24 Dec 2021

UK amateur fossil hunters' mammoth haul

From Nine To Noon, 9:30 am on 24 December 2021

Part-time palaeontologists Sally and Neville Hollingworth are an English couple who have already struck gold twice. 

Four years ago, they uncovered the site of five Ice-Age mammoths in a 200,000-year-old mammoth graveyard.

This year - in a discovery hailed as 'globally significant' by London's Natural History Museum - the Hollingworths unearthed a 167-million-year-old haul of fossil echinoderms (invertebrate marine animals).

What at first appeared to be a piece of wood in a working quarry led to the discovery of the mammoths, Neville told Kathryn Ryan.

“When I got a bit closer I said; ‘that looks like bone’. And then we started digging this bone out and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And then we realised we had a whole leg bone, or humerus, of a mammoth, it couldn't have been anything else.”

Soon the Hollingworth noticed other interesting fragments around the site.

“There was a lot of bone and lots of teeth and other things lying around. So we picked up some and then we found more.”

As they looked for more bones, Sally made some further discoveries.

"I saw this sort of glint of flint, chocolate kind of flint, in the sunlight and I picked it up and held it in my hand, and it just fit perfectly in the palm of your hand. Instantly, I knew it was a hand axe, and for a few seconds, I had a goose-bump moment where you're holding an artefact in your hand that hasn't been touched by modern human or early man for 200,000 years and you're the first person to hold this beautiful flint hand axe."

The axe was lying in the same layer of earth as the mammoth bones, Sally says.  

“We thought 'this is really important - this could be early man with mammoth'. And that's where we reached out to some specialists.”

The Hollingworths have named their most recent discovery a 'Jurassic Pompeii', Sally says.

“We came across this very small working quarry where the gravel had been extracted to a layer of clay. So, the landowners had got to a point where they thought well, they can't use it for gravel extraction. And that was lucky because that was the layer that was really interesting.”

On the floor of the quarry the couple found “a fossilised Jurassic sea,” Neville says.

“All the different types of echinoderms which people who go to the coast are familiar with starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and these enigmatic things called sea lilies or feather stars, which are also known as crinoids.

“And these were beautifully preserved and completely intact, with all the small, tiny features beautifully preserved, the sea urchins all had their spines preserved.”

The Hollingworths soon realised that they'd discovered something very special.

“We contacted the Natural History Museum in London. Dr Tim Ewin came out, had a look at the site and he couldn’t believe his eyes, he said, ‘Do you realise he said that museum in over 200 years of collecting from rocks of this age only have about a dozen specimens.? And where we are now we're looking at thousands of them.”

Unfortunately, the animals discovered at 'Jurassic Pompeii' tend not to make good fossils, Neville says.

“We describe the site as a Jurassic Pompeii for one very good reason. That was because the site, the deposits that we found in them are in clay on limestone.

“We think [the mammoths] died in an ancient storm. A mudslide, a sort of a tsunami of mud, covered them and buried them alive.”