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Fossil Collecting Tools

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There seem to be two divisions among people who study geology: rock people and fossil people. Among geoscience professionals, there are field geologists or explorationists and there are paleontologists. Among the nonprofessionals, there are amateur geologists or mineral collectors and there are fossil collectors. Generally the two groups go separate ways, mainly because the two endeavors don't overlap much. Fossils are restricted to limestone, sandstone, mudstone and shale whereas interesting minerals occur in igneous and metamorphic rocks and evaporites. And if geological generalists want to take a walk on the fossil side, they have to adjust their toolkits.

What to Bring

I'm not a dedicated fossil collector, but in my time geologizing among the rocks and minerals I've acquired a small pile of various tools. Some of them are excellent for fossil hunting. Among them:

  • Bricklayer's or paleo hammer, which has a chisel tip well suited for digging in soft material or splitting stratified rocks
  • Pry bar
  • Crack hammer and chisels for both heavy rock-cutting and delicate splitting of fine-layered shale
  • Eye protection
  • Specimen or ore bags, plastic baggies, pill bottles and such
  • Scrap newspaper (and rubber bands), normally used for rock and mineral specimens
  • 10X magnifier, of course
  • GPS unit, just in case I unearth a scientifically important fossil and need to document its precise location
  • Umpire's brush, usually used to clean outcrops for photography
  • Face mask for dusty conditions that may include valley fever spores
  • Gloves
  • Sun protection: wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, boots and sturdy pants, sunscreen
  • First aid kit
  • Camera, naturally

What to Leave Behind

Some things in my standard geological toolkit I can leave behind if I'm working near the car and not camping or hiking:

  • Tool belt
  • Day pack
  • Brunton compass
  • Detailed geologic map, notebook, etc.
  • Prospector's hammer
  • Magnets and acid for testing minerals
  • Gold pan
  • Reflectors for night walking
  • Ultraviolet light

Some things that are already in the car will be handy:

  • Shovel, normally there for getting the car unstuck in the back country
  • Spare jacket or towel, to use as kneepads
  • Tarpaulin
  • Umbrella for shade

The Key Fossil Collecting Tools

So what fossil-hunting tools are most often missing in the generalist's toolkit? There are three main categories, to judge from a quick survey of websites.

  1. Small digging tools are near and dear to fossil collectors, and most of them are repurposed garden and house tools rather than custom-made. These range from hand rakes and trowels to screwdrivers and dental picks. Many dentists are willing to pass along their used tools.
  2. Sifting screens appear to be a real do-it-yourself item, something devised after collectors learn whether they're collecting underwater or on land and what kind of fossils they're looking for. The mesh size, overall size and configuration vary with the types of fossils available and the matrix around them. If a collector is just excavating blocks of "rough" to process at home, no screen may be needed at all in the field, but if a site is primarily sand or gravel, then a screen is important to cut down the amount of waste to carry home.
  3. Buckets seem to be a fundamental item, but online advice is scant. Clearly, the bucket should be large enough to hold an outing's worth of treasure, yet small enough that it can be carried when full. I am guessing that two buckets are best, one for the tools and one for the goods, but the key constraint must be the fossil collector's strength.

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