Fossil Hunting - How To Excavate Specimens Without Damaging Them

Posted on: 22 November 2016

Archaeology is a great way of exploring the past in a truly hands-on way.  A really good way of getting into archaeology as a hobby is by getting into fossil hunting.  Here's a quick overview of the tools you'll need to start excavating fossils, together with some hints and tips on how to do it.

Tools for the job

Although fossil excavation is a fun hobby that's easy for amateur archaeologists to get into, you will need a few professional tools including the following:

  • geologists' hammer
  • cold steel chisel
  • eye protection (to save your eyes from flying rock splinters)
  • foam padding
  • cotton wool
  • elastic bands
  • small plastic boxes (with lids)

A geologist's hammer is perfect for fossil extraction, as it allows you more control than a standard household hammer and is considerably lighter.  You will need a chisel for more delicate removal work, and cold steel is best because it's specifically engineered for use on very hard rock.

Excavating fossils

Before you begin excavating fossils, check with the local council or park owners to make sure that you are permitted to extract and remove them.  Generally speaking, fossils that you see in their original bedrock position should be left where they are.  You are usually allowed to remove fossils that you find embedded in loose rock, for example on a beach beneath a cliff face.

Try to keep as much of the rock surrounding the fossil intact.  Some fragile fossils can break, before you get chance to remove the specimen.  If you notice a crack on the back of the piece of bedrock matrix that houses the fossil, you can secure it with a small amount of superglue, just until you've finished working on the fossil.

Use your hammer and chisel to very gently chip away tiny amounts of the matrix so that a sort of pedestal is formed around it.  You can then remove the pedestal with a few gentle taps, leaving the fossil undamaged on the top of it.  If the rock is very soft, you may be able to use the edge of the chisel to scrape away the matrix from around the beneath the fossil.

Storage and transportation

Once you've successfully extracted the fossil, it's important that you store it correctly to avoid damaging it. 

If you've removed the fossil from a beach environment, it will be saturated with salt.  To aid preservation you will need to soak the fossil in clean, distilled water before carefully drying it.  This is because the salt that will be contained within the structure of the fossil will dry the material out, possibly resulting in cracking.

Wrap the fossil in a single layer of foam padding and fold the corners over to cover the specimen.  Secure the foam with a couple of elastic bands and place it in an appropriately sized plastic box lined with cotton wool.

In conclusion

Fossil collecting and excavation is a great way of getting into archaeology without the need to enter sites of historical value that may have restricted access to the public.  Follow the tips above to get started and begin your collection.