Amomnite-Jody-Daunton

Vestiges of the Past

John Morris holds an enduring admiration for fossils. As a professional fossil hunter he has dedicated his life’s work to finding and restoring these fascinating and often intricate windows into primitive life on Earth.

The Earth has existed for almost 4.5 billion years and life upon it for nearly as long, beginning 3.8 billion years ago as unicellular organisms and patiently evolving through a vast concatenation of eons to become plants, animals and beings of infinite complexity. Ceaseless cycles of birth, growth, demise and cataclysms have endowed our planet with the wealth of diversity we see today. But gateways to the distant past still exist. Buried in its stratum of sedimentary rock, some of Earth’s primitive lifeforms have been preserved as fossils – geological records of extinct organisms that offer retrospective glimpses in time to what our land and seas would have once sustained, and to all manner of fascinating creatures that roamed upon it and proliferated deep within its inky waters.

As revealing vestiges of the past, fossils play a crucial role in shaping our view of the world as it once was; they reanimate a time that has long ceased to exist and help us theorise about the intricacies of its course. As far back as the 1600s, and possibly further, ‘fossil hunters’ have been stumbling across remarkable finds that have influenced science – from Reverend Robert Plot’s discovery of a dinosaur femur in 1676, to venerable history makers of the 1800s such as Mary Anning, Edward Drinker Cope and Barnum Brown, discoverer of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Today, Earth’s prehistoric fossil caches continue to be released from their sedimentary tombs much to the delight of modern-day fossil hunters and enthusiasts.

John Workshop Portrait

The Making of a Fossil Hunter

Tucked away in east Bristol, John Morris’ workshop occupies three rooms hidden within a labyrinth of tired yet characterful warehouses. The floor and surfaces are crowded with tools, beautifully exposed casts of primeval sea life and those still trapped in rock waiting to be freed. Perched on a low stool, John leans over a dense cluster of ammonites protruding in salient detail from a broad circular plate of rock. He wears a warm, perpetual look of serenity that grows warmer still when he smiles. Intricate tattoos bloom midway up both upper arms and disappear into his t-shirt sleeves. In one hand he holds a pen-like air scribe, the workhorse of fossil preparation, powered by compressed air that sloughs away stubborn layers of rock like a miniature jack hammer. In the other is a soft brush to sweep aside the exhausts of fine powder. He navigates the slew of ribbed contours with the care and precision of a perfectionist, diligently exercising a long-abiding devotion to his work that first flourished in him as a boy.

“My love for natural history and the natural world came from my father and from watching David Attenborough,” he says of how it all began. John’s father, a keen natural historian, first introduced him to fossils through frequent camping trips around the British Isles. One particular excursion in 1976 took them to Lyme Regis, a coastal town in West Dorset and the home of Mary Anning. She was born to a poor family but later influenced the course of science after finding the fossilised remains of several incredible creatures, including an ichthyosaur in 1812, the first complete Plesiosaurus in 1824, and very rare Dimorphodon (a medium-sized pterosaur) in1828. John was awed by the town, its rich history and equally rich fossil deposits. His interest in fossils grew and after many years of practical exposure to them, his understanding of finding and restoring their petrified undulations matured into an impressive compendium of self-taught expertise.

Erradescent Amonite
Hands And Fossil Beach
John Hammer Time

“I am better with my hands than I am academically,” he says thoughtfully. “You don’t have to study [to work with fossils] but you do need to work hard. The practical skills of knowing when and where to find them I learned for myself. It’s almost like a secret knowledge: learning how to find fossils, how to extract them and then how to clean them.”In his hunt for fossils, John’s search almost always takes him to the beach.

The Search

Though fossilisation occurs in a number of ways, most fossils are formed when a plant or animal dies in a watery environment and is rapidly buried by sediment. It is a process of chance, and fossils found today, though numerous, are a very limited representation of the creatures that lived in any given geological age.

“Fossils might be quite prolific but the chances of [plants or animals] becoming preserved are a thousand to one,” John explains. “If you think about all life that has ever existed on the planet, it’s not even a fraction of one per cent of life that becomes preserved.”

The ocean floor provides prime conditions for fossilisation which is why the vast majority of fossils are marine. The process of fossilisation begins when the flesh of dead animals that have sunk to the ocean floor rots away and the skeletons, exoskeletons or shells are progressively covered by fresh layers of ocean sediment. With each new layer the ocean floor sinks. Lower sedimentary layers compact and solidify into rock. Buried at depth and surrounded by stone, the skeleton partially or completely dissolves leaving a mould. Over time, water enters the mould and deposits minerals. Fossils found today, after clods of earth are sloughed away by storms or natural erosion, are, essentially, mineral deposits that have taken the shape of what was once there. Almost always embedded in rock, fossils can take a substantial amount of experience to spot.

Opening Wide Beach Shot
John Hammer Time 2

“Your eyes become tuned to colours, textures and shapes,” John says. “You need to be in the right location to begin with and be on the right beach, then you stand a better chance.”

Successful fossil hunts also rely on a comprehensive knowledge of what to search for. “Knowing what to look for and how to find it takes time,” John admits, “and knowing how to identify a fossil at speed is important. You’ve got an awful lot of beach to cover. If you go too slow someone could overtake you. You must be able to scan lots of pebbles and rocks very quickly and have your hammer at the ready.”

The Find

Out on the ashen horseshoe of a stone and shale beach, John briefly appraises the landscape before picking his way over the uneven ground with the dexterity of a mountain goat. He stoops to examine rocks; turns them over. “The location dictates how much time will be spent freeing the fossil from its rock,” he observes. “Some are embedded in big rocks and some in rocks the size of pebbles.”

Warmly dressed and carrying a large backpack, John combs the beach. Any good specimens he discovers are taken back to his workshop where the real work begins.

Cracked Amonite

“Rather than giving [the rock] a wallop on the beach only to find that I have just hammered through a wonderful ammonite, I literally pop the whole thing in my bag and wait until I get it home and then start my excavation. I try not to damage fossils too much but [in case I do] I sometimes carry a little pot of glue and accelerator with me so I can easily put it back together. I wrap it in cling film and take it back to the workshop to work on it properly.”

The Restoration

In John’s workshop, propped carefully against a wall, is a large fossil of four crinoids, echinoderms related to star fish, sea urchins and brittlestars from the palaeozoic period that ended nearly 250 million years ago. Though also known as sea lilies, crinoids are in fact animals not plants.

“It’s a wonderful specimen that still isn’t quite ready,” he says admiring it. “It came to me in about 40 pieces and I pieced it back together, fibre-glassed the back and had a metal frame built for it to make it nice and solid. Now I can do the detailing on it.”

Some fossil specimens take years to perfect. Some take decades. Restoration is a slow, patient discipline that seems well suited to John’s unhurried and equally patient nature. It requires skill and diligence; endurance and dedication. “The finishing touches are my favourite part of the process,” he continues. “Just getting the contrasts right and really sculpting and sanding the surrounding rock so it looks nice; it’s quite therapeutic. I work on lots of pieces at the same time, it can be quite boring otherwise.”

Hammer Amonite Cracked
John Morris Workshop Wide
Plan Chests And Bear Paw
John Morris Detail Working


Fossil restoration is more than a practical exercise for John. To make the process truly complete and the eventual sale far more personal and satisfying, he makes a point of knowing as much as possible about every piece.

“My work is about the practical use of my hands and about the knowledge of the periods of time. It’s not all about the Jurassic [age]; there are dozens of different stages of time. You don’t need to use that knowledge everyday but customers really appreciate the fact that you’ve taken time to acquire it.”

John’s deep appreciation for fossils has fuelled his life’s work and inspired him from the outset to adopt sustainable foraging practises that are considerate of the environment. “If a living can be made from something then people will always push that as far as they can to make more money,” he concludes, “but then you lose what it means to be a fossil collector and dealer. When you are just digging out as many ammonites as possible for money then you’ve lost something. So just take what you need and work sustainably with the elements and environmental changes. When there is a high tide, landslide or big storm, that is your opportunity to get to the beach.” •

Triassic Fossil
The-Natural-World-Volume-7-Cover

This story is from Volume Seven

The Natural World Volume

Look inside or buy now