If you want to satiate your desire for finding fossil remnants of long-dead organisms, where do you go? There are the obvious places such as the coast, old quarries, expensive excursions into famous fossil-bearing deserts, or if you’re fine with looking at what others have found – a museum. Exploring a city like Lincoln (UK) might not seem ideal for finding fossils without a trip into the local museum but if you know where to look, you can find yourself peering at all sorts of extinct critters which most people walk right by (or over).
Many buildings throughout the UK are made using rocks which contain fossils, some of those building stones are packed full of them. Fossil-bearing rocks are found in castle walls, cathedral columns, pavements, statues and random walls throughout city centres. This post is focusing on Lincoln as I recently visited the cathedral there, however, I’ve also found fossils whilst wandering York and London.
Unlike normal fossil hunting, you can’t take the fossils home with you when hunting for urban fossils. The pleasure is gained from discovering what most people do not see, despite it being right in front of them. And, of course, fossils are beautiful natural sculptures in their own right, capable of sparking the imagination and the drive to study what life was once like in the distant past. Plus you can always take pictures (I’d love to see what other people have found).
It’s not out of the question that you might even find something incredibly rare, even new to science. In 2016, the remains of an ancient sea cow were discovered in the paving slabs of a street in Girona, Spain. The find turned out to be one of the oldest sea cows found in Europe.
A few tips (if I may be so pretentious)
My own forays into urban fossil hunting have so far been largely accidental. I didn’t travel to those places with the intention of finding fossils in amongst the architecture, nor did I even intend to find them as I travelled from place to place. In London, I simply perched on a wall whilst eating my packed lunch and realised that there were fossils around me (gastropods, if I remember correctly). In York, I saw a building made out of limestone and looked simply out of curiosity; it contained thousands of fragments of broken bivalve shells. If you plan to look for urban fossils, as I now intend to do when visiting other places, a small amount of planning could go a long way.
- Check the Internet. It might sound obvious, it may even take some of the fun away for you, but some urban fossils are well documented online. If you’re travelling to London in particular, the website London Pavement Geology has got you covered with over 90 localities. The site has been expanded for the rest of the country, however, that so far amounts to just five places outside of London, three of which are in Edinburgh. Check out this bone in the pavement outside St Margaret’s in Westminster as an excellent example of what can be found.
- Limestones are your friends. Before visiting a well-known building, or even whilst there, try to find out what it is made out of. Sometimes you can find out the exact building stone and look into whether it contains fossils. Other times, you might get no further than seeing the rock classified as simply limestone or sandstone. When information is limited, limestone is probably your best bet for finding fossils in the walls and floors of buildings. Some sandstones will contain fossils but as a quick rule of thumb, I’d personally favour limestones (I’d happily be called out on this if I’m overlooking some impressively fossiliferous sandstones used in architecture here in the UK).
- Marble is also your friend. Marble, to a geologist, means metamorphosed limestone. But, to a stonemason, it includes unmetamorphosed limestones. Polish up some fossiliferous limestone and it will have that nice, aesthetically appealing marble patterning. Inspect columns and statues if they appear to be marble as there is a strong chance that they are teeming with fossils.
- Use something to give a sense of scale. Whenever you take a picture of a fossil, always use something to show how big it is! Which is something I failed to do whilst in Lincoln, as you will see below…
- Don’t be afraid to look a prat. I know I did. If anything, it’s part of the fun.
As already mentioned, my visit to Lincoln Cathedral was not meant to be a fossil hunting trip. Whilst on the way to the cathedral, I stopped by the temple in the gardens near the Usher Gallery and decided to have a look at the limestones used to build it, happily finding some fragments of bivalve molluscs. I stopped by the Medieval Bishop’s Palace and found myself looking at more fossils in the rocks there too. Unfortunately, I took no pictures. When I entered the busy Cathedral, I started to walk down the aisle in the centre, taking the walk slowly enough to notice a familiar shape beneath my feet; I’d found my first fossil inside the building. As you can see from the slightly blurry photos below, I found no shortage of gastropod and bivalve fossils.
So I moved onto the columns, which appeared to have a marbly look to them and the bonus that you don’t look like as much of an idiot when inspecting a column as you do when taking pictures of the floor (who am I kidding? I looked daft doing both).
I decided that I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I found some crinoidal limestone – there’s always crinoidal limestone, or so I joked. Unsurprisingly, to my surprise, I actually found some on a step:
My findings did not stop there. I also found some fossil corals in the plinth of a statue (interestingly, I remember the fossils better than the statue).
Fossils were even to be found near the little courtyard bit:
Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m intending to make this a bit of a thing whenever I travel anywhere new, which could be London next, and will attempt to get better quality photos (my phone is rubbish), use something for scale (when not blocking off pathways), and go through the effort to identify the fossils beyond the basic “these are fossils”.