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Collecting fossils

If you want to go looking for your own fossils, good preparation is necessary. On this page we describe a simple 5-step instruction plan for the beginner, which may help you to become a  successfull fossil hunter:


Not all rocks contain fossils. The best chance you have to find fossils is in sedimentary rocks of the right age. These are sedimentary rocks such as limestone, marl, sandstone, shale, sand packages and the like, which were deposited in the last 600 million years. So you have an advantage when you can recognize these kind of rocks in the field and can distinguish them from volcanic rock packages for example, or from metamorphic rocks such as granite and gneiss. A good way to know where to find the suitable kinds of rock, is to consult geological maps. In the chapters about stratigraphy and sediments you can read more about these subjects.

 Example of a geological map ((© USGS)

In addition, you should of course be able to recognize a fossil in the field. This is less obvious than it sounds: often, fossils are completely or partly embedded in stone and only recognizable by a vague shape or diameter. If you're lucky, part of the fossil protrudes from the rock package, but still you have to be able to recognize it. Then, you must be able to assess what kind of fossil it is, whether it is worth the trouble to cut it out and take with you, and how deep it may be embedded into the stone. Also, some geological structures can have somewhat bizarre forms, which strongly resemble fossils.

One of the best rules of thumb to identify fossils on site, is to look for  symmetry. Most organisms have, in one way or another, some form of symmetry in their construction plan.

It is certainly not a bad idea to start reading some basic works on fossils, and to study lots of photos and drawings in order to become familiar with the different forms of common fossils, and the multitude of basic concepts. In the ' Literature ' section you can read more about this topic.

This can all be quite overwhelming, and this alone may be a good argument to take one of the best steps you can take to start with this hobby: join your local paleontological association. After all, such an association can offer the ideal package to quickly become familiar with the subject. You can acquire knowledge by means of the association journal, or by following lectures and visiting museums. And of course you obtain field experience on the guided excursions. Associations often have access to sites such as stone quarries where for an individual it is sometimes difficult to get a permit. Through the association you can build a network with people who want to share their knowledge and experience. Through our Society Database you can find an association, club, or society in your area.

You can also register on our Community Forum. There, you may be able to find answers to nearly all of your questions.


Without the right equipment your trip will surely be unsuccessful. In addition to the classic equipment for field work (appropriate clothing and footwear, map or GPS, rain clothing or sun protection, etc.), often specific tools are required for quarrying or digging, and for preserving and packaging the found fossils. These tools must be adapted to the conditions on the site. For searches in sand deposits, a shovel and a seaf (or different seaves) are needed, the mesh size of which depends on the fossils you are looking for. On the other hand, for fossils which are embedded in harder rocks, hammer and chisel are often indispensable.

The hardness of the rock determines the required weight of the hammer. Tough top layers require a pickaxe or a crowbar, softer rocks can sometimes be sawed. If you are searching with the wrong equipment, you risk not being able to salvage a fossil, or damaging it during salvation. Remember to bring along material for consolidating fragile fossils (glue or impregnation solution), wrapping material, a magnifying glass and notebook, and your basic safety equipment (hard hat, fluorescent vest, safety goggles and steel toe shoes), even if you do not expect to need it.

More information can be found in the page about Field equipment.


Plan your trip carefully. Select one or a few sites in advance which you can visit, and schedule  for plenty of time on location. Take into account unforeseen circumstances (for example, provide an alternative in case a location is not accessible for some reason). A flexible schedule allows for improvised stops, e.g. when you pass some roadworks with interesting new outcrops. If you set out to go by yourself, tell your partner or a friend about your plans. When you visit sites on private land, make sure you arrange in advance the authorization or permit. It is important to know the current regulations. For example, in natural parks it is often not allowed to dig or to hammer the rocks, but picking up materials is tolerated. This type of legislation can vary greatly from country to country, so it is important to be well informed.

Where exactly you can search, may be learned from fellow seekers or associations, from literature, or by do-it-yourself prospecting (self search for locations). In our database you can find a selection of possible search locations. Please be advised that sharing information about sites in some cases may be sensitive. Some sites can be very vulnerable, or of specific scientific interest. In addition, knowledge of a site may be of a strategic or commercial advantage for some. In that case there are certain interests associated to a site, with all social phenomena related to it.

The relevance of do-it-yourself prospecting is often underestimated by beginners. Sure, this is a time-consuming activity with a steep learning curve, the benefits of which usually become clear only after a long period of time. Still, it's a good idea to start early with your own prospecting. In the preparation and implementation of surveys you obtain, after all, a lot of knowledge about the search area and the underlying rock strata.

Simply driving through an area looking for outcrops is a little effective way of prospecting. You’d best restrict your search zone by selecting areas where the chance is high that the rock layers that you find interesting, are cropped out.

Frederik prospecting During a prospecting research you carefully and systematically search for traces of fossils.

A good start is the purchase of (1) a detailed geological map of the area, and (2) specific scientific literature. By combining these resources with topographic maps and air photos (now very accessible, think of Google Earth) you can prepare the prospecting. Make an overlay of interesting formations from the geological map (selected on the basis of insights from the literature) and of the expected highly dynamic environments or potential outcrops you can find on maps and aerial photographs. These include cliff coasts, incised river valleys, active quarries, roadsides, possible living extension areas, and so on. Based on this knowledge, you can define your search zones, and with this you can start your search on the site.

In highly dynamic environments, such as these cliffs at Cap Blanc Nez, fresh material is regularly disclosed. Searching is not without risk, so take the necessary precautions.

When prospecting on site it is advised to talk to local people, particularly land owners or site supervisors. Keep your request for admission short and to the point, and respect any refusal. In quarries and on construction sites it is often expected of you to wear safety equipment, so make sure you have it always with you.


Upon arrival at a site, try to understand the location. Orientate. Are the rock layers in their original context, or have they been moved? Are there any recent traces of erosion or excavation activities? Can you distinguish different layers in the wall? Not every layer contains fossils. It is therefore often advisable to first take a good look around. It is a big difference whether you find a fossil in a pile of loose rocks, or directly in the original layer (the latter is called in situ, loose finds are ex situ). In situ finds can be located stratigraphically much more precise, and because they are still in their original context, they usually have a higher scientific value. That is why it is important to make accurate notes on site and to keep these together with the fossil.


A good find? Take your time to document it and, if necessary, to stabilize it. 

Never try to preserve a find on-the-spot and make sure you have the equipment required for stabilisation and storage of the find. If you have underestimated the salvage job, consider marking the fossil and returning later on with the right material and/or help. If you think you made an  exceptional discovery which may be scientifically important, please do not hesitate to contact a scientific institution. 

Always behave in a responsible way and do not take any risks. This is especially true in active quarries and in active erosion areas such as cliff coasts. Fortunately, accidents do not happen very frequently, but they do happen and are almost always due to carelessness of the victim. Misconduct (damaging of property, leaving waste) can quickly result in a location being closed for everyone. To keep all sites accessible, it is important that every amateur geologist adheres to several rules for collecting. Sometimes, membership of an association, (e.g. the Belgian associations that are member of the Council of Earth Sciences (RAW-CST)), also implies that the members agree to a deontological code.


When we dig up or excavate a fossil for the collection, the specimen is of course taken from its natural surroundings. This means that a lot of information can be lost. You should avoid this by keeping data as accurately as possible (' register ') about both the location of the find and the fossils that you found there. It is best to register these data on site (e.g. in a notebook or using a smartphone), together with some good pictures of the outcrop. Save the data along with the fossils (make sure you get a good link by means of a code).

If you find the fossils ex-situ, e.g. in a landfill pile, keep the data per location and per searching date. This means that you should keep apart the finds from different visits to such ex-situ locations, especially when highly dynamic places are concerned (e.g. landfills at infrastructure works). When you find the fossil in-situ, for example in layers, you need to be a lot more accurate. Keep apart the fossils per location, per visit and also per sampled layer. At in-situ finds you should als add a reference to the exact layer. In order to do this, you will have to take good pictures and make sketches on site. Use simple codes to link the fossils to  the layers, and write this both in your notebook and on the fossil or on the packaging of the fossil.

In the example below a simple letter code per site is used. Each site is measured using a GPS, and has been extensively described and photographed (not shown). On site D, 2 layers were searched (' here ' upper ' and ' lower '). Fossil D14 comes from the ' lower ' layer, in the field notes it is indicated that it might be a Cornuproetide. The fossil consists of two parts, which have each been highlighted with a permanent marker in the field. This marking is applied to the fracture, and will therefore disappear after preparation, after which the final registration number can be written. At the same time, the accompanying information is entered directly into the database. In this way, in each phase the link between the fossil and the information is safeguarded. Of course, other systems are possible. Each system is good as long as it guarantees the link in every phase, from the field to the preparation table and from preservation to the collection.


Registration in the field: an example.

When a fossil is added to a collection, it should at the same time be recorded in a digital or analog data bank (See Identification), if possible together with some good pictures. You can read more about this on the page The Collection.

Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.