How do you go about digging for fossils?

How? Very carefully, I have to think! I’ve always marveled at how experts can release these things from the earth unscathed.

If you’re in an area with a lot of limestone, look for layers which are yellowish and chalky instead of white and hard. Shell fossils can commonly be found in the chalky layers. Highways are sometimes cut through limestone hills, and you can often spot these layers while you’re driving.

In the Cincinnati area you just have to find any exposed rock (road cuts, construction sites, creek beds, barren hillsides) and they’re almost more fossil than not. Granted they’re almost entirely Brachiopods (which look like clam shells) or Bryozoans (which look like coral stems), but they’re found in every retaining wall or building foundation made of local stone. You do have to hunt if you want to find a good Crinoid or Trilobite, and this image below is more homogeneous than normal, but around here it’s an embarrassment of riches fossil-wise.

For a fossil with 10 or 100 or 1000 specimens? Sure. For one with a hundred million? Not so much.

I found that fossils are often like a Magic Eye picture. When you’re brand new you simply see nothing but random patterns in the rock. Then one day, practice will snap the picture into focus and the fossils are clear and distinct and you wonder how you ever missed them.

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In the right area, they really can be just everywhere- at my primary school, the wall surrounding the playground was made of local limestone, and many of the rocks making it up were just chock full of crinoid fossils. Mostly just little stem fragments, but some decently large bits as well. I used to have favourite bits. A child could spot them. Demonstrably.

There’s often local websites suggesting good places- and sometimes good times. Near another old residence there was supposedly a good spot for fish fossils, where the best time to go was just after a big downpour. The actual rocks where the fossils were found were part way up a cliff, so you wanted to go when there was a fresh fall of rocks from there to rummage though.

Once you’re aware of where the good spots are, from a combo of personal experience and local advice, then you can think about digging.

The land on which we hold Saguaro Man – the Arizona Burning Man regional – used to be on what was once ancestral Zuni territory; in fact the current Zuni reservation is just a few miles away. As such if you look hard enough you can find pottery shards. Since the ground has been gone over countless times we’re talking about bits the size of a fingernail.

One year we had a couple native American participants, Shoshone IIRC so they weren’t from the area. I went on a stroll with one and he was at least ten times better than I spotting the shards.

I am a member of the Southwest Paleontological Society, a group of amateur scientists that will sometimes go out on a dig under the aegis of a real paleontologist. Before joining – certainly before going on a field trip – you have to sign the Code of Ethics, Safety, and Waiver agreement. The last two are the usual, “If you fall off a cliff or get bit by a cougar, it’s not our fault,” but the Code of Ethics covers the collection of fossils.

Among other things it has,

  • The SPS has established this Code of Ethics to protect the science of paleontology, to serve as a guideline for acceptable behavior by members and guests of this organization, to preserve the reputation of SPS and the Museum it represents, and to assure the unquestioned quality and scientific value of the field and laboratory work conducted[…]

  • All fossil material collected, plant and animal, will be relinquished to the trip leader for inspection and evaluation for the Museum* collection.

  • No vertebrate fossil material is to be removed from any site or the laboratory for personal collections.

  • All landscapes and plant and animal life will be treated with respect in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of the field activity.

  • All fieldwork conducted on public lands will be done only with appropriate permits and licenses issued to the Mesa Southwest Museum* and the Southwest Paleontological Society,

  • All fieldwork conducted on private lands will be done only with written consent of the landowner and all other tenants or lessees.

  • All collecting will be done in compliance with federal, state, municipal and tribal laws and regulations that apply to fossil collecting.

  • Upon completion of the site excavation, SPS will restore the site to its original condition in an effort to lessen the impact on the surrounding environment.

I’ve heard members openly sneer about rock hounds.

*SPS is associated with the Arizona Museum of Natural History where I also volunteer. Mesa Southwest Museum is its old name and I just now noticed it when I was digging this up. I’ll have to point this out to the PTB.

In high school, I volunteered to help with a dig at a phosphate pit. There were fossils everywhere. The paleontologist was interested in that particular location, and he was trying to get samples ahead of it being further mined. I found all kinds of fragments, including lots of partial ribs and skulls, and whole vertebrae, from sea mammals. I found one jawbone with teeth that a research assistant took over to encase it in plaster, I think. That one was from a very different time period – larger land mammal, like a camel.

Phosphate mines are usually excellent fossil locations, because their depositional environments correlate quite nicely with those for good fossilization (even when the phosphates aren’t themselves biogenic) . I’ve also done fieldwork at a local phosphate mine, before they turned it into a fossil park.

That’s certainly possible. I did get a degree in botany and geology a few years later, but I didn’t have those skills when I found the ‘fern’ in the coal, so I can’t say for sure.