Fred Clouter (UK)
The Isle of Sheppey is situated at the mouth of the Thames estuary and is a part of the North Kent marshes. The north coast of the island has about 5km of London Clay exposures that are highly fossiliferous. The London Clay here was laid down between 54 and 48mya, during the Eocene epoch, on the shallow shelf of a semi-tropical sea near the estuary of a major river system.
I cannot remember just when it was that I decided to embark on the project of building a website about fossils and fossil collecting in the Isle of Sheppey. However, I do know that a combination of factors led to it. The first was my rapidly growing collection of fossils from this area. The second was the book London Clay Fossils of the Isle of Sheppey that the then Medway Lapidary and Mineral Society had decided would make a good Millennium project. Information covering the fantastic fossils found there was not readily available.
The only information often could only be found in old and difficultto- obtain monographs written in the Nineteenth Century or books written in French relating to fish fossils found in Britain or in Belgium and Holland where there are deposits of a similar age. As this book was a collective undertaking, my role was to take the pictures. This meant that I would have access to fossils from many private collections as well as some held in various museums. Lastly and most importantly, was the infl uence of my friend and palaeontological mentor Jim Craig.
Jim had been a collector and amateur palaeontologist for many years and was very well known and respected in the close-knit community of fossil hunters. When, in 1995, I contacted him expressing a slight interest in finding a fossil crab (which was the sum of my ambitions at the time), he took me under his wing and showed me how and what to look for. I was very soon drawn into the world of fossils and fossil collecting. Jim’s great love was the beautifully preserved ammonites found in the Gault Clay that underlies the Chalk in Southern Britain. His collection was very important and, on his death, it was donated to the Natural History Museum in London where it partly replaces those ammonites lost to damp and which constitute the holotype material described by Spath (1923).
For some time, Jim had been working on his website entitled Fossils of the Gault Clay & Folkestone Beds of Kent, UK to much acclaim both from the academic world and from collectors the world over. He had taken most of his images of ammonites on a flatbed scanner and had set up a Meiji EMZ-TR Trinocular microscope with relay lens and adapters for the Nikon CoolPix 990 Digital Camera for photographing microfossils.
This was very impressive at the time – I only had an old Pentax Spotmatic SLR circa 1967 and a borrowed macro lens. However, it stopped down to a remarkable F64 and this gave a fantastic depth of field for close-up work. I borrowed some photoflood lights and began photographing fossils from a variety of different sources – at first, for the book and, later, to be used on the website.
As the book began to take shape, I found that I had a large number of images on standard photographic paper but did not have the means to digitise them. This is when I had my first computer built. I decided that to buy one ‘off the shelf’ would not give me the components I needed to produce top quality graphics. At that time, desktop PCs were run on Windows 98 with a maximum of ten-gigabyte hard drives and second-rate graphics cards. My choice was to use the best components I could afford at the time. I bought a flatbed scanner with a good depth of field and set about scanning all of the photographs onto the computer.
This took forever. The images were stored as greyscale tiff images for the book and in full colour as JPEG images for the website. I acquired a copy of Adobe Photoshop 6.5 and spent many hours learning how to manipulate and improve the images. My first attempts were not that wonderful but they were good enough for the book. I also designed the cover but, when all the available specimens were photographed, my part in the making of the book was over. (I had nothing to do with the written content or the layout of the book.) The book was going to have a run of 1,000 copies and none of us thought that we would ever sell so many copies. How wrong we were – we now have requests for a rerun from collectors worldwide.
At this time, I had no knowledge of website building, what software to use or how to go live on the World Wide Web. It was a mystery to me, so it remained a ‘maybe’, for some time, on the list of things to do. I contented myself with collecting as many images of London Clay fossil specimens as I could get hold of and, I must say, many collections were kindly made available to me. I considered myself privileged to be trusted with such large collections that had taken many years to find and many hours to prepare.
Finally, I made up my mind to make a start on the website Sheppey Fossils. I had the raw material and I had a copy of Adobe Photoshop but I needed a software package to help build the website. It was here that Jim Craig again came to my rescue. He took me through some very basic steps using a program called Macromedia Dreamweaver 3. This made designing the site possible. I then had to save up enough cash to buy a copy and Dreamweaver did not come cheap. The important thing for me was that it worked in tables that simplified the whole process for me. I could draft text directly inside a table or I could cut and paste from most word processing programs. It was also easy to insert images from file and Dreamweaver wrote the web script for me. This was essential as I am terrible at computer languages and even more lost when it comes to HTML and other web languages.
Just like writing a book, I decided that there must be a logical structure to my website. Therefore, before I did anything else, I carefully planned the way it would be organised. As far as possible, I decided that the website must cover the complete fauna from the site and the history of collecting for which there are records dating back to 1699. The knowledge gained from working on the book helped enormously when creating IDs for the multitude of fossil images.
However, researching the history presented me with a problem as I knew very little about this subject. Luckily, museum curators and other knowledgeable experts came to my aid and helped me with information about the history of the various collectors who had contributed to nineteenth and twentieth century palaeontological knowledge. The photographs used for the London Clay book and this historical information were used to form the nucleus of the site in its early stages and remain as its core to this day.
|Factors which determined the form of the website included the following:|
|• It should be educational in purpose.|
• It must cover the whole range of the fossil fauna.
• It must include background information such as the history of collecting and scientific research of Sheppey fossils.
• The background should be as informative as possible about all aspects of the section (that is, stratigraphy, minerals, geological time scale, etc.).
• It should be an evolving site as new species, better specimens and more general information are being found every year.
• It should be easy to navigate and simple in construction, with neutral colour schemes. (Flashy web effects are to be avoided.)
It originally took six years to bring the website to its present form. The photographs have got better as new equipment has been purchased and the body of information has grown, step-by-step, over the years. The website is evolving and has taken on its own dynamic. There are further refinements that I would like to develop but I don’t have the skills needed at present. I would like this website to become the core of an international database with the focus primarily on Eocene faunas but having the potential to encompass all tertiary periods. This would form the nucleus of a worldwide body of knowledge where museums and collectors (both amateur and professional) can contribute information and images from any location in the world. Just a little pipe dream of mine – I hope not?
About the author
Fred Clouter’s website is entitled Sheppey Fossils and can be found at www.sheppeyfossils.com. Jim Craig’ website is entitled Fossils of the Gault Clay & Folkestone Beds of Kent, UK and can be found at www.gaultammonite.co.uk/. It is currently maintained by Fred.
‘Ammonoidea of the Gault’ by L. F. Spath 1923, Monograph in 15 volumes.
‘London Clay Fossils from the Isle of Sheppey: a Collector’s Guide to the Fossil animals from the London Clay between Minster and Warden Point, Sheppey’ by Fred Clouter, Tony Mitchell, David Rayner and Martin Rayner, Medway Lapidary & Mineral Society (15 May 2000).
King, C. 1984 ‘The stratigraphy of the London Clay Formation and Virginia Water Formation in the coastal sections of the Isle of Sheppey (Kent, England)’ Tertiary Research, 5(3): 121-160, 12 text-figs, 2 pls. Leiden.
Ammonites and other Cephalopods of the lower Cretaceous Albian (Gault Clay) and Folkestone beds of the South East of England, by David Rayner, Tony Mitchell, Martin Rayner and Frederick Clouter, Medway Lapidary & Mineral Society (2007), 80 pages (Paperback), ISBN: 978-09538243-2-8.