The Yorkshire coast is long and varied – with high cliffs, golden sandy beaches, rocky coves, quaint fishing villages, and some of the best seaside resorts in the country. But the Yorkshire coast also has hidden secrets – which are occasionally revealed when parts of the coast crumble into the sea. These secrets are the many fossils that are discovered on the beaches or sticking out of cliff faces.
The fossils are the remains of mainly fish, shellfish, aquatic reptiles and water plants from up to 120 million years ago – when much of what is now dry land was part of a large body of water called the Zechstein Sea. As the ocean levels fell, and the land rose, plants and animal remains were covered up and preserved in what are now the coastal cliffs, and come to light as the present North Sea erodes the cliff – returning the land back to the sea as part of the natural cycle of the changing landscape.
A stroll along the beach or at the foot of the cliffs can often turn up something of interest to the keen-eyed observer. You might find a small shellfish – an ammonite or a trilobite – or maybe part of a bone from a larger animal such as a plesiosaur or ichthyosaur. If you’re very lucky you might come across a whole bone, which may be part of a complete or near complete skeleton. The fossils found near Whitby have proved useful in helping to work out the chronology of the flora and fauna over a period of many millions of years (the first major fossil find was that of a sea crocodile in 1759).
Whitby is also famous for its “jet” a form of fossilised wood called lignite. Jet is dark brown or black (hence the term “jet black”) and can easily be confused with coal. But coal comes from fossilised plant and vegetable matter, whilst jet is the compressed remains of preserved trees (usually of the monkey puzzle genus). It is often found washed up on the beach. You can tell it’s jet rather than coal by rubbing it on a piece of paper – jet leaves a brown mark, coal leaves a black one. Jet is hard and polishes up well, and can be carved (with great care) and can be made into jewellery (Queen Victoria wore jet jewellery after the death of Prince Albert).
If you choose to go fossil hunting or looking for jet on the Yorkshire coast, do so with care – for yourself and for the environment. Fallen rocks can be dangerous, and where rocks have fallen once, more can come down. Muddy areas at the bottom of cliffs can be like quicksand and suck the unwary in. Don’t remove fossils from cliffs – doing so undermines them and can lead to danger and erosion.
You can see displays of jet and some of the fossil finds going back several hundred years in the museums in the coastal resorts, and if you want to buy fossils or jet, there are many shops specialising in these relics from the past in Whitby and other coastal resorts and many of them have an online presence including: