Field trip to the Antwerp Harbour area, Belgium

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Harry Meisner (Germany)

The Antwerp harbour area in Belgium is a very interesting spot for finding fossils. In October 2010, the port approved a long-term investment plan, worth €1.6 billion over the next 15 years. As a result, for a while, the whole area became one big fossiliferous outcrop as a result of the construction of new docks (this is no longer the case).

Fig. 1. The Antwerp harbour area in Belgium is a very interesting spot for finding fossils.

Here, you could find sediments from the Miocene and Pliocene (the Kattendijk Sands, which form the base of the Pliocene in Belgium). These deposits originally occurred on top of the Oligocene Boom Clay, but are now disturbed and have been brought to the surface by the construction works.

The sand from the harbour basins was pumped by suction excavators through huge pipelines, to be deposited in large, man-made sand dunes. A few of these lie near the A12 Highway in the small city Stabroek.

Normally, access to these dunes was strictly forbidden because of their dangerous nature, for example, the existence of quicksands and the possibility of being buried under sand. However, in the summer holidays, work stopped for a few weeks and, during that time, you could dig for fossils.

During the summer 2008, I got a hint from one of my Dutch friends and so went to Stabroek with my son and friends, Oliver Sichelschmidt and Martin Wundram (the latter took the photos accompanying this article). When we reached the sand dunes, only a handful of other collectors were present. Most of them came from Belgium and the Netherlands, but one came from southern Germany.

The best way to collect fossils here was to use a sieve and a spade. We normally used a special ‘Dutch-style’ sieve, as it could be shaken by hand, which made it possible to process large amounts of sand in a relatively short time. The best place for digging was the area directly beneath the end of the pipeline, where the sands were being ejected.

Fig. 2. The sieve that we used with great success.

If you dug to a depth of around 30 to 80cm, you exposed a layer with white shelly material containing the guide fossil Pectunculus pilosus. As indicated above, the Kattendijk Sands from the harbour were pumped through a pipeline to the dunes and, as the mud flowed, it spread over the sand and settled down. The heavier and larger components of the mud (like shells and sharks’ teeth) sunk faster and deeper than the rest, thereby creating a fossiliferous layer. This was the layer is that we sieved.

We sieved around two tons of sand and found about 100 fossils in about five hours.

Fig. 3. We sieved around two tons of sand and found about 100 fossils in about five hours.

We mostly found sharks’ teeth and whale bone fragments, but we also came across a nice whale vertebra and a Belgian silver coin from 1922. The teeth we found came from species of makos sharks (Isurus hastalis, I desori and I retroflexus), the cow shark (Hexanchus gigas), the sand shark (Carcharias vorax) and Carcharhinus sp.; and we also found a rare and perfect Carcharoides catticus tooth. In addition, we met somebody who had found a 10cm-long Carcharocles megalodon tooth.

Fig. 4. Some of the fossils we found.

We took buckets of the fine, sieved sand back home and sieved it again with a small tea strainer, after the sand had dried. Using this method, my son found a good range of microfossils, including some fish teeth and jaw fragments, and a pristine, small and very rare catshark tooth (Scyliorhinus coupatezi).

Photos by Martin G Wundram

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