Monday, 13 September 2010

Stunning Skeletons but a Lesson is Learnt

During the autumn, Mark had managed to obtain for me a pass for Quarry 4 which would allow us to visit the quarry during any weekend we wanted, subject to the quarry owners’ approval and provided we always asked permission. This also allowed time for the security teams at the quarry to be alerted to our presence.

Prior to our first independent visit to the quarry, we were to be shown around the quarry by Cliff Nicklin, which was useful since we both knew Cliff well from previous visits. This was mainly for health and safety issues although we were both very familiar with Quarry 4.

As it turned out, for various reasons, Mark and I never seemed to be free at the same weekend and it seemed that the year would be over before we could get down there together since it was a cast iron never-to-be-broken rule that there is no lone prospecting or digging in the quarry. This is a bind, for both of us, since we are both seasoned workers in these quarries and you do feel like you are being treated a little like children sometimes. But if that is the price to pay for continued access to the quarries then so be it. Never the less, we stayed in touch trying to find this mutually convenient day.

During early November, I emailed Mark to see how he was and, when he replied, what he had written almost made me fall out of my chair! Cliff had told him that they had found two more or less complete very intact skeletons of a plesiosaur and a pliosaur, almost side by side. Not only that, but a third partial plesiosaur had also been exposed not too far away. A few of them were going in to uncover more of the in situ remains and decide on a plan of excavation.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make the following weekend since Chris and I were away for a pre-Christmas break. I was obviously a little disappointed but not that much since we always enjoy our short breaks and would still do a little fossil hunting at Bracklesham Bay, somewhere that I always fancied. But Mark was definitely going and would let me know the score when I got back.

We returned on the Monday and I checked my emails and I was not to be disappointed. Waiting for me was a short message and two attached images of a magnificent pliosaur paddle, virtually intact and complete. And it was big. I instantly picked up the phone and called Mark for the detail.

The skeletons appeared fairly complete and, most important of all, they both appeared to have the skulls preserved and encased in concretions. In fact the bulk of the skeletal remains were in concretions – not totally unexpected in this quarry. Cliff was in contact with the quarry owners to arrange the extraction of the remains before word got out and the local scavengers started to illegally remove the remains.

At this point I was surprised to hear that the exposed paddle was to be left in situ and covered over until the Tuesday when it would be removed, today being the Saturday as it was. On asking why, Mark revealed that he had offered to the others the necessary consolidant and bandaging to allow quarrying to begin but that it had been deemed sensible to leave it until Tuesday! I was perturbed and I knew that Mark was as well.

Later the following week, I again spoke to Mark about getting back to the quarry and asked if the paddle had been removed OK. I was crestfallen to hear that on their return the paddle had been illegally removed. It was at this point that we realised that the recent activity in the quarry had obviously been observed by others. Although strictly off limits to the public, a public footpath skirts Quarry 4 on its northern face and we know we have been watched before by others who also have an unethical interest in the quarry – one that involves profit. Mark also revealed that the NHM had even offered a team of five palaeontologists and students to take the remains out but this too had been declined – what an error to make!

Mark couldn’t make it at the weekend so we determined to return the following weekend at first light on the Saturday. During this time we were informed that the skeletons were to be dug out of their graves and removed by the quarry workers with Cliff and others in attendance. A couple of days later we heard that the fossils had indeed been removed.

A few days later we arrived at Quarry 4. Cliff was meant to meet us but didn’t show so we were on our own and apart from the security teams there we were to have the quarry to ourselves. Frustratingly, one of the security teams revealed that someone had been spotted in the quarry on the Friday afternoon and had appeared to remove yet more material before being challenged. This was getting to be quite distressing.

We soon arrived at the bone bearing horizon and there in front of us were the gaping holes where the skeletons had been removed. It was very obvious that huge blocks had been excavated and that there would be very little to retrieve. We set about the site, however, and started to prospect.

As it turned out, we were correct and only one small section of rib was found. Not keen to waste too much time we headed to the newly scraped corner of the quarry to see if anything had been uncovered. No bone was found but we started to find small pieces of fish “bone” which actually turned out to be a species of belemnite, Belemnopsis . Apart from these there appeared to be very little else.

We then decided to look at the third site where the partial plesiosaur was situated. Again this quarry had been excavated and nothing remained although the clay here was extraordinarily rich in fossils. Mark actually found a rare small ichthyosaur tooth and then promptly dropped it never to be found. Things were not good.

As if to compound our misery Mark then proceeded to find a cracking little “bone” weathering out of the clay until closer inspection revealed it to be some form of distorted metal tubing. We were not amused. Mark left shortly after to attend to some personal matters but I remained behind to continue the search.

I did find yet more wood but several small pieces of wood found in association do actually fit together and it appears to be a twig or a sapling. Unlike the usual bits of wood found, which need instant consolidation, these bits are well fossilised and will need minimum work to make them look good.

I left Quarry 4 about an hour and a half after Mark had gone. It was great to have such a huge quarry to yourself – very atmospheric. Indeed, the only movement to catch your eye, and occasionally make you jump, were the shadows from the vanes of the wind turbines located above the quarry.

We eventually found out that the two fairly complete specimens were taken for short term loan to two educational facilities allied with Peterborough museum until, when time and money permits, they can be prepared and studied properly. The whereabouts of the partial plesiosaur skeleton is still unknown to me but it is safe to assume that it is safe and residing in a correct repository. At time of writing this article, nobody knows where the missing pliosaur paddle eventually ended up – there was no trail to follow and no clues could be found. I find it deeply disturbing that this scientifically significant specimen, our nation’s inheritance, may have been sold off illegally into the private market. This is a shame since this Peloneustes skeleton looks as if it could be one of the most complete ever found.

During the second world war, there was a saying: “Careless talk costs lives”. Well it seems careless talk and actions also costs specimens. In the future, we will not be letting anyone know that we are going to Quarry 4, no advanced warning, except for, of course, the quarry owners and those in our immediate confidence. Hopefully when the next marine reptile puts in an appearance we will be able to notify the right people and, with a bit of luck, be able to get the remains out correctly and scientifically. To do this we will need the cooperation of the quarry owners and hopefully the Peterborough and/or the Natural History Museum will be on hand to excavate the specimens.

We must ensure that a repeat of this incident never happens again and that we never lose another specimen, important to science, to goodness knows where. My only concern is that these national treasures are preserved for the future and that everyone should be able to access them, whether that is for the general public to observe them or for scientists to study them. The battle to preserve our heritage starts now!


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