Fossils re-united

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Brandon Lennon (UK)

My kind of collecting requires collectors to be in the right place at the right time. Science directs fossil collectors to the right place, but it is good luck that puts them there at the right time. The latter is often referred to as “serendipity” and what happened on one of my fossil walks last year can certainly be described that way.

I have been collecting fossils in the Lyme Regis area of Dorset for decades. One morning in early July 2005, I took a group of visitors to the Black Ven area between Lyme Regis and Charmouth to search the Lower Lias landslip materials. One of the participants on the walk was Lija Flude, then a 21-year-old geology student from Toronto, Canada who was visiting the UK with her father, Greg.

Fig, 1. Lija Flude with the completed Dapedium after preparation work.

It was not long before Lija had found a nice piece of fossil bone loose in the beach shingle. However, it was another of her finds that was to provide the most excitement – a flat nodule approximately 20cm in diameter. Round the edge of the nodule could be seen shiny, black fossil fish scales. It was clear that more of the fish lay within the nodule but also apparent was the fact that the nodule had been broken at some time and some of it was missing.

Because of the interesting nature of Lija’s find, I advised her to show them to Paddy Howe, a well-known local collector and consultant to the Lyme Regis Museum. It later transpired that Paddy had advised Lija that her fish was an example of the species Dapedium politum. As this fish is well known in the Lower Lias of Lyme Regis, he told her that it was an excellent find but not of any scientific significance. However, he identified the piece of bone as a tibia from a dinosaur called Scelidosaurus harrisonii, a species of ankylosaur unique to Lyme Regis and Charmouth.

He suggested that this should be shown to Angela Milner at the Natural History Museum in London. That I thought would be the last I would hear from Lija. However, this is where serendipity intervened for a second time, “The French Lieutenants Woman”, a romantic novel by the late John Fowles, features a nineteenth century fossil collector staying in Lyme Regis. It was made in to a well-known film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and it was filmed in and around Lyme Regis. John Fowles had always possessed a keen interest in natural history, particularly palaeontology. He was, for many years, the honorary curator at the Lyme Regis Museum and he and his wife, Sarah, often entertained local collectors at their Lyme Regis home.

Fig. 2. The stages of preparation: a good join and a lot of hard work.

On my return from the morning fossil walk with Lija, I was invited for lunch with John and his wife. Another guest at the lunch table was David Sole, a well-known local fossil collector and friend of John. As the conversation inevitably came around to the subject of fossils, I told the guests about the finds made by the Canadian geology student on the walk that morning. At the mention of D. politum fossils, David Sole suddenly showed even more interest than was usual for him. He was soon querying the exact details of the fossil. It transpired that, a few days earlier, he had found part of such a fish washed up on the same area of beach. A few more questions and it soon became obvious that his half could belong to Lija’s half. If they were reunited, they might make a whole fish specimen. David said that he would be quite happy to surrender his half so that Lija could have a complete specimen.

So began a series of emails chasing Lija and Greg through their travels around the UK. Unfortunately, they were unable to return to Lyme Regis and took their specimen back to Toronto. Upon hearing that David had kindly agreed that Lija could have his half, she sent hers back to Lyme Regis where it was plainly obvious (as can be seen from the photographs) that the two halves were indeed originally one. Over the next few months, the two separate segments were fi tted together and painstakingly cleaned and repaired by Andy Cowap of Charmouth and David Costain of Lyme Regis. In July this year, Greg Flude returned to Lyme Regis to collect the complete specimen for its return to Lija in Toronto. He and I were photographed with the fish and an article by David Cozens appeared in the Lyme Regis News.

It certainly made an interesting story and it was all thanks to serendipity.

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