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Written and designed by Roy Shepherd. Special thanks to my wonderful wife
Lucinda Shepherd, friend Robert Randell and various experts for their support.

Hastings (East Sussex)
Location maps
Hastings cliffs
Location summary
Geological period
Early Cretaceous
Approximate age
143-139 million years
Fossil diversity
Dinosaur footprints and bones, ferns...
Find frequency
Low
Dangers to consider
Falling rocks, rising tide... read more
Equipment needed
Hammer, chisel, eye protection...
Protection status
This location is designated a SSSI
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How might the Hastings area have looked 140 million years ago?
Environment reconstructionEnvironment reconstructionEnvironment reconstructionEnvironment reconstruction

Introduction

Hastings is a large town (and borough) on the coast of East Sussex in Southern England with a population of over 86,000 people. Immediately east of the town and extending for four miles towards Fairlight are a series of spectacular golden coloured cliffs that tower over 100 metres above sea-level.

In recent centuries many fine fossils have been exposed within the cliffs and foreshore, including the skeletal remains of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and fish, and other creatures and vegetation that inhabited this environment around 140 million years ago (mya).

The sandstone rocks and fossils provide evidence of a large lake or lagoon, rich in aquatic and land based life, including several species of herbivorous (plant eating) and carnivorous (meat eating) dinosaurs. Although dinosaur bones are relatively rare the evidence of these reptiles movements can be found more commonly in the form of footprints and casts on the surface of fallen rocks.

Roadside parking along Rock-a-Nore Road in HastingsSandstone cliffs at Hastings
Left: Parking is available east of the town along Rock-a-Nore Road. Right: View from the car park area overlooking the cliffs east of Hastings.

Access to the cliffs and foreshore is made from Rock-a-Nore road, along which 'pay and display' parking is available throughout the year (see above-left). A visit to Hastings is best timed to coincide with a falling tide as much of the foreshore is otherwise submerged beneath the sea, however depending on the height of the high-tide some areas of the backshore may remain accessible.

The geology of Hastings

The sediments exposed in the cliffs and on the foreshore between Hastings and Fairlight in the east date from the Early Cretaceous epoch (Berriasian - Valanginian stages) approximately 143-139 mya. The sand and silt was transported to the area by rivers and streams, and then settled in a large lake/lagoon (predominantly above sea level). At this time Hastings and the rest of Britain were part of the European landmass, located around 40°north of the equator, on the same latitude as the Mediterranean Sea is today.

For much of the Berriasian and Valanginian stages the climate was sub-tropical with seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall. The mostly low-lying land that surrounded the water was home to a rich plant flora, revealed by the abundance of fossilised plant material found throughout the succession. Conifers and related plants were the dominant tree and cycad-like plants were also present (see below-left). Grasses did not exist during the Cretaceous, instead the ground was covered by the horsetail Equisetites.

Fossil conifer cone at HastingsRoy Shepherd stands alongside a fallen boulder featuring prehistoric rippled sandstone
Left: A conifer cone reveals the presence of neighbouring vegetation. Right: Rippled sandstone reveals a sediment formed in shallow water.

Hastings is part of the Weald Basin, an area of uplifted land that occupies over 4,000 square kilometres of South East England (south of London), between the South and North Downs. The uplift is the result of pressure generated by the European and African continental plates colliding (generating the Alps), a process that took place to the greatest extent 30-25 mya (see Fig.1 and 2 below).

Geology of South East EnglandGeology of the Weald
Figure 1: A geological summary of South East England showing the location of the cross-section. Figure 2: A cross-section through the Weald. Not to scale.

Over time the surface of the uplifted land has been greatly eroded, stripping away the upper (later) layers and exposing the underlying (earlier) sediments. Erosion has occurred at its greatest towards the centre of the anticline where the uplift is at its highest. The process of erosion is the reason why the top of the cliffs at Hastings are not capped by several hundred metres of clays and Chalk in particular.

The sediments exposed between Hastings and Fairlight belong to the Ashdown and Wadhurst Clay formations, and are comprised mostly of alternating layers of sandstones, siltstones and mudstones. Fig. 3 below provides a summary of the geology between East Hill and Ecclesbourne Glen, including the surface position of the Foul Ness Fault.

Geology panoramic of Hastings cliffs by Roy Shepherd
Figure 3: The stratigraphy of the cliffs east of Hastings towards Ecclesbourne Glen and beyond.

Travelling north-east from Hastings the upper sandstone division of the Ashdown Formation is well exposed in the cliff and on the foreshore. This division, known as the Ashdown Sandstone, measures between 30-50m thick and was originally deposited around 142 mya. The course sandstone (more arenaceous) is thought to reflect a period of high rainfall during which large volumes of sand were eroded from the source rocks and transported into the area. 

The Ashdown Formation also encompasses the underlying Fairlight Clay division, a less sandy (more argillaceous) sediment comprised mostly of siltstone and mudstone, dating from c.143 mya. The reduced volume of sandy sediments within the Fairlight Clay is though to reflect a period of reduced rainfall during which erosion of the source rocks was less. The uppermost beds of the Fairlight Clay can be seen in the lower cliff and on the foreshore a short distance beyond the Foul Ness Fault (see Fig.3). Together the two divisions of the Ashdown Formation measure approximately 120m.

Overlying the Ashdown Formation is the Wadhurst Clay Formation, which includes the Cliff End Sandstone at its base; between Hastings and Fairlight approximately 20m of the Wadhurst Clay is exposed. These sediments date from around 139 million years ago and are the earliest exposed in situ along this stretch of coast. The Wadhurst Clay is comprised mostly of grey mudstone with subordinate sandstone and siltstone beds (among others), and represents the marginal area of a lagoon, into which influxes of salt water occurred during a transgression phase.

Travelling east from Hastings the underlying sediments are generally brought to the surface by localised folding, however at the eastern end of Fairlight Cove (approximately 4 miles from Hastings) Haddock's Reverse Fault brings the overlying Wadhurst Clay Formation to within several meters of the beach level. See the Fairlight page for more information.


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Where to look for fossils?

Fossils can be found throughout the fallen rocks and in situ on the foreshore, especially following periods of stormy weather. Although fossils are common, in particular the bivalve Neomiodon, other fossils are less so and it may require several visits to develop a thorough understanding of this prehistoric environment.

The best place to explore for dinosaur bones and footprint/casts is among the boulders on the foreshore and towards (not directly beneath) the base of the cliff. The cliffs at Hastings are unstable and falling rocks occur frequently throughout the year; it's always a good idea to keep well clear of the area immediately beneath the cliff face. In recent years a number of large collapses have created vast accumulations of boulders on the beach, and it's from these that dinosaur footprints can occasionally be found.

Dinosaur footprints and casts are distinguishable from the surrounding rock by their characteristic three-toed shape. Footprints appear as impressions (indented) on the surface, whereas casts usually protrude above the surrounding rock. For every footprint is a cast, although due to the chaotic nature of cliff collapses they are seldom found in close proximity.

The footprints were originally formed in moist but relatively firm sediment, near to the water's edge (see Fig. 4 below). Immediately following their formation the sediment dried and hardened in the sun. Soon after, perhaps following a flash-flood, the footprints were buried by additional sediment of a slightly different composite derived from upstream. These subtle differences in composite would later encourage the separation of the rock between the two layers.

Reconstruction of Iguanodon sun-baked footprintsIllustration of a dinosaur footprint and cast
Figure 4: A reconstruction showing a sun-baked dinosaur trackway at the edge of a drained lake. Figure 5: An illustration of a dinosaur footprint and cast.

After millions of years the sediment lithified (turned to rock) and natural weaknesses formed along the horizon between the two original layers.

Following exposure in the present day large sections of the cliff collapse onto the beach. As this occurs the two original layers separate along the natural weakness leaving an indented footprint on one surface and a protruding cast on the other (see Fig. 5 above).

In some instances the weakness passes through the cast instead of around it, in which case the two layers may sheer the fossil in half, creating a cross-section on both surfaces. In other instances the cast may become separated from the rock and appear as an isolated boulder.

Below are two examples of the most common dinosaur footprints/casts at Hastings. The first (and largest in this instance) is a cast formed by an adult Iguanodon, a herbivorous dinosaur that could reach up to 10m (33ft) from head to tail. Iguanodon featured a narrow head with a strong beak and grinding teeth suitable for grazing on vegetation growing near the lakeside and river banks. It predominantly walked on all four legs, although the larger muscular hind pair carried the greatest load; the lighter front pair featured an additional spike on the first finger used for gathering food and to defend itself. The cast below shows Iguanodon's characteristic short, wide toes, ideally suited for carrying the dinosaur's heavy body and tail.

Iguanodon dinosaur footprint at HastingsIguanodon foot cast on the foreshore at Hastings
Left: Bill explains to Louis how the Iguanodon foot cast was formed. Right: A large Iguanodon foot cast partly protruding from a boulder on the foreshore.

The second footprint shown below belongs to a fast moving carnivorous theropod dinosaur. Unlike Iguanodon, theropod toes were long and pointed with a sharp claw used for improved mobility and clasping prey. The generic features make a precise identification impossible, however for the purposes of this page the footprints are attributed to Baryonyx.

Theropod foot prints at HastingsTheropod dinosaur footprint at Hastings
Left: Discovering Fossils event participants move the shingle away to reveal two theropod footprints. Right: A large theropod footprint cross-section.

In adulthood Baryonyx was a formidable predator, standing on two powerful rear legs and measuring up to 10m (33ft) from head to tail. These dinosaurs featured a relatively narrow head with long jaws equipped with an arsenal of teeth (similar to a crocodile) ideal for predating upon fish and possibly Iguanodon too. Baryonyx was also equipped with a large claw at the end of each forelimb, most probably used to prevent prey from escaping.

There are usually several footprints to be found at any one time, however for much of the year they may be buried beneath shingle and difficult to locate without prior knowledge of the area. As always, patience and persistence are the key to success.

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 click here. Alternatively a free short range forecast covering the next 7 days is available on the BBC website click here.

What fossils might you find?

Below are a selection of some of the fossils you may encounter during a visit to Hastings. These specimens were observed or collected during several visits and are not representative of the volume observed during a typical day.

Iguanodon foot cast on the beach at HastingsIguanodon vertebra found by Gordon Elder at Hastings
Left: An Iguanodon foot cast measuring 45cm across, found among the foreshore boulders.
Right: An Iguanodon vertebra on display during a Discovering Fossils event at Hastings, found by Gordon Elder on the foreshore.

Fossil Equisetites horsetail stem at HastingsClose-up fossil Equisetites horsetail stem at Hastings
Left:
The stem impression of a horsetail (Equisetites). Right: A close-up reveals the individual segments of the stem.

Fossil wood lignite at HastingsPrehistoric ripples sandstone with bivalve feeding burrows pellets at Hastings
Left: A thin, crushed piece of fossilised wood (lignite). Right: A slice of sandstone with characteristic ripples and bivalve feeding burrows/pellets.

Prehistoric sandstone containing guttersClose-up of gutters reveals bivalve shells
Left: A sandstone slab preserving the narrow water channels, known as gutters, that formed as flood water drained away. Right: A close-up reveals bivalves.

A gutter cast linted with Neomiodon bivalve shellsA close-up of the Neomiodon bivalves at Hastings
Left: A gutter cast lined with a large number of bivalves (Neomiodon). Right: A close-up.

Bivalve feeding burrows pellets at HastingsNeomiodon bivalve shells on a slab of sandstone at Hastings
Left: A thin slice of sandstone with bivalve feeding burrows/pellets. Right: A slab of sandstone packed with bivalves (Neomiodon).

Fossil fish teeth, scales and bones at HastingsA close-up of the fossil fish teeth, bones and scales at Hastings
Left: A concentration of fish scales, teeth and bones. Right: A Close-up.

Fossil Lepidotes scale at HastingsUnidentified fragment of fossil bone at Hastings
Left: A partial fish scale (Lepidotes). Right: An unidentified fragment of bone, possibly fish.

Fossil Lepidotes scale impressions on a boulder at HastingsFossil fish bones and teeth on a boulder at Hastings
Left: The scale impressions of a large fish (Lepidotes). Right: Small fish bones and a shiny circular black tooth belonging to Lepidotes.

Tools & equipment

Boulders on the foreshore at HastingsRobert Randell provides a talk to fossil hunters at Hastings
Left: Walking boots are recommended as the terrain is rocky and slippery. Right: A well equipped group listen to a guidance from Robert.

It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at Hastings. 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 UKGE.

Hammer: 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 500g.

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 click here or shop online at UKGE.


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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.


Left: Fossil 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 Peacehaven. 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 out more CLICK HERE

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