Monday, November 16, 2015


 Driving through the Great Plains one of the constant features along the highway are the monster billboards highlighting local features you are approaching (or at times still nowhere near), and one we were desperate to visit was the Prairie Dog Town, whose numerous ads announced the presence of a living 5 legged cow.
Pulling off the highway and into the tiny town of Oakley we could not miss the huge statue on the only high ground for miles. Riding his favourite horse "Brigham" as he rides down a bison is the bronze statue of Buffalo Bill. This is an unusual statue as walking up the crest of the hill where it stands are numerous information displays and even short radio announcements you can listen to about the Buffalo hunter and the history of the region.
One of the smaller museums I was happy to find while exploring the vast grasslands of the US was The Fick Fossil and History Museum, which Wikipedia states: “is a museum that displays large dinosaur fossils from Kansas, many old tools, mineral specimens, and shell and mineral folk art.” Sadly this is not true, or at least was not an accurate description during my visit. While the museum does display fossils of many prehistoric creatures, nowhere do I recall seeing a dinosaur.
The Fink museum is located in the same building as the local Oakley library, and was built after the town was given an unusual donation by Ernest and Vi Fick in 1972 of a number of fossils and artworks - and strangely a number of artworks containing fossils.
During the Late Cretaceous much of central USA lay under the Western Interior Seaway, which created vast beds of chalk that so many of the world’s most famous marine fossils were discovered lying within. Amongst the fish, turtles, sharks and birds have been found long necked plesiosaurs and numerous complete mosasaurs.
Because so many marine fossils are found around the region, the Ficks collected some of the more common fossils and added them to their artwork. Some of the landscape paintings they created contain hundreds of fossils; and often these make up everything, including the trees my favourite by far is the enormous shark made up from thousands of fossil shark teeth.

Also on display are is one of the world’s oldest known mosasaur fossils, along with a 15 foot Xiphactinus Audax specimen that had been prepared by well-known Kansas fossil-hunter, George Sternberg.

 There are some items of interest not to be missed, including the complete paddle from a Plesiosaur that may contain the evidence for why only the paddle was found. Running across the large bones of the reptiles flipper are a number of large grooves, believed to be from the teeth of an attacking mosasaur.
As a local museum, many of the specimens were found and donated by local residents, and the displays often proudly announce who found the item and any story that went along with the fossil and its finder.
The Discover Oakley website points out it is not only fossils that can be seen at the museum either. The display proudly: “houses replicas of Oakley’s first Depot, a sod house, Prather’s Creamery, and Oakley’s General Store. The museum also houses a large, impressive collection of rocks and minerals from the Oakley area and around the world including the remains of ancient tombs!” the way, I never did get to see that 5 legged cow!

Entry is free- as for hours, it is likely bet to contact the museum to find out when it is open as it seems to have limited operational hours during winter. 
the museum can be found at:
700 W 3rd St, Oakley, KS 67748, United States
PH +1 785-671-4839

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Uffington White Horse - On the Road in the UK, Part Three

13 days into our circumnavigation of the UK, having already driven through north England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, we had every intentions of visiting one of the largest air shows in the world, the Royal International Air Tattoo. Held at the RAF Fairford at Gloucester, unfortunately a week of solid rain had led the organizers to cancel the 2008 show and so our plans changed.
It was hard to be too disappointed, however, as the cancelation gave us a chance to visit one of the most iconic prehistoric sites in the UK.
The famous White Horse at Uffington is situated in the county of Oxfordshire and is the oldest hill figure in Britain.  The horse was thought to have been built during the early Iron Age, or possibly first cut into the ground as far back as 1000BC- placing it in the Bronze Age and an astonishing 3,000 years old. Unlike most other white horses in the UK (which are more recent) paleoanthropologists and archaeologists have found Iron Age coins with depictions of a strikingly similar image in the region, all but confirming its existence at the time.

An examination of the soil at the bottom of one of these lines using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (which measures radiation levels in soil) later confirmed the image had indeed been built in the Late Bronze Age.

To visit the horse we drove up Lambourn Valley Way to the car park. From here there is a path along a gentle slope, which gets a lot steeper as you get closer to the horse. The entire complex is far larger than you’d expect, so wear comfortable, non-slip shoes. 
NOTE: Make sure you also close any gate you pass though as the area has a lot of sheep, which are natural lawn mowers I’m assuming. 
The horse itself is 114m (374ft) long, giving you an idea how large and steep the hill is; in fact once at the top you get a commanding view of the countryside as far as the eye can see.
You can see so far that in one area I could see a large storm, while on the other side of the hill was fine sunshine.
I was also so high (geographically speaking) I still managed to get a bit of an air show when a RAF Hercules buzzed the hill, possibly flying back from the distant air base. Indeed the hill - which is the highest point in Oxfordshire - rises so steeply from the patchwork landscape below it is regularly used by paragliders to launch into the air.
There is no barrier protecting the horse, which has been the subject of clowns either destroying the image or adding to it (at one point the horse was given a rider to the horror of those charged with its upkeep), so you need to be a little careful, but it’s also amazing to be able to get this close to the real thing.
The hill is a protected site, and used to be ‘scourged’ every 7 years to keep the image crisp and clean. Without this upkeep the horse would quickly fade from view.  This work is done by officials from National Heritage.

The chalk itself has been dated to the Cretaceous, making it around 80 million years old.

Though there had been rain all week, I was lucky enough to head up to the horse in patchy sunshine, and it was a great stroll. The path is well worn, the natural grassland mostly manicured- I assume from the numerous sheep- and the air was alive with butterflies and bees.
Along the path from the carpark there is a view just before the horse of an interesting Pleistocene geographic feature. It is believed the valley running just under the Horse’s head, known as The Manger, was formed during the Ice Age as melted ice water ran away from the hill. This is known as a ‘dry valley’ as there is no evidence of a river or creek that could have formed the depression, indicating it was created during the Ice Age by a glacier or melted ice. The name comes from the legend that it is in this large grassy depression where the White horse feeds at night.
At the far end of the valley are also the ‘Giant Stairs’; a series of step-like structures that were also most likely formed from melted ice water (called avalanche chutes) . There is also a series of large levelled out platforms, possibly formed by prehistoric farmers to create terraced crop beds. Apparently there also use to be a wheel of cheese chasing competition down the side of the Manger, and standing at the top and looking down I realised there are just some things I will not do for dairy products.
Further up the hill is the Bronze/Iron Age fortress called Uffington Castle, likely placed there for its commanding views. Sadly I was totally unaware of its existence when I visited and happily wandered past it. I do not recall anyone heading up towards it at the time, nor any signage along the path pointing it out, so just keep it in mind if you ever get the chance to visit.
Dragon Hill
At the foot of the hill the White Horse sits on is Dragon Hill. This is a natural formation made of the same Cretaceous chalk as the horse, which at some point had its peak levelled off to create a wide, flat platform.
In mythology this small hill is where Saint George confronted and slew the great dragon. Even today there is a large exposed patch of the white chalk the hill is made from, and legend tells us this is where the blood of the dragon spilled, burning the ground and making it forever barren.
The association of both features has led some to suggest the White Horse above is not actually a representation of a horse at all but is in fact the slain dragon- others suggest it might be a fox.
Dragon Hill has also been suggested as the final resting place of Uther Pendragon, linking the feature to the legend of Uther’s son, King Arthur. This hill is a natural structure, so it likely has nothing to do with any sort of burial.
If you are walking to this spot from the White Horse, make sure you take your time as the path down the hill is insanely steep and you don’t want to imitate a rolling cheese; and though there are stairs cut in places, it is still steep. The path also crosses Dragon Hill Road, which cuts between both formations, so keep an eye out for vehicles when moving along the road.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lyme Regis- On the Road in the UK, Part Two

WARNING: This region is dangerous, with rock falls and land slips occurring regularly. Any visit to the area must be done so with caution!

Running along the southern edge of England is the Jurassic Coast, made up of cliffs and beaches spanning the entire Mesozoic area, is one of the world’s most famous fossil landscapes. It is also home to possibly the world’s most famous tongue twister.
‘She sells seashells on the seashore
 The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure
 So if she sells seashells on the seashore
 Then I'm sure she sells seashore shells.’

Produced by Terry Sullivan in 1908, this familiar construct describes how Mary Anning sold the sea shells she’d collected along the early Jurassic Blue Lias cliffs of the region, and is an odd little account of the origins of the modern science of palaeontology. Mary had grown up in a poor family, so to make money the young girl had begun selling the fossil shells she collected along the local shoreline. The Napoleonic war had stopped England’s gentry from travelling to the continent, forcing the rich to holiday in local rural regions.

The business was a dangerous one and Mary was nearly killed in 1833 during the landslide that took the life of her dog. Her efforts soon bore fruit when she began discovering more than just the spiral form of ammonite shells.  Mary soon unearthed the world’s first ichthyosaur skeleton, along with plesiosaurs and even a pterosaur- the first known outside of Germany. These were all purchased, and many can still be seen today in London’s Natural History Museum (NHM). Even today Lyme Regis is a source of many fine monsters from the Jurassic seas.

Duria Antiquior- note all the poo- Coprolites were a common fossil studied at the time.
Mary Anning would also be associated with the world’s first image of a prehistoric landscape. The ‘Duria Antiquior’ was a watercolour painted by the English geologist, Henry De la Beche, in 1830. It was based on many of the creatures from the ancient seas of Dorset that Mary had unearthed.
When the geologist discovered Mary Anning was struggling financially, he ordered a number of lithographs to be created, the sale of which was to benefit the collector. Even though Mary had discovered many of the world’s greatest fossils at the time, the science was dominated by men who proved happy to mine her for information, and just as happy to publish this without crediting any of her discoveries.

For myself, sadly I would only have a few very short hours to visit the region and really had to get a boogie on as it’s a large area and we had places to be. ‘The Pearl of Dorset’ was formerly a major English port, but today is more known as a tourist destination, and not just for dinosaurs.

The Cobb is a large harbour wall to protect the town and harbour from violent storms and sea surges. This structure appeared in Jane Austin’s final novel, Persuasion, and is a real favourite of the author’s fans, often calling themselves Janeites.  
Parking: The town itself is small with narrow streets, and though there is a parking lot, it seems to fill up quickly on busy days, so expect to do a lot of walking. This is also true for the shoreline as the city is situated on top of a hill, meaning you need to head through the city, down the main road (which isn’t that steep), and down the hill and ramp to water level.
The best fossil bearing rocks are easily seen. Just head a few hundred meters up the beach where you can clearly see layers of rock along the cliff face that were formed during the Mesozoic, and you’re there.
I can also guarantee there will be people fossicking, so just follow the crowd. Much of the cliff is limestone, itself made from the shells of microscopic organisms, so it’s important to look at every rock, and this means you don’t really need to go near the cliff as you can see things like ammonites everywhere.
This is important to note because, as I said at the start, this area can be very dangerous.

I assume I was there at low tide as the ocean was a fair distance from the cliffs, and between each was a wide, flat layer of rocks that were easy to walk across. There were also plenty or rock pools, leading to me to believe at high tide this area would be underwater.

As I said, I only had a short time, but I was there long enough to find a few hand-sized ammonites, and I was more than happy with that.

I could see some enormous ammonites contained in some large rocks, and as I had nothing to break these open, and in truth was not sure what the rules where for collecting fossils (I did find myself thinking, if its ok to take these, then why are these beauties still here?), so I was happy enough just to grab a photo.
All too soon my time was up and it was back up the hill and into town. Everywhere you look there are references to fossils, even the street lights are curled and contain an ammonite spiral inside….classyyyyyy.
There are two museums in town, but sadly both were closed (it was getting late in the day by the time I got back from the beach).
 The Lyme Regis Museum is built on Mary Anning’s home and store from where she sold so many fossils. The building looks amazing and I’m sorry I missed it.
Dinosaurland Fossil Museum is a privately run institution, and contains not only great examples of local fossils, but some dinosaurs as well.
The town is also home to The Fossil Workshop, a commercial operation that not only prepares and sells fossils, but runs fossil walks- so they may be well worth a chat before you go as they may be running an excursion.