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Collecting fossils - beginners guide

Often, novice collectors wonder how to get started with collecting fossils. The easiest way to gain a lot of experience, is to go along on fieldtrips with an experienced (amateur) paleontologist or geologist. During these fieldtrips, but also during the preparation of fossils, you should keep your own health and safety first, at all time. Documenting and conserving your own collection from day one, is also a crucial and underestimated aspect of fossil collecting.

Where to start?
There are a lot of paleontological associations organizing field trips, excursions, lectures etc. Becoming a member of a geological of paleontological association is the ideal way to get yourself started. We advise novice members, to take part in organized fieldtrips. This will allow them to learn, and gain experience the quickest way possible.
For more information check out our Society page.

During a field trip, try to be accompanied by another person at all times. Not every dig site is safe to wander around alone, and accidents might occur when you least expect them. Take into account that a mobile phone often doesen't function at remote locations.

So a word of advice for any collector: never go out on your own. Some rocks or rock formations are very unstable, a sandy surface for example, can quickly turn into quicksand. In coastal areas the tide can surprise you in no time, finding yourself locked in by an unsurpassable sea in just a few minutes. If an accident should happen, at least there will always be another person available to help you or to alert emergency services.

Also take notice of local safety or access rules regarding the security of a dig site. Another important  (mostly unspoken) rule is to take your garbage back home. You are responsible of the fact that a dig site remains a nice meeting place for scientific studies and future collectors.

For more information, check out our article on Safety.

How to build up a scientific collection?
Writing down as much information as possible when cataloging your collection, is a must. Make sure to write down the exact location where a fossil is found. Try to determine the species (or the Genus) and if possible, the exact layer in which the fossil was found. In case you don’t know the presice origin of the fossil, try to take some pictures of the different strata (multiple layers) in the direct area. This might be valuable information later on, to figure out to which stratigraphic layer a certain fossil belonged (sometimes using microfossils as a guide). All this  documentation can be very important if your fossil appears to have scientific value. Keep in mind that a fossil, how spectacular it might be, is scientifically worthless without any stratigraphical information.

Realize that collecting fossils is as much a science as it is a hobby. Be aware that irresponsible collecting can destroy important scientific information for future generations! Even as an amateur collector, you have the ability to contribute to science. So be sure to do it the right way!
For more information, our article on building your own collection.

The right equipment to look for fossils highly depends on the environment you find yourself in. While looking for fossils in sandy deposits or coastal areas, one prefers to use a sieve. A sieve of 5mm is ideal to start with. However, a 3mm sieve also recommended. Very dry sand can even be sieved up to 1mm. In the end, it depends on what you want to find.
A geologist's hammer is essential for limestone, carbonates, and other hard rocks. A hammer and chisel can also do the trick when confronted with shales and slates.
Clay can contain beautiful fossils, but is very hard to handle on the terrain. Once it dries, the clay becomes hard and difficult to handle. However The fossil micro (or macro) fauna inside the clay can be retrieved,  by taking a couple of kilos home. in sand bags (available at any DIY shop). First, allow it to dry completely. Then, dissolve all the pieces in a water container, and start sieving, using a sieve  with mesh size of 1mm. You will find some remarkable and well preserved microfossils.
For more information: check our article on Field Equipment .

Thanks to Pieter De Schutter for his contribution to this article.

Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.