Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A cause for concern

I've heard that a dinosaur is going to be excavated from Smokejacks Quarry (the location in which Baryonyx was found) by Jamie Jordan of fossilgalore. This is a cause for concern. Firstly, although Jordan claims to be a "self-taught palaeontologist" he is nothing of the sort. He has carried out no original research, has never published any paper in any scientific or academic journal, and never (to my knowledge) attended or contributed to any scientific conference. It is clear from visiting his web site that he has very limited knowledge or understanding of the subject, and lacks the experience and understanding to carry out such an excavation in a careful and scientific manner. He is asking members of the public to pay for the privilege of helping with the excavation with no regard to their experience or competence. I don't know how he managed to get permission from the owners of Smokejacks Quarry to embark on this excavation, but is is worth noting that he has obtained permission to collect, and even been given specimens from pits in the Peterborough area with the claim that he represents a museum. He doesn't. "Fossil galore" is a shop, not a museum. I have little doubt that the scientific value of what may be an important specimen will be largely lost through inexperienced and incompetent excavation. Legally there is nothing which can be done to stop him, but by spreading the word to pit owners and operators perhaps he can be prevented from gaining such permissions in the future. This is beginning to have some effect around Peterborough though contacts between members of the Stamford Group and museum volunteers and landowners. This is not an attack on commercial collectors. Many of them understand the scientific value of the specimens they collect, and are very skilled in the preparation of their material. However, I don't know of any who would refer to themselves as palaeontologists, "self-taught" or not, unless they have made a significant contribution to science. This not an attack on those without formal qualifications in the subject. It is possible to learn, to carry out research and to publish without such qualifications - as is the case with my own research. However, I was only able to achieve what I have with a lot of support, help and advice from palaeontologists, and because I quickly appreciated when dealing with them that I was profoundly ignorant of the subject and needed to learn a lot before I could make any scientifically valid contribution to the field. I am part of the team of Peterborough Museum volunteers who recently excavated a new plesiosaur specimen from one of the Oxford Clay brick pits. We were meticulous in recording every scrap of bone, photographing everything in situ, and using photogrammetry to record 3D models of the excavation stage by stage. This is how such excavations should be done. Archaeologists have the luxury of the legal right to stop work on developments if archaeological finds are made, and even have funding to support their excavations. Palaeontological finds such as this dinosaur can be excavated by anyone provided they have permission from the landowner regardless of their expertise or competence. In many cases fossils are exposed by erosion on the sea shore, and in such cases it is more important to recover the specimen to prevent its destruction than to insist on legal niceties, but in the case of quarries there is no such imperative. It's about time that palaeontologists had the same rights as archaeologists to reduce the risk of important specimens being lost to science.


  1. His claims as to the nature of the specimen as the predecessor of all iguanodonts seem entirely unfounded. He has given this self-proclaimed holotype to a volunteer doing their very first prep job to extract from the matrix. I support your concern. As an amateur myself I agree it is important to protect such finds so their scientific value is preserved. Equally as an amateur, I would emphasise that we should not all be tarred with the same brush. Responsible amateurs / amateur groups can fossil hunt with due care and attention and contribute to scientific discovery. I am concerned hat the actions of the likes of Jamie Jordan will result in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater to the detriment of responsible amateur collectors like myself.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I'm an amateur myself, in the sense that I lack formal qualifications in palaeontology, but consider myself to be a palaeontologist because I have carried out original research, published in scientific journals, contributed to scientific conferences and am frequently asked to review papers by journal editors. That I may be perceived as in the same category as Jordan horrifies me.

  2. The above text is not a fair comment on Jamie's ability, personality, or conduct. Either in general, nor in the specific case of this iguanodontid specimen.

    I have been in contact with Jamie about this specimen specifically (and more generally at various other points in the past few years). He has sent me field data, including an excavation map, a measured stratigraphic section, field sketches, photos of the excavation, photos of current preparation, and logs of the preparation process. This data is appropriate, and we have discussed further alternative or improved methods. We have discussed preparation equipment, glues, and chemicals; the equipment currently being used (CP's, B-72 as both consolidant and contact adhesive) are appropriate and typical of what is used in prep labs worldwide. We have also discussed pertinent things to be aware of during collecting and preparation (soft tissues, amber, charcoal, microfossils, invertebrates, even adhered snail eggs), and Jamie has told me about various associated remains and preservation issues.

    I share your concern that scientifically important specimens are not 'lost to science'. I have discussed this with Jamie. He assured me that he hasn't sold any specimens that he has collected -despite having had the opportunity to do so- and is interested in the scientific research his discoveries can contribute towards.

    All of the best fossil collectors I have ever met did not have formal training, so lack of a degree doesn't mean very much regarding collecting ability as universities teach different skills. This said, I think as academics we can work a little harder to bring more collectors into the research side: show them what positive impact their specimens can have in research, and involve them directly in the process. In particular, we need to emphasise how associated data is actually used as evidence to test hypotheses. Equally, collectors need to understand the responsibility that comes with collecting fossils which represent rare or unique opportunities to learn more about the history of life.

    The above account does not describe the Jamie that I have been in contact with. We all take time to learn; he's a young lad who has found some great fossils, with potential to contribute significantly to paleontological research and outreach through his collecting and public programs. I would like to continue encouraging these positive aspects with a view to getting the research out on these important specimens. That's what we all want right?


    Denver Fowler
    PhD (Museum of the Rockies, Montana)
    MSc (University of Bristol, UK)
    BSc (University of Durham, UK)

  3. Denver Fowler: I'm afraid that your description of Jordan does not in any way reflect the views of those who have had dealings with him in the east of England where most of his activities take place.

    To the best of my knowledge - and feel free to provide evidence that I am wrong - he has never carried out any original research, never written a scientific paper, never published in any scientific journal, and never contributed to a scientific conference. I suggest that this makes his claim to be a "self-educated palaeontologist" noting more than ludicrous and unfounded self-promotion.

    The best fossil collectors I know do not describe themselves as palaeontologists unless they have made a significant contribution to the science of palaeontology.

    It is telling that despite his claims of expertise, he makes elementary mistakes in identifying fossil. A typical example is from the King's Dyke nature reserve's web site where he has identified a plesiosaur propodial as a scapula - an error so elementary which nobody with even a superficial understanding of plesiosaur anatomy would make.

    It may be that your experience is different, but the experience of those who have to deal with him on a regular basis is very different, and almost entirely negative.