Reptiles On The Rocks by William T. Blows

Chapter 4. The Second Skeleton

From my earliest days of digging on the Island I have often wondered about fossil remains becoming exposed beneath the sea. At very low tides, bones are sometimes seen embedded in rocks of the sea bed, and fossils are sometimes washed up by the tides from localities well off shore. One good example of this I well remember, is a section of a dinosaur limb at present in the collection of my colleague Mr. R.L.E. Ford. He found a long piece of sea-weed attached to a loose "rock" on the beach at Brook. The "rock" looked rather familiar and he cleaned off the weed, only to reveal the section of bone. The remaining bone lies somewhere off Brook beach, probably covered in weed. This particular section broke loose, and with the aid of the seaweed, was deposited on the beach by the next high tide. Such occurrences are not common, but do show that fossil material is being exposed on the sea bed offshore.

With this in mind, I have had the idea that it may be of value to 'dive for dinosaurs' on the sea floor, and I set about making enquiries in this direction. I am not a swimmer, and at no time did I ever consider trying this technique for myself. Instead, I decided to see if any divers felt this to be of interest to them. A friend of mine at work was talking to me one day about her forthcoming marriage to a man I did not know at that time. It turned out he was a member of a local sub-aqua club and I arranged to meet him. We spoke at length about this aspect of fossil hunting, and he promised me that he would bring up the subject at the next club meeting, and let me know what the others thought of the idea. This he did, and I was invited to one of their meetings to talk about dinosaurs and the protabilities of sub-aqua specimens. It was up to me to convince the other members that this adventure was worth trying. My talk was successful, and the club agreed to organise a preliminary visit to the Island in March, 1976, to investigate diving conditions. I had now another task, that of teaching those members who chose to go what to look for and how to recognise fossils. They examined many specimens from my collection, but ultimately it became clear that it would be my job to positively identify anything they brought up from the sea. Bone spotting under water was a completely different task to that on land. Visibility, light, currents and disturbances of the sea floor ail help to make the job of identity under water difficult, especially for people who do not know anything about fossils. Despite this, they seemed to look forward to the visit as they did not often get to the Isle of Wight; and I like to think that fossils made a change for them from sunken wrecks and treasure!

The weekend got off to a rather bad start with transport problems which delayed some of the team and prevented them bringing some of their important apparatus. However, we made the ferry on time and arrived in Totland at around midnight on Friday. From the moment the divers saw the sea on Saturday morning they knew that diving was impossible. The rough water had churned up the clay and the sea was brown. Visibility under water would have been zero. We resolved to make the weekend one of usual cliff exploration and to come back at a later date with diving in mind. I was a little disappointed by this, for I really wanted to see if my idea would work.

That Saturday we spent the morning at Hanover Point and found nothing, so we moved to Cowleaze Chine near Atherfield to check out prospects there. Again, the under water visibility made diving impossible, so we made our way along the cliffs in search of remains. I walked towards Barnes High, some distance west of Cowleaze Chine, and found a lignite bed at beach level. As I followed this along I suddenly noticed a bone weathering out of the clay. I checked around the area and found another bone, then a third. On close examination I learnt that the first bone was an ilium, the second a pubic bone and the third was the end of an ischium. Three bones in close vicinity of each other, and all being different bones of the pelvis suggested at once the possibility of a major discovery. The fossils were well buried in the cliff almost at beach level, and would be no problem to reach. I returned to the group who came back with me to the site. I explained the importance of this find, and we agreed to return the next morning to see if we could extract the fossils. Despite the inability to carry out our real object of the trip, I was happy that night to think of this new discovery and what it could mean. I had little idea at that time just how important it really was.

As soon as the tide allowed, we made our way back to the site on Sunday. I began by numbering these exposed portions of pelvis and photographing them 'in situ'. This done, we proceeded to remove and pack them ready for the journey home. The first specimen was a fragment of the left ilium, and the second bone was most of the broad blade of the left pubis, but without the end that connects it to the other two bones. Whilst collecting these I continued the photography so as a pictorial record of the procedure was available. The ischium was complete and went deep into the cliff. Divers' knives proved very useful as we tunnelled further into the clay to find the end of this long bone. Above the layer we were working in were 2.5 metres of overlaying rock including heavy blocks of sandstone. It would not be easy to remove this overburden at the best of times, and it was out of the question on this particular trip. We were equipped for diving, not for heavy digging. Making a tunnel was the best we could do, and the team members worked hard clearing the clay from around the long shaft of bone.

At one point I was alerted by a call from one of the group who, had made a find further along the same band of rock. I stopped digging and went to the new site. There they pointed out a piece of bone that was protruding from the cliff some distance from my first discovery. I confirmed this as bone and my friends began to dig it out. It was too far from my site to be part of the same animal, but showed me that this bed of rock was very important. We continued on the ischium until the end of the bone was uncovered. In so doing we came across the centra of two sacral vertebrae, and also found the end of this ischium lay on top of the end of the right ischium. I was surprised to find these ischial ends widen out into a broad rounded flange, as I expected the bone to narrow off to a blunt end. I learnt later that some specimens of Iguanodon did have this 'footed' ischium as they call it. I had previously noted footed ischiums only among dinosaurs of a much younger geological age. We removed the left ischium and the vertebral centra and could see the top portions of the vertebrae still buried in the sides of our tunnel. We could also see the right ischium was buried still deeper in the cliff, far beyond our digging capabilities at this time, and I realised that it would mean removing the 2.5 metres of clay from above the site. At this point a very delighted member of the team came up to me with a large specimen in his hand. He said he did not know what it was, but it was the fossil he had called me to see earlier. A quick look told me he had found a complete tail vertebrae of an Iguanodon in good condition. Another member of the group also found a smaller vertebral centrum in this same layer of clay.

We rounded off the day's activities in the light of the setting sun. The bags of fossil bone were placed inside my coat which was carried the hundred yards or so to Cowleaze Chine, and then up the cliff. I left the site with the tunnel we dug blocked up with clay and a promise to return. My thoughts were filled with ideas of what may lay beneath that clay outcrop. I pictured the pelvis, tail and dorsal vertebrae buried in there, perhaps even the skull and limbs, or was I being too hopeful. My journey home was difficult for me, I felt as though I had left part of me back on the Island. I knew I had to return.......and soon!

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

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