Reptiles On The Rocks by William T. Blows

Chapter 3. The First Skeleton

It was a routine visit to the Island. On Friday, March 24th, 1972, a friend and I drove down from London during the evening and stayed at a small house in Totland overnight. I always enjoy the excitement that accompanies my first 'dig' of the year, and that Saturday morning was no exception. After breakfast, we changed into warm clothes and boots before heading for the coast. I picked Hanover Point, near Brook as my first stop and I parked at the top of the cliff. It was a good day, clear but somewhat cold. The tide was out and the soft clay ridges were well exposed dipping gently out to sea. I was soon on the beach with my partner examining the rock carefully. It was about mid-morning and the beach was deserted. The cliffs looked very interesting and the rock bands exposed by the retreating tide lay in multi-coloured patches washed free of sand. We were soon working hard looking for fossils.

I tend to move quickly over exposed rock searching not so much for fossils but more for layers of clay that suggest a high possibility of containing fossils. With this in mind I headed towards the point where the 'pine-raft' is seen at low tide. This is a mass of petrified tree trunks and fossil wood just off the beach near Brook. It is marked by a concrete stack visible at all times from the cliff. Nearing this area I noticed my friend was some way behind and moving along slowly. Beneath my feet, the wet clay sparkled in the sunshine. Red, mauve, grey, blue and brown rock extended as far as the gently lapping waves. It was soft and slippery, and broken by pools of water that become the home of many types of sea life until the next high tide. And then I spotted the band of clay I was really looking for; a very pale grey, almost white with speckled black fragments of fossil wood. Here was the place to search.

As I walked onto the soft clay layer I noticed at once the broken edge of a fossil bone embedded among the many wood fragments. I took a closer look, and from the structure I identified it as dinosaur. As I looked up to call to my friend I also looked behind me to quickly search the area. I stood amazed at what I saw; for there, a few feet away was a row of dinosaur vertebrae with some ribs partly exposed in the same band of clay. It looked as though the vertebral column went on under the beach and would need digging out, and to the left of me I noticed the displaced vertebrae of the animal's neck. I counted sixteen exposed vertebrae, several ribs and a few other pieces of bone. I was delighted. Dinosaur fossils are quite rare at the best of times, and to find such an articulated piece of skeleton is a truly unique experience one can never forget. This was indeed an important and valuable discovery.

We planned the day's work and began by collecting the scattered neck vertebrae. These were numbered, dug out and packed individually in plastic bags. I made a very close search in the region at the end of the neck to try and find any evidence of the skull. I found some pieces of flat bone with a uniform speckled surface pattern and dug these out. They were later assembled by a colleague of mine and proved to be an almost complete shell of a fossil turtle. The skull of my dinosaur, then, was lost to the sea. This is not surprising as skulls are delicate structures and easily damaged. This one must have been exposed to the waves much earlier and was destroyed. A little disappointed by this, I returned to the site and completed the removal of five neck vertebrae. I could tell at this stage that they were in very good condition and complete with processes.

We turned our attention next to the remains of the left rib cage. What was left of each rib was lifted and individually packed. This done, our way was clear to begin the hardest part of our task; the recovery of the dorsal vertebral series. I was able to work out a good mental picture of the skeleton and the animal concerned at this stage. It was a medium sized Iguanodon of young adult age, and I estimated that it must have been exposed for about a week or so according to the displacement of the neck vertebrae. The skeleton lay on its right side, head out to sea and tail disappearing under the beach. The skull and all four limbs were missing, thought to be washed away. The remaining bones were in very good condition and mostly complete. Ten dorsal vertebrae were exactly in natural articulation, the smaller anterior ones being well exposed, the larger middle ones being partly buried. There was no evidence of either shoulder girdle, although an oddly shaped end of bone lay near the anterior dorsal series. The broken end of bone I had first found was the left ilium, but it was very incomplete and at this stage no other pelvic bones were seen. A quick look around the scene revealed a water-worn tail vertebral centrum loose on the beach among the stones nearby. This was also Iguanodon of about the same size, although I have no real evidence that it belongs to the same animal.

Work on the dorsal vertebrae began with the numbering and packing of the smaller anterior centra. The larger specimens were to present us with a number of problems, notably their size and fragile nature. Long thin processes of bone broke easily, and because of this I tried to remove them in blocks of three. However, one block of three vertebrae proved just as much as I could lift and carry along the beach. One major problem was constantly on my mind, and that was time. I knew that this site was normally covered at high tide and so I had less than six hours to complete the task. Other problems also added to my troubles. The clay was very wet and as we dug down each hole filled with muddy water. This not only made it impossible to see what I was digging out, but this water was freezing cold and my fingers turned a lovely shade of purple. One early dorsal was in a displaced position and buried just to the left of the main column. Cold, muddy water made the recovery of this specimen very difficult, but it has proved since to be one of the best bones collected. Between this and the neck vertebrae we dug a trench some six to eight inches deep and a foot or so wide. At the bottom of this trench I found two more neck vertebrae making a total of seven. This was a vital clue which led me to re-assess the whole nature of this beast. Until these two vertebrae came to light I was under the impression that the neck had been exposed intact and scattered by the sea. But here were scattered vertebrae still buried in clay and undisturbed for over 110 million years. The neck, therefore, was scattered at the time of burial when the animal died. The right rib cage also proved to be missing despite the fact that the skeleton lay on the right side which should leave the right side buried and undisturbed. I had found therefore, not a complete skeleton partly washed away by the sea, but only a portion of the skeleton, the missing parts having been missing for over 110 million years!

As daylight faded we succeeded in excavating all the exposed vertebrae and got them to the car. Throughout the day we had also filled many bags with bone fragments of all sizes, much of which was found under the larger dorsal vertebrae. These pieces were to prove very interesting later on during the assembly stage. As the first waves of the sea washed over our excavation site, we gathered our tools and made for the car. That evening I broke the news of my discovery to a colleague of mine who is resident on the Island and has spent his life collecting and studying fossils. His reputation in the fields of entomology and palaeontology is international, being the author of several books and the owner of a unique collection of fossils. He shared my delight with this latest find and arranged to meet me on the beach the next day.

Sunday was very windy and this was to prove a hazard to the day's activities. At times, the gusts of wind were enough to catch your breath and even to threaten one's stability when standing upright. I met my colleague on the beach as arranged and I showed him the site as soon as the tide allowed. It was washed clean by the sea and lay ready for the work to begin anew. Sunday's task was to excavate back from the dorsal series to see if the beach did conceal any more of the skeleton, especially the tail. The prospects of this were exciting as we had no idea how much of this beast we still had to uncover. I could imagine the sacrum and complete tail stretching under the sand and stones, perhaps even with the pelvis. The digging began in earnest and another dorsal vertebrae came to light, but it was displaced from the others and lay flat on it's posterior articulating surface. We had now a grand total of twenty-two vertebrae, but we were to find no more. Continued digging led to nothing and we abandoned the site shortly after lunch time. That afternoon we spent our last few hours on the Island looking around a few other sites, but without success. However, the weekend had been of tremendous success, and at this point I was still unaware of the true nature of my find. It was a heavily laden car that made its way back to London that Sunday night. The boot, back seat and floor were packed with over a hundred bags of fossil bone, much of it still encased in rock. It was a weekend never to be forgotten.

Monday morning found me back in Crayford busily unpacking the car. I utilized the front room of the house as a temporary store and laid out the packages of bone. This room was to become the home of the creature for over five months as the skeleton slowly took shape. As with any large fossil, the task of cleaning and assembly was long and difficult. Many hours of patient cleaning stretched into days, weeks and months. Hundreds of fragments were pieced together and gradually the bones regained their former status. The seven neck vertebrae were the first to be prepared. They were remarkably well preserved and mostly complete, and have been described as some of the best found in this country. On many of these specimens I was even able to clean the rock from the neural canal before assembling the top of the vertebrae. They show a typical ball and socket articulation between the centra, and the articular facets are mostly intact. They fit together and function just as they did millions of years ago. The dorsals are also excellent and the spinal column when completed came to a length of about 2 metres (7 feet), although I feel some vertebrae are missing, notably those connecting the neck to the dorsal series. As work progressed I began assembling other bones from the many bags of pieces I had collected from under the dorsal series. I was in for a delightful surprise, for under the dorsals had been the complete right side of pelvis, and I found myself putting together a complete right ilium, almost complete right pubis, and most of the right ischium. Put together, these elements demonstrated exactly the typical ornithischian structure of the pelvis, a feature well defined in Iguanodon. This was a great surprise, for I knew the sacrum and hind limbs were missing, so I did not expect anything of the pelvis, except the fragment of left ilium I had first found. I also had a piece of left pubic bone and the head (or foot?) of the left ischium.

Plate 4 - The Atherfield Site
The Block Containing the Sacrum is being readied for removal

This discovery prompted me to contact the local press to see if they were interested. The Isle of Wight County Press had carried a small article on the find, but later in the summer the Kentish Times came to my home and made it front page news. A photograph of me cleaning the block of vertebrae accompanied a headline that read: "While Digging on the Island Beach ..." and on page four a more complete article covered the story of the discovery. This was to be the first of many such appearances in local and national newspapers.......but that's another story.

Just to confirm my identification of the remains, I took the pelvic bones with me when I drove to Cambridge one Saturday. My intention was to show these bones to the Director of the Sedgwick Museum where there are casts of the Belgian Iguanodon specimens. After the journey from London I arrived in Cambridge just fifteen minutes after the museum had closed for the weekend. However, I was determined not to be beaten. I located the Director's name and found him in the telephone book. When I rang he was eating lunch but when I told him of my fossils he quickly agreed to open the museum for me; and I spent a pleasant afternoon looking through dozens of drawers of fossils. My pelvic bones compared very well with the Belgium casts but were smaller in size. The Belgium Iguanodon were very large individuals indeed.

Back on the Isle of Wight, my colleague had proposed that my Iguanodon should be displayed at the Palaeontological Congress to be held at the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington. This was arranged for September of that year, just six months after the initial discovery. It meant of course, I would need to speed up the preparation work and design some kind of display mount for the bones. The proposal was accepted and I began work in earnest, spending my entire spare time cleaning and assembling the bones. Mounting a display of a large section of dinosaur skeleton is no easy task, and I had to discuss various ideas with different people, friends and relatives who could help. I finally chose a box mount that would show the vertebral column fully articulated and the pelvis separated. This was built for me by my nephew who is a carpenter by trade. It is 3 metres long by 1 metre wide, and is hinged to fold backwards at half its length for easy transport and storage. To hold the bones in position inside the box I used a chemical foam that expands and sets hard in minutes. The fossils were laid out in articulate position on solid bricks of foam inside the box and the liquid foam poured around them. This expanded to many times its original volme taking the shape of each bone. It then set hard and I freed the bones from it. The resulting cavity was tailor made for each bone. It takes just a few minutes now to slot the bones into their respective sockets and a good display mount results.

Initial Find at Atherfield 1976
Plate 2 - The Initial Find at Atherfield 1976

This work completed, I looked forward to the day of the Congress. It would indeed be a great privilege for me to have a specimen of mine on display to the experts at the British Museum. The day before the Congress, I hired a lorry and driver to take the skeleton to London. I drove up by car and met the lorry outside the museum. I went in first and informed the Department of Palaeontology that I had arrived and needed help. You can imagine their faces when I told them I had half a dinosaur on a lorry in the driveway. The two day exhibition as part of the Congress went well and I was congratulated on my efforts. My Island colleague came to London and saw the finished article, and he expressed his delight with the skeleton he helped to uncover.

Since then, the remains have been a focal point of my collection. In 1975, a student of the London University was working on the fossil remains of Iguanodon in this country and abroad for his degree thesis. He learnt of my skeleton through the British Museum and wrote to me in order to examine this find. I agreed and on the appointed day I re-assembled the bones in their mould and made the rest of my collection available. After just a brief look at the skeleton he declared it to be a female Iguanodon in a fine state of preservation. His visit was most enlightening. A piece of fossil femur in my collection he identified as belonging to the dinosaur Valdosaurus, a rare beast indeed.

The 1976 Atherfield Site
Plate 3 - The 1976 Atherfield Site

Recent visits to the site at Hanover have resulted in very little fossil evidence. In 1975 and 1976, the rapid erosion rate of this part of the country has led to the cliffs and this site in particular, being washed away very quickly. This had become very noticeable in 1977 when the cliffs looked very different from one month to the next. On one visit, however, I did find a single fossil sacral vertebra in the exact site as my lady Iguanodon; and this turned out to belong to a dinosaur called Vectisaurus, another rare animal. Sometime after my initial find in 1972, I heard of a nearly complete sacrum having been found at the same spot. It was reported to have to belong to my lady's skeleton. However, when I eventually obtained this fossil I found it to be so badly water-worn as to be of little value. It had lost all the articulating processes that would connect it to the right ilium, and it does not match up with the dorsal series, possibly because the dorsals are incomplete. So is it lady Iguanodon or not?. I do not think we will ever know.

Figure 7 - Plan of Partial Skeleton, found at Hanover Point 1972

This is the situation today. After five years since that exciting Saturday I feel that no more of this female dinosaur will be found, especially now her resting place has been washed away. I am very happy, however, to think that I have, at least, some of her in my collection, rapidly rescued from the destructive powers of the sea.

This page was last edited on: 4th March, 2015 06:16:20

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