What is the future for our fossils? That is the question gnawing at Richard Edmonds, who this summer quit as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site’s Earth Science Manager.
A decision which shocked colleagues, and one not taken lightly, after 17 years at the cliff face of building the Jurassic Coast brand and bringing his passion to interpreting and looking after the geology and fossils of “this fantastic coastline” to locals and visitors.
“The work of the team has been fantastic in raising the profile of the coast as a really special place and obviously the brand of Jurassic Coast has been hugely successful and we have had many interesting and really very great successes,” he says.
Just look at the success of the X53 Jurassic Coaster bus, a popular and very visible success story, Richard points out.
“There they were, grinding their way along – old smoky buses, now transformed into new Volvo double-deckers with the branding on them. It wasn’t just World Heritage, but it helped to be able to give that boost to First (the bus company) and create that profile.
“My work progressed to being primarily around the conservation of the site and it tends to look after itself, because as long as it’s eroding and falling down, I’m happy.
“The only reason why this is a beautiful and interesting coastline, is because it’s eroding. As I like to say, if it wasn’t for erosion, Dorset and East Devon would be as dull as Somerset!
“That means that there is very little cost required to conserve the site; it is just time. That work is very pragmatic; we realised that the conflicts come in where erosion starts to affect people and property and that is around the edges of the towns.
“A place like Lyme Regis for instance, is surrounded by landslides, which deliver fantastic fossils on to the beach, which is why Lyme is famous for its fossils and yet that very erosion can also threaten the town.”
But one area where money is required for the conservation of the World Heritage Site is with the fossils and Richard is clearly disappointed and frustrated that what he hoped was a shared vision for a world-class museum in West Dorset has not come to pass.
“We work with the collectors – I am a collector myself – but obviously the fossils don’t prepare themselves,” he says.
“They don’t fall out of a cliff and arrive in a museum. They require collecting effort and since the days of Mary Anning local people have decided to spend their lives looking for those fossils and rescuing them, because without their effort they would just get turned in to bits of beach and washed away.
“It takes a great deal of time, effort and skill to find them and even more to clean them and that does bring a value. You could look at this as either an issue or an opportunity, but
in the last 30 years several collectors have built up astounding – truly astounding – collections of fossils. Despite more than 200 years of collecting, people are still finding specimens new to science.
“And on a World Heritage Site that is world famous for fossils and is designated for fossils, they would like to see a world class fossil museum or exhibit.
“I have worked to try and see that happen, but for a range of reasons, it hasn’t. That’s a source of huge frustration to me and the primary reason why I decided to leave.”
Richard says the local museums’ plans to develop and expand are to be praised and supported.
“They do a fantastic job. Lyme and Bridport and the County Museum in Dorchester are actively seeking to expand, and their plans are essential to the development of these museums, but it is now clear that they haven’t got the scope or the capacity to actually acquire and display these astounding collections.
“Therein lies a problem. The County Museum wants to build a store as part of its £13.3m development and the view is that it hopes collectors will donate their collections to that store. A museum does need a store, there’s no question about that, but the collectors aren’t going to donate their life’s work to a store, even if it is an accessible and ‘world class’ store.
“Don’t get me wrong; the museums have looked at their strengths, and the constraints that they face, and come forward with exciting, deserved and necessary plans to further increase their offer, but they do not address the core issue for the World Heritage Site.
“What the collectors want, and, indeed expect to see, is a world class display of the fossils from this World Heritage Site, one of the most famous places in the world for fossils. Are they wrong?
“People have a massive interest in fossils and therefore the educational opportunity and the economic benefits – which, after all, is partly why the WHS is funded – should be a no-brainer.
“Acquiring the fossils for the science, so that they can be studied and putting them on display is an absolute priority, or should be.”
So is Richard saying that isn’t a priority? “Well,” he says carefully, “we are 14 years down the road and it is still unresolved and that, I think, is a big issue.
“Our priorities in the World Heritage Site team were that we wanted the fossils to be recovered and we wanted to give people the chance to see what’s being found and we wanted the museums to have the first opportunity to acquire those important specimens.”
“Physically, the museums have a lack of space. Funding-wise, it does cost money. A friend of mine, Chris Duggan, is cleaning a plesiosaur at the moment. It has taken more than 2,000 hours. If you had taken that to the Natural History Museum in London, I suspect their rates are at least £50 an hour and probably a lot more – work out the maths.
“Less than 10% of the fossils recorded under our scheme are going to the museums, because the collectors are holding on to them in the expectation that there should be somewhere, on a World Heritage Site, to show them off.”
Richard believes that if there were a museum, the collectors would not necessarily seek to sell their fossils for their full commercial value.
“If you work with, involve, engage and support the collectors, there is a much greater chance of actually doing something,” he adds.
“If you ignore people and fail to match those expectations, the risks increase that the fossils will be sold, probably somewhere else, and be lost to the World Heritage Site.”
Richard believes a viable and achievable world-class museum near Charmouth would need 2,500 square metres, would cost £12m to £15m and it would have to attract 50,000 to 60,000 paying visitors a year.
He admits that is no means an easy thing to deliver, but asks: “Surely it’s something at least worth trying for?”
Clearing his office, he found his first file on his idea for such a museum at Charmouth, dated 15 years ago. Supported in principle by the local council, collectors and the National Trust, it is clear that it is a matter of deep frustration that it has got nowhere near a drawing board, let alone becoming a reality.
In the vacuum, Jurassica has stepped up to fill the gap. A registered charity, it hopes to build a subterranean “geological spectacle” visitor attraction on 80 acres at Broadcroft quarry on Portland.
“They intend to acquire the fossils in an accredited museum collection, which matches the conservation issue for the World Heritage Site. The Jurassic Coast needs those fossils and if they are not secured, then it is, arguably, failing,” says Richard.
“Jurassica wants to put them on display in the most spectacular and large format you can imagine. It could be incredible. The scale of the interpretation in there could be absolutely gob-smacking.
“Equally, they have to demonstrate that the size and the scale of the investment will work and that they can get the numbers of people they want through the door.
“The people behind Jurassica have seen the opportunity and decided to go for it and that is why I now support them. The World Heritage Site team has had its opportunity to influence the outstanding and obvious opportunity for the coast, and missed it.”
What of the future for the World Heritage Site?
Richard stresses that the Jurassic Coast brand has been extraordinarily successful.
Of the WHS team he says: “There is a very good team, with very good people. There is a very good track record of projects and work.
“I think it does get harder as time goes on to identify priority work for the site, but there are some really nice bits of work being done.
“Guy Kerr, who works with the Jurassic Coast Trust, is working on the business and ambassadors side.
“I hadn’t even considered how that could happen, but he is building up a fantastic community of people who love the Jurassic Coast and that makes all sorts of things possible.
“There are issues like the quality of the access to some areas. At Seatown as just one example, I once counted 29 signs from getting out of the car and getting down to the beach. It’s maybe only a small thing, but it’s quite a mess and that’s an area where I would really like to see more done.
“I would like to see more truly imaginative interpretation techniques applied to the coast using art and sculpture. One of the projects I would love to see happen is using large blocks of stone and carving them into the story. You wouldn’t need any text or words, just the geology.
“I can’t possibly predict, and don’t have the imagination to predict, the next best thing to be doing. But what is needed is an open process to consider and test ideas and support them if they are really viable or reject them if they are complete nonsense.
“And that approach isn’t there and that can be a source of quite serious frustration to people, I think.”
Why do fossils matter?
It’s all about the science. “For specimens new to science, in order to be described, to add to the canon of knowledge, they have to be in a secure museum.
“Because if, say, in 40 to 50 years time, someone wanted to come back and go: ‘Well actually, we don’t think that is a new species,’ without that original specimen, they can’t do that.
“Or, if someone finds something that they think is a little bit different from the one found 40 years ago, if they can’t see that specimen, they cannot compare the new find to the old, they cannot test the identification and science would be static – the science would be stuck.”
Fossil collecting – can that be right on a World Heritage Site?
Richard Edmonds stumbled across his own great find in 2007. The “Swanage Snapper”, a 130 million year-old crocodile skull, was later declared a new species.
“It was the absolute classic: found in work time, donated to the County Museum – absolute chance. I go to Durlston Bay perhaps two or three times a year, max.
“But to find something like that, a stunning, foot long skull!
“And that is another interesting area, a very small minority of people think it is outrageous on a World Heritage Site that people are allowed to collect fossils – and sell them – and that everything of interest is hoovered up and flogged.
“But if I can go to Swanage and find a fossil like that, I would suggest perhaps it isn’t quite that obvious.
“At Lyme Regis I found three and a half feet of the body of an ichthyosaur lying in a rock pool, so does that indicate a coast where there is too much collecting?
“I would say that we have a coast where there is a lot of collecting, but despite that, the fossils still remain at risk of being destroyed by the very process that exposes them, erosion.
“Collecting the common stuff is a completely sustainable activity and it is in the process of collecting the common stuff, that the rare stuff is found.
“Collectors, both amateur and professional, have demonstrated their value over the last 200 years, filling museums with fantastic fossils. Mary Anning was a commercial collector, yet she is also the most famous, and most celebrated collector of all time.
“But the rare fossils need to be secured in an accredited museum and that museum should be a place where collectors, researchers, academics and curators work together in a collaborative atmosphere, recognising that each has something unique to add to the party.
“Our best chance for that now is Jurassica, yet, as a capital project, it is last on the list for any kind of public funding.”