A stone’s throw from prehistory

The sea is beaten pewter – a tankard frothing with white foam. Gulls lurch over the waves, dipping and diving in the icy easterly wind. The shingle is scoured clean, flattened by the force of the waves. The air is saltwater, the sea full of air. A ball of empty egg cases of the common whelk (Buccinum undatum Linnaeus) bounces along the shoreline, light as the gobs of white foam blowing off the sea.

Another chunk had fallen off the yellow ochre cliff, leaving an overhang which looked ready to drop. The perpendicular face is composed of bands of sandstone, called Bridport sands, topped with inferior oolite and fullers earth. People stood heedlessly beneath the bulge, despite the evidence of recent rock falls. Others were throwing small rocks at bigger rocks trying to dislodge ammonites.

Huddled on the beach like a flock of grey sheep are humps of stone carelessly shorn by the waves of ragged fossils, revealing smooth bluish flanks, stained brown like dried blood and marked with the shapes of ancient sea-life. These fluent outlines have been swimming through the stone for millennia – a hidden world of strange creatures caged in jurassic rock. Fragile bones, leaves, membranes, tentacles, even faeces, all cradled delicately in a flock of obdurate stone.

The mysterious outlines drawn on the surface of these rocks speak of a time we can only imagine – a time when people valued the properties of stone for creating dwellings, stone circles, marking ancient ways, carving statues and as a base for cave art. Perhaps those people instinctively recognised the power of stone to preserve the past and last forever, holding secrets and clues to life on earth. Maybe when we look for fossils, we are subconsciously searching for answers – about the past, present and future . . .

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