Fossils & Dinosaurs
Fossils are the preserved, mineralised remains of animals and plants found encased in rock formations dating back millions of years.
Fossils are created when an animal is preserved soon after its death by being covered in a layer of sediment.
Once covered with sediment, the layers of bone (and occasionally soft tissue such as skin or feathers) slowly compact to rock, after which the chemicals in the remains are slowly replaced with hard minerals.
This process is known as permineralization.
Fossils can range from those of the smallest microscopic organism to the largest dinosaur.
Dinosaurs were a group of reptiles that were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates on Earth for over 160 million years, from the late Triassic period (about 230 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago).
The fossilised remains of dinosaurs are often the largest and most spectacular examples, and are the centrepieces of many museums as well as highly sought-after collector’s items.
Since the first dinosaur fossils were recognized in the early nineteenth century, mounted dinosaur skeletons have been major attractions at museums, and dinosaurs have become a part of world culture.
This interest has also helped to publicise and increase the popularity of fossil collecting (or fossil hunting) as a hobby around the world.
The scientific collection and study of natural history through fossils is known as palaeontology, and although this study is a highly-developed scientific discipline there are many hobbyists who describe themselves as amateur palaeontologists due to the level of research which is often involved.
To this day many important discoveries are made by amateur fossil hunters.
However, there are strict guidelines for fossil hunters to prevent damage being done to conservation areas.
Only fossils found in rock which lies on the ground may be collected, as any examples buried in cliff faces or other rock formations belong to the owner of the land.
Fossil collecting can also be based purely on purchasing fossils for display.
There are numerous stores and online businesses which specialise in fossils along with dedicated sales held by larger auction houses.
With any area of collecting there are various levels; dinosaur teeth and the smallest ammonites can start at a few dollars, whilst the largest dinosaur skeletons can sell for millions of dollars.
In recent years the number of high-end collectors has risen, and many collectors now see the best fossils and dinosaurs as an excellent alternative investment.
Fossils have been discovered throughout history, but until the 17th century they were not understood as the remains of living organisms.
Many fossils found their way into the collections of the wealthy known as ‘cabinets of curiosity’, containing natural and man-made objects of wonder such as biological specimens, exotic cultural artefacts, relics and works of art.
As a result of a new emphasis on observing, classifying and cataloguing nature, these collections became the subject of scientific study and as attitudes to natural philosophy developed throughout the ages of reason and enlightenment an understanding of fossils began to emerge.
The groundbreaking work of French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the 18th century led to the widespread acceptance of the theory of extinction, and his discoveries led him to speculate that an age of reptiles may have preceded the first mammals.
During this period a number of fossil hunters made a living by selling their discoveries at auction or directly to private collectors, and the market for them began to grow as they became better understood.
The early 19th century saw pioneering work by a number of fossil hunters such as William Buckland and William D. Fox.
The most notable of these was Mary Anning, who began collecting fossils as a child in her local town of Lyme Regis and made her first major discovery in 1811 at the age of 12.
She went on to find the first ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur skeletons and her observations played a key role in the advancement of palaeontology.
Although her sex and social status prevented her from participating fully with the scientific community of the 19th century (which was reserved for wealthy gentlemen), her influence in geological circles was well known and in 2010 the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.
The term "dinosaur" was coined in 1842 by the English paleontologist Richard Owen, derived from the original Greek to mean ‘terrible, powerful, wondrous lizard’.
The 19th century also saw the transition from private to public collections, as the great museums of the age began to open. The Natural History Museum opened to the public in London in 1871, as an offshoot of the British Museum, and in 1905 the famous 32m-long cast of a Diplodocus carnegii skeleton was first displayed.
Exhibits such as this in museums around the world caught the public’s imagination and fuelled the hobby of fossil collecting. The exploits of the American explorer, adventurer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews were well publicised, and he became the first to discover dinosaur eggs in Mongolia in 1923.
During the 20th century paleontological exploration increased across the globe and ceased to be a largely European and North American activity.
In the 135 years between William Buckland's first full account of a dinosaur discovery and 1969 a total of 170 dinosaur genera were known.
In the 25 years after 1969 that number increased to 315. Near the end of the century the opening of China to systematic exploration for fossils has yielded a wealth of material on dinosaurs and the origin of birds and mammals.
Dinosaur and fossil collecting today
Today there is a large global market for fossils and dinosaurs, and many notable auction houses such as Christie’s, Bonhams, Sotheby’s and I.M Chait hold dedicated natural history auctions containing fossils alongside other items such as minerals and meteors.
In recent years the competition between museums and private collectors for the best examples has grown, as many publicly-funded museums are unable to match the prices paid by high-end collectors.
The world’s most expensive fossil
The world’s most expensive fossil sold at auction is the largest, most extensive and best preserved skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered. It was found by palaeontologist Sue Hendrickson in South Dakota in 1990, and sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1997 for a world record price of $8.36m. It was purchased by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where it remains on permanent display.
In June 2011 a pair of complete fossilised dinosaurs known as 'The Fighting Pair' were sold at a Heritage auction for $2.75 million. The allosaurus and stegosaurus were discovered in a quarry in Wyoming, with the jaw of the allosaurus clamped around the leg of the stegosaurus, which led experts to speculate that the pair may have been locked in combat when they died. The pai were sold to an un-named Museum, believed to be outside the United States.
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