‘Part-time adventurers’: amateur fossil hunters get record haul in Cotswolds

More than 1,000 scientifically significant specimens taken from former quarry after discovery

When Sally and Neville Hollingworth started going stir crazy in lockdown, rather than baking bread or doing quizzes on Zoom, the amateur palaeontologists turned to Google Earth.

The couple passed the time planning for their next trip – using the satellite images to inspect sites that had previously yielded fossils – when they stumbled across a quarry in the Cotswolds. From the exposure of the geology Neville, who has a PhD in geology, could tell the site was promising, but he was not expecting it to yield one of the best fossil finds in the UK in decades.

Their 167m-year-old discovery has been described by the Natural History Museum as the largest find of Jurassic echinoderms – a group of animals that includes starfish, brittle stars and feather stars – ever found in the UK.

“As soon as lockdown lifted, we got permission and had a look around the quarry,” said Sally, 50, who works in accounts for a construction company in Swindon.

Initially, she said the slab they took home from the quarry “looked a little bit boring” but after preparing it in the garage, Neville, 60, was soon shouting for her to come and have a look.

So far, more than 1,000 scientifically significant specimens have been excavated from the site – the exact location of which is not being made public – including an unprecedented collection of rare feather stars, sea lilies and starfish fossils. They have also found three new species: a type of feather star, a brittle star and a sea cucumber. Experts say the discovery will provide key information that will contribute to explaining the evolutionary history of these sea creatures.

A isocrinus fossil found during the work after the Hollingworths discovered the site.
A isocrinus fossil found during the work after the Hollingworths discovered the site. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

“They look pretty boring and then you start revealing all this detail and the preservation is just amazing,” she said. “I’m looking at this poor little critter, 167m years old. It’s unreal isn’t it. These little guys were around when the dinosaurs were about.”

When they realised the importance of what they had found, the couple contacted Dr Tim Ewin, a senior curator for invertebrate palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, at the end of last year. He said he immediately knew from the pictures that “we had something quite special on our hands”. But because of coronavirus restrictions it was months before he could investigate further.

Ewin said: “We couldn’t act straight away because of Covid restrictions and things like that, which just got worse and worse. So it was a little bit frustrating having to sort of hang on tenterhooks for the restrictions to ease so we could go out and investigate the site a bit more.”

After a week extracting specimens from the site – which is no bigger than two tennis courts and would have been underwater 167m years ago – he confirmed the find was of global significance.

He said: “It’s the greatest collection in terms of the quality of the preservation, just the sheer numbers of the individuals and the diversity of the individuals.”

The single specimen discovered by the Hollingworths was in itself “really exciting”. But, he added, the fact that they could trace the bed across the quarry floor “and get even more specimens in greater numbers is just unprecedented and incredibly exciting”.

He added: “I feel very honoured to be lucky enough to be alive at the right time that this find was made.”

The Hollingworths have previously found a complete mammoth skull from the ice age, but nothing of this gravity. “We say we’re full-time admin bods but part-time adventurers,” said Sally, who returned to the site earlier this year to celebrate her 50th birthday with a picnic.

“We always say let’s go out, travel with hope and not expectation and take a good picnic and have a good day out and if we find any treasure it’s a bonus. But I think this has been a crazy journey so far and of course this is just the beginning of the journey.”

After three days of excavating the site, the team have collected 100 slabs of clay, which are being prepared for future study and which the museum hopes to put on public display.


Miranda Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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