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The Precious Dead

The Kiwi Fossil Hunter’s Handbook by James Crampton and Marianna Terezow
Random House New Zealand, 207 pages. $40.Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN


Although there are many popular books on New Zealand plants and animals, our unique fossils have been largely neglected outside the technical literature. Yet fossils are the evidence for past life, and are found in most parts of the country. This book helps fill the gap. It has a practical approach, providing detailed accounts of 27 accessible localities around New Zealand where you can go and find fossils. Some of the localities are reserves, where you can look at and photograph them, but at many you can actually collect fossils yourself. I imagine that many budding paleontologists will be checking out localities close to where they live, but the book could also provide the basis for a 1-2 month fossil tourist trip around New Zealand.

People have long wanted to look at and collect fossils, but the issue of publicly identifying fossil localities is debated because of the fear that careless or greedy collectors may damage unique outcrops. Despite these concerns, my opinion is that it is better to encourage people to visit localities that are not especially precious, and to encourage responsible collecting. The authors have thought hard about identifying a group of localities that are accessible and where fossils are not too hard to find. In many of these places the fossils can be most easily collected from stream and beach boulders that might otherwise be eroded away.

Each of the localities has a 5-7 page description including sections on how to get there (including a locality map), special cautions and hazards – including a clear indication of which sites are in reserves, what rocks can seen, what fossils are there (with illustrations), how old the site is, and what it might have looked like when the fossils were living. There are many illustrations, but the most spectacular are reconstructions of past life drawn by Dave Gunson. Some of the fold-out drawings can be detached along perforations – an interesting experiment by the publisher – but I would rather keep my copy of the book complete.

Many of the 27 localities are known to me, but Broken River in Canterbury has a special connection. Almost fifty years ago I went on my first student field trip with geologist Maxwell Gage. We waded along the river, hammering at outcrops and boulders, while Gage talked about the geology. Suddenly he stopped at the locality pictured on page 149, cracked open a rock, and held up a fossil, announcing that it was called Hedicardium brunneri. I was impressed that he knew the name of every fossil. Years later I mentioned this to him, and he laughed and said that it was the only fossil he could recognise.

The book has a 20 page introduction, including an outline of fossilization and geological time as well as the basics of fossil collecting and safety. Even if fossil collecting sounds benign it is done in the outdoors with plenty of scope for accidents, especially using hammers and chisels on rocky outcrops.

The fossil collecting code on page 20 is a useful summary of ethical, legal and common sense issues. Although fossils can be freely collected from many places, it is not widely known that they are covered by the Protected Objects Act, and cannot be taken out of the country without a permit.

This is a completely original field guide, based on many years of research by New Zealand paleontologists. My own experience is that fossil collecting is hard work, requiring patience, dedication and heavy lifting as well as the ability to withstand insect pests such as sandflies. This book will encourage many people to give it a try, and provide inspiration to those who want to get seriously involved.

Links:

Te Ara article on Fossils by Hamish Campbell

An exhibition of fossils, Dead Precious, has been touring New Zealand museums, and is currently at Te Papa until April 18th.