Lyme Regis is located on the Dorset coast, and represents a
significant part of the Jurassic Coast - World Heritage Site. The
rocks date predominantly from the Early Jurassic epoch,
approximately 199-189 million years ago, during which time a warm
sea spread across much of the UK. The famous coastline has yielded a
range of spectacular fossils, including: giant marine reptiles,
intricate crinoids, ammonites and even dinosaur remains. The volume
and quality of finds over the past two centuries in particular, have
made Lyme Regis one of the most famous fossil locations in the
Fossils event participants admire a small ammonite. Right:
A pyritised ammonite - Eoderoceras armatum, from the
Parking is available in several car parks within Lyme Regis and
also at the neighbouring village of
Charmouth (for visitors planning to walk between the two
locations); a local taxi and bus service are available, but fast
walkers may prefer to travel the return journey on foot.
Regis was thrust into the limelight in 1811, when a number of
significant marine reptile remains were discovered by local fossil
collectors Mary Anning and her brother Joseph Anning. Among their
finds include the first recognised complete ichthyosaur skeleton,
the skull of which was found by Joseph, and the rest of the skeleton
by Mary soon after. A number of Mary's discoveries, can be viewed in
the Natural History Museum of London.
Today, fossils can still be found and collected in large numbers on
the beach and from the leading edge of the slumping clays along the
coastline. The best time to fossil hunt is on a falling tide, as
fossils are re-deposited on the foreshore by the retreating sea. The
rapidly eroding cliffs and foreshore ensure a fresh supply of
fossils every day, although this also presents a danger of rock
falls, so it's advisable to keep a safe distance from the cliff
Lyme Regis is suitable for individuals and families of all ages
and levels of experience. A hammer, chisel and eye protection are
recommended for splitting prospective rocks, although many fossils
can also be found loose among the pebbles and rock pools.
The geology of Lyme Regis (east)
The cliffs and foreshore between Lyme Regis and Charmouth
represent three stages within the Early Jurassic (or Lias) period
termed the Hettangian, Sinemurian and Pliensbachian dating from
approximately 199-189 million years ago. During this time a shallow
epicontinental sea (less than 100m deep), was present across much of
Europe, including most of England, Wales and Ireland, and laid down
alternating layers of clay and limestone. At that time, Lyme Regis
(as it's now known), lay closer to the equator, roughly at the
latitude North Africa is today. Overlying the Jurassic sediments are
younger Cretaceous deposits, comprising the Gault and the golden
coloured Upper Greensand (green when freshly split) - deposited
around 106-102 million years ago (fig.1 below).
Figure 1: A summary
of the positions of the Cretaceous and Jurassic horizons on Black
Ven, east of Lyme Regis.
Figure 2: Diagram indicating the positions of the key geological
horizons of Black Ven, east of Lyme Regis. For a table of geologic
Fossils can be found throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous
exposures at Lyme Regis, however it's the Jurassic rocks in
particular that attract fossil hunters to Lyme Regis.
abundant during the Jurassic period, giant marine reptiles inhabited
the seas and pterosaurs flew across the skies. This was also the
time of the dinosaurs, however the presence of sea over the area and
distance from any significant landmass, means their fossils are
rarely found at Lyme Regis. In 1858 and on few occasions since, the
remains of a dinosaur named Scelidosaurus have been found in the
Black Ven Marl Member described below. Scelidosaurus was an
armour-plated quadruped, with rear legs much longer than the front.
Examination of the bones and teeth reveals Scelidosaurus was a
herbivorous (plant eating) dinosaur, which grew up to 4m in length.
The occurrence of dinosaur remains within these marine sediments
remains unproven, however the most likely case was that the bloated
carcasses floated out to sea, perhaps caught out by monsoonal flash
floods. The presence of dinosaur remains is a fascinating addition
to the local palaeontology of the area.
There are two important
Jurassic formations present in the cliffs beneath Black Ven -the
Blue Lias Formation and Charmouth Mudstone Formation, the latter of
which is subdivided into a number of sections: Shales-with-Beef,
Black Ven Marls, Belemnite Marls and an isolated exposure of the
Green Ammonite Mudstone Member (highlighted in fig.2 above). Each
formation/member is described briefly below.
Blue Lias Formation
- The oldest rocks at Lyme Regis belong to the Blue Lias Formation
and date from around 199 million years ago. These hard, pale layers
of limestone and darker organic-rich shales, occupy much of the
foreshore around Lyme Regis, appearing as a series of ledges on the
foreshore at low-tide (fig.1 above) and also in the cliffs
immediately east of the town (fig.3 and 4 below); these particular
cliffs, known as Church Cliffs, are the source of many fine examples
of calcified ammonites. The total thickness of the Blue Lias
Formation is 26 metres and dips gently towards the east, bringing
successively younger/higher beds to beach level.
Figure 3: The Blue
Lias Formation represents the earliest rocks east of Lyme Regis and
can be clearly examined at Church Cliffs. Figure 4:
The name Blue Lias originates from two sources, firstly to
describe the blue tint caused by the high iron content within the
rock, and secondly by a historic local pronunciation of the word
'layers' by local quarrymen.
Shales-with-Beef Member - Moving upwards the next formation
encountered is the Charmouth Mudstone Formation, which is subdivided
into a number of members, the lowest of which is the
Shales-with-Beef Member and measures 30m from its base. The
transition between the underlying Blue Lias Formation can be seen
towards the top of Church Cliffs, beneath Black Ven (fig.3 above).
Figure 5: Half way
between Lyme Regis and Charmouth the Shales with Beef Member reaches
the foreshore. Right: Visitors examine the
The Shales-with-Beef Member is dominated by dark mudstones, many of
them organic-rich and finely laminated. Within the member are a
series of thin (under 10cm), fibrous calcite beds, which give the
appearance of sliced beef steak! Unfortunately, fossils within the
member tend to be crushed and are best suited to scientific study.
Black Ven Marl Member - This member lies above the Shales-with-Beef
Member, and comprises 27m of mostly dark-grey mudstones, with
subordinate beds of nodular and tabular limestone. The Black Ben
Marls only reach the foreshore at Charmouth, however the slumping
cliffs often deposit large volumes of the member along the entire
coastal stretch from Lyme Regis.
The transition from the
underlying Shales-with-Beef Member is clearly marked by a
distinctive limestone bed, known as the Birchi Tabular that appears
in the cliff beneath Black Ven, towards Charmouth (fig.6 and 7
Figure 6: The
Shales-with-Beef Member is best examined towards Charmouth.
Figure 7: Birchi Tabular represents the transition between
the two members.
The Black Ven Marls have yielded some of the best fossils discovered
at Lyme Regis, including the famous Scelidosaurus dinosaur remains
(mentioned earlier) and a wide variety of exceptionally well
preserved ammonites and giant ichthyosaur skeletons.
most commonly collected fossils within the Black Ven Marls are
pyritised ammonites, however their preservation occurs at its best
within the upper 17m of the formation; it's recently been proposed
to separate and rename these beds to the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic
Member'. These dark-coloured, pyrite rich sediments and are
dominated by ammonites, including: Crucilobiceras, Eoderoceras,
Echioceras and the distinctive, smooth surfaced, Oxynoticeras. The
member lacks the large limestone nodules of the Black Ven Marls,
with the exception of an isolated bed (0.3m thick) towards the top
called the Watch Ammonite Stone.
Although present on Black Ven,
the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member' and subsequent overlying members
listed below, are best observed between
Belemnite Marl Member: These deposits are seen towards the top of
the cliffs, but are best examined beneath Golden Cap (Charmouth),
where they appear on the sea-weathered foreshore. Despite the name
given to the Belemnite Marl Member, ammonites are also abundant
throughout the sediments.
The Belemnite Marls are easily
identified on Black Ven, by their alternating pale and darker
horizontal bands (fig.5 above). The different shades of grey are
the result of the differing organic carbon content (higher in the
darker bands). The Belemnite Marls extend 23m upwards, to the
overlying Green Ammonite Mudstone Member.
Green Ammonite Mudstone
Member: This member rests above the Belemnite Marls, but is isolated
on Black Ven to a small exposure either side of the fault (Fig. 2
above). Ammonites are abundant and include species of Aegoceras,
Oistoceras, Liparoceras, Tragophylloceras and
The geology of Lyme Regis (west)
To the west of Lyme Regis the cliffs expose horizontal layers of
limestone and shales belonging to the Blue Lias Formation -
discussed above. At low-tide the sea weathered foreshore, known as
Monmouth Beach, is exposed and contains abundant ammonites, some of
which are approaching a metre in diameter!
Figure 8: Monmouth
Beach, beneath Ware Cliffs, immediately west of Lyme Regis.
Overlying the Blue Lias Formation are the Shales-with-Beef and Black
Ven Marl Members, although these only appear on the foreshore as
accumulations of displaced rock, shales and clay.
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Where to look for fossils?
Fossils can be found in both directions east and west of the
town centre at Lyme Regis (below-left); it's possible to cover both
coastal stretches in a single day, but is best spread across two if
possible. Provided the tides are allowing, the best place to start
is at Charmouth (below-right), heading west beneath Black Ven
towards Lyme Regis. Local buses and taxis are available back to
Charmouth if required.
Left: View east
along the seafront towards the centre of Lyme Regis. Right:
Fossil hunters search the foreshore for loose fossils.
The best place to look for fossils is among the pebbles and rock
pools on the foreshore, loose fossils including ammonites,
belemnites and reptile bones can all be found with a little
Fossils can also be found protruding through the surface
of the slumping clays along the top of the beach. At high tide the
waves wash away the soft clay, leaving the more resistant fossils
exposed and able to be collected by hand.
A visit to Lyme Regis wouldn't be complete without viewing the
ammonite graveyard, west of the town, at Monmouth Beach (see below).
This incredible stretch of foreshore accommodates dozens, perhaps
even hundreds of large ammonites among the boulders and in situ on
exposed bedrock. These particular ammonites can't be collected, but
their size and abundance makes them worth seeing all the same.
graveyard on the foreshore at Monmouth Beach. Right:
View west at Monmouth Beach, beneath Ware Cliffs, towards Pinhay
For visitors with little or no experience of the area, regular
guided fossil walks take place and are highly recommended (see
below). To hear about forthcoming Discovering Fossils trips please
Local expert Chris Pamplin addresses participants on a Discovering
Fossils fossil hunt. Right: Slumping clays contain
a range of fossils on the surface.
As with all coastal locations, a fossil hunting trip is best timed to coincide
with a falling or low-tide. For a relatively low one-off cost we
recommend the use of Neptune Tides software, which provides
future tidal information around the UK. To download a free trial
Alternatively a free short range forecast covering the next 7 days
is available on the BBC website
What fossils might you find?
The most commonly collected fossils are pyritised and calcified
ammonites - with a little patience and a keen eye, most visitors
will find at least one. To read more about ammonites
here. Other frequent finds include the bones of marine reptiles,
in particular ichthyosaur vertebrae. The ichthyosaur specimen below,
displayed in the Hamburg Zoological Museum, illustrates the position
of the vertebra relative to the rest of the skeleton.
A complete skeleton of a juvenile
ichthyosaur displayed in the Hamburg Zoological Museum - for
illustrative purposes only.
Below are a selection of finds, made over several visits. If you
find something of particular interest during your own visit, please
seek advice and support at the neighbouring Charmouth Heritage
Centre, or alternatively
on your return.
Left: Isaac holds his
prized find of the day - an ichthyosaur vertebra, from the foreshore
beneath Black Ven. Right: Close-up.
Left: A Discovering
Fossils participant holding two connected ichthyosaur vertebra, from
the slumping clays beneath Black Ven. Right: Close-up.
Left: A third
ichthyosaur vertebra, found within the slumping clays beneath Black Ven.
Right: A belemnite guard from the clays beneath Black
Left: A Discovering
Fossils participant holding a rolled foreshore pebble containing several
partial ammonite shells, found beneath Black Ven.
Right: A Discovering Fossils participant with a
pyritised ammonite (Eoderoceras) from the Stonebarrow Pyritic
Left: A small, calcified
ammonite (Promicroceras) within a split pebble, found on the
foreshore beneath Church Cliffs, Blue Lias Formation.
Right: An ammonite graveyard exposed in situ on the
foreshore beneath Black Ven, Shales-with-Beef Member?.
Left: A worn beach
pebble containing jumbled fragments of crinoid stems, found on the
foreshore beneath Black Ven.
Right: A crushed ammonite from the Shales-with-Beef
Member, found on the foreshore beneath Black Ven.
Left: A small fish
skeleton with scales (Pholidophorus?) found within fallen
shales originating from the Shales-with-Beef Member.
Right: Close-up showing the skull in the upper-right
and backbone with overlying scales travelling towards the lower-left.
Left: Hundreds of
crushed ammonites in situ on foreshore at Monmouth beach, beneath Ware
Right: Another large ammonite (Paracoroniceras?)
on the foreshore at Monmouth beach, beneath Ware Cliffs.
Left: A dozen or more
ammonites (Paracoroniceras?) pictured on the foreshore at
Monmouth beach, below Ware Cliffs. Right: A close-up.
Left: A piece of
fossilised wood alongside several ammonite fragments. Right:
A rather heavy foreshore boulder containing worm
Left: A large
nautilus in cross-section on the surface of a foreshore boulder at
Monmouth Beach, beneath Ware Cliffs.
Right: A second nautilus shell partly exposed on a
foreshore boulder, also on the foreshore at Monmouth Beach.
Tools & equipment
Left: A hammer &
chisel are recommended for splitting prospective rocks. Right:
A strong rucksack and footwear suitable for a rocky terrain are recommended.
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at Lyme
Regis. Preparation in advance will help ensure your visit is
productive and safe. Below are some of the items you should consider
carrying with you. You can purchase a selection of geological tools
and equipment online from
A strong hammer will be required to split prospective rocks. The
hammer should be as heavy as can be easily managed without causing
strain to the user. For individuals with less physical strength and
children (in particular) we recommend a head weight no more than
Chisel: A chisel is required in conjunction with a
hammer for removing fossils from the rocks. In most instances a
large chisel should be used for completing the bulk of the work,
while a smaller, more precise chisel should be used for finer work.
A chisel founded from cold steel is recommended as this metal is
especially engineered for hard materials.
Safety glasses: While
hammering rocks there's a risk of injury from rock splinters
unless the necessary eye protection is worn. Safety glasses ensure any splinters are deflected away from the eyes. Eye
protection should also be worn by spectators as splinters can
travel several metres from their origin.
Strong bag: When considering the type of bag to use it's worth setting aside
one that will only be used for fossil hunting, rocks are usually
dusty or muddy and will
make a mess of anything they come in contact with. The bag will also
need to carry a range of accessories which need to
be easily accessible. Among the features recommended include: brightly coloured,
a strong holder construction, back
support, strong straps, plenty of easily accessible pockets and a rain cover.
Walking boots: A good pair of walking boots will
protect you from ankle sprains, provide more grip on
slippery surfaces and keep you dry in wet conditions. During your
fossil hunt you're likely to encounter a variety of terrains so
footwear needs to be designed for a range of conditions.
For more information and examples of tools and equipment
recommended for fossil hunting
or shop online at
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Protecting your finds
It's important to spend some time considering the best way to
protect your finds onsite, in transit, on display and in storage.
Prior to your visit, consider the equipment and accessories you're
likely to need, as these will differ depending on the type of rock,
terrain and prevailing weather conditions.
wrapped in foam, ready for transport. Right:
A small compartment box containing cotton wool is ideal for
separating delicate specimens.
When you discover a fossil, examine the surrounding matrix (rock)
and consider how best to remove the specimen without breaking it;
patience and consideration are key. The aim of extraction is to
remove the specimen with some of the matrix attached, as this will
provide added protection during transit and future handling;
sometimes breaks are unavoidable, but with care you should be able
to extract most specimens intact. In the event of breakage,
carefully gather all the pieces together, as in most cases repairs
can be made at a later time.
For more information about collecting fossils please refer to the
following online guides:
Fossil Hunting and
Conserving Prehistoric Evidence.
Join us on a fossil hunt
Left: A birthday party with
a twist - fossil hunting at
Right: A family hold their prized ammonite at Beachy Head.
Discovering Fossils guided fossil hunts reveal evidence of life that
existed millions of years ago. Whether it's your first time fossil
hunting or you're looking to expand your subject knowledge, our fossil
hunts provide an enjoyable and educational experience for all. To find