Where stone leaps to life

25th September 1998 at 01:00
The Isle of Wight is still yielding its treasures to visitors who would love to get their hands on the real stuff of prehistory. Fossils abound in Britain's 'dinosaur capital', says Chris Fautley

Hardly the land that time forgot, the Isle of Wight claims with justice to be Britain's dinosaur capital. "The past 20 years have seen an absolute explosion of interest in dinosaurs," says Martin Munt, deputy curator of the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, adding that it has been fuelled enormously by the fact that the island is Britain's richest source of dinosaur bones. This, he explains, is due to the unique combination of wealth of material, uplift of the land and erosion.

Although the museum is the proud owner of some 25,000 specimens, it is small, so can only cater for parties of up to 35 at a time. A tremendous amount has been crammed in - if it has been fossilised, here you will find it: ammonites, ferns, seeds, leaves, spiders, flies . . . Lack of space means that there is only a small selection of dinosaur bones on view, although room has been found for a fibreglass replica of a unique Isle of Wight species found a few years ago, Neovenator salerii.

There is plenty of material available for object-handling sessions, as Year 5 and 6 pupils from St Matthew's High Brooms Primary School, in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, discover. And in a talk pitched at just the right level and encompassing not only fossils but geology in general, Martin makes a good job of explaining some of the more scientific aspects - such as the properties of metamorphic rocks. It is an excellent introduction to the fossil hunt on the beach at Shanklin.

Teacher Laurel Soden says the school is a regular visitor to the island. They combine both history and geography from key stage 2: Year 6, study of an alternative locality in the UK; Year 5, rocks and science.

However, this is St Matthew's first fossil hunt, and after a brief pep talk on precisely what to look for, the search begins in earnest.

Without those instructions the hunt would probably have been fruitless. But even the merest smidgen of inside knowledge goes a long way, and within a few minutes the first specimen is found.

"Fossilised wood - 96 million years old," explains Martin, encouragingly. It is remarkably common on this part of the island, sufficiently so that each child is soon weighed down with a bagful of specimens. Other finds include parts of fossilised sponges, sea urchins and an ammonite.

If, at the outset, the children are pessimistic about finding anything, the early success of the hunt soon dispels their scepticism. "I didn't think we'd find any," says one. "But it's easy once you know how."

Ms Soden says that although it is one thing to handle fossils in the classroom, it is far more immediate to handle them in their natural environment - even better if you have found them yourself.

"The children will remember this," she says. "There will be a lot of feedback. They find Martin very easy to talk to."

Martin emphasises that these are not dinosaur hunts. "If you promise a dinosaur, children expect to pick up a claw or something - which they will not do."

He also explains that fossil hunts are conducted only on sustainable sites where erosion is sure to reveal more.

But if it's dinosaurs you crave, head along the coast to the Dinosaur Farm at Brighstone. Here, in 1992, on cliffs bordering land farmed by Geoff and Barbara Phillips, museum curator Steve Hutt stumbled on the remains of one of Britain's most spectacular dinosaurs, a brachiosaurid.

It isn't every farmer who has the remains of a 50ft long-necked monster discovered in their back yard, and many would argue they have far more important things to worry about. But, fortunately, the Phillips's enthusiasm has been colossal. Not only did they help in retrieving the skeleton, they have also made a huge barn available where parts of it and scores of other dinosaur bones and fossils are displayed. The experience is hands-on at its very best - very little is behind glass.

The geology museum and Dinosaur Farm complement each other marvellously. As Martin says, the museum conserves and collects, while the farm displays.

But what makes a visit to the farm really special is that it shows how fossils are restored. It is astonishing to watch volun-teers painstakingly and delicately extracting bones from rocks in which they have lain for 120 million years. "Please ask questions" a sign reads, perhaps to prompt those who have been rendered speechless.

"This is a working museum," says palaeontologist Nick Chase. "You see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, like the preparation work."

With its jaw-dropping selection of massive bones to handle, the farm is extremely popular with children. "It grabs their attention quite strongly, " continues Nick. "They learn about the history of life, that the world has changed and that there are reasons for it - if you look for them."

Nick adds that although only 40 per cent of the brachiosaurid has been found, discovering it demonstrates that "people can make a serious contribution to this sort of thing without having access to millions of pounds".

He recounts the story of a family who, after visiting the farm, went to the beach. They returned later in the day with two pieces of chalk in which were embedded sharks teeth, and an enormous lump of sandstone containing part of a jaw from an ichthy-osaurus, a marine reptile, which was a rare find.

Of course, luck plays a part too: just ask the father who got fed up with fossil hunting and fell asleep on the beach - on top of an iguanodon bone.

Instructive, informative, fun; a visit to the Dinosaur Farm makes an outstanding day out. No child should be denied the opportunity of seeing it.

The Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, High Street, Sandown, sle of Wight P036 8AF. Tel: 01983 404344. Open all year, advance booking for school parties essential. Admission free. Educational talk Pounds 6. Fossil hunt about Pounds 2 per child, depending on group size. Minimum charge Pounds 30. Booklet: Guidelines for Collecting Fossils on the Isle of Wight, free plus small SAE.l The Dinosaur Farm, Military Road, Brighstone, Isle of Wight P030 4PG. Tel: 01983 74040l. Open Easter to October. Advance booking essential. Admission: Pounds 1-Pounds 1.50 per child, depending on size of party


l Shortly after this visit to the Dinosaur Farm it was announced that the remains of another, hitherto unknown species of dinosaur had been discovered nearby - 120 million years old and about 15ft long. It beckons the question: how long before a school party finds something really special and has a species named after it?


* Hanover Point: fossilised forest * St Catherine's Point: ammonites * Sandown Bay: dinosaurs and bivalves * Coast near Brighstone: dinosaurs and their footprints * Shanklin: fossilised wood

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