Author: Katie Burden

* Geodiversity: the variety of earth materials, forms and processes that constitute and shape the Earth, either the whole or a specific part of it.

Sam S 192 newMy interest in geology began at the age of six years old, as a consequence of my relationship with the land around me; the land of my ancestors. During the last one hundred years generations of my family lived and died in and around Sutton Poyntz, a small village to the east of Weymouth, and while I was a child we lived there in the same thatched cottage where my grandfather grew up. For eight years that house and the surrounding green hills and fields, streams, farms and cottages constituted the centre of my universe. Such is my emotional bond to that landscape that I still regard it as my home. I mean that not as a place where I live now but a place that I recognise as belonging to my origins. And not just geographically but intellectually and emotionally. Part of my soul is anchored there.

When rough and unimpressive fossils emerged from the foundations of an extension my father was building I was mesmerised. My astonishment came in the usual ways – “millions of years old you say?!” – but perhaps more important was the fact that these objects came from the ground where I literally lived and played every single day. As a child I was not a stranger to the idea that the marvelous could exist on my doorstep. My fascination with the past was first stirred while speculating about the Bronze Age round barrows that were scattered across the Chalk ridge, just to the north of the village. Those mysterious mounds of earth took possession of my young mind, as did the imagined mythology I dreamt up to surround them. But when that first fragment of ammonite was placed in my hand by my dad, pulled from the ground beneath our house, and with an explanation that defied fantasy, I realised anew the potential of my surroundings to deliver profound wonder at a moment’s notice.

Bowleaze Cove

Bowleaze Cove, near Weymouth

It wasn’t long before I started visiting the nearby coast at Bowleaze Cove to hunt for fossils in earnest and I added those cliffs and beaches to the internal map of things that mattered – the rough texture of the rocks, their colours of grey, orange and cream, the slip of boot on seaweed covered boulder and even the smell of freshly chiseled stone. I can recall those first experiences like memories of yesterday, certain and undimmed by time. Frustrated attempts to extract beautiful and delicate scallop fossils from sandstone are the bedrock of later fossil collecting efforts. Hunting out the tell-tale signs of fresh specimens runs seamlessly into careful observation during geological fieldwork. Desire, discovery and awe created a wave that I would ride into college and university, picking up speed as my horizons expanded and carrying me all the way here, via absurd good fortune, into my job on the Jurassic Coast Team.

Fossil hunting at Red Cliff point, near Bowleaze

Fossil hunting at Red Cliff point, near Bowleaze, circa 1990!

My story is not unique, or particularly remarkable. Many geologists or palaeontologists will tell a similar tale involving fossils, profound amazement, and the emergent path consequently followed to a career in the earth sciences. What fascinates me now though is how the direction of my life could lie in the ground as unrealised potential. The necessary step was, of course, for that first fossil to be revealed to me by someone more knowledgeable, but I can’t help feel it significant that the land itself gifted me that opportunity. Had I grown up somewhere else I may have become an archaeologist, or lawyer… or anything. It is not my intention to evoke a notion of ‘fate’. I do not see it as my ‘destiny’ to have arrived where I find myself now. But I cannot ignore the role that rocks played in shaping my passions at a formative stage in my life.

Today, my encounter with a fossil at the age of six seems less significant than how, in a general sense, the land around me presented particular ways to connect with nature and history; bronze age barrows clustered in their ceremonial landscape on the ridge, an iron age hill fort positioned with strategic care atop a knoll formed from folded Portland limestone, close cropped Chalk downland where skylarks soar and sing, an ancient village whose origins are rooted to the source of fresh water spilling from the hillside, old dairies scattered about the place, once taking advantage of the gurt lush pasture of the clay valley, cottages built of grey stone, hewn from local hills… I could go on. The twists and turns of localised history and the character of the landscape where I grew up are, and always have been, defined by the bedrock. The tropical seas and lagoons that deposited those rocks passed out of existence over 65 million years ago but they exert their influence still, like a memory, shaping the land, its people and their lives.

I cannot deny that I am, on some fundamental level, the person I am because of stone. I feel that somehow no biography of mine would be complete without a list of the strata that are found beneath Sutton Poyntz. How else could anyone understand me without this information? It makes no sense to think of myself without this crucial context – my personal geodiversity. I suspect that we each have one, shaping who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

I am never surprised if someone finds geology a wretched and boring subject, or the conceptual nature of many of the ideas behind geological heritage to be inaccessible and remote. In fact I am sympathetic. The truth of the unseen, the underground and the commonplace is easily overlooked. When striving to create connections between people and geo-heritage the revelation of millions of years of time is just the beginning. By refining our human perspective we might come to recognise that we are bound to stories of stone and express, in our own small ways, the profound importance of the silent rocks that lie, metaphorically and literally, just beneath the surface.

Sam Scriven

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