Hunstanton is a small town on the northwest coast of Norfolk
and home to approximately 5,000 people. The town is fringed along
its western edge by a stretch of dramatic colour contrasting cliffs
of orange, red and white sedimentary rocks, reflecting changing depositional
conditions towards the end of the Early Cretaceous and the onset of the Late Cretaceous
million years ago (mya).
Although macro fossils are less frequently encountered within the Carstone
Formation, the overlying Hunstanton Formation and Ferriby
Chalk Formation are highly fossiliferous and attract significant
palaeontological interest. These latter formations contain evidence of a
variety of prehistoric marine fauna, including ammonites, belemnites, brachiopods,
bivalves, sponges and many other groups.
Access to the beach is made at St Edmond's Point a short distance
north of the ruins of St Edmond's Chapel and the lighthouse (now a
private residence). The coastal footpath traces the cliff-top before
descending to beach level a short distance from Old Hunstanton (see map
above and photos below). From the access point the cliffs extend south
Left: Facing north,
the ruins of St Edmund's Chapel and the lighthouse beyond. Right:
Walking north along the cliff-top footpath towards the beach access
The geology of Hunstanton
The rocks exposed along the 1.5km stretch of cliff and
beach at Hunstanton date from the Albian Stage of the Early
Cretaceous Epoch c.108 mya to the Cenomanian Stage of the Late
Cretaceous Epoch c.99 mya. The geology features three distinctive
formations of marine origin - the Carstone Formation (orange) at the cliff base, followed
the Hunstanton Formation (red) formerly known as the Red Chalk, and the Ferriby Chalk (white) extending to the cliff-top (see figures 1 and 2 below).
Figure 1: The contrasting colours of
the Carstone, Hunstanton and overlying Ferriby Chalk Formations.
Figure 2: Visitors examine the geology in the
The earliest rock exposed in situ at Hunstanton is the
Carstone Formation - an orange (when weathered, otherwise
greenish-brown) sandstone deposited during the early to mid-Albian
Stage of the Early Cretaceous Epoch. A generalised age of c.108
million years is applied here, however the formation is understood
to span a
wider window of time.
Left: The Carstone Formation - Robert and Harald
examine the sedimentary structures in the cliff-face at St Edmond's Point.
Right: A collection of
rolled pebbles can be seen within the Carstone Formation indicating the
close proximity of land and strong currents.
The Carstone Formation is comprised of coarse sand particles
interspersed with rolled pebbles indicative of deposition in a
high energy, shallow, near-shore environment with strong currents. Fossils are
reported within the Carstone and include rolled ammonite fragments,
bivalves and traces of burrowing organisms, though none were
observed during the fieldwork undertaken for this report.
Above the Carstone is the Hunstanton Formation a c.1m thick layer of red coloured limestone deposited
during the mid-late Albian Stage of the Early Cretaceous Epoch (c.101 mya).
Analysis of the Hunstanton Formation in Yorkshire where its thickness
c.30m has identified the Early/Late Cretaceous boundary to occur
towards its top. For the purposes of this report the
formation is assigned wholly to the Early Cretaceous.
Left: The Hunstanton Formation visible in the
cliff-face a short distance south of the beach access point at St
Right: A Neohibolites belemnite guard protruding in situ from the
The red colouration of the Hunstanton Formation is due to limonite
ore and probably reflects the low rate of sedimentation during which
oxidisation (rusting) extended into the sea bed. Macro fossils are
common throughout the formation in particular belemnites,
brachiopods, echinoids and corals.
Resting above the Hunstanton Formation and extending to the
cliff-top is the Ferriby Chalk Formation, a white/grey chalk limestone
deposited during the Cenomanian Stage at the start of the Late
Cretaceous Epoch (c.99 mya). The formation measures c.10m thick
Left: The Ferriby Chalk Formation overlying the
Hunstanton Formation in the cliff-face a short distance south of
the beach access point.
Right: A Burrirhynchia(?) brachiopod - the aperture where the foot
extended to clasp the rock is visible. Observed on a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk
The Ferriby Chalk is largely comprised of the skeletal remains of
planktonic algae known as coccolithophores which accumulated to form
a white ooze on the seafloor. This soft sediment was later compacted
and hardened (lithified) to form chalk - a relatively soft rock
itself. The purity of
the chalk indicates its formation took place far from land, largely free of
terrestrial sands and silts that would otherwise have coloured it.
In comparison with present-day conditions, global sea-levels during
the Late Cretaceous were over 200 meters higher. The higher sea levels
likely reflect a combination of extreme greenhouse conditions and
heightened plate tectonics. Elevated plate tectonic activity and the
associated volcanics delivered greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,
fuelling the greenhouse effect. Global high temperatures melted much
(perhaps all) of the ice at high latitudes, introducing significant
amounts of water to the world's oceans. Uplift of the ocean-floor in
regions of active plate tectonics displaced further water onto the
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Where to look for fossils?
Much of the in situ chalk at Hunstanton occurs high in the cliff-face and out of reach of visitors,
however, natural erosion of the cliff-face provides a fresh
supply of fallen material throughout the year, especially during the
winter months. These fallen boulders provide productive fossil hunting, with a range of marine fossils visible on
the wave and air-weathered surfaces.
Left: Fossils are
frequently found protruding
surface of wave and air-weathered boulders.
Right: A visitor uses a hammer and chisel to extract a
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
click here. Alternatively a free short range forecast covering
the next 7 days is available on the BBC website
What fossils might you find?
A single visit to Hunstanton is sufficient to locate a range of
marine fossils, in particular ammonites, belemnites, echinoids,
brachiopods, bivalves, sponges, worm tubes, corals and crustacean burrows. Less
common finds include shark teeth and occasionally parts of the cartilage
skeleton, and fish bones/skeletons. Below are a selection of fossils
observed during two visits to Hunstanton.
Left: A partial internal mould of an
with the suture marks clearly visible. Found loose on the foreshore, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: The internal mould of an unidentified ammonite, the
ridged keel of the specimen can be seen protruding the grey
boulder. Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A collection of Neohibolites belemnite guards on the surface of an wave-weathered boulder,
Right: The outer surface of a squashed brachiopod, found loose among fallen cliff debris, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A well preserved
Moutonithyris brachiopod, extracted from a loose boulder on the foreshore,
Right: A similar specimen.
Left: The outer surface of an
Inoceramus bivalve, found loose on the foreshore, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: The internal mould of an air-weathered gastropod. Found on the surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: The partially crushed test of a
Hyposalenia(?) regular echinoid. Found on the air-weathered surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Gautheria(?) regular echinoid test observed
laterally on the surface of an air-weathered boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: The test of a
Holaster irregular echinoid, observed on the surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: The partial internal flint mould on an
irregular echinoid test, found among loose beach pebbles. The flint
pebbles are not locally derived.
Left: The tip of an
unidentified Lamniform shark tooth (15mm), found among fallen cliff debris, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: An unidentified shark vertebra observed in cross-section of the
surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A small unidentified fish vertebra observed in cross-section of the
surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: A 2.5cm fragment of highly degraded bone, possible a fish vertebra. Found on the surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A sponge, found on the air-weathered surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: A sponge protruding from the surface of an
air-weathered fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A Serpula worm tube, found on the air-weathered surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: A trace fossil, possibly a back-filled
crustacean burrow. Found on the
air-weathered surface of a fallen boulder, Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Left: A network of Thalassinoides
crustacean burrows from the Paradoxica Bed at the base of the
Ferriby Chalk Formation.
Right: Another example.
Tools & equipment
Left: Roy indicates
where to strike a rock to a fossil hunt participant. Right:
A geologist's hammer is an ideal tool for splitting prospective
It's a good idea to spend some time considering the tools and
equipment you're likely to require while fossil hunting at
Hunstanton. 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