of gold. They will gradually decompose into a green dust when exposed to the air, but it looks quite exciting when you first see it – especially for children.
You can also find fossilised oyster shells here on the beach. They look just like the oysters of today but are much larger, harder and often embedded in the clay or rock. They work themselves out and get taken out by the sea, washing up on the beach and looking suspiciously like common oysters until you pick them up and feel their weight. Sometimes you will find two or three stuck together.
Dinosaur bone fossils do also fall out of the cliffs and end up in the sea. The abrasive action of the other stones they get tumbled with in the sea batter these bones into fossil ‘pebbles’ that can be recognised by their consistency. They will be black or brown with evidence of the honeycomb of holes within the bone that will have filled with minerals – sometimes iron pyrites. If you pay a visit to one of the fossil shops or Dinosaur Isle they will be able to point out what a dinosaur pebble is likely to look like – so again an organised walk is a good place to start.
There are certain layers in the cliff that are more likely to hold dinosaur bones and these are the clays rather than the sandstones – the grey bits rather than the orange ones. But this doesn’t mean they will be exclusively in these areas. Look along the edge of the cliffs at the things that have just emerged or at the low water mark where new things will have been washed up by the last tide. Anything in between is likely to have been checked by other fossil hunters and there are a lot of them on the Island.
Books that can help you are:
‘Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight’, edited by David M. Martill and Darren Naish. This book is published by the Palaeontological Association, and so contains information on every single dinosaur and pterosaur ever found on the island, except the new velociraptorines and Caulkicephalus.
‘The Geologist’s Association Guide (No 60) to the Isle of Wight’, written by Allan Insole, Brian Daley and Andy Gale. It features walking guides to see the geology, but does not focus much on the dinosaurs found at each locality and it is also a bit out of date.
‘The Shaping of the Isle of Wight – with excursion guide’, by Eric Bird.
There are also two books on south coast fossils published by the Natural History Museum: British Mesozoic Fossils and British Caenozoic fossils and both have extensive drawings for identifying finds. These books were recommended by Trevor Price at Dinosaur Isle and most are available in the museum’s shop. There is also a good book by Martin Simpson called ‘Fossil Hunting on Dinosaur Island’.
If you’re really keen there are various groups you can join like ‘Rockwatch’ that go all over the country on guided walks/hunts for fossils. There’s also the Geological Society and the Natural History and Archaeological Society.
So to recap, stick to the laws of the land and if you find something interesting take it to a museum where they will (hopefully) be able to identity it for you. But try and get someone who has some knowledge of fossil hunting to take you on a guided walk first and if you don’t know anyone then book a walk from Dinosaur Isle or Martin Simpson.