The most valuable present

Tale of an Urchin

Tis the season for giving and, all-to-true to form, many of the gifts given over the festive season will end up in the bin by the end of January. But the giving season gave me pause to reflect on the most valuable gift I ever received; my parents unwavering support for my love of fossils and science.

Mum and dad can’t recall a time when I didn’t talk about dinosaurs and fossils (and trains!). My childhood obsessions with these fascinations went further than that of my class mates so mum and dad decided to fuel these interests, even though neither of them had an education or background in science. Dad is the musical side of the family having served in the Grenadier Guards Band and mum was a shopkeeper. But my passion for fossils and dinosaurs was so strong that dad took it upon himself to organise a family holiday to the south coast of England so that I could find a fossil. Now known as the Jurassic Coast and protected as a World Heritage Area, this is the place where Mary Anning came to fame collecting fossils of marine reptiles, mostly ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs. Working alongside the likes of William Buckland and Richard Owen, fossils collected by Anning in this area helped establish palaeontology as a scientific discipline.

Over 125 years after Anning’s death, my dad unwittingly took me on a walk through the footsteps of the dawn of palaeontology. One of his workmates owned a caravan located near Swanage and we spent a couple of weeks there as part of one long summer holiday. There are several beaches in this area hemmed in by cliffs that contain numerous fossils of marine creatures such as the beautifully coiled shells of ammonites. I can remember the frustration of visiting some sites where you could see the ghostly shells encased in grey-black muddy rocks that were so fragile, any attempt to remove them resulted in their destruction. Disillusioned and frustrated after what seemed like hours fruitlessly trying to collect fossils we could see but not touch, I can vividly remember sitting on a large boulder with my legs dangling over the edge. There below me on the sand, framed by my knobbly six-year-old knees, was a beautiful crenulated arc of an ammonite standing proud. I leapt down and claimed the fragment which instantly became my most prize possession. That was the beginning of my fossil collecting life and a career in vertebrate palaeontology. I clearly remember that on that occasion, and every occasion since when I’ve handled fossils, they talk to me. They tell stories of world’s long-gone, of creatures now extinct, of climes and environments radically different from the ones we experience today. These are the chroniclers of our deepest ancient history, of life before humanity.

Over the years my parents continued to support my passions that went on to become the foundations of my career. I remember trips to the British Museum of Natural History and the Australian Museum with mum and dad. A holiday on the south coast of New South Wales designed to collect more fossils. An endless stream of books on dinosaurs and fossils. All fuel poured lovingly by my parents on the flames of my obsessions. I would not have made it through university had it not been for the support from my parents. What would have become of my passion for fossils and all things extinct if my mum and dad hadn’t taken the initiative of organising that family holiday to Swanage just so I could find fossils? If they hadn’t fanned those fires, would that flame have been extinguished as had happened to so many of my school friends? Would I have turned to some other profession or followed some of the path in life? Who knows, but their support for my interests was certainly the most precious gift I have ever received and it set the mould for the rest of my life.


About that image: this is in fact the very first fossil to be collected for my fossil collection. It was collected by mum and dad on their honeymoon (contrary to popular opinion, this occurred many years before I was conceived!). They thought it was a stone used as a fishing weight and the patterns on it were where ropes had worn into the stone. They kept it as a totem of their new marriage.

It wasn't until I came along and my interest in fossils developed that I identified it as a fossil sea urchin (Echinocorys scutatus).

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