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Finding fossils - behind the hunt for the next big discovery on Norfolk’s beaches

PUBLISHED: 08:05 23 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:22 24 February 2020

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De Boise

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De Boise

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From majestic mammoths to flint-axe wielding hunter-gatherers - Norfolk’s prehistoric past is rich and varied. Reporter DAVID BALE looked into growing interest in fossil hunting on the coast.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De BoiseDr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De Boise

North Norfolk is one of the best places in the UK for fossil hunting, and winter is the main time to do it.

Over the past year, North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) has launched its Deep History Coast tourist campaign.

And one of its main goals is to get more people to visit the coast over winter.

West and East Runton are rich in fossilised sea urchins and other sea creatures dating from the time of the dinosaurs, and people regularly find prehistoric flint axes and bones from mammoths.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De BoiseDr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De Boise

The West Runton mammoth, which was 600,000 to 700,000 years old, was found by beachwalkers, and its remains are now scattered across Norfolk at various museums.

Dr David Waterhouse, senior curator of natural history and acting curator of geology at Norfolk Museums Service, said: "The best time to go fossil hunting is on a windy day like this, in late winter/spring, when the wind has washed the fossils out of the cliffs onto the beach. But it can be done all year round."

Twice a day, every day, new tides reveal the beach treasures, scattering the foreshore with pebbles, sea-glass, semi-precious stones, shells, fish skeletons and even shark's teeth.

And Dr Waterhouse said remains of prehistoric land mammals were also regularly found.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De BoiseDr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches. Picture: Lauren De Boise

He said: "The whole north Norfolk coast is the best place to find mammoth bones in the country, and the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe is just down the coast at Happisburgh, where the oldest human footprints outside Africa were found.

"Fossil hunters should keep an eye out for fragments of mammoth bones, antlers and tusks from 700,000 years ago."

There are 11 Deep History Coast discovery points along the coast, each of which has information on what to look for, he added.

"Most of what people find they can take home, but don't dig into the cliffs. The café at West Runton has a fossil-hunting guide," he added.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De BoiseDr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De Boise

"The magic is that you will be the first person to have seen these things for hundreds of millions of years, and you don't need any equipment.

"We don't have any dinosaurs in Norfolk, but we make up for it in mammoths."

As little as 8,500 years ago, Great Britain was, in fact, no island, but was connected to mainland Europe via an area called Doggerland, which has since submerged into the North Sea.

What are now Norfolk's beaches were once plains where trees grew, animals roamed and our ancestors eked out a living.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De BoiseDr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De Boise

East Runton's cliffs contain chalk that is around 70-80 million years old, followed by sediment that is about a million years old, and then more ancient chalk. During the last Ice Age, mighty glaciers pushed and contorted thousands of tonnes of rock and sediment into the sort of chalk "club sandwich" that is present today.

Some notable prehistoric finds on north Norfolk beaches have included:

- The "Happisburgh handaxe" was found on the shore by ex-policeman and beachcomber Mike Chambers in 2000. It is thought to be around 500,000 years old, which would make it among the oldest handaxes ever discovered in Britain.

- The oldest footprints ever seen outside Africa were discovered on Happisburgh beach in 2014 by colleagues from the Pathways to Ancient Britain Project.

They were dated at between 850,000 and 950,000 years old and was hailed as an "extraordinarily rare discovery".

- Amateur fossil hunter Michelle Smith, of Edgefield, has made some fascinating discoveries on north Norfolk beaches in recent months.

These have included a fossilised sea creature that resembles a dragon's scale, a two-million-year-old mammoth pelvis and even a piece of limestone that looks like a character from Spongebob Squarepants.

Virginia Gay, NNDC portfolio holder for culture and wellbeing, said: "I would urge people to find out more about the Deep History Coast by visiting the North Norfolk Visitor Centre in Cromer, which has information about the trail."

Finding fossils: Some top tips

Finding fossils combines scientific skills with experience and a considerable amount of luck.

It is crucial to remember that any fossil can provide loads of scientific information, therefore it is essential to collect fossils in a way which enables this information to be preserved.

These guidelines will put you on the right path:

-Stick to the footpaths and the beach - do not add to coastal erosion by climbing up or down the cliffs.

-Never dig into the cliffs - it is dangerous and speeds the cliffs' erosion. There are plenty of fossils on the beach.

-Take only a few specimens - leave some for others

-Always make a note of where and when you found your fossils - photographs are very helpful.

-If you find a large fossil that needs to be excavated, seek advice from the Norfolk Museums Service.

-Remember that fossil sites are for everyone to enjoy, and indiscriminate collecting can damage this resource for future collectors.

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