The best fossil hunting spots across East Anglia
- Credit: Neil Didsbury
Here in East Anglia, we’re incredibly blessed.
Not only do we have an abundance of human history throughout our region (think Anglo-Saxon ancestry, monarchs and historical figures galore), we also have a rich natural history that spans millions of years.
And if going out and uncovering fossils is something you’ve always wanted to try, but aren’t sure where to start, then Dr David Waterhouse is here to help.
Senior curator of natural history and geology at Norfolk Museums Service, David is your expert when it comes to all things palaeontological.
"Essentially, I look after all the fossils in the museum. There’s around one and half million objects here, so it’s quite a big remit,” he says.
But what is it he loves so much about natural history and ancient finds?
“I think it started when I was a child, as it does with many children, being fascinated with dinosaurs and animals in general. And it went from there really,” he explains.
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Following years of studying palaeontology at the University of Bristol and evolutionary biology and palaeontology University College Dublin, David found himself here in East Anglia – and can attest the fact that the region is rich in fossils and ancient finds galore.
“People bring us fossils all the time, so I’ve got a good overview of what’s been found here in the region,” he says.
“We’ve had all sorts – some of the most impressive are bits of mammoth, like mammoth limb bones which are absolutely huge.
“I was also involved with the excavation at Happisburgh as well. This is where human and animal history overlap because it’s the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe, and we have evidence of humans living in East Anglia nearly a million years ago. To find out our relatives were living among mammoths, hippos, hyenas, and rhinos is just amazing, and the mix of palaeontology and archaeology here is wonderful.”
But sometimes, it’s the smaller finds that can help piece together a bigger puzzle - and can prove to be just as fascinating.
“Something like a sea urchin can tell us more about what life on the planet was like 70 million years ago in what is now East Anglia.”
If uncovering ancient history sounds like something you’d like to try, then David has a number of tips to help you make the most out of fossil hunting – and how to do it ethically.
“It’s similar to the Countryside Code, in the sense that there are rules and steps to follow,” he explains.
“A lot of it is common sense, and 99% of people do it automatically anyway. But it’s things like sticking to footpaths if you’re going along the coast. There’s a lot of coastal erosion, which can be dangerous. And don’t dig into cliffs – this is both dangerous and could be illegal as we have a lot of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) here in East Anglia.”
The best time to go out fossil hunting is after a storm – and by simply walking along the beach, you’re bound to come across finds that have washed up, and that way you’re not adding to erosion.
So what are you likely to find here in the region?
“East Anglia as a whole is one of the best places to find mammoths,” he says.
Other common finds include sea sponges, echinoids (sea urchins), deer, belemnites (the remains of an extinct mollusc), and of course the classic sharks' teeth.
“Some of the best places to go include Cromer beach, and also West Runton where there’s lot of information on fossils at the café, and a number of information points along the way. Head further west to somewhere like Hunstanton, and you may come across chalk, ancient worm burrows and ammonites.”
In Suffolk, David recommends Pakefield beach.
But what is the correct protocol when you find something?
“From a museum’s point of view, it’s helpful if you make a note of where you find things. Have a look at a map and try to note where it was as it helps us put together a picture of what life was years ago.”
And unlike finding archaeological treasure such as ancient coins or jewellery, you’re not legally obliged to hand it in – but it is still something to consider.
“If it’s something run of the mill like a sea urchin or a belemnite, take it home and enjoy it – but if it’s something unusual or you’re not sure what it is, we’ve got the Deep History Coast project which features various apps and a website to help you identify things.
“And if it’s something particularly unusual, we’d encourage people to contact us and we can help them figure it out. We won’t take anything from you, but if it’s scientifically important, we’d ask if you’d consider donating it. But it’s entirely up to you.”
To find out more about palaeontology here in the region, visit the Deep Coast History website.
Tips for responsible fossil collecting
• Stick to the footpaths provided – do not add to coastal erosion by trying to climb up or down the cliffs
• Never dig into the cliffs – it can add to erosion, is dangerous, spoils things for others, and there are plenty of fossils on the beach anyway
• Take only a few representative specimens
• Always make a note of where you find fossils – photographs are very helpful
• Write a label for your fossils, including exactly where and when it was collected, plus any other observations
• Large fossils can be problematic for individual collectors, and can be left for others to see. Seek advice from Norfolk Museums Service if you're unsure
• Remember that fossil sites are for everyone to enjoy, and indiscriminate collecting will damage this resource for future visitors
And here are just some of the finds our readers have uncovered across the region – and David has analysed what they are
A lower molar of a Southern Mammoth, found by David Chan in Overstrand, Norfolk
A flint with a fossil sponge in it found by Joy Gowing at Mundesley beach
The femoral head (head of the femur) of a young mammoth (either Steppe Mammoth or Southern Mammoth) found by Joy Gowing at Mundesley beach
A sperm whale scapula found by Joy Gowing at Mundesley beach
A large mammal vertebra found by Ken Wright at Trimingham
Fossilised sharks teeth found by Phil Charles at East Lane, Bawdsey
Sharks teeth (and a possible ironstone in the top middle) found by Tina Boniface
An assortment of fossils found by Ian Gardner between the Cart Gap and Walcott stretch of the Norfolk Coast