Bracklesham Bay has long been one of the most productive and
easily accessible locations on the south coast to observe and
collect fossils. Throughout the year the sea erodes exposures of
fossil bearing clay (mostly offshore), formed during the Eocene
epoch around 46 million years ago. Each day, as the tide retreats, a
variety of fossils can be found deposited on the sand, including:
bivalve and gastropod shells, shark and ray teeth, corals and many
other marine fossils.
Left: Visitors on a
Discovering Fossils event use sieves to filter small fossils from
the sand. Right: A mixture of pale-brown fossils
and modern-day shells.
There are few natural dangers at Bracklesham besides the usual
risks associated with a tidal beach. The relatively safe environment
makes this stretch of coast an ideal starting point for young
families seeking their first fossil hunting experience. Likewise,
experienced visitors will find Bracklesham a refreshing change from
the usual hammering and digging associated with fossil hunting.
Parking, refreshments and toilet facilities are available at the
beach access point.
The geology of Bracklesham Bay
The clay formations at Bracklesham Bay belong to a group of
sediments called the Bracklesham Group, which extend continuously
from West Wittering in the north-west to Selsey in the south-east
(see fig.1 below). These sediments were deposited during the
Lutetian stage of the Eocene epoch, around 46 million years ago (+/-
1.5 million) by several rivers that supplied sediment into a large
estuary connecting to the North Sea. At this time southern Britain
lay 40°N of the equator (11° south of its current latitude),
equivalent to the present day latitude of Spain. Travelling
south-east along the foreshore the exposures become progressively
Figure 1: Geologic
map plotting the positions of the four formations of the Bracklesham
Group. The underlying London Clay is also shown to the north.
Throughout the Eocene epoch Britain's more southerly latitude
contributed to a warmer, sub-tropical environment, rich in
vegetation and fauna (animal life). Evidence for this is supported
by the fossils found at Bracklesham, which include crocodile
teeth/bones, turtle carapace, and various land derived seeds and
fruits, the latter of which were transported into the estuary by the
From car park at Bracklesham and extending 1
km towards Selsey is the Earnley Formation, a famous clay
responsible for the majority of fossils scattered across the sand at
low-tide. At certain times of the year large mushroom-shaped
pedestals of clay protrude from the sand (below-right), providing
access to fossils in situ (still in the bedrock as apposed to loose
on the beach).
of a Discovering Fossils event are accompanied by local expert David
Bone to see the Earnley Formation exposed in situ. Right:
For first time visitors to Bracklesham the concentration of the
bivalve Venericor and gastropod Turritella (see
above-right) is staggering and unlike any other UK location; it's
estimated that the ratio of fossils to clay is as much as 1:3. The
Earnley Formation is comprised of 8 numbered beds, with 3 (Venericardia
bed) and 4 (Turritella bed) most frequently exposed. The
Venericardia bed (shown above-right) contains abundant double-valved
Venericor, whereas the overlying Turritella bed contains
a much higher concentration of Turritella gastropods.
Note: A visit to Bracklesham is planned in the
near future to document the exposures further along the coast
towards Selsey. Once this is complete an expanded description of the
geology will be added here.
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Where to look for fossils?
From the car park at Bracklesham fossils can be found in either
direction towards Selsey in the south-east (left when facing out to
sea) and Wittering in the north-west (right when facing out to sea).
Conveniently the greatest volume of fossils tends to be concentrated
in close proximity to the car park and for several hundred metres
towards Selsey (Earnley Formation - see geology notes above).
Fossil collecting is dependent on a low-tide, which occurs every 12
hours; the low beach gradient provides a brief window of time to
collect, before the incoming sea quickly obscures the sand and
fossils. 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
Beach conditions vary throughout the year and are largely
unpredictable. At certain times (particularly during the winter
months) the sea transports large volumes of sand away from the
beach, exposing the underlying fossil-rich clay. This provides an
opportunity to observe fossils in situ. There are also large
offshore exposures which ensure a constant supply of loose fossil
material throughout the year.
Left: Local expert David Bone explains where to find fossils on the
beach. Right: Fossils can also be found loose among the shingle at
the top of the beach.
The best place to begin searching for fossils is on the sandy
foreshore, in particular around the ends of the wooden breakwaters
(above-left). At low-tide it's hard to avoid finding fossils at
Bracklesham, although to the untrained eye it's not immediately
apparent which shells are millions of years old and which are
modern-day. The most revealing fossil characteristic is the colour:
during fossilisation the original colours are lost and the fossil
shells takes on a pale-brown, and wood and bone turns black (see
Left: Fossils are
scattered across the beach at low-tide. Right:
Venericor bivalve shells washed out of the
underlying Earnley Formation clay.
An effective technique for locating smaller fossils, in particular
shark and ray teeth, is the use of a sieve (see below); this
technique is not dissimilar to panning for gold! Certain areas of
the beach are more productive than others, in particular keep an eye
out for patches of broken shell material on the surface, as this
indicates natural grading - a process whereby the sea organises
beach material of similar sizes. The smaller the fragments, the
smaller the fossils you're likely to find; likewise the larger the
fragments the larger the fossils. The relatively flat beach provides
easy access to shallow water in which to sieve the sand and separate
Left: Robert and
Lucinda use a steel sieve to separate fossils from the sand.
Right: A close-up reveals an assortment of fossil
fragments and pebbles.
Fossils can also be found in situ just a short distance south-east
of the car park, although as discussed above, these outcrops are
unpredictable and can remain buried beneath sand for several years
at a time! On occasions where the sand has been swept away (usually
during the winter or after stormy weather) the resulting exposures
are worth examining (see below).
mushroom-shaped clay pedestal belonging to the Earnley Formation.
Right: The Venericardia bed exposed in
Please act responsibly when collecting near the clay exposures and
limit the number of specimens recovered to an absolute minimum.
There are usually large lumps of loose clay around the base of the
pedestals from which to collect; collecting in situ specimens is not
recommended and would cause unnecessary erosion to the exposures.
Bracklesham is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),
which requires visitors observe a code of conduct. If you are not
familiar with collecting from SSSIs please visit the Natural Britain
website (formerly English Nature).
What fossils might you find?
The fossils at Bracklesham Bay are diverse and represent a
complex marine environment and neighbouring landmass. The close
proximity to land during deposition is revealed today by the
abundance of fossilised wood and fruits contained within the clay
outcrops and loose on the foreshore. Fossilised gastropod and
bivalve shells are also common, as are shark and ray teeth, fish
vertebrae, foraminifera, turtle carapace and crocodile scutes and
teeth, although the latter are relatively less so. Below are a
selection of finds made over several visits.
concentration of in situ Turritella gastropods and
Venericor bivalves, Earnley Formation / Turritella bed.
shell. Right: A complete Venericor
bivalve shell found in situ from
the Earnley Formation / Venericardia bed.
Left: A large
Venericor bivalve shell protruding in situ,
Earnley Formation. Right: A collection of
Left: The underside
of a Cubitostrea bivalve shell.
Right: Nummulites plankton-like foraminifera.
Left: The crushing
dental plate of a Myliobatis eagle ray. Right: A fragment of Aetobatus ray dental
Left: A small
unidentified fish vertebra. Right: A small (18mm)
unidentified shark vertebra.
Left: Robert and
Jonathan admire an intact Striatolamia
found on the foreshore. Right: Close-up.
Left: A small
unidentified shark tooth. Right: The tail or
defensive spine of a Myliobatis eagle ray.
Left: A gastropod
inside a section of clay originating from the Earnley Formation.
Right: A large Nypa
found in situ in the Earnley Formation.
Tools & equipment
fossils such as this fish vertebra are best extracted using a steel
A sieve is useful for filtering smaller fossils from the sand.
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at
Bracklesham. 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
Sieve: A sieve is ideal for
filtering smaller fossils from the sand, especially shark teeth
which are otherwise extremely difficult to find.
Steel point: In some instances
it's not necessary to use a hammer and chisel to remove the matrix
surrounding the fossil. Sometimes all that's required is some
careful precision work using a steel point. This is particularly
relevant with crumbly matrix, where chiselling may otherwise shatter
a fragile fossil.
Hand lens: A hand lens enables the fossil hunter to enjoy the finer
details of the specimens they find. It's often remarkable how well preserved
some of the most intricate structures can be. We recommend
a lens with x10 magnification that folds away into a metal casing to protect
it from damage.
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.
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