Fossil Field Trip Equipment and Collection Methods

(Excerpts from Introduction to Fossil Collecting, (C) 1994, Glen J. Kuban)

Glen J. Kuban

Field Equipment

The most basic items needed for fossil collecting are your eyes, hands, and a bit of curiosity. Many fossils can be picked up during a walk along a rock outcrop--often they will have weathered free from the host rock and be lying loose on the ground.

However, a few pieces of additional equipment will come in handy for serious collecting, since many fossils require some effort to extract. The basic tools include a geology hammer or mason's hammer, cold chisel and safety goggles. The hammer will cost about $20-$30, but is a good investment, and should last for years. Most collectors prefer one with a chisel-like rear section. Some collectors carry their hammer in a leather belt holder, which can be purchased from hardware and tool suppliers.

Chisels can be purchased for about $5-$15 each. It is wise to get both a small and large size, to accommodate different rock types. Be sure to get cold chisels (made of hardened steel) rather than wood chisels, which may shatter if used on rock.

You also should gather some material for wrapping and carrying fossils. Newspaper, paper towels, and bathroom tissue work well as wrapping materials, which can be held together with tape or rubber bands. Use paper towels or bathroom tissue to wrap delicate specimens, and newspaper or aluminum foil for sturdier fossils. Zipper-lock plastic bags, box tops, and other household containers come in handy for sorting and storing smaller specimens. Specimens may be carried in a large bucket, sturdy basket, canvas bag, or knapsack. Tiny, delicate specimens should be carefully wrapped and then placed in a sturdy container for best protection. Large or fragile vertebrate fossils require some additional supplies and techniques for proper collection and transport, as discussed under "Collecting Methods."

When collecting at quarries, mines or other sites where falling rock may be a hazard, a hard hat should be worn. A good hard hat can be purchased from hardware and industrial suppliers for about $10. Even when a hard-hat is not needed, you may want to wear some kind of hat to avoid sunburn. Sturdy shoes or work boots are recommended when climbing on jagged rocks. Work gloves will help protect your hands from blisters and accidental hammer hits. Bring along plenty of water or other liquids, and be sure someone in the collecting group is carrying a first aid kit (discussed further under "Safety").

A putty knife or pocket knife may be used to split delicate shales, and a crow bar is handy for moving large rocks. For removing loose sediment from specimens, small brushes (including tooth brushes) are ideal. A magnifying lens is helpful for inspecting small specimens or tiny details. Additional items that may prove useful (depending on the site) include clear plastic spray (for sealing delicate carbon films), glue (for field repairs of broken specimens), camera and film, poncho, notebook and pen (for recording site notes), magic marker and index cards (for labeling individual specimens), a lunch pack, compass, insect repellent, sun screen, site and road maps, permits, and field guides.

Collecting Methods

The amount of work required to collect fossils will vary from site to site. At some sites fossils will be plentiful and easy to collect; at other sites they may be rare or limited to one or two layers. The composition and hardness of the rock may vary also.

When approaching a new site, a good strategy is to first make an overview of the site, looking for any fossils already exposed. Why waste time cracking rocks when good specimens might be just lying about waiting to be picked up? If fossils in loose rocks are found, try to locate the layer they came from (normally a higher level). When working among shales, check the darker layers, which often yield better results than the lighter layers.

Next you may want to begin splitting some loose rocks, assuming you have a hammer and chisel, and are wearing safety glasses. Place your chisel along one of the bedding planes or small "seams" in the rock. Then, taking careful aim at the head of the chisel, give it a firm whack or two. Some individual rocks may be split several times, revealing fossils in each piece. On the other hand, splitting a rock too many times risks breaking a good specimen. When in doubt, take the specimen home where it can be worked on later with the proper tools, rather than risking breakage in the field. Note that you may find a fossil on one half of a split rock, and its counterpart (reverse image) on the other. Often one side is better than the other, but many people like to keep both halves, in order to make a more complete and interesting display.

When digging with a group, some "collecting manners" should be observed. Try not to monopolize a large area; rather let others collect at a reasonable distance. In turn, when someone else is working an area, respect his or her "elbow room." Getting too close is not only inconsiderate, but risks injury from flying rock bits.

To avoid accumulating a lot of weight, some collectors set their specimens aside in small piles as they proceed through a site, and retrieve them on the way back. If you do this, be sure to mark the piles in an obvious way, so that others do not think they have stumbled upon a lucky find. Conversely, be careful not to pick up fossils someone else may have set aside to retrieve later (when in doubt, ask around).

Before leaving a site, be sure any fossils collected are properly packed with plenty of paper, foam, or other soft padding material. Wrap specimens individually for greatest protection. Add extra padding around fragile or cracked specimens. Repairing broken specimens with glue while still on the site may help prevent further damage during transport. Applying plastic spray helps consolidate and protect especially delicate (and sometimes flaking) fossils such as carbonized leaf compressions. Flat slabs should be placed vertically in a container instead of piling one atop another, in order to minimize risk of breakage.

When collecting with an organized group, you may be provided with a field trip guide (written summary of the site) that outlines its location, geologic period, rock formation, and typical fossils found there. If not, try to obtain this information from other collectors or books on the site. Fossils are of little scientific value without site data. Until individual fossils identified and labeled, store the site information with the fossils themselves. As your collection grows, it will be increasingly difficult to keep track of your fossil finds and the sites from which they came unless you have good written records. Human memories are very fallible and tend to fade with time.