Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt 2.

This is the second of my series about the Ardingly Dinosaur site (if you haven’t read the previous one you can find it here). Last time I talked a bit about the background of the site, the geology and a few of the challenges the team face. In this post I’m going to walk you through why I’m involved in the first place and how the day went. I’ll also touch on the future of the site and how this fits in with the idea of a citizen science project. That’s quite a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!

The view the other way was better but I didn't get a pic :(

The beautiful Ardingly College, West Sussex.

The Day

I met Susie at about 10:30 outside Fulham’s biggest local landmark (Bailey’s Fish and Chips) and headed off down towards Ardingly. This is a journey I’m familiar with: my home is less than 30 minutes away from the site. After a few hours we arrived at the picturesque Ardingly College (It’s incredible. Hogwarts hasn’t got anything on this), where I got excited by this Coraline poster signed by Neil Gaiman.

Those creepy button eyes still freak me out.

Coraline poster. What a film!

We met up with Brian and Dr. Jane Blythe, the college’s Head of Biology (and another Imperial graduate!). We grabbed a spot of lunch, and headed off to browse the site and meet and greet the public. After a short introduction by Brian and Susie of what to look for, trowels and spades were handed out, and we set about scouring the area. Any interesting rocks were put aside into plastic zip bags for later analysis. My role in this was to have a browse of the site, but also to engage the public and (try to) answer any questions they might have.

Volunteers scouting for rocks with potential fossils.

Volunteers scouting for rocks with potential fossils.

Just a few minutes in I found what would be a great explanatory tool for the afternoon: a large slab of fine sandstone with abundant plant remains. As you can see, it’s not the most interesting looking fossil in the world. In fact, the words ‘a load of black dots’ were banded around quite a bit. But often the least glamorous objects can can inform us the most about past environments.

A smaller chunk of the rock with plant material.

A smaller chunk of the rock with plant material. You can see how dense it is with woody fragments.

It’s good to tell science as a story. Stories allow us to understand the context to content in a simple, conversational manner. After all, a well-spun tale has the possibility to engage even the most cynical listener. Out of all the sciences, geology lends itself the most to being told as a narrative. It’s easy to draw parallels between the processes that form and preserve rocks, and the beginning, middle and end of a novel. Geology aims to understand the world, and in that way it’s telling the story of our planet.

So how did this rock in particular help? As you can see, the plant material all appears to be in one band of the rock: there’s none in the layers above or below. It’s reasonable to presume that this plant material was deposited in one event. One idea is that a large storm washed a lot of plant debris down a river into a large lake. The material then sank, covered slowly and preserved by fine sand once the river’s flow had returned to normal. When we discussed this with people, you could see a new found interest and appreciation for what they were looking at. No longer were these merely black dots: they were a record of an ancient storm 135 million years ago. As an aspiring science communicator this process of understanding was great to see.

Students producing a short news a short news story for BBC School's Report.

Students producing a short news a short news story for BBC School’s Report.

But it wasn’t just volunteers taking part. A small group of students had been set the task of producing a short news article for BBC program ‘The School’s Report’, which goes out on the red button on the 27th of March. Susie, the other local experts and I were all interviewed, which was an interesting experience. It’s (sort of) easy to explain science through writing. Talking about it to someone interviewing you is much tougher!

Susie explaining some of the finds to the attendees.

Susie explaining some of the finds to the attendees.

After a few hours we gathered back together to examine the days’ finds. One was especially exciting: the black fragment in the middle of the picture below could be the end of a tooth. From the shape, we can guess it belonged to a carnivorous dinosaur or crocodile. However, the rock will need dissolving and the tooth examined to confirm its identity: serrated edges will mean it’s likely a dinosaur.

The black, curved fossil in the centre is likely the tip of a tooth. Taken through a x10 hand lens.

The black, curved fossil in the centre is likely the tip of a tooth. Taken through a x10 hand lens.

Other finds included casts of fresh water snails, bivalves, fish scales and plants fragments. A good sign of the variety of fauna in these rocks!

Abundant gastropod casts, similar to the freshwater Viviparus.

Abundant gastropod casts, similar to the freshwater Viviparus.

The Future

So after this, what does the future hold for the Ardingly site? The aim of the College is to allow students and the public access to the site through integration with the researchers working on the material. One idea which is being worked on is to make days like this a weekly event to allow for regular collection of material. Students would then carry out procedures to extract the fossil material (Susie has already suggested several techniques which involve dissolving away the surrounding rock). Finally, material could be examined by experts and identified, organised and recorded in an online database accessible to the public. As you can see, this creates a chain of research where each link is a vital component in the process. This way, work can be accomplished much faster than if it were just one scientist scrabbling around in the rubble.

This is the idea of citizen science in action: community based research that educates at all levels of involvement. It’s a really brilliant idea for so many reasons. Firstly it’s a great source of inspiration for the kids involved. If I was told when I was at school that our class science project would be helping to find dinosaurs, I think I’d have fainted in excitement. It also helps break down barriers that science erects in the public space. We wouldn’t be able to carry out research without money from the tax payer, but all too often science operates behind closed doors. People understanding what it means to do research is important for public support: citizen science is a perfect opportunity to show it in action.

Dr Jane Blythe talks to kids and parents at the fossil workstation set up for the day.

Dr Jane Blythe talks to kids and parents at the fossil workstation set up for the day.

Science can be daunting. It can seem to exist (and it sometimes does) in its’ own world, populated by its’ own brand of people and its’ own language. But I think that it doesn’t always have to be that way. The Ardingly Dinosaur Dig aims to encourage collaboration between diverse groups – students, scientists and the local community – in the aim of expanding our scientific understanding. And that’s a pretty fine goal if I do say so myself.

See, T-Rex's arms were still useful for sign-holding.

The friendly Ardingly dino.

I’ll finish off with some other choice photos from the day, but if you’re interested the whole album is online to look at here. My next instalment in this series will be about my second visit to the Ardingly site, and my consequent brush with (extremely minor) fame!

Large chunk of bone, most likely dinosaur in origin.

Large chunk of bone, most likely dinosaur in origin.

The workstation set up. People could bring up fossils and interesting rocks for identification.

The workstation set up. People could bring up fossils and interesting rocks for identification.

Piece of what is most likely turtle bone.

Piece of what is most likely turtle bone.

Susie explaining a find to one of the volunteers.

Susie explaining a find to one of the volunteers.

More hunting for rocks. Round the corner this time!

More hunting for rocks. Round the corner this time!

A perfect day for a stroll in Sussex.

A perfect day for a stroll in Sussex.

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.

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6 responses to “Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt 2.

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

  2. Chris, great post – I really like your aim of explaining science to the non-scientific, and you are doing a great job with this blog. Looking forward to reading more…

    Like

  3. Pingback: Dig Up The Dead: The Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt 3. | He's Simple, He's dumb, He's a Palaeontologist·

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