Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt. 1

There’s a reason I set this blog up approximately a year and a bit ago. Science Communication is an important thing; it’s important for the public to understand the process and principles of science, just as it’s important for scientists to observe and understand the public perception of the work that they’re doing. And it’s only getting more important in the information age, where information, or more worryingly misinformation, is available at the swipe of a finger. My aim for this space was to break down the barriers of academia (okay, maybe that’s a little high flying. Perhaps abrade them a bit) and allow others to see what an MSci or a PhD is like through the eyes of a newbie. Now it’s alright when I’m just writing about what I get up to (or more likely what I should be doing). But realistically there’s no better way of seeing what a researcher actually does than giving it a go yourself.

Fellow Imperialite Jon Tennant/Protohedgehog wrote a post a few weeks ago on the idea of ‘citizen science’; a great initiative that’s exploded thanks to the rise of social media where the public are actively engaged and participating in a project of scientific value. Last Thursday I was lucky enough to take a trip to the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig and get involved with citizen science first hand.

What a beaut day.

Volunteers from the local area searching for fossiliferous rock

The Story

It goes a little something like this. Last year, Ardingly College, an Independent school in West Sussex, excavated a section of land to build a new boarding hall. Brian Craik-Smith, a chemistry technician at the school with a keen interest in geology, led a geo-trail for students around the rubble and spotted the first signs of fossil material. His interest was piqued, and he revisited the site several times, finding the first signs of teeth, scales and fragments of dinosaur bone. Further visits revealed a whole host of other material, such as turtle shell fragments, plant seeds and possible ostracods. Everything started coming together when Dr. Susie Maidment, a junior research fellow at Imperial, headed down to give a talk for the Sussex Mineralogical and Lapidary Society. Brian introduced himself after her talk and showed her some of his recent finds. She agreed to go and visit the site, and the rest, as they say, is history. The site has since gained a whole bunch of media attention, appearing all over the place; apparently even in the Daily Star (heaven forbid).

Brian, Dr Jane Blythe and students examining some rock material. Source

There’re several things about this site that make it quite exciting. Firstly is for it’s historic implications. Weirdly enough, Sussex is sort of the estranged home of palaeontology. In 1822, Gideon Mantell, a Surgeon and amateur geologist who lived in Lewes, first discovered a large tooth in a quarry near Cuckfield. After some study, he reasoned it must have belonged to an animal similar to an Iguana but 20 times bigger. He’d later go on to name this creature Iguanodon; the first formally named dinosaur. Due to the location of the college and some of the fossils found, It’s possible that the site at Ardingly is actually the same rock, known as the Cuckfield Stone, that housed the first found dinosaur remains.

Secondly, there’s the issue of exposure. Since Mantell’s discovery, it’s been well known that the rocks in Sussex were abundant with fossils. In fact, if you glance back to one of my early posts where I visit the Natural History Museum vaults, you can see that several pterosaur bones are labeled as being found at Hastings, which has the same rocks exposed on the coast. However, there’s one major problem; there just isn’t any rock around. As beautiful as the scenic rolling hills and wooded forests of the South East are, there’re very few places where rock is actually exposed on the surface. Exposure is mainly limited to sections of cliff on the coast or scattered quarries. Having a new location where rock has been exposed provides us a unique glimpse into what lies beneath our feet in an area where such a view is usually impossible.

Geologist, surgeon AND artist? What a boss.

The famous Iguanodon tooth that Gideon Mantell discovered in the Cuckfield Stone. Source

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that it’s a really great chance for a community outreach science project. It’s pretty rare to have such an ideal opportunity where students, the public and scientists can all collaborate to hopefully carry out some great science. This is one of those opportunities, and with the excitement and drive I saw during my visit from both members of the College and the volunteers from the local community, I can tell that there’s a really good chance of some cool stuff coming out of this project. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few challenges to face…

The Geology

One of the things people often forget about when it comes to fossils is that often the rock they’re enclosed in is as important as the specimens themselves. The main barrier to understanding life in the past is time. It’s been a long while since dinosaurs roamed the earth, with huge and fundamental changes made to the planet, its’ organisms and the various interconnected systems which take place around us. These changes make understanding life in the past that little bit more difficult, so we need as many clues as possible to reconstruct animal lifestyles, behavior and ecology in deep time. Rocks provide these clues; they can help inform us of age, environment, climate and various other factors. So making sure we know what rocks we’re dealing with is obviously very important.

Look at S. America and Africa getting all snuggly.

The world as it was 125 Million Years ago (I couldn’t find a nice picture during the Valanginian so this will have to do!). You can just about see the UK as part of one of the few islands in Europe. Source

Ardingly college sits on top of a series of rock units which are referred to as the Hastings Beds Group. These are rocks from the Valanginian stage of the Cretaceous, which stretched from approximately 140 – 133 million years ago and indicate a climate very different to that of the South East today. They show a real mix of floodplain, lake and lagoonal environments, with a warm to hot, and periodically wet climate. The Hastings Bed Group contains many individual rock formations; Susie and Brian have had a look and think that these rocks are probably from the Grinstead Clay formation, and can possibly narrow this down to the Cuckfield Stone member, as mentioned above, partly due to the presence of many sandstones.

Lots of long wooooorrdsssss

The stratigraphic column of rocks for Sussex. You can see the Grinstead Clay on the left. (Radley and Allen, 2012)

However, there’s a problem. The rock at the site comes in blocks dug up during the building work that have since been dumped elsewhere. This means they are no longer ‘in situ’; therefore, we can’t tell what order the different rocks came in, and as such can’t relate them to the rocks of the surrounding area! This means we really can’t be sure of where the site sits in geological time, which is a major problem when trying to gain a wider picture of what’s going on.

This remains the main barrier for research on the site. If the rocks here can be correlated to rocks from elsewhere, then we stand a much better chance at working out the history of the area, and hopefully where more dinosaur remains can be found. Promisingly there’s work being done on how to correct for this at the moment, so it shouldn’t be too long before we have an accurate representation of the ages and rock units that we are dealing with.

Stay tuned for the next part of this post, where I’ll be going through my day at the Ardingly site and addressing what makes Citizen Science so important.

Gotta love those swamps.

The local landscape of the Cretaceous of England. Source

If you want to keep up to date with the goings on at the site, head over to www.ardingly.com or follow @ArdinglyBiology on twitter. 

Today’s post title comes from this great song.


Radley, J. D., & Allen, P. (2012). The Wealden (non-marine Lower Cretaceous) of the Weald Sub-basin, southern England. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association123(2), 245-318.


4 responses to “Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt. 1

  1. Looking forward to part II. I’ve been involved with a plant ecology citizen science initiative before and am interested in hearing how it will work within geology and paleontology


    • Thanks a lot! I’m hoping to get the second part up by the end of the week and with any luck there might even be a third appearing at some point. I can imagine it’s definitely a different process to modern day ecology based programs, but I can definitely see it being an excellent approach, especially in cases like this one.


  2. Pingback: Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt 2. | He's Simple, He's dumb, He's a Palaeontologist·

  3. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 14/03/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast·

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