Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Return to the Devil's Hole

In June I was able to return to the Devil’s Hole, almost two years since my last visit. Mark couldn’t make this trip but I expected to see plenty of people that I knew from previous. Again the weather conditions were favourable and I was hopeful of a good day.

On arrival at site we had to sign in and also sign a disclaimer. I noted that the security this time was even more intense and we only had a four hour window in which to prospect. We were told that there had been significant working in progress and that there would be plenty of terrain to scour.

They weren’t wrong either. On this occasion, we were allowed to drive almost to quarry side, which helped, and from the cars you could see the vast expanse of excavation that had taken place. Ahead you could see piles of sand and gravel spoil intermingled with exposures of Oxford Clay. Gullies, filled with water, carved channels throughout. There was plenty of room for everyone and we made our way in full of anticipation.

There was so much to look at that it was obvious that it really didn’t matter where to start but a couple of us started parallel to one of the ditches and started to look at some clay exposures. There were already some ammonite partials exposed and it was obvious that there would be some good finds today.

I crossed the ditch where it narrowed and looked among some spoil heaps. I soon found what were obviously a couple of bovine teeth on the surface. I gathered them together with all the loose pieces of enamel and placed them in a specimen bag. Closer examination revealed them to be a couple of woolly rhinoceros teeth - a good find.

I pushed on trying to get a balance between careful prospecting, along with covering as much ground as possible – not easy. Too fast and you risk missing something, too slow and you simply do not cover as much ground as you would like to. I convinced myself not to worry since there was so much ground to cover that it probably didn’t matter.

After a while I spotted one of the others whom I had met before on several occasions. He’s very good at maximising his time in these Pleistocene quarries. I’ve watched him and as soon as you can get in the quarry he moves very quickly and walks on the spoil heaps looking for the big bones that are exposed.

Well he had a red letter day finding a big partial femur which some reckon is mammoth. I don’t – I think it’s too small unless it’s a juvenile but then mammals are not a speciality of mine. He also found a rhino humerus (lovely bone), a wolf bone and some other bone as well.

All of these bones were found in the first hour! I reckon he covered the majority of the site in an hour and a half while the rest of us had worked on just the one side. Fair play to him though – that way of prospecting certainly works for him. But I think he probably misses some important material that way.

I pushed on and decided to take a circular route around the quarry, ending up where I started. This would miss an awful lot of ground out but, as mentioned earlier, that would still leave me plenty of acreage and we were constrained by time. I also decided to vary my search pattern by covering sections of spoil heaps and sections of gullies. This was a lot of leg work but I felt it gave me the best chance of finding more material.

As it turned out, and not for the first time, I was wrong and could not find anything else. As I headed back to my starting point I bumped into one or two others who had also found a rhino tooth, bigger than mine but not as well preserved, and some excellent ammonites. I decided to drop down to the Oxford clay to see if I could find any ammonites for myself.

I actually managed to take myself out onto a peninsula and found myself surrounded by water which meant I had to walk all the way back and circumnavigate that section to get back. I passed Carl along the way, and told him what lay ahead, but he decided to look anyway. Carl had already recovered some bone fragments, nothing brilliant, but nice pieces.

I walked back to the area where I found the rhino teeth and decided to thoroughly scour the area and see if there were any more to be found. There wasn’t and our time was nearly up. I eventually caught up with Carl and was pleased that he had recovered a few nice ammonites, but not so pleased that he had recovered them from the peninsula and that I had obviously missed them. Oh well, such is life.

As we strolled back to the cars it was obvious that most people had some good finds. Apart from the fore mentioned bones there were plenty of ammonites found that were topped by one huge specimen, at least, I6 inches across. All in all it was a pretty good trip but the time constraint was frustrating. But I can’t complain and I can see a time when this quarry will be closed to collectors – I just hope that it won’t be any time soon.

After leaving the quarry Carl and I decided to have a spot of lunch in a lay-by just up the road. I asked Carl what he did for a living – a molecular scientist! I’m impressed – he said that he would have liked to do palaeontology for a career but that there are even less openings in that discipline than the one he eventually chose. I think he made the right choice.

As you may remember from previous entries, the Devil’s Hole remains closed just now but both it and Minnie’s Quarry should reopen next year. Considering that earlier this year the outlook for both quarries was bleak, this is indeed good news and I’ll keep you informed of developments.

The above image shows the recovered rhinoceros teeth after preperation and consolidation. Nice example.


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