Reptiles On The Rocks by William T. Blows

Chapter 5. Operation Dinosaur

It was an organisation on a large scale that led to our return to the Island, and all in such a short time. The day after I arrived back in London I rang my senior at work and arranged a holiday for the next week. I then chose five days which both my colleague and I had free, and I then booked the ferry and accommodation. Another friend of ours was able to come, and this was useful as the task was going to be enormous. I hired the same chalet at Totland I had stayed in with the Sub Aqua Club, and the details were fixed. One problem still remained, and that was transport. I knew that my car would not carry all the extra equipment plus people and suitcases needed for this trip, nor would it carry all this again plus an unknown quantity of large heavy fossils. I obviously needed a van. I set about ringing several local van hirers and settled for a transit van with front seats for three persons. I picked up the van on the Thursday afternoon ready for our journey Friday evening, but it was not suitable and I returned it on Friday in exchange for another. This second van broke down one hour before we were due to leave for the ferry. I rang the company in desperation who brought out a third van for us. We then transferred the equipment, finished loading our cases, food and tools and made our way to Portsmouth. At last, for the first time, I was en route to the Island with the knowledge that something was there waiting to be dug out. This gave the whole trip an acute sense of excitement I had not felt since the 1972 discovery.

Late on Friday night I landed on the Island again, just six days after I first found the pelvic bones. This time I had two friends with me, one of whom, Mr. T. Hunter, was to join me again when I made my next big discovery, which I will describe in the last chapter. Also with us was food for three days; equipment like shovels, hammers, levers, chisels, plaster of paris, buckets and picks, as well as cameras, rope, bags and boxes. I was ready to move a whole skeleton if necessary. We got across to Totland in time to settle in the chalet, eat and retire to bed. The next day was to begin a new, exciting, but tough adventure, so rest was very important.

It was now the beginning of April, and the weather was kind to us. Saturday morning gave us the impression of a promising day, and we doon made our way across the Island to Atherfield after breakfast. We got permission to take the van across the fields to the cliff top, in order to save a lot of carrying of equipment, and on arrival we unloaded the main packs and shovels. Once again I was down the cliff and making my way back to the site I had left less than a week earlier. I was pleased to find the area exactly as I had left it, with the tunnel blocked up with clay and undisturbed by the tide. Without touching the tunnel we began directly on the removal of the overburden, a daunting task made more difficult by the sandstone blocks and stiff wet clay. Mr. Hunter climbed up on top and began digging downwards, while I dug inwards and helped our third member of the team to clear the loose rock. The section we worked on was immediately above the tunnel but covering a wider area, over a metre square. The work continued on into the day, the sandstone blocks were levered off and dragged away, and we emptied a great deal of clay into the sea with the use of two dustbins which we filled over thirty times. The digging continued with only short breaks for refreshments until the light faded and the evening sun bade us farewell in the west. We packed up the tools and tracked wearily back to the van and home. No bones had been found on this first day, but most of the massive overburden was removed, and we could look forward to the next few days of more interesting digging. Throughout the day I had continued photographing the progress of the work in order to complete my slides of this expedition. That night we relaxed in front of the television before retiring to bed. I was filled with the hope that Sunday's work would reveal all and let me know just how much of the skeleton lay in the base of that cliff.

My hopes were not dispelled, for on Sunday we reached the bone bearing layer and the digging became slower and more refined. Several hours on Sunday were taken up by the cleaning and undercutting of a large block of fossil bone which I identified as the rest of the huge sacrum, complete with processes. Together with the two sacral centra I had brought back from the first trip this made a total of five vertebrae. But the block was going to be big and heavy, and its removal and transport along the beach a major problem. We left this task until we could buy on Monday a wooden board suitable as a sledge to tow this specimen along the beach, and the rest of Sunday was used to explore around the sacrum. To the left I uncovered a dorsal vertebrae and to the right a tail vertebrae bearing a very long neural spine. These we photographed 'in situ', and removed. The top of the sacrum was protected with a plaster jacket whilst digging went on around it. At one point I uncovered the back end of another very large bone that disappeared into the solid clay wall at the back of our cavity. I had no idea what this was, and it was too late to continue on Sunday, so we again went home. That night I rang my relatives in London and brought them up to date with the progress.

Monday morning, Mr. Hunter and I said goodbye to our friend who had to return to the mainland. With just two of us, we went on to continue the task in hand. That day we resolved to move the sacrum to the van and expose the big bone at the rear. We stopped off in Freshwater and bought a large piece of chip-board with holes drilled in it to attach a length of rope. With this we hoped to tow the sacrum and the other large bone along the beach to the van. All was set, and it only remained for us to lift the sacrum from its resting place onto our sledge. Carefull this was done, and we were happy to see the entire sacrum in one block awaiting its journey along the beach. But that was the tough part for the block was very heavy and difficult enough for two of us to pull along. The job was made worse by the undulating banks of stones and uneven sections of the beach, which regularly tripped our sledge over. We only got so far, then stopped exhausted. We left the block on the beach and returned to the site to uncover the other large bone. This was done by further undercutting of the overlying rock and some tunnelling until it became clear that the fossil was the complete right ilium. I could also see the long rod of the right ischium now exposed and stretching from the base of the ilium to the point where we had finished tunnelling on the first visit. With the identification of the right ilium, we went on searching for the right pubis, but at that time we found no trace of it. I continued my photography of each stage in the work, and had by now a good mental picture of the nature of this find. As the evening came on we left the ilium still 'in situ' and returned to the sacrum which lay among the stones halfway back to the van. It would be several hours work to get this block back to the van and the light would not last that long. I suggested that we moved it as near to the cliff base as possible and bury it in the stones; then to renew the struggle again the next day. This we did and then we returned to our temporary home. By now we were leaving the equipment at the site to save us carrying it backwards and forwards each day. We thought this to be safe enough for there were few people to be seen at this time of the year. In fact, throughout the four days we spent at the site only two people and one dog came past, and out of these, only the dog came up to see what we were doing. This is not surprising, since dogs have a natural instinct for bones!

With two days to go I was beginning to feel anxious that the bulk of the fossils were still to be removed and loaded in the van. But my fears were unfounded, for Tuesday completed the task and brought the work to a natural conclusion. We started the day by dividing our forces. Mr. Hunter began by uncovering the stones from the sacrum and continued towing it towards the access point up the cliff. Meanwhile, I carried on the preparation of the right ilium by covering it in a plaster jacket and then undercutting it as far as possible. It was almost ready for lifting when Mr. Hunter returned to the site and announced the arrival of the sacrum at the base of the cliff at Cowleaze Chine. It only remained for us to lift the ilium out of the cavity and on to the sledge, and begin the long haul once more. At Cowleaze Chine, Mr. Hunter carried the ilium up the cliff whilst I chiselled off as much rock as I could from the sacrum to reduce the weight. Even so, the block was too heavy to lift without help. When Mr. Hunter came back down the cliff we rested before attempting the near impossible. Together we took the sacrum over the section of cliff that allowed us to walk side by side, then as it got steeper we took it in turns to carry the block. Climbing a very steep narrow slope with a massive weight is no easy task. But at last, nearing collapse, we reached the top and got the block in the back of the van. We had earned our rest, satisfied that the majority of the skeleton found was safe in the van, and with still much of the day to go. I locked the van and we took a steady walk back to the site. It only remained for me to collect the right ischium from the cavity, ironically one of the first bones found. This done, we searched the cavity for any remaining bone and dug into the walls to see if any further vertebrae were buried. No more material was found and we rounded off the day by taking photographs of each other standing in the cavity. We returned to the chalet that night very tired, but highly pleased that the job was done.

Our last visit to the site on Wednesday morning was to take a final look at the cavity and the bed of rock, to collect the tools and explore other strata in the area. We dug a little more at the site but still found no more trace of bone. I was generally satisfied that no more of the skeleton was to be found, and we left Atherfield for our journey back to London. Another interesting section of Iguanodon was now available for preparation and study, and I knew that these remains would become very good comparative material with my 1972 Hanover remains.

The preparation of this new material was delayed at first because I was at that time occupied with the work on my first symphony. A local orchestra was about to give a first performance of my score and I had to attend rehearsals. After the concert in May I was able to return to the bones, and I spent the summer months cleaning and assembling them. The work continues to the present, as I brought back a multitude of pieces that are proving difficult to put together into logical parts of anatomy. Of the recognisable aspects of the find, I can list the following; the complete right ilium; both complete ischiums; one dorsal vertebra; one caudal vertebra; a fragment of the left ilium; a fragment of the left pubis and a fragment of the right pubis. This last item I did not realise I had until I assembled it out of several odd pieces. Somelong thin bones may be chevron bones, but this is not clear as yet. At one stage in the work I put together the fossils firstly as they lay in the cliff, then secondly as they occur in life. As found, the beast lay on its right side with the iliums somewhat displaced. The right ilium was completely detached from the sacrum and lay rotated through more than ninety degrees from the vertebral column. The lateral aspect was uppermost, and the anterior process pointed away from the vertebrae and slightly posteriorly. The right ischium was still attached to this ilium and stretched backwards under the sacrum. As I mentioned before in the previous chapter, the footed ends of the Ischia lay one on top of the other, but rotated through ninety degrees to each other. The left ischium had extended to the left of the sacrum to the point where the head of this bone was first exposed. The fragments of the left ilium and pubis lay near to this A- point. The dorsal lay in line with the anterior sacrum to the left (towards the west) and the caudal in line with the posterior sacrum to the right (towards the east). I noticed with interest again the absence of all traces of limbs, the majority of the tail was missing, as was the anterior half of the body. Just an odd piece of pelvis buried for over 100 million years, renewing the mystery of the missing parts. How did these reptiles become so disarticulated and broken up before burial?

It was also interesting to note the common parts found both in the 1972 and 1976 Iguanodon. On both occasions I collected a complete right ilium and ischium and parts of the right pubis. I also had a dorsal vertebra from Atherfield I could compare with the most posterior dorsal found on the Hanover dig. The obvious difference is one of size; the Atherfield fossil being considerably bigger than that from Hanover. A comparison table may be of some use; the measurements being in centimetres:

Size Comparison Chart
Bone 1976 1972
Right ilium length, anterior point to posterior edge 67 57
Right ilium height, acetabulum to superior edge 18 15
Right ischium length (approx. for 1972) 70 52+
Dorsal vertebra diameter of centrum 12½
Dorsal vertebra lateral width of centrum 8

Apart from size, the bones are remarkably similar as one would expect. I have mentioned the very notable footed ends to both ischia in the 1976 specimen, not displayed in the 1972 fossil, probably because the very end of the ischia here is missing. It is worth noting also that the head of the 1972 ischium is fused to the right ilium, but the fragments of the left side that exist show no such fusing. Both ischial-ilial joints were free on the 1976 specimen, and I know of no other example of fusing of this joint in any other Iguanodon specimen. It seems our lady Iguanodon had this odd peculiarity on one side of her pelvis, but I cannot offer any explanations why. I feel that as I work through the unprepared material from Atherfield I will come across more surprises. Already some strange looking bones are noticeable amongst the many pieces, but it would appear that much of this will still be very fragmentary when the work is finished.

Several return visits to the site have shown no further fossils, and the cavity is now difficult to find due to the massive cliff erosion that took place all along the coast in 1977. Odd vertebra still weather out of this band of rock from time to time, but I am sure that no other remains of this particular creature will come to light. Nevertheless, I considered 'Operation Dinosaur' to be a great success with some valuable fossils obtained. But success is so often followed by failure, and 1976 was no exception. A trip to the Island in September was very unlucky in many ways, as can be the way in field trips of this kind. We must take such failure with success in all we do, and just continue the hard work. Fossils such as these described in this book are rare, and represent over ten years of visits to the Island, and many hours of patient labours. With such determination success will follow, as it did again for me in 1977 — this is the story of treasures in the sand.

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

This Site is Sponsored by:


Help To Support Us

Wootton Bridge Historical is run as a not for profit organisation, if you have found this site useful please help to keep it running by donating a small amount.

Donate »

Another Way To Support Us

If you are looking for fast reliable web hosting you can do no better than Vidahost. We receive a small commission for each sale which helps us to keep Wootton Bridge Historical running.

Sign up »

Wootton Bridge Walks

Wootton Walk leaflet

If you are visiting the Isle of Wight you may be interested in our Wootton Walks leaflets which include a large scale route map.

These leaflets enable you, in a series of five walks, to explore some of our village’s history and beautiful surroundings. Enjoy your walk.

Continue Reading »