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Finding Fossils


horn coral

Great-Aunt Lily's horn coral from Skaneateles, New York.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

Every geologist on Earth, I am sure, can tell you about their first fossil. The thrill is hard to communicate, but it's easy to feel.

My First Fossils

For me it happened at age five or six, when I spent a week at my cousins' farm near Cooperstown, New York. We tramped the countryside day after summer day and visited every outcrop my cousins knew about. Embedded in the gray shale were lampshells—brachiopods—and snails, and trilobites (a typical early Paleozoic assemblage), all with the mute allure—to me, anyway—of coins found on the sidewalk.

It was hard work to get good specimens. Most fossils were fragments, or they turned to fragments when we tried to break them free of their stony matrix. But we had enough enthusiasm to smash a few dozen shells to get one whole one. In that wasteful way, my siblings and I collected shoeboxes full of them. I still have some New York fossils that I cherish.

Fossils' Appeal

For two centuries fossils have been systematically studied; they tell the story of evolution in indisputable detail. For geologists, fossils are still the most important way of telling a rock's age, a fundamental field tool.

For the rest of us, fossils are simply cool. We marvel at them in museums and we buy them for paperweights, refrigerator magnets, or gag gifts. Such fossils are a dime a dozen. Others are literally treasures whose value to science outweighs any private pleasure that a collector might enjoy in owning them.

But if you go looking with hammer in hand, you'll find that collectible-quality fossils are nearly impossible to find in the field. Either they're worn from exposure at the surface, or they're half-encased in stone and can't be extracted without breaking them.

Fossil Preparation

What are the secrets for getting the clean, perfect specimens you see for sale? Skilled hands and good tools.

Serious fossil hunters dissolve whole boulders in big drums or plastic pails filled with acid. The rock is digested and the fossils are left. Other chemicals remove discolorations and stains; gentle brushwork and cleaning take care of stray mineral grains. Sandblasters and other specialized tools may come into play. There's often a degree of reconstruction involved, too. Very often.

Amateur Paleontology

The value of a specimen depends on the preparation skills of the collector and the knowledge the collector has of exactly what species and geologic time period are represented. Knowledge is value in this field. Paleontology is like astronomy in that there's still a place in it for the amateur. The more they know, the more useful amateur collectors can be to science and the more respect they get from professional paleontologists.

If you're interested in this hobby, then you should join a local club, attend rock shows, and go on outings, watching out for the different types of rock collectors. You're guaranteed to keep on learning for the rest of your life, and if you have not yet found your first fossil, a great thrill awaits you. Start with the destinations in the Rock Collecting list.

PS: There's a similar thrill that I think is even better than fossils. No, not seeing money on the sidewalk—it's finding a stone arrowhead. Archaeology Guide Kris Hirst has quite a yarn about it.

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