Fossil Hunting FAQ

What is a fossil?
A fossil can be anything that indicates that ancient life once existed in an area. This can include preserved bones, shells, tracks, burrows, droppings, leaves, trunks, roots, etc....basically anything that was created by living organisms. As far as the "cutoff" age where something is considered a fossil rather than a historical/archeological find is debatable.
Where can I find fossils?
Fossils can be found just about anywhere rocks can be found (and in some places where no rocks can be found as well), with a few exceptions. Rocks that are igneous (i.e. from volcanic activity - granites, obsidian, basalt, pumice, etc.) or metamorphic (slates, marbles, and the like) will probably not contain fossils, as the geologic activity that formed these rocks will have likely erased any traces of life. The best rocks for finding fossils are sedimentary rocks (limestones, shales, and sandstones). Also, certain clays can contain fossils (both microscopic and macroscopic). Areas where fossils can be found are usually where these rocks, clays, etc. are exposed...this could be a natural hillside or mountainside outcrop; the edge of a stream, creek, or river; or a man-made exposure like a roadcut or quarry (these are my personal favorite areas for fossil collecting). The best source of information for fossil locations in your area is either your state's geological survey or the geology department of your local university (NOTE: at some universities, paleontology is treated as a branch of biology, rather than geology). There are also some links to sites with info on fossils on my Paleontological Links page and on this page.
What tools do you use to collect fossils?
Fossils can be collected with a variety of tools. Professionals might use jackhammers or even explosives to remove large amounts of rock from fossils. The "typical" amateur's toolbag is generally a bit more modest. My fossil collecting toolkit consists of a bricklayer's hammer (which is about the closest thing you can get at a hardware store to a geologist's pick), a mini-sledge hammer, a regular clawed hammer, and an assortment of chisels (mostly different sizes of cold chisels for chipping rocks, but I do have a wood chisel for splitting softer shales along their seams). Along with this, I have found a plastic cooler makes an excellent carrying box for my fossil finds. Finally, to protect more delicate fossils from breaking by bumping other fossils on the way home, newspaper, or even tissue paper makes a good protective coating. Typically fossils are collected in the rough and further prepared once they are brought home.
How do you prepare fossils?
Typically, when a fossil is found outdoors, it needs cleaning of some sort (occasionally, one can find a nicely weathered fossil that needs little more than a quick washing under water - one might even find a fossil in a stream, nicely prewashed). Often, there is matrix (a more "educated" term for rock) that still covers parts of the fossil. This can be removed with fine chisels, toothbrushes, dental picks, or, one of my favorites, an electric vibrating engraver. More "professional" amateurs and professional fossil preparers may use an airscribe, which blasts the rock with pressurized air mixed with abrasives...I personally do not own one of these....I try to make do with my vibro-engraver.
How did you get interested in fossils?
As a kid, my grandparents gave me a book on dinosaurs. The rest, as they say, is history.
How many fossils do you have in your collection?
Oh, thousands, I suppose...most are not display-worthy...I have only about a hundred or so on display in my living room.
Do you like to buy fossils or just collect them?
I very much prefer to collect them myself. However, I realize that some fossils I may never have a chance to collect (either due to a lack of funds or time to travel to some sites or even restrictions placed on collecting at certain sites by those who own it). So, I do end up doing some trading and/or purchasing of interesting fossils.
Where have you collected fossils?
Most of my fossils have been collected during my boyhood all over the state of Florida. My grandparents live in Texas, so trips out there have ended up with a few fossil-hunting excursions built-in. I collected some fossils on the way up to and in Ohio while visiting in-laws. My most recent finds, however, have been in Georgia and Alabama (near Rome and Birmingham, respectively).

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