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.