Thursday, 19 April 2012

New Field Season Begins


When the days grow longer, the temperatures start to rise and you start getting restless, then you know that the new field season is just around the corner and the first trip has just taken place at the Bluff. Those of you who have frequented this blog for any amount of time will know that I have posted about this quarry on a regular basis but, if you are new here, simply type in “Bluff” into the search bar for multiple posts to look at.  
The weather for this particular trip appeared to be spot on – a bright sunny day was forecast, a stiff breeze coming in from the north and it would be cold. There had been some significant rainfall in the week leading up to the trip and, again, this seemed to be perfect. There was enough moisture to get the clays and sandstones wet but there had been around 72 hours of dry weather to ensure it was reasonably firm underfoot.
However, the fact remained that this quarry had not been excavated since 2008 when the brickworks was put into mothballs just as the worldwide recession had well and truly taken hold.   Every year since then, prospecting has got increasingly more difficult and now it is ultra-tough. The problem with the clay, as I have mentioned before, is that successive years of snow, ice and rain have combined to form a hard crust on the surface of the clay and very little now crops out. Without scraping every year, the problem only gets worse.
Having said all that, you have to keep the faith and keep trying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this quarry will almost certainly throw up significant dinosaur material in the future. The Bluff is a beguiling place once you get to know it and it is still an important site and certainly one of the last quarries in the country which is still accessible and one of less than a handful that crops out the remains of dinosaurs.
Arriving at the quarry, the first thing that struck me was the depth of the water in the bottom of the quarry and I was sure it had not been higher. The other thing of note was that the north east banks were displaying a green hue to them as mosses, weeds and other plants have started to get a foothold – another consequence of quarry inactivity. A good number of fellow workers had arrived and soon everyone was diligently prospecting.
One large group worked on the north east bank, excavating near the top of the quarry whilst a couple of smaller groups worked on the south eastern bank at the same level. Others ranged far and wide in an effort to find anything that may be exposed on the surface. Suffice to say it was yet another day of frustration for the majority of those concerned and I especially felt sorry for those who had put in a not insignificant amount of work into the excavations.  
Strangely, for all those efforts, only a nice sacral vertebra was recovered and this was found quite early on and was weathering out on the surface. Subsequent excavation around the vertebra revealed nothing. A scrappy piece of rib was also recovered but there was nothing else of consequence found. And, perhaps for the first time in all my years visiting the site, not a single tooth was found.
Other material recovered included some fish scales, vertebrae and a small (20mm) jet black but beautifully marked and as yet unidentified bone that is incredibly thin. The general consensus was that it most likely came from a fish. Towards the end of the day some insect remains were uncovered from the same level where some dinosaur footprints were removed a few years ago. The traces of insect wings are well preserved and are exceptionally beautiful.
In summary, the trip was well attended but conditions were poor. We all hope that sooner, rather than later, the brick works reopens and the quarry will be excavated again and that the many fine specimens that are undoubtedly there will one day be recovered.

Footnote

It is very obvious to many people that gaining access to quarries is getting incredibly difficult now. Not only have so many quarries been closed over the last four years but those that remain have so many health and safety pressures placed on them that it is far easier for the quarry owners to deny access to both palaeontologists and geologists than deal with the aggravation that accompanies letting the public into their sites.
Having said that, there are still a number of quarries that permit entry and these are well worth searching out. Of course if, like me, you are primarily interested in Mesozoic vertebrate fossils, then you opportunities are extremely limited and you tend to be restricted to the coastal locations both on the mainland and the Isle of Wight but these are so heavily scoured these days that you would be incredibly lucky to find anything of note.
Some glacial quarries appear to be the best option these days and these quite often give the chance of finding some decent Pleistocene mammal material and, on occasion, some derived Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils. And, depending on the location of such a quarry, they sometimes break through to much older strata below the sands and gravels giving you a chance of something different. However, it continues to get even harder to gain any access at all these days and I fear it will only get worse.

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