Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Given the freezing weather in the country at the moment, and the resultant shortage of salt, maybe I should look out the box of halite I have in a cupboard somewhere. Halite is basically the crystalline mineral form of common salt. It can form in beautiful crystals and can be slightly coloured by trace elements, but I've shied away from it in the past because most of my storage space is in the basement. And the basement can be damp. And the halite falls apart and disappears.

I was given a box of pink halite by a friend in Arizona a few years ago, but haven't felt that I could sell it to people. Well - people living in Scotland. It probably wouldn't last very long. But it might be worth chucking it on the pavement outside the shop.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

To Mars!

The Russians want to send a monkey to Mars. Sounds like fun, but maybe less so for the monkey. Unless they plan to send loads. Unless... Unless...

Oh my god. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it...

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Snow drop

For the last weekend day before Christmas, it's pretty quiet today. It's not been a good December for me this year, but it comes at the end of a year when business was far better than I expected. So I'm not unhappy.

Thoughts have turned to Tucson already, and I'm beginning to check stock to make a shopping list. Not going to be spending masses this time, for the reason mentioned above, but also because I am already very well stocked. Makes the buying trip a little inefficient, but I can live with that.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Flair of the dog

Feldspars are a large group of silicate minerals that are important in the formation of igneous rocks, but show up in sedimentary and metamorphic rocks too. Labradorite is a plagioclase feldspar, named for Labrador in Canada - the type locality is Paul's Island. Its crystals show lamellar twinning; thin, interlocking plates. When light reflects off these crystals there is a fantastic play of colour across the surface of the stone. This is called schiller effect (or more properly in this case - labradorescence). Most of the material commercially available is from Maniry in Madagascar, though there's a high grade called Spectrolite from Finland.

What you DO need to know is that it's pretty.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Red planet

After Swindon has been twinned with Disneyland, Aberdeen might make a bid to be twinned with Mars. Even more expensive school trips. NASA think a mineral found in a small quarry in Aberdeenshire could be similar to material found on Mars, which may have interesting implications.

Macaulayite is a fetching deep red colour; a hydrated iron and aluminium silicate, formed from heavily weathered granite. It contains water, and if Mars rock contains water then the planet could possibly support life. And if it supports life, it's only a matter of time before the invasion of Earth begins. So hide.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Second leg

Here are my shipping crates, MWF1 and MWF2, pictured near Scunthorpe today. The blue ones. They went down there by car a little over a week ago.

On Thursday they'll be in Bristol, then they'll go on a huge boat to America. I think to Houston. Then by train to L.A., then truck to Tucson, where I'll meet up with them at the end of January.

They look cold, but they are hardy souls.


It's the first of December. Today's Lego advent calendar produced a pirate captain. And it's freezing. Christmas is approaching.

November is usually a very quiet time in the shop, and I always forget how late the Christmas rush actually starts. It's a vital time for the business; December and August are the biggest two months in the year by some distance. So I always start getting a little antsy waiting for things to pick up. The supermarkets have had tinsel and baubles on the shelves for ages, the first Christmas trees have been in windows for a few weeks, restaurants have been urging us to book now for months. And I sit and put off paperwork in a quiet shop. Waiting.

I know people will come eventually, but since it's been my business, I've always found the waiting more uncomfortable. So - feel free to start your panic buying sooner rather than later. I'll have more time to chat and might make you a cup of coffee if you're lucky. Also - Riley will be heading off to the States soon My marathon stint will be starting on the 14th. All support and encouragement welcome. And biscuits.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Tumble skills

I sell rock tumblers and often get asked about how to use them. Embarrassingly, I don't know much more than the basics. At some point I'll address this and get myself a big, heavy-duty machine. In the meantime, I found this handy set of instructions. Tumble yourselves silly.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Now this is the sort of story I like: finds of five different fossil crocodile types detailed in this month's National Geographic. Paul Sereno, from the University of Chicago, found the first of the these in 2000 and has been leading a series of lengthy expeditions since to the Sahara of Morocco and Niger. The sites are famous for their rich dinosaur deposits, but these trips also turned up some fantastic croc finds.

The first find, of Sarcosuchus imperator, was nice enough. Sarchosuchus is the real monster of the bunch; one of the largest crocodilians ever to have lurked by a riverbank. Fully grown, it's reckoned to have got up to about 12 meters long and weighed over 8 tons. The heaviest saltwater croc on record - the biggest species alive - was a puny 1.3 tons. It had been known for a while, but only from a few bits and bobs. Sereno found a lot of material; enough to piece together a decent reconstruction. SuperCroc's challengers for the title are only known from skulls or less. Deinosuchus, an ancestor of the North American alligator is the best known, and may yet turn out to be the biggest. Nigel Marven visits some in this clip from CITV's Prehistoric Park.

The rest of the crocs found by Sereno's group include three new species, each with handy common names. BoarCroc, Kaprosuchus saharicus, has three pairs of protruding caniniforms, giving it a wicked bite. It would have been a similar size to today's saltwater crocs. RatCroc, Araripesuchus rattoides, is named for the Araripe Plateau, in Northeastern Brazil - home to a famous fossil locality, the Santana Formation. Which, in turn, is home to the RatCroc's closest relative, Araripesuchus gomesii. Ratcroc is a tiddler at only three feet long. The unhappily-named PancakeCroc, Laganosuchus thaumastos (and Laganosuchus maghrebensis), has a strange, flat head. You can see someone's reconstruction here. DogCroc and DuckCroc make up the numbers, though they were also previously known.

Aside from the list of new species, the amount of material collected is also remarkable. Quite a contribution to science.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Marsh Award

The Marsh Awards are given out annually to show recognition to 'unsung heroes' in thirty three fields of activity within four broad categories. Under the Conservation and Ecology heading comes the palaeontology prize. This year's winner is Stan Wood. Stan is the actual Mr Wood of Mr Wood's Fossils. Before they were my fossils, they were his.

The awards are the responsibility of the Marsh Christian Trust, who work alongside a variety of partner groups to find the deserving recipients. In the case of the palaeontology awards, The Natural History Museum is the partner. The presentation will be made on Monday the 23rd at the museum.

A very worthy winner, even if I'm a bit biased. I'll write a bit about Stan in a post of his own soon.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The screwdriver

Old Willie comes in. He's been in already today, asking for the loan of a wee screwdriver, to fix his TV. He still wants a wee screwdriver, to fix his TV. I still don't have one. Tomorrow morning is no use, because he can buy a set tomorrow morning anyway. He's desperate, so we cut a couple of bits of card into likely shapes, and he seems happy. He tells me there are some great fossils in here. Great fossils. Then tells me that he had found some once, and some pink stone. A guy from Perth had bought them all from him, and he had bought some fish.

He points at the Exogyra shells. 'Are these the ones you eat?'

'Well, they're related to oysters, so I suppose you could.' He picks up a silicified Turitella. 'Are these good?'

'Well, we don't sell that many. They're ok.' He puts it in his mouth and starts to crunch loudly on it. 'No, no - don't eat it. It's stone.'


'Yeah - it's fossilised. It's a fossil.'

'Oh.' Crunch. Crunch. ' I thought it was one o’ theym you could eat.'

Eventually, after some chewing, he spits some bits of it out. I hold out some tissue paper, but he puts it in his pocket. 'Out o’ the way.' Crunch.

He tells me about when he stopped cutting wood and went fishing in a boat. He knew where the oysters where, and caught huge haddock and herring. The fisherman asked him where he found them and he showed him. When he goes for a walk he keeps his eye open. If he finds something, he'll tip me a nod. He shakes my hand. 'Great fossils.' He shakes my hand again.

Crunch. Crunch. 'Christ - I'm still chewin’ that @*&#. I thought it was one o’ theym wee fish.' Crunch.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Rock God

Got an email this morning from Madobin, who thought I might be interested in his interesting fossil, though he did concede it might be outwith my usual 'sphere of focus'. His stone is a 'Fossilised apparition of Jesus watched over by an angel'. Now - there are a few photos of this wonderous find, and if you squint a little, it's possible to make out a figure. Looks a little like one of the BeeGees.

Turns out - surprisingly, as he describes it as a forever keepsake - he's selling his find on eBay. So if you have $10,000 you can buy it for yourself. There are no bids so far and he kindly offers free shipping. I would want to keep something I'd spent $10,000 on forever, I suppose. I took the time to reply to his message, asking if he'd like to swap it for my fossilised Wayne Gretzky (I felt obliged to pick a Canadian). I'll let you know if the deal is on.

It may be better to let Madobin tell the story himself:
Of all the pebbles I could have picked up, my fingers found this one. I was searching for pretty stones and fossils with my kids and I was absolutely dumbfounded when I saw the image on this little stone. Everyone with whom I've since shared pics or shown the actual stone is also equally amazed that nature conspired to create such a fossilized relic - a true work of art. "Absolutely amazing!", is the best phrase to describe it. I never would have expected to see such a naturally occurring sight, let alone, hold it in my hand.
Consider the odds! Not only was a fossil created a long, long, time ago (usually a lot of luck or pure happenstance anyway), but this combination of rock, sand, organic material, and whatever else was created in the image of Christ! Add to that the billions of little stones that line every beach. Four months ago, I happened to be on the right beach at the right time and picked up the right stone.
He is seen from the chest up, glancing to His right, and dressed in layers of robes. At first glance, I thought there was a halo of "light" around the top of His head but then noticed the image of an angel - from the chest up - within that halo of light looking down upon Him. There is some light behind the angel's back, illuminating his/her wings.
This little stone is about the size of a penny and weighs about the same. It is 11 mm (7/16") wide, 17 mm (11/16") long and between 2 mm to 3 mm (1/16" to 1/8") thick. I don't know what type of stone this is. Its mostly smooth surface has been naturally polished by the waves and its tumble amongst the other beach pebbles.
I am not going to presume the meaning behind this amazing find. What it means to me may not be what it means to you. But I do recognize the incredible odds that created this image and I'm personally spellbound by that fact alone. As a stone - this is a
forever keepsake! Why am I selling? I am certain that the nature of the image will hold more meaning for someone else. I am proud to be the owner of this amazing work of art, but perhaps for another, owning this stone will have more significance.
I hope the pictures I've taken sufficiently show off the detail of this amazing find. Feel free to ask questions.

Friday, 30 October 2009


Eight year-old boy has been looking around the shop with great enthusiasm for ten minutes or so. His parents seem less interested.

'Hurry up, darling. This is boring.'

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

We're gonna need a bigger boat

The skull of a humongous pliosaur has been found in Dorset. Pliosaurs were long-headed, short-necked relatives of the more familiar plesiosaurs. Plesiosaurs were small-headed, long-necked carnivorous marine reptiles. Like Nessie.

This skull measures 2.4m long, putting estimates of the overall length of the sea-beast at around 16m. Very big. The biggest pliosaurs found so far have been from relatively recent finds in Svalbard, a Norwegian island, and Nuevo Leon in Mexico. These finds have been pitched at around 15m, so this Dorset one may be the winner. Given the Norwegian and Mexican examples have been given names like Predator X and The Monster of Aramberri, this new one needs to have a decent name. Not like 'Snappy' or something.

Extrapolating the size of one element of a fossil find is common practice, and understandably so. Everyone is going to want to have an idea of the overall size and shape of an animal to help them picture it. It is clearly an inexact science, however, and errors of scale are frequent. One of the biggest pliosaurs named so far is the mighty Liopleurodon, a scary monster even if it had been memorably exaggerated in the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs. Some considerable debate has taken place over projected lengths of Liopleurodon, and only the discovery of more intact examples will give a clearer picture of the animal's true size.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Toothy Fruit

One of the smallest dinosaurs found has been given a name - Fruitadens haagarorum. It was scurrying around in the late Jurassic of what's now Fruita, Colorado, around 150 million years ago. Bones from a number of examples were found in the late 70s and early 80s by a team from the Los Angeles County Museum and recent work by a group of palaeontologists from Munich has led to publications and a formal naming.

From study of the teeth, it was likely an omnivore, and the skeleton reveals a speedy biped. To avoid being trod on by sauropods. It weighed less than a kilo and grew up to around 75cm long. Probably would make good pets. I would call mine Enzo.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Shiny pebbles

There's a corner of the shop that's set aside for little trays of tumblestones. Lots of places sell them - shops in museums and visitor attractions often have some. Mostly they are fairly common stones that are colourful or nicely patterned - they are very appealing, tactile things.

While their not exactly the backbone of my business, they are a steady seller and occasionally people will buy in bigger numbers. I once had a guy who bought a bunch of quartz and hematite for use as backgammon pieces. People have used them as wedding favours, party handouts, etc. Quite a few buy a selection of colours to put in a dish and look pretty.

I still like finding new ones to put out on the shelves. At some point, I should get an industrial tumbler and start doing my own.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Eye of the beholder

The post the other day about the Gem of Tanzania brought up a topic worthy of a bit more attention. How is a fossil or mineral valued? There's not really an obvious answer. No handy flowchart to follow, no book to look up. There are gemological societies and institutions that will provide assessment and authentification services. For big ticket items, you might approach an auction house. You could look online and try to get an idea of market worth. Even take it in to a fossil shop. All possibilities, but none will give you a cast-iron figure because ultimately it's highly subjective.

Obviously, with some things it'll be a bit easier. Were someone to bring me a Green River fish, for example, I could give them a pretty good idea of retail value. A jeweller presented with a diamond cut in a standard fashion would be able to provide a solid assessment based on weight and clarity, etc. Bring in something slightly more unusual and things get a lot more tricky.

At the show in Tucson, I have bought stuff by the box in a marketplace on one side of the road, then crossed to a hotel where I've found one piece of exactly the same mineral, from the same locality, on sale for more than the entire box I've just bought. Clearly some people are simply more expensive than others, but there is a market for collector pieces - examples of exceptionally high standard - where prices can get scarily high. If there are enough people around that might want a piece then the potential value is raised. Supply and demand. That market isn't always accessible, but it's a factor that should influence any judgement. One man's rock is another man's gem.

Hard labour

I've just bought a big load of stones from a dealer I see two or three times a year. He carries a lot of stock, but I usually buy only a few things in bulk from him - drums of fool's gold, large quantities of rose quartz and so on. It means the price is good, but there's a bit of work involved in sorting it all out.

I also buy large lumps of rough rock which I need to break up into pieces suitable to sell. Again, it's a cheaper way to buy, and you get a nice fresh surface on the individual specimens. It can be a bit messy, though.

Firstly, it all goes down into the basement until I find a suitable time. Then I clear a bit of room and start smashing it all up with a hammer. Usually. The picture is of snowflake obsidian, a volcanic glass with cristobalite inclusions. Obsidian will shatter into very sharp fragments so I put it into a couple of plastic bags when breaking it up. Otherwise I would shred my face and arms into mince. The difficult part is trying to get some sort of consistency of size. Not very easy. This afternoon, when it's quiet, I might have a go at some bacon opal.

Monday, 12 October 2009


The Palaeontological Association now has a Facebook group. It's in its early days, but there will be fossil-related discussions and so on. Just so you know.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Rocks fizz

Everyone knows what happens if you leave a dirty 2p coin in a glass of cola overnight. In the morning there is a clean and shiny 1p piece in the glass and a mouse has drunk the juice with a straw. Or might have. I've never stayed up to watch.

I often leave rough rocks in cola overnight to clean them up. Yesterday there wasn't any cheap cola, so I got some Irn-Bru instead and dumped a load of rubies in a bowl of it. I don't know if it worked as well. It's hard to tell. I can't remember if it's the sugar or the acid or a combination. Does anyone know?

Friday, 2 October 2009


Administrators of Wrekin Construction, a Shropshire building firm that went bust in March, are trying to sell a stone that had been listed as the company's most valuable asset - a 2 kilo ruby known as the 'Gem of Tanzania'.

This stone was previously sold for £130,000, then valued at £300,000, but had then been re-assessed and traded for £11m worth of shares. It was this dubious valuation that had at times allowed Wrekin to keep afloat. The most a ruby has ever sold for at auction is £2.6 millon - something of a steal compared to the Gem of Tanzania. Prior to sale by the administrators, however, a closer look has been taken at the ruby and it was discovered that its valuation documents, from an Italian gemological institute, had been forged. The full story behind the stone is a long and interesting one involving goat's serum AIDS remedies, Rolls Royces, and Richard E. Grant. Albeit loosely.

Anyway - the ruby has been shown to be a low grade of ruby, in zoisite. I've sold this stuff, known as anyolite or ruby zoisite, for a long time and it's a good seller. Nice contrasting colours - the deep red of the ruby and vivid green of the zoisite streaked through with black tschermakite. I think the most expensive piece I've sold was £50. The Gem of Tanzania's revised value is now £100 and has been refused by the larger auction houses approached. It's now going to be advertised for sale in a couple of mineral and gem magazines. Quite a come-down, but definitely a rock with a good tale to tell.

Addition to the family

An old monkeywoman, Ardi, has been given a bit of a write-up in today's issue of Science. She is about 4.4 million years old, which makes her a good bit older than a later neighbour, Lucy, who's thought to be 3.2 million - still of bus-pass age but relatively spritely. Both fossils were found in the Afar Rift valley in Ethiopia; Lucy in 1974 and Ardi in 1992, along with remains of a few dozen other individuals.

Lucy was an Australopithicus afarensis, while Ardi has the name Ardipithecus ramidus and shows more primitive characteristics. Flatter feet suggest Ardi and her species spent less time walking upright than Lucy's bunch. Her opposable toes and great, flapping hands suggest she was still more of a tree climber than her cousin, too.

It'll need a lot more work to be more certain of where Ardipithecus fits on the hominid tree, but it seems unlikely that they are directly in line with Australopithecus as the earliest of the latter found so far is dated to around 4 million years ago. Seems quite possible that the two had a period of overlapping existence. Maybe Ardi's descendants knew Lucy's ancestors. It'd be nice to think they all played in an inter-genus East African football league together. Probably didn't happen. Remember - this was even before buses and half-time pies.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Just had another visit from a born-again Christian who has been coming in for early morning discussions of late. He was, at first, a little cagey about revealing his motivation. His opening questions were about the ages shown on the labels in front of the fossils. To begin with, he just said he doubted that the earth was millions of years old but give his reason as being that it felt wrong.

Over subsequent visits, he has talked more about his religion, though, and shown that his scepticism of science is really based on countering anything that may undermine his interpretation of the bible. This involves, it transpires, an estimation of the age of the earth at somewhere between 6-10 thousand years. Back to that again. I know - it's just something of a sticking point with me. It seems to me, admittedly a firm atheist, there can be ways of incorporating new information into a faith and that people should not shoot themselves in the foot by flatly denying the obvious. By 'obvious' I'm not saying the earth is definitely 4.55-4.6 billion years old - science works by constantly revising current thinking - but that an age measured in only thousands of years is easily dismissed as nonsense. There are living trees almost 10,000 years old, and so far at least one example much older.

Anyway - he is a very nice guy and clearly very driven. He is, to his great credit, able to at least listen to my responses to his questions and give them some thought. I suspect I will be seeing more of him.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Some guy found a huge pile of gold stuff while metal detecting in Staffordshire. I would like to find something like that.

Quite often customers confuse archaeology with palaeontology and make Indiana Jones jokes. I'm not like Indiana Jones, really. I realise that's hard to believe. Archaeology is concerned with the study of past human activity, culture and society through found artifacts and buildings etc. There is an element of overlap when it comes to the fossil record of human ancestry, but not much. Given humans have only been around for the blink of an eye in geological timescales, it's a small (but very interesting) area of the subject. A good example of palaeontology and archaelogy working together is studying the spread of tools across the continents. It's a useful addition to the hominid fossil record, and within more restricted ranges even the use of specific materials and designs can be tracked. Shows how people were moving from place to place, and perhaps early signs of trading and so on.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


There's a big fossil and mineral show on in Denver at the moment. It's one I've never been to, though is a good size and is a regular for many of my friends. It's tough seeing all the pictures - feel like I'm missing out.

It would be difficult to justify going. I see most, if not all, of the dealers I'd want to at the Tucson show, and I'd have to buy a considerable amount to off-set the travel costs and so on. Same 'problem' with the Munich show and St Marie... One day I'll probably go, just to experience the show.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Mini rex

Quite a few articles around today about a description of a very small tyrannosaurid from around 35 million years before the larger-sized tyrannosaurid body shape started to appear.

Raptorex kriegsteini has lots of the characteristics of its famous relative, T. rex, and importantly shows that the distinctive features such as the skull shape and small forelimbs were in place well before they got all super-sized. These dinos were only 8 feet long, and weighed about the same as my friend Keith. Less than me.

The surprising thing about the discovery is just how little the body plan changed as it was scaled up. There were a few tyrannosaurs around North America and Asia throughout the later Cretaceous, and they weren't all as enormous as T.rex - a good example being Nanotyrannus lancensis, which deserves a post of its own - but the typical features are present in all.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Collecting glasses

Tektites are lumps of natural glass formed from terrestrial rock on the impact of a meteorite. The instantly molten rock is thrown high into the air, cooling and solidifying on the way down, so is often distributed some distance away from the impact crater. Not all meteorites have created tektites -in fact so far there are only a handful of tektite sources.

The first tektites were found in 1787 in the Vltava or Moldau River, in what's now the Czech Republic. These are now called Moldavite, and are perhaps most appealing example. They vary slightly in colour, but are generally a deep bottle green. They're prized for jewellery now and are often cut and faceted for setting. Moldavite is linked to a huge meteorite impact in Germany, the Nordlinger Ries crater, which occurred around 14 million years ago.

Elsewhere, the Chesapeake Bay impact in the US has produced tektites found in some Southern states, a grouping of sites around Western Africa are thought to link to an impact in Ghana and tektites found in Australia, China and South East Asia may come from one huge impact. In this case, though, the crater has yet to be identified and there is a good chance they may be from more than one event.

While the impact theory is almost universally accepted, there are a few other suggestions for tektite formation. The most interesting is that they are little lumps of lava from volcanoes on the moon. As wild as this sounds, there is at least some evidence to lend it some weight. Tektites are very dry. Drier than bone. Drier than a towel in a tumble drier in the desert. Moon lava is also very dry. And so... Well - there's more to it than that. I'm being glib.

Another stone I should bring up here is the controversial Libyan desert glass. Although it was first found a long time ago - tools were made with it in the Pleistocene - it still isn't entirely clear exactly what it is. Prevailing opinion now puts it as a tektite, though the shapes it takes are not the usual tektite forms, it is far lighter in colour and it has a far higher silica content than normal. I can't see how this cannot at least be partly attributed to the terrestrial rock in the area of impact, though. If the meteorite hit a sandstone, might the resulting tektites not be silica-rich? Still lots of research being done on this interesting rock, though.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Out of Georgia

There was an interesting talk at the British Science Festival in Guildford yesterday about hominid finds in Dmanisi, Georgia. The story itself is not new, with the first discoveries being made back in early 1990s, but the talk discussed the current thinking on the finds. You can read a little about it here, but the article is more than a little hyperbolic in its claims that the finds demolish the Out of Africa theory.

The skeletons and skulls date to around 1.8 million years old and are a more primitive species than Homo erectus, the folks responsible for what had previously been considered the first road trip out of Africa, around 1 million years ago. H. sapiens, us lot, didn't get round to heading North until relatively recently, maybe 100,000 years ago. Imagine the packing that went on. 'Look, I'm sure you're not going to need all those loin cloths. Just bring the extra hairy ones; it's probably going to be freezing.'

While still not certain, the Dmanisi finds resemble a more developed H. habilis or possibly closer to H. ergaster. It had been thought that erectus had been the most primitive hominid to make the trip into Eurasia. While the Out of Africa theory had regarded two major excursions from the continent as being the most significant, it had never ruled out any number of others at different times. It seems that these early Georgians had made the journey some considerable time before the more evolved erectus left for pastures new, but that does nothing to undermine the theory's main points, as the species was clearly a bit of an evolutionary dead end.

The article linked to above suggests that at some point the Georgian hominids may have made the return journey to Africa and continued to feed into the evolutionary melting pot. I see no need for this to have happened at all. Seems much more likely that not everyone went North in the first place and that probably the majority of the species stayed at home, where it was warm and they knew they could get tasty antelope.

Anyway - it's a topic I find fascinating. One thing is certain - as more finds are made, more evidence is revealed and we will be able to add to the story of human evolution and expansion from Africa.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Reality bites

Wow - dinosaur teeth!

Awww. They're blunt.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Home alone

Riley, the Mr Wood's Fossils auxiliary, has told me of his plans for the Christmas break. Like last year, the American Idle will be lounging around in his homeland for nearly a month. Such a slacker. This leaves me facing a month manning the shop on my own.

If you come in on a Saturday in the near future, please feel free to berate him for his lack of dedication. And if you come in during late December, please bring me a strong coffee.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

None more black

Jet is very black. So much so that they call things that are really black jet-black. (Let's forget for a second that jet can also be dark brown). It has a long history of use in jewellery, despite it being more of a fossil than a mineral. It has - slightly condescendingly -been called a mineraloid. I'm always a little disappointed to be described as a humanoid. It's like I didn't quite make the grade.

Jet is actually a dense form of lignite - a coal. It's thought the best jet is fossilised Araucaria wood, better known as the monkey puzzle tree. Given how it can be found in the stratigraphy, most jet seems to have been initially deposited as driftwood. A softer form was originally laid down in freshwater. Another form of coal, anthracite, is often mistaken for jet, but true jet takes a far better polish than the pretenders.

Whitby, in Yorkshire, has long been a centre for jet jewellery, as some seams around that area provide very high grade material. A lot of material is also washed up on the beaches around that part of the coast, though it tends to be of lesser quality than the material directly mined. It's harder to find now, but there is still enough to keep a few jewellery makers going. Vikings used to come to Yorkshire to get jet, taking a break from their raping and pillaging to pick out a pretty brooch. The oldest jet jewellery, though, is thought to be between 16 and 17,000 years old, and plenty of 10,000 year old stuff has been found in Germany.

Queen Victoria was a big fan of jet. Because it's black and it went with her dresses. Her endorsement saw a bit of a boom in the trade. It's not quite as popular now as it was back then, or in the twenties, but it's still a nice stone. And I like nice stones.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Advertising is a tricky thing to get right. Because the shop is a little different, I get approached a lot. Newspapers, magazines, travel guides, web promoters, etc. I'm lucky in that I get a little more editorial than I might as, say, a card shop, but it can be very difficult to weigh up the pros and cons of each 'exciting opportunity'.

There are a couple of ways to gauge the effectiveness of advertising, but they can be clumsy and offputting at times. I take out a small and incredibly expensive advert in a tourist brochure that goes out in vast numbers all over the country. I have recently downsized the ad, as it had reached the point where I felt it may have become impossible to justify the expense. At least, with that one, people regularly come in waving the brochure. There are a couple of other Edinburgh tourist guides I go in most years, though I tend to vary it a little.

I also take out the occasional ad in the Scotsman and Evening News. With a newspaper ad, many people may see it, but it's a one day thing, quickly binned. Or recycled, of course. Web promotion seems even more nebulous, but at least some form of site traffic monitoring can be put in place in many cases.

I've recently had a spate of calls from website promoters suggesting I paid for their services last year and that it was time for me to renew. Or even, that i had agreed to split payment over two years and it was time for the next installment. This one was the fourth, and by this point I actually told the guy not that I didn't remember but that I didn't believe him. The first one was a little suspicious, but by the fourth over two months or so, I was certain it was a scam. A hard one to spot, though, as often money paid to push your website can seem like cash thrown into the wind.

However - I've had a few calls recently that I have listened to. I'm sponsoring a rubber chicken in a play in this year's Fringe. Gets my name in the program. I got to name the chicken, too. Woody. I'm going to have a 20 second ad running in the Ocean Terminal shopping centre for the next two years. It was a good deal, though it still added up to a hefty sum. I get to keep the rights to the ad, though, so maybe I'll be able to find something else to do with it. There will be some Mr Wood's Fossils 'advertorial' in Vogue this autumn, too. That was a call out of the blue. Apparently, someone had heard we sell meteorite pendants. Sadly, I won't be making the cover.

Monday, 10 August 2009


There's a film out at the moment called Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Now, while I'm sure that almost everyone has a soft spot for giant-sized sea beasties - and especially sharks and octopuses - this film will probably not be an oscar winner. Harsh to judge a film on its title alone, but... You know.

I don't know too much about fossil octopuses, but the Giant Octopus that's currently kicking about is the Enteroctopus. A good name, worthy of a film itself. They only get up to about 20-23 feeet long, though. Not really that giant.

Mega sharks, however, are another matter. The undisputed mega shark was the Carcharocles megalodon. It was a relative of the great white - Carcharodon carcharias - and in fact was until quite recently assigned to the same genus. Megalodon, as it's usually called, means big tooth. Do I need to tell you why? Okay. It had very big teeth. No - bigger than you're thinking. No - hold on - not that big. Be realistic. The biggest complete tooth ever found was a little over 7" long.

The estimated maximum length of megs has been the subject of some debate. The best approach is the use the closest living relative, the great white, as a comparative measure. The technique is to scale up from tooth size and although different figures have been bandied about over the years, current thinking puts the approximate maximum length at around 60'. That's similar to a good-sized sperm whale. There have been bigger sharks, but not carnivorous ones.

Great whites attack a potential meal by ripping out a big fleshy lump - ideally the stomach area - and then coming back in for the kill once the thrashing around has abated a little. Megs would consider seals a bit of a light snack and there's evidence they used to attack whales - vertebrae with tooth scars etc.

Like many sharks, megs would have grown teeth constantly, shedding as they became worn, broken or loose during lunch. It's thought they would have had around 250 teeth in their mouth, too, so for every one shark there would have been a great many teeth throughout its life.

Megs died out only about 1.5 million years ago, and while many people would like to think there are a few still about, lurking in the depths, many others are very glad they are gone. Snorkelers and surfers especially.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Lost In Transition

Where are my paper bags?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Twisted metal

One of the things I get asked about a lot in the shop is bismuth. Bismuth is an elemental metal that's grouped with arsenic and antimony. Unlike those, however, it's not (very) poisonous. In fact, one of it's main uses until relatively recently has been in stomach medicines for various reasons. Pepto-bismol, for example.

It forms naturally in a couple of ores and sometimes as nuggets. What draws the comments and questions, though, are the artificially grown hopper crystals. These are made using almost completely pure bismuth with trace additions of other elements to add varied colour to the oxidised layer that quickly forms over the silvery-grey surface.

Only a few people in the world make it, and the process to make decent crystals is a closely guarded secret. A friend of mine bought the business and know-how from a retiring Belgian and is now making his own in his garage in England. A few experiments has led him to the biggest crystals ever made. It's pretty brittle stuff, so once the crystals get over a certain size they can be quite fragile. He buys the raw material in ingots from a company that refines metals. The price has risen a fair bit in recent years as bismuth has gone from being a moderately useful by-product to an increasingly important product in its own right.

It's now being used as a substitute for lead in fishing weights, as an alloy for shot, pellets and plumbing uses. There are plenty of other new uses, but an important discovery made recently will lead to it being used in electrical circuit boards and in solar power cells. Bismuth diodes allow
two-way current flow, which will create far more efficiency in electrical equipment.

Great for global technology, not so great for the price of bismuth crystals.

Thursday, 30 July 2009


Some good news. This is only loosely related to the shop, but it's commuting to work, so I reckon it counts...

The X29 is now a double decker. I get on the service near the start of its route back into the city, so always get a seat in the morning, but by the time it had got closer to the centre, the single decker was very often packed solid. So then it became a game of 'Who Gets the Seat?' Who might take offense? Who deserves it more - the shaky old lady or the man who looks like he's being eaten from the inside by beetles? And then - where to stand to best let people past?

Now there's space for everyone. Someone will still have to sit next to me, though. Nobody likes doing that, because I look like someone shaved a bear, and have to crush my legs sideways to cram them into the seat space, every jolt threatening to shatter my kneecaps. But someone will eventually overcome their fear of discomfort and the unknown and perch beside me. Today it was a nicotine-sodden chain smoker who played with his temporarily extinguished cigarette for the entire journey. Brilliant.

Monday, 27 July 2009

What's it called?

A problem I encounter relatively frequently is one of common names. More for minerals than fossils, but there are examples of both. I mentioned briefly when writing about chalcopyrite that it is often called peacock ore. It's pretty clear where the name comes from in that case. It's shiny and colourful - so are peacocks. It's not always so obvious.

This morning I had a call from a customer looking for minerals only by their common names - she didn't know the geological names - and I had heard of none of them. A bit of digging found a reasonable answer for one of them and a fairly tenuous answer for another. There are often more than one common name for a mineral, and also the application of the label may also be heavily subjective. Nobody is 'in charge' of assigning the names, anyone can do it and there's no comprehensive database to check up on.

As an example, a great many shapes and variety of quartz crystal have common names attached. I currently have optical, candle, elestial, cactus, fenster, laser and faden quartzes. And this is before colour is considered...

The mineral above is known as lemon (or citrus) chrysoprase. It's not chrysoprase. It's magnesite with nickel in it. So a number of the common names are misleading as well. There are loads (that's an accurate figure - you can quote me) of 'jaspers'. If someone wants to market a stone they've found in commercial quantities, they seem to resort to calling it 'Something Jasper' if they're not 100% of what it actually is.

The picture to the right shows a Devil's Toenail. It's not really from the devil's foot. There are millions of them, and the devil would have had to spend all his time growing toenails and shedding them instead of going around being bad just to make a beach-load. They are actually Gryphaea, a type of oyster. With fossils, while there are some locally specific common names, it's less of an issue. Michigan's Petosky Stones are coral, Dudley Bugs are beautifully preserved Calymene trilobites, and there are a few more notable examples.

The crystal healers are very big on common names and I have a fair few as regular customers. I'm happy to help them find out the geological names of what they're looking for and to try and track down examples, but I feel sometimes the names are a little exploitative. I've seen some ugly rocks given appealing names as a sales aid. If you dig up a lump of murky brown calcite, it's going to be a bigger seller as 'Dolphin's Heart Calcite' than 'Mud-lump Calcite'. You get the idea.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


The French stock has been here for a week or so, but I haven't. Finally getting round to unpacking it all and pricing it up.

Aren't I lazy?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Release the simians

Monkeys were on the loose in Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. In Chester Zoo, two days ago, a bunch of chimps were running free after they escaped from Monkey Island. If there isn't a film called Escape From Monkey Island, there should be. Is there something in the air? Some sort of simian revolution? Sleepy keepers? Whatever it is, I'm all for it. I know monkeys and such can be dangerous when they find their freedom, but it's understandable. They would surely be expected to take a little time to adapt to their new society. Learn that is unacceptable to throw your faeces at others, stand to one side on escalators, etc.

Once I've found out a little more, I hope to release some monkeys in the shop. They would have to be of a smaller genus. Maybe capuchins. If this is some new movement, I want Mr Wood's Fossils to be involved.

Near where the fossil show is in France, there is a tourist attraction called Montagne des Singes. Monkey Mountain. Reassuringly, the name says it all. These forward thinking French folk have fenced off the top of a hill and filled it with macaques. Once you have paid, you can have a handful of unseasoned popcorn and enter the world of the monkeys. Once in, the rules are much like those of stripclub (so I hear). They can touch you; you can't touch them. I've been a couple of times. It's great. If you go, it's best to hold one piece on the flat of your outstretched hand and wait patiently. Don't charge at them, screaming, throwing handfuls of popcorn in their faces. They react badly. I'm talking about monkeys, here, not strippers. Just to be clear.

I should also point out that there is a worthy ethic behind the mountain. It's a breeding program that has steadily been re-introducing the animals into areas where their numbers have dwindled in the wild. It's been pretty successful so far.

Sunday, 5 July 2009


It's Sunday, and I'm in the shop. Dusting and cleaning the inside of the display cabinets. I hope you appreciate this. Please all come in and say how nice the glass shelves look.

I got so carried away I even forgot to eat my Monster Munch.

Friday, 3 July 2009


Security at this year's St Marie wasn't quite as prominent as usual. Perhaps it was the same, and because I didn't really spend much time in the town in the evenings this year I just didn't notice. During the day, you need a pass to gain entry to the fenced off show area. Different types are available - day passes, week-long trader passes, etc, but all require a little plastic card on a printed necklace thingy. Long queues usually build up on the show's official public days, and the pass holders can skip these. Individuals vary, but often a cursory glance is all that you might expect.

At night, however, the situation changes and the heavy security is drafted in. These guys clearly dream of being SAS or Imperial Stormtroopers. It looks very much like they got to design their own uniforms, too. Boots that go up to their armpits, huge telescopic truncheons, lots of guns, leather gauntlets, flak jackets, etc. A little bit of overkill, maybe. And then the dogs. Look like they've somehow got some tiger and bear genes into the rottweiler pool. If they wanted, they could probably bite people through the wire fencing.

In fairness, there is a huge amount of money in the show. In fossil and mineral form, perhaps, but vulnerable to theft all the same. Last year, a friend of mine had his bag stolen from its hiding place under a table. It had seventeen thousand Euros in cash, his passport, camera, credit cards, everything. All gone with little or no chance of seeing anything back from the insurance. This was in broad daylight, in a busy selling tent. It's not uncommon, sadly.

At night, the nature of the show means most of the stock is left in tents overnight. Tents that are secured only by a little bit of rope tied at the bottom. So it's quite reassuring to have the bear-dogs on the prowl.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


Back in the shop after the French trip, and handsomely patterned with red blotches and welts. I stayed on an organic apple orchard; great for cider lovers but equally great for fans of mosquitoes. It was too hot to sit inside and we had a few meals sat round tables outside. Whatever anti-bug measures we took didn't really seem to put them off too much.

Lying on a tiny, narrow bunk bed in sweltering heat with a sheet pulled over your head whist being dive-bombed by the high-pitched whine of the mozzy does not make for a good night's sleep.

Still. I had a good time; always nice to spend time with the people and while the weather was oppressively hot at times, there was at least a fridge nearby.

Brought a few smaller things back in my hand luggage, but the rest will be a week or so yet.

Monday, 22 June 2009


Now that Wimbledon has started, it's likely to rain. People have been saying that it'll be a long, hot summer this year. I hope so. Has been a while.

The weather does make a difference to turnover - people prefer walking around when the sun is out and they have less chance of catching pneumonia. And I think the sun puts people in a better mood altogether. Strange that psychiatrists are so busy in California.

I don't get a lot of passing trade. The shop's slightly tucked away, off to one side of the Grassmarket, a market square in the middle of the city's Old Town. A lot of money has been spent on redeveloping the area over the past couple of years, and I'm hoping more tourists will be directed down here; that more locals will rediscover it. It does have a fair bit to offer. A range of little, independant shops selling something different to what can be found in any other city centre. Cafes, restaurants, and pubs, too. It's hoped a regular market can be sited here shortly - would be great to use the space as it was originally intended. A return for the gallows is less likely, thankfully.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Jumbo burger

There was an interesting find recently in the Czech Republic. It was reported as the 'World's Oldest Barbecue' and was a 4' roasting spit, alongside cooking tools and the butchered bones of various animals - fox, bear, deer, and mammoth included. The site was dated at around 31,000 years old.

There seems to have been quite regionalised hunting techniques, generally to make the most of the animals available to hunt in any given area. In some areas where there would be a range of options, though, it looks like there was further specialisation. Some sites show weapons were developed to hunt mammoth; in others hunters seemed to concentrate on smaller prey. Were they just scared? Was this some lifestyle choice? Did they have some sort of pact with the mammoth? We may never know. They may have had the right idea, though. We're used to getting our meat pretty easily. Think about what the poor caveman had to do to get a few steaks. Heading out with a sharp stone tied to a stick, looking for a huge, hairy elephant to prod to death...

There are a few stories about scientists eating mammoth meat from Siberian permafrost finds. These probably stem from the Berovska mammoth, found in 1900. The meat, when still frozen, looked in good enough condition to be edible, even appetising. Some was fed to the expedition's dogs and was eaten without complaint - but dogs tend not to be overly fussy. Once thawed, the meat was apparently a little less appealing, but a couple of bites were taken by some intrepid folk.

More stories are told about Siberian natives eating frozen mammoth meat, though; enough to suggest they are likely to be true. The main difficulty is keeping the ketchup in liquid state.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Peacock awe

It's a strange day when I don't sell a piece of chalcopyrite. There are a handful of minerals that sell far more then any other. Three or four calcite types, iron pyrite, and chalcopyrite.

The form I sell is technically bornite, which has a higher concentration of copper. Usually chalcopyrite has a brassy yellow colour and is almost always massive rather than crystalline. Bornite, with the extra copper, is a lot more colourful. The vivid blues, purples and aqua greens have earned it the common name peacock ore.

Like malachite, though, it is an important copper ore and is usually crushed up for the copper. Seems a shame, but it's also good to have running water and electricity, too.

I found some bornite once. I think it was during my mapping project up in the North of Scotland. I didn't put it on my map. I had more important things to do. Vast, foot-sucking bogs don't map themselves you know.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Dawn raiders

Phone call from my new-ish rubbish collection company:

Hello - is this Mr Dale?
Yes it it.
I'm phoning from the cardboard collection department at Xxxxxx.
Our driver tells me there was no cardboard out for collection on Friday.
It was out - it was out all day and nobody came.
Well the driver says there was nothing there when they came by.
What time was that? So far they've come at about 11, 12ish and about 4.30.


Seven fifteen in the morning.
Oh. Well, I hadn't made it into work by then. I'm open from 10 until 5.30
Ok. I'll tell our drivers. You couldn't put it out the night before?
Thanks. Bye.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

St Marie showdown

St Marie aux Mines is a small Alsation town, and the fossil and mineral show takes over a large part of it for a week in June. A few central streets are fenced off and tents erected all over the place. A few of the locals get a bit fed up, understandably, but the town does very well from it financially .

At one end of the main road through the show is the 'logistics tent'. This used to just be a handy place to park, then a handy place to store shipping crates, then eventually a handy place for an opportunistic haulage company to fleece everyone for as much as they possibly can. At first it was okay to keep the crates there. Then it was okay as long as you paid them some storage fees, then it was okay as long as you paid storage fees and shipped exclusively with them. Now it's just a case of charging extra for unloading, forklift hire, supervisory costs, paperwork, disposal of paperwork, time, water and air.

Anyway. That's where my crates have been stored during the show for the past few years. It abuts a row of small terraced houses and sits beside a narrow, winding road used as the main vehicular exit from the show. I go to and from my crates a lot, gradually filling them as I buy. I'm often down in the logistics tent shifting stuff around for others, too. So I spend quite a bit of time there.

Last year, my crates were right against the far wall of the tent, next to the outer wall of the houses. I had gone down to repack a crate for a friend as mine were finished and sealed. There was a bit of a crowd gathereing in the road on the other side of the mesh fence. They were looking at the upper floor of the house next to my crates. I moved to the fence and looked. A man was leaning from the window shouting and waving his arms around. My French isn't brilliant, but I asked the shipping company rep what was going on.

Turned out the guy had locked himself in his house, turned on the gas and was going to blow himself up. By this time, the police had arrived, and were milling around with the crowd. Then a couple of fire engines, an ambulance, then a van full or armed cops. There were plenty of rumours going around by now. There was a baby in the house. He had split up with his girlfriend. He had a gun. His girlfriend had the baby. The baby had a gun.

Meanwhile, all traffic from the show was halted. The road was closed and many members of the French emergency services stood around smoking.

After an hour or so, things had settled down a little and we knew a little more. He DID have a gun, and waved it around a little. There was no baby. He WAS threatening to blow the house up. He had split up with his girlfriend, and she had been seeing his best friend. The man was angered by this.

A neighbour from across the street berated the gun-waver from her first floor window. At length. She spoke very quickly and I didn't really get much of it. She disapproved of his actions, though. I got that.

The police didn't seem to be overly worried, and everyone was allowed to hang around, as long as they didn't get too close to the windows. The van had pulled up in front of the house and a handful of police with guns and smoke grenades crouched behind. Others, with rifles, went to the other side of the stream behind the house. The much-discussed girlfriend was brought down and stood, with a cop, outside the house talking with her disgruntled ex. Then she went away.

I was a bit worried about what would happen to my crates if the house did blow up.

Somebody came out from a car to talk to Mr Angry. This went on for a while. Then there was a lot of hanging around. At some point, some of the police went in, and the guy was walked from the house into an ambulance and taken away. Then the traffic was allowed to move on again. Bit of an anti-climax, maybe, but no blood was lost. The shipping company didn't even charge us for watching it.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Marie marie

Finally got all my plans set for the French show. It's in St Marie aux Mines, in Alsace. Very pretty part of the world. It's always sunny when the show's on - hot, usually. This is broken sporadically by huge thunderstorms and very heavy downpours, but they are normally short-lived. Doesn't seem like it when you are trying to get back to sleep in your tent.

There are other shows in Europe, but this one has most of the exhibitors I want to see and it's not too expensive to go. I don't have to spend anything like as much as in Tucson to make it worthwhile and that's just as well with the Euro currency rate at the moment.

I try to tie my flights in with those of friends and travel on together, but that hasn't worked this year. So I'll be flying on my own to Switzerland and getting a train to a town a few miles from where I want to end up. Which is on a cider apple orchard/farm somewhere near a road. By some fields. This is going to be easy.

Last year there was an armed siege right beside the show. I watched it all. Exciting, in parts. I'll post about it next time.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

How much?

Some friendly Canadians.

'Can we have this ammonite, please?'
'Of course. Would you like a stand to go with it? They're sixty pence.'
'How much is that?'
'Sixty pence. 60p.'
'But how much is that?'
'Em. Well. A bit more than 50p; a bit less than 70p. Point six of a pound. What do you mean?'
'Oh - like sixty cents?'
'A bit, yes.'
'Ok. We'll have one.'

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


Yesterday, with some fanfare, the fossil primate Darwinius masillae was displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. There has been a great deal of hype about this fossil, which, given it was actually found in 1983, seems a little contrived. It's a very important fossil, without doubt, but a lot more study needs to be done before it quite lives up to its billing. It had been in a private collection until is was bought by the univeristy of Oslo a couple of years ago.

The site it came from is a famous fossil locality - Messel, near Frankfurt in Germany. The Messel pit its home to an oily shale that contains fossils preserved with incredible detail. The deposits are Eocene, and are roughly 46 to 50 million years old. Aside from thousands of fish, the site has yielded birds, crocodiles, insects and a number of different mammals - bats, mice, horses, pangolins and more. Fur, feathers, scales are all beautifully preserved, but the shale is so delicate that fossils are usually given some form of supportive backing. I currently have a fish that is set in a sort of fibre glass sheet. The Messel pit was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-90s.

Ida, as she's been called, was at first thought to be a relative of lemurs, but had a number of simian characteristics, leading some to trumpet her as a 'missing link' fossil in the human lineage. The presence of opposable thumbs, fingernails and dental details suggest she lies somewhere around the division between prosimians (modern lemurs, bushbabies, etc) and simians (higher primates, like Old World monkeys, apes and you). So while she might not be a direct human ancestor, she's likely to be a close cousin to our ancestral monkeyman.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


This week a South African blue diamond was sold at auction in Geneva for £6.2 million after a bit of a bidding war. This makes it the most expensive blue diamond ever. It's set in a platinum ring, and doesn't look very big. If I was spending that much, I'd probably want something a little bigger. Car-sized, maybe, or at least the size of an overweight cow. The diamond will be named by its new owner. Unlike Cabbage Patch dolls, they don't come with a wee label with their name, hobbies, etc. What will it be called? Is it like a show dog or racehorse where they have their 'stage' name, like Fragrant Broccoli Starfield for example, and then their 'pet' name, such as Stumpy? I don't know the answer to this.

Diamonds, in their purest form, are colourless. They are pure carbon. The presence of trace elements during formation, radiation and also slight physical deformations can influence the colour, though, and diamonds can be found in a number of colours. After clear, the most commonly found are brown and yellow, where Nitrogen is present. Red, pink, orange, violet, green, purple, blue and black varieties are also found. Black diamonds are usually the result of inclusions of graphite, the 'lead' in a pencil and another form of pure carbon, but as soft as diamond is hard. Blue diamonds are formed when there is boron present.

Diamonds form when carbon-rich rocks are subjected to high pressures at (geologically speaking) relatively low temperatures. While almost all are formed deep under areas of the Earth's continental plates (not oceanic), very small diamonds can be formed on meteorite impact. It's no use squeezing a lump of coal to form a diamond. That doesn't work. Even after 37 minutes. I got bored.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

And another thing

On Saturday, a Jehovah's Witness came into the shop and told Riley that all the fossils on Earth were deposited during the flood that Noah floated about on. Now - I've heard this argument many times before and more than one religion sticks to this demonstrably wrong line.

When Riley asked what happened to the animals found in the fossil record that are no longer running around, the answer was that the wicked animals had not been saved. Whether this slight twist is the party line or not, I have no idea. But I like it as an explanation...

The dinosaurs all died because they were naughty.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Red in tooth and claw

There's a very rich Cretaceous site in the Kem Kem area of Morocco. Lots of dinosaur teeth are found there. Lots. The stone is mostly a crumbly, pinkish sandstone and while the teeth and bones found are quite fragile, the preservation can be remarkably good. There are a few animals found in the stratigraphy - the T.rex-like Carcharodontosaurus, the sauropod Rebacchisaurus, the raptor Deltadromeus, crocodiles and a pterosaur, Sirrocopteryx.

For me, though, the most notable find of this area is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Spinosaurus was originally found and named in Egypt in the early 1900s but the original holotype was destroyed during WWII. Other examples have been found in Egypt and Tunisia, but the Kem Kem churns out bucketloads of Spino teeth and some claw and bone material.

Spinosaurus is thought to be the biggest carnosaur found so far. Estimates put the weight between 7 and 9 tonnes, and between 50 and 60 feet in length. It is related to the Baryonyx of England and Brazil's Irritator, has a long, crocodilian snout, simple, smooth teeth with slight vertical ridges and a large 'sail' on its back.

The skull and jaws show a long muzzle with raised nostrils - a little like crocodiles. It's thought Spinos may well have eaten fish as well as smaller dinosaurs and probably scavenging. More recent research has suggested that the shape of the extended vertebral bones that form the 'sail' is consistent with those in modern buffalo with large fatty humps on their backs. Spinos may have had more of a lump than a sail. Not quite so dashing.

Bit of a side note here. As with many dinosaur genera, there are arguments about many aspects - range in size, purpose of sail/hump, palaeoenvironment, etc. Recently it was realised that modelling of dinosaurs and creation of assemblages from articulation of bones etc left too little allowance for intervertebral discs. With a more realistic spacing of vertebra, most dinsoaurs may well have actually been much bigger than previously thought.

Spinosaurus was one of the stars of the Jurassic Park series, appearing in the third film to smash the T.rex about, and bite his face off. Bragging rights to the Spino.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Bilbo finds his feet

This month more light was shed on the origins of the hobbit - Homo floresiensis. It's a hominid species that was discovered six years ago in caves on an Indonesian island. They're a little controversial, these guys. And little. About a metre tall - hence the hobbit tag. Nobody knows if they had hairy feet.

Anyway - they are very interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, bones have been found dating between 95,000 years and 12-13,000 years. That's not very long ago, even within the human evolutionary timeframe. It's thought they lived alongside modern H. sapiens. Well, possibly in different caves.

Secondly, a number of scientists argue that they are not a distinct species. Some have said the solitary complete skull found is a bit of an anomoly, others saying the whole colony was a group of pinhead dwarf humans. More recent study has shown considerable differences between the hobbit skull and human microcephalic skulls, pointing towards the distinct species theory. Further research on the bones of the arms and wrists support this and would seem to provide conclusive evidence that the hobbits split from the hominid line earlier than H. sapiens.

Similarities to Australopithecus, a hominid that died out in Africa about 1.5 million years ago have led to suggestions that an ancestor of Australopithecus or Homo habilis left Africa earlier than it was previously thought. As with other species living on isolated islands, they remained separate and distinct from other species. The Out of Africa migration of modern humans is thought to have taken place between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. By this time, clearly, hobbits had already been established in their Indonesian caves. The rapid spread of Homo sapiens into Europe and across the globe led to the disappearance of all other hominid species. (Something we said?) Seems like the hobbits lasted a bit longer than the rest.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Drumming fingers

Today is a quiet day. A couple of customers have been in, but no sales. There are days when it does get a little frustrating; when you want to go marching up and down the street with a placard or something. There are things I should be doing. Still a big batch of sectioned ammonites to be priced and labelled, still the hoovering I meant to do yesterday. Still coffee to make.

I was born profoundly lazy. Nothing can be done.

What can I do to motivate myself? Set goals? Reward myself with a caramel wafer? Stab the back of my hand with a fork? One of the forks in the shop is pretty sharp. That may work.

Hang on.

No. I have a sore hand, but no inclination to go into the basement for the boxes of fossils. Maybe I should start with small, manageable targets. I will make some coffee.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


This weekend I'm setting up a Mr Wood's Fossils table at a convention. This will be the first time I've done it, and it's taken quite a while to get ready. Working out what stock I should take, trying to remember what else I may need. It's a long list - bags, pens, labels, tablecloth, float, stands, fliers, and plenty more.

The convention is taking place not far from the shop, but rocks are notoriously heavy. And I have a lot of them to lug about. Hopefully a good few less afterwards. Because it's a Saturday, I wouldn't have been in the shop, so I'm not paying any extra out in wages and it wasn't not expensive to pay for the table - so hopefully it'll work out pretty well. Even if it proves a bit of a washout, I have to think longer term. I could pick up a few new customers, so I'll be handing out cards and fliers left, right and centre.

I don't spend that much on advertising, though I get approached a lot. It's really difficult to know what's effective. Or at least cost-effective. Word-of-mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool for Mr Wood's Fossils. I place a lot of emphasis on customer service in the hope that customers go away with a good impression, remember the shop and maybe tell a couple of friends. I'm looking forward to the weekend - at least to see what it's like to run a stall. Maybe it'll be something I could do a little more often.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


When people say you can't polish a turd, don't believe them.

Coprolites are fossil dung. The one above is from a turtle. Probably quite a big turtle. I get asked how you can tell which animal 'laid' it. It's not always possible, but at times a direct comparison can be with recent examples. Preferably not that recent. In other instances, clues can often be found in the stratigraphy. It's usually possible to piece together a reasonable understanding of the palaeoenvironment; where and how the animal was living. Also, sections can be made, allowing a look inside the jobby. Exciting work.

A site in Moab, Utah provides a great deal of this stuff, and very often you can see little cross sections of undigested plant material in the polished surface. Found amongst the coprolites are the occasional gastrolith, or gizzard stone. Like some animals today, many dinosaurs ingested pebbles to help them break down tough plants in their gut. I wouldn't suggest you eat a handful of gravel before your tea, but it was very helpful for some of the sauropods of the Jurassic.

Much of the plant material in these coprolites is preserved as a vibrant red jasper, and the most colourful stuff is graded out and used to make jewellery. A few years ago there was a bit of a Hollywood craze for wearing coprolite jewellery. Didn't really catch on here, unfortunately.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


Monday's earthquake in Italy has left over 200 dead, many more injured and thousands homeless. Towns and villages were devastated. The timing of the quake, in the early hours of the morning, must have been a factor in the number of deaths, but the fact is that there is still no reliable way of accurately predicting an event.

I did see the story of a seismologist who had measured increased levels of radon gas emissions in the days preceding the earthquake. He was convinced something was coming, and felt his advice was going unheeded. He took to driving around the streets with a megaphone, trying to warn people to leave the area. It's a sad tale, but imagine what your reaction would be to that scene. Disbelief, at least. Concern for his sanity, possibly.

The truth is that it's an incredibly tricky business, seismology. Many influencing factors, unpredicability of timescales, and then the difficulty experienced by the frantic Italian in his van. Who will believe you? Err on the side of caution and you cost thousands of people time, money and inconvenience. And run the risk of crying wolf. Err on the side of negligence and the risks are considerably higher. Thankless task.

I read today that the Italians authorities are flying in dozens of clowns to go round the temporary camps 'entertaining' people. That's terrifying. You've lost your home and everything you own. You and your family are living in a tent, surrounded by hundreds of other shell-shocked families in tents. And then round the corner, through the rubble, comes a gang of twenty clowns.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


Knee-deep in rocks, fossils, paper, cardboard and scraps of sticky white labels. Getting there.

Currently in the middle of washing a load of Californian jade which had been lying in somebody's basement in Arizona for years. It's nice stuff, and I got a great deal on it.

Somewhere along the line, a few boxes got a bit of a soaking. Not a problem for most rocks, you'd think, but there are some which will have an adverse reaction.Will have to repack quickly...

Friday, 27 March 2009


Nearly here. The Tucson containers have been unloaded in Bristol and my crates are currently being tampered with by Simon. Once he's finished, he'll kindly condense and ship them up to Edinburgh.

All being well, they should be on the pavement outside the shop sometime on Tuesday. And then an hour or so later, inside the shop.

It's a busy few days for me, but I enjoy them. Unpacking all the stuff I bought in January and February that I've almost forgotten about. Working out prices, making new labels, and getting things on the shelves.

Monday, 23 March 2009

On the sea shore

For Ada Lovelace Day...

Mary Anning was, for a long time, an unsung heroine of palaeontology. She lived in early 19th Century Lyme Regis, Dorset, on England's fossil-rich South coast. Her parents were poor, and her father supplemented his income making furniture by collecting and sellng fossils. There was a small tourist trade in fossils at the time, and Mary and her brother took to the beaches to help their father.

The fact that seven of Mary's brothers and sisters did not live past early infancy allows some insight into the circumstances of the time, and Mary was only eleven when her father died, leaving the family in even more desparate circumstances.

While Mary would have been selling her early finds to tourists, the science of palaeontology was by now beginning to find its feet. Fossil enthusiasts began to seek out fossil hunters to quickly expand their collections and understanding of their importance. It wasn't long before Mary was supplying these budding palaeontologists with material and they began to provide her with a steadier income.

Mary made some very significant finds, including the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, a plesiosaur and even a pterosaur. Her family recieved a welcome financial hand from one of her customers, who sold his collection to help support Mary's work. It wasn't until much later in life that she began to recievemore official recognition for her discoveries. She was awarded regular funding for her contributions to science and, just before her death in 1847, was granted honourary membership of the Geological Society. Honourary only, as she was a woman.

The famous tongue twister 'She sells sea shells...' is thought to be about her.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Mother-of-pearl Day

Ammonite fossils sometimes show a mother-of-pearl like layer where the aragonite of the original shell has not changed to calcite, as usually happens. Light reflecting from the thin layers of aragonite undergoes an interference which leads to a beautiful spectrum of colour display.

Ammonites from Majunga in Madagascar can show this effect and those of a South Dakota locality, and there are some Somerset ammonites which can display fine colour too, but by far the best examples come from Placenticeras ammonites in 70 million year old rocks in Alberta, Canada. Here the stone is called ammolite (among other names) and the better grades of ammolite show a fantastically intense, opal-like colour.

Colour ranges across the spectrum, but greens and reds are most common. The purply-blues are rare, and fetch a bit more money. The highest grade gems can be pretty expensive, but it is possible to get nice colour at a reasonable price. Complete ammonites can be found, though they are rare and can take hundreds of hours of painstaking preparation to reveal the colour fully. Needless to say, the ammonites cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Ammolite has been officially classified as a gemstone, though quite what that means I don't know. Nobody's officially classified me as anything. Something to do with grading? Marketing? What I do know is that it looks great. It's one of my favourite stones. I try not to take stones home, but with ammolite I find it very difficult to part with some pieces. I buy mine from a good friend, who collects, cuts and polishes it himself. Not many people are allowed to collect the material, and it's also very difficult to actually find it. Can be dangerous, too - the best stuff is found on the steep, scree covered banks of a torrential river, accessible only for a short period of the year. A large part of the formation is found on a Kainah tribal reservation, and permission to collect is controlled.

The Blackfeet consider the stone to help with the buffalo hunt and call it buffalo stone. There aren't many buffalo near where I live, but I may try it out on some cows. I won't actually hunt them, though. Maybe just sneak up on them.

I've been selling ammolite in the shop for a decade now, and people love it. It took me a while to get round to selling jewellery, but now it's a jewellery line that is memorably different and it's been doing well. This year I picked out a few pendants but also got a bunch of pieces that I will get made into pendants and rings. It takes a bit of time to get them done that way, but is worth doing.

Thought as it was Mothers Day this weekend, I'd pick a gem as a theme today...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Hands off approach

Last week, I overheard a comment as a couple of people were leaving the shop. It's one I've heard a few times before, and went a little along the lines of:

'I don't think they should be allowed to take things from the Earth. It's like shells, isn't it?'

I can understand the conservational principles behind the thinking, but cannot agree with the sentiment. Firstly, there's a significant difference between the shell trade and fossils. Without knowing a great deal about the shell business I can't say what standard practice is, but there is at least the potential for dealers being pro-active - actually killing lots of cuddly little slime-lumps to sell their homes to somebody. Rather than just filling a bucket with shells from the beach after a high tide, for example. I don't know if this goes on or not and I don't want to be in any way accusatory, but my point is that with fossils, it can't. Nobody can go out with a shotgun, a flask of coffee and a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches on a day's trilobite hunting. Beaten to the punch by hundreds of millions of years.

A common comment in the shop is 'Why aren't all these things in museums?'. I'm pretty sure I've addressed this issue in an earlier post. If I can be bothered, maybe I'll go and have a look later, and edit this. Would be a good exercise in posting a link, which I should get round to. (Stone sentinels - ooh, look, I could be bothered). Anyway, there's clearly a link with these lines of thinking. With one, an assumption of intrinsic scarcity leading to the feeling that everything should be locked away and looked after by somebody for the greater good. And with the other, perhaps, the feeling of collective ownership, or ownership by 'the planet' leading to a feeling of suspicion of those exploiting a common resource. Both 'hands off those fossils' lines of thinking, in different ways.

As I said, I have addressed the former point already, but one moment of tv annoyed me greatly. Let me vent for a second. Tony Robinson's Time Team archaeology program had a sideways dip into matters palaeontological a few years ago. Early in this programme, they stated that they knew very little about the subject, and less about the commercial side to the subject. Yet later on they were scathing and condemnatory about a little 'Mom and Pop' store they came across selling fragments of dinosaur bone and eggshell. They were horrified that anyone should be selling this precious and rare material, and were outraged that it wasn't all safely locked away in a museum somewhere. I don't think there would have been many museums that would have taken that stuff if they had offered to drop it on their doorstep. It's purely commercial material, of little or no scientific value. And they ought to have done a little research into that before writing off a whole industry like that.

On to the second 'pillaging the Earth' line. If fossils weren't collected then nobody would see them. Nobody would learn from them. Nobody would be able to appreciate their beauty. Those that are lying around on the surface may be seen by a few diligent beachcombers or desert wanderers, but would eventually be destroyed by the elements. Those buried within the rocks, the vast majority, would stay there, benefitting no-one, until the rock is eroded. However many fossils are found and collected (and sold), most will remain hidden from view.

One issue that I should probably raise here is the possibility that the Earth would 'feel' the loss of the stones. I mean as some sort of sentient being. Mother Earth. I've said before that I hold very strong atheist views, so this doesn't hold any water for me. Gaia Theory is a fascinating topic, and one I'll save for another post, but I would contend that it's a form of religion for scientists. Poor Mother Earth would also then presumably feel the loss of metal ores, oils and gases by that measure. In which case the loss of a few fossils here and there is small beer.