Charmouth was one of the first locations added to Discovering
Fossils, and has since been the destination for several organised
fossil trips. The famous coastline between Lyme Regis (in the west),
and Seatown (in the east), has yielded a range of spectacular fossils,
including: giant marine reptiles, intricate crinoids and ammonites.
Left: View west at Charmouth towards Black Ven and Lyme Regis.
Right: Parking and refreshments are available alongside the mouth of the river Char.
The beach and cliffs are part of the Jurassic Coast (World
Heritage Site), which encompass 95 miles of coast between Dorset and
Devon. The area is well suited to amateur and experienced fossil
hunters alike; throughout the year visitors flock in their masses to
scour the beach for fossils washed out of the cliffs and foreshore.
The rocks at Charmouth date predominantly from the early part of
the Jurassic period (around 190 million years ago), during which
time this area lay beneath a warm, shallow sea, closer to the
equator, approximately where North Africa resides today.
Left: A family
explore the foreshore for loose fossils among the rock pools.
Right: A young fossil hunter inquisitively hammers
a foreshore boulder.
Charmouth is well equipped for visiting fossil hunters: parking,
refreshments and a visitor centre displaying local finds are
available all year round, alongside the mouth of the river Char (see
above-right). From the car park visitors can follow the beach in an
easterly or westerly direction (see above-left). The following page
is concerned with the journey 4,000m to the east, beneath
Stonebarrow Hill, and towards Golden Cap and Seatown.
The geology of Charmouth
The cliffs and foreshore between Charmouth and Seatown represent two
stages within the Early Jurassic (or Lias) period known as the
Sinemurian and Pliensbachian, dating from approximately 190-185 million
years ago. During this time, an enormous, generally shallow
epicontinental sea (less than 100m deep), spread over this area of the
world, and laid down alternating layers of clay and limestone. At that
time, Charmouth (as it's now known), lay closer to the equator, roughly
where North Africa is today. Overlying the Jurassic sediments are
younger Cretaceous deposits, including the Gault and golden coloured
Upper Greensand (green when freshly split) - deposited around 106-102
million years ago (see Figure 1). See
for geology and fossils towards the west.
Figure 1: Diagram
indicating the approximate positions of the key geological horizons
at Charmouth. For a table of geologic periods
Fossils can be found throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous
exposures between Charmouth and Golden Cap, however it's the
Jurassic rocks in particular, that attract fossil hunters to
Life was abundant during the Jurassic period, giant marine
reptiles inhabited the seas and pterosaurs flew across the skies.
This was also the time of the dinosaurs, however the presence of sea
over much of the area, and distance from any significant landmass,
means their fossils are rarely found at Charmouth.
There are five important members present in the cliffs (not
including the overlying Cretaceous sediments) between Stonebarrow
and Golden Cap, from which a variety of fossils can be collected:
Black Ven Marl Member - This is the lowest and
oldest of the sediments present beneath Stonebarrow, and is the
first to be encountered travelling east, towards Golden Cap. The
name is taken from the cliffs west of Charmouth - Black Ven, where
the complete member is exposed. The full thickness of the member
comprises 44m of mostly dark-grey mudstones, with subordinate beds
of nodular and tabular limestone. The most conspicuous marker
within the Black Ven Marls is known as the Lower Cement Bed (see
Figure 2). This 0.3m thick limestone bed is visible in the lower
part of the cliff beneath Stonebarrow, before disappearing beneath
the shingle about 1,500m from the beach access point. Overlying the
Lower Cement Bed (5m higher) is the Upper Cement Bed.
Figure 2: Lower
Cement Bed nearing beach level. Figure 3: Upper
Cement Bed at beach level, and Limestone with Brachiopods Bed midway
up the cliff.
The Upper Cement Bed (pictured at beach level, fig.3 above), is
identifiable by two closely spaced limestone bands. The photo
above-right also shows the overlying Limestone with Brachiopods Bed
(11m higher). It's recently been proposed to separate and name the
upper 17m of the Black Ven Marl Member, the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic
Member' (fig.4 and 6 below), although this is not yet formerly
recognised and its inclusion within quotation marks is for
illustrative purposes only.
Dr Paul Davis (NHM London): 'There are high volumes of pyritic
fossils throughout the Black Ven Marl Member, however there is a
distinct lithology change and it may – on a sedimentological basis -
be sensible to separate the two units. As an aside the upper ‘unit’
pyritic fossils are much more susceptible to pyrite decay than those
from below (e.g. how many pyritic Promicroceras decay as opposed to
pyritic Echioceras or Eoderoceras!) I also think that this boundary
(which is marked by the top of the Coinstones - Bed 89 of Lang) is
mapable inland. It also represents a major nonconformity where 6
ammonite subzones are missing as there was a long period of non
deposition – this can be seen on the top of the Coinstones by the
fact they were exposed on the seabed for a long period of time – it
is bored and has a very eroded upper surface and can make an obvious
ledge or break in slope when looking at the cliffs.'
The proposed base of the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member' is 3m above
the prominent Limestone with Brachiopods Bed (Figure 4 and 5), and
extends upwards to the overlying, pale coloured, Belemnite Marl
Member. The total thickness of the member would be approximately
Figure 4: Proposed
position of the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member'. Figure 5:
Close-up of the proposed position of the 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member'.
These dark-coloured sediments are largely responsible for the
volume of pyrite ammonites that scatter the foreshore, and include:
Crucilobiceras, Eoderoceras, Echioceras and the distinctive (smooth
surfaced) Oxynoticeras lymense.
Belemnite Marl Member: These
deposits are seen towards the top of the cliffs, but are best
examined beneath the eastern side of Golden Cap, where they reappear
on the sea-weathered foreshore. During a low-tide, belemnite guards
can be seen in abundance, protruding from the exposed rock surface.
Although abundant, the in-situ belemnites are protected by the SSSI
status of the area, and should not be removed manually. Fortunately,
a large number of belemnite guards can be found loose among the
shingle and boulders. Despite the name given to the Belemnite Marl
Member, ammonites are also abundant throughout the sediments.
Pale-layers of the Belemnite Marl Member in the upper cliff section.
Figure 7: View towards Golden Cap; the Belemnite
Marls reach beach level.
The Belemnite Marls are easily identified, by their alternating pale
and dark horizontal bands (Figure 6 and 7). The different shades of
grey are the result of the differing organic carbon content (higher
in the darker bands). The Belemnite Marls extend 23m upwards, to the
overlying Green Ammonite Mudstone Member.
Green Ammonite Mudstone
Member: This member rests above the Belemnite Marls and measures
some 15m thick at Stonebarrow and 34m at Golden Cap. Ammonites are
abundant and include species of Aegoceras, Oistoceras, Liparoceras,
Tragophylloceras and Androgynoceras (below-right).
Figure 8: The Green Ammonite
Mudstone Member is visible in the lower 34m of the cliff. Right:
A common ammonite (Androgynoceras lataecosta).
Although present in the upper part of the cliffs at Stonebarrow, the
Green Ammonite Mudstone Member is best observed at the base of
Golden Cap (Figure 8) and beyond, towards Seatown. Please take
additional care and wear a hard hat if venturing anywhere near the
cliff itself; rock falls occur on a daily basis.
Eype Clay Member: The base of the Eype Clay Member is marked by
three well-cemented, fine-grained, mudstones, each 0.5-1m thick;
indicating an abrupt end to the underlying Green Ammonite Mudstone
Member. These mudstones (known as the Three Tiers) form prominent
ledges in the cliff (Figure 9 and 10).
Figure 9: Eype Clay Member, looking east beneath Golden Cap.
Figure 10: View west towards Golden Cap, from Seatown.
Above the Eype Clay Member, lies the Down Cliff Sands (Figure 10),
however material from this unit is less commonly found at beach
level, and is not the subject of this particular location review.
Above this, lies the younger Gault and Upper Greensand, dating from
the Cretaceous period.
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Where to look for fossils?
Fossils can be found along the entire coastal stretch between
Charmouth and Seatown, although the volume is highest within within the
first 1,000m of the beach access point. The best (and safest) place to
search is amongst the shingle and exposed foreshore, at low-tide, as
Left: Searching the
shingle and exposed foreshore at low-tide. Right:
Visitors, young and old, can find fossil with nothing more than a
During a falling tide, fossils are deposited between the high
and low-water mark, and are easily found with a keen eye. Among the
most common finds include: pyritised ammonites, belemnite guards and
crinoid stems. It's also worth examining the clay accumulations at
the base of the slumping cliffs (see below-left); however, this
should only be attempted where there's a minimal risk of injury from
falling rocks. For much of the year, it's possible to examine the
toe (end) of the clay accumulations, without getting too close to
the cliff itself. As always, a reasonable judgment must be applied
at the time, and children should be closely supervised.
Left: The muddy
clay accumulates at the base of the cliff. Right:
Close examination of the clay can reveal an assortment of ammonites
and other fossils.
The toe of the clay accumulations ('Stonebarrow Pyritic Member', in
this instance) are often subject to weathering from the sea at
high-tide, and during stormy conditions in particular. This process
washes away the soft clay, exposing the more resistant fossils on
the surface (see above-right). Using a small steel point (see
equipment), it's possible to gently ease exposed fossils from
cliffs beneath Golden Cap. Right: A partially
exposed ammonite from within the Green Ammonite Mudstone Member.
Continuing along the beach (towards Seatown) you eventually reach
the towering cliffs beneath Golden Cap. At this point the Green
Ammonite Mudstone Member is exposed in the lower part of the cliff,
within which some very well preserved ammonites (in particular) can
be collected. For more information about the features and
processes shaping coastal fossil collecting locations
As with all coastal locations, a fossil hunting trip is best timed to coincide
with a falling or low-tide. 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
What fossils might you find?
Charmouth is a destination for thousands of fossil hunters each
year, and for good reason, this is one of the best fossil collecting
locations in the country. Ammonites, nautili, belemnites, crinoids,
bivalves, fish, marine reptile bones, and even insects and the
occasional dinosaur bone, can all be found here. The most commonly
collected fossils are pyritised ammonites; with a little patience and a
keen eye, most visitors will find at least one. To read more about
Below are a selection of finds, made over several visits. If you
find something of particular interest during your own visit, please
seek advice and support at the Charmouth Heritage Centre - alongside
the car park.
Left: A pyritised
ammonite (Echioceras raricostatum), 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member'.
Right: A quick wash and the ammonite (shown left) is
Left: Ammonite (Echioceras raricostatum), 'Stonebarrow Pyritic
Member'. Right: A beach pebble containing crinoid
Left: A nodule on
the foreshore from the Black Ven Marls. Right:
Inside - a large unidentified fish, the pectoral fin is clearly
visible in the lower-left.
Left: A split beach pebble containing a fragment of ammonite
shell. Right: Ammonite (Eoderoceras armatum), 'Stonebarrow Pyritic Member'.
Left: A flint
echinoid (Sternotaxis plana) possibly from the
Chalk west of Charmouth? Right: A belemnite guard found on the
Left: A rolled
beach pebble, comprised of three small ichthyosaur vertebra.
Right: A small, isolated ichthyosaur vertebra,
found on the foreshore.
Left: Ammonite (Promicroceras planicosta), Black Ven Marl Member.
Right: A yellow calcite ammonite (Promicroceras planicosta), Black Ven Marl Member.
ammonite (Gagaticeras gagateum), Black Ven Marl
Member. Right: Ammonite (Oxynoticeras lymense?), Black Ven Marl
Left: A small rolled ichthyosaur jaw containing a number of
teeth. Right: A partial nautilus (Cenoceras), Green Ammonite
ammonite (Eoderoceras armatum), 'Stonebarrow
Pyritic Member'. Right: Ammonite (Amaltheus stokesi), Eype Clay
Tools & equipment
Left: A group fossil
hunting at Charmouth. Right:
A geologist's hammer is ideal for splitting prospective rocks.
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at
Charmouth. 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
A strong hammer will be required to split prospective rocks. The
hammer should be as heavy as can be easily managed without causing
strain to the user. For individuals with less physical strength and
children (in particular) we recommend a head weight no more than
Chisel: A chisel is required in conjunction with a
hammer for removing fossils from the rock. In most instances a
large chisel should be used for completing the bulk of the work,
while a smaller, more precise chisel should be used for finer work.
A chisel founded from cold steel is recommended as this metal is
especially engineered for hard materials.
Safety glasses: While
hammering rocks there's a risk of injury from rock splinters
unless the necessary eye protection is worn. Safety glasses ensure any splinters are deflected away from the eyes. Eye
protection should also be worn by spectators as splinters can
travel several metres from their origin.
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.
Walking boots: A good pair of walking boots will
protect you from ankle sprains, provide more grip on
slippery surfaces and keep you dry in wet conditions. During your
fossil hunt you're likely to encounter a variety of terrains so
footwear needs to be designed for a range of conditions.
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