How to dig for dinosaurs

by Lisa
Publish date
19 December 2011
Comments (9)

Lisa works in the Public Programs Department at Melbourne Museum but also volunteers in the Palaeontology Department and has been on several fossil digs.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go on a dinosaur dig? Recently I went on a fossil-hunting adventure with a crew of 12 Museum Victoria staff and volunteers at a site called Eric the Red West in Cape Otway National Park.

120 million years ago this part of Australia was a river valley surrounded by forest. When the valley flooded, the remains of dinosaurs, small mammals, pterosaurs and forest plants (which became the coal that we see in the rock) were washed into the river. Eventually some of these bones, as well as those of animals such as fish and turtles that were living in the river, became covered by sand and mud. Over time the sediment became the grey sandstone that is exposed on beach today.

palaeontology fieldwork The crew heads down to the site.
Image: Lisa Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

When we first arrived on site we unloaded all of our gear and took it down onto the beach. Before we started any digging we prospected along the beach for fossils that were naturally exposed through weathering of the rock.

Prospecting and fossil finds Left: Lesley Kool and Mary Walters in search of fossils weathering out of the rock. | Right: Part of a dinosaur limb bone.
Image: Lisa Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

Next it was time to bring out the heavier equipment to remove rock and search for fossils that were still buried. We used large rock saws, small electric saws, sledgehammers and chisels to remove large chunks of the fossil-bearing rock.

tools to remove rock Travis removes sand from the rock with a shovel and Gerry removes chunks of rock with a sledge hammer and chisel.
Image: Liza Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

Removing fossils with tools. Left: David Pickering uses a small electric saw to delicately remove a fossil. | Right: Dr Erich Fitzgerald uses a larger rock saw to not so delicately (but precisely) remove a fossil.
Image: Lisa Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

When large chunks of rock have were removed and checked for fossils, the rest of the crew used smaller hammers and chisels to carefully break the rock down to sugar-cube sized pieces in search of tiny fossils.

Searching for fossils Left: David Pickering uses a hand lens to inspect a newly exposed fossil. | Right: Astrid patiently chisels away at rock in search of delicate fossils.
Image: Lisa Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

And we were well rewarded for our efforts:

Dr Erich Fitzgerald points to a fossil fish jaw Dr Erich Fitzgerald points to a fossil fish jaw he has just discovered in the rock.
Image: Lisa Nink
Source: Museum Victoria

Despite the rain and cold it was a wonderful experience. My friends and colleagues often ask me, 'doesn't it get boring breaking rocks on a beach all day?' but it never does. You never know when the next strike of your hammer and chisel may reveal a new fossil that hasn't seen the light of day for 120 million years. You never know, it may even be a completely new species.

You can see some of the fossils that have been found along Victoria's coastline in 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves at Melbourne Museum.


Dinosaur Dreaming Blog

MV Blog: Dinosaur Dreaming Dig

Infosheet: Inverloch fossil site

Comments (9)

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Lola 19 December, 2011 14:22
Great story Lisa. I'll be looking more closely at the rocks on the beach this summer!
Shivanthi 19 December, 2011 16:30
Great article Lisa. I should definitely be looking more closely at the rocks in the future.
Georgie 19 December, 2011 20:16
Nice one Lisa! Some great rocks (and dinos!)
Adrienne 20 December, 2011 12:04
I really enjoyed your story Lisa. Good work both on the beach and back at work!
Jillian Cornelious 24 December, 2011 15:08
Awesome story! I always examine rocks carefully!! I studied Palaeolithic Archaeology...and all kinds of other archaeology at tell us a lot about where we came from and who we are! If you ever need any volunteers...I'm there! Let me know! I am now a teacher and love finding new and quirky info for my students!!
Liz 16 January, 2012 10:47
Thanks for the inside view Lisa, Puts a new spin on a favourite part of the otway coast for me.
Margaret 7 February, 2012 17:18
I've always wanted to know more details about what happens on the famous dinosaur digs. Thanks for the info and the great pics Lisa.
Trudi Thomson 17 February, 2015 03:39
I have a 16 year old son who is interested in paelentology/geology and would like to become involved in fossil dig sites as a volunterr
Discovery Centre 27 February, 2015 11:59
Hi Trudi - It is wonderful that your son is so keen to volunteer on one of our digs but unfortunately you must be 18 years or older to apply so it is something to think about in the future. In the mean time you could consider joining the ‘Friends of Dinosaur Dreaming’, a group of people who help support our dig. Benefits of membership include an invitation to attend a special ‘Friends Day’ at our Flat Rocks site near Inverloch where you can meet some of the crew and be taken on a guided tour of the site. You also receive a copy of our annual report containing articles written by palaeontologists and dig crew members. You can find out more about joining ‘Friends of Dinosaur Dreaming’ on this website
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