Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Speaking of skulls

I get a lot of mammal material from a guy at a show in France. It's mostly mammoth tusks and bones, but I sometimes get woolly rhino, giant elk and others. It's dredged up by Dutch trawlers fishing for sole in the North Sea. Around 60,000 to 100,000 years ago there was a land bridge from mainland Europe to Britain, and most of this material dates from then. There's occasionally butcher marks on the bones, signs of human activity.

One year on his stall he had a human skull, which wasn't as expensive as I might have thought. So I bought it, without really knowing why. Impulse skull purchase.

It turned out you're not allowed to sell body parts on eBay, but I got a call from a guy saying he had a friend who was likely to be very interested in taking a look at it. The friend turned out to be studying the migratory patterns of mesolithic humans and wanted to get it checked out for pollen samples, etc, as well as getting a carbon dating reading to see if it was mesolithic. There was a fair chance, given it had been dredged up with mammoth bones, that it was of the same age.
He flew up, collected the skull, and flew back the same day, taking it with him. I'd have loved to have been with him at the airport, going throught the scanner, but he didn't have any problems.

There was quite a wait while all the tests were being done, and it travelled around a little as different specialists were visited.

Eventually, it turned out the skull was only around 420 years old or so. Some poor fisherman or sailor, maybe. This apparently meant it didn't merit a personal delivery, so I got a delivery of a head in a box not long after. Just like Brad Pitt.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Buy my head!

I get the odd pitch, from time to time. Not many odder than this. Following is as written, except it was entirely capitalised. I have spared you that...

Di dot not speck ingles,

I am using the traslator on line.

Ear friend: first of all I appear, my name is Gustavo, alive in Argentina.

I am a fan to stones and in one of my search I found one that I am called the attention powerfully, (The same one belongs to him to a friend) this has the form of a human skull, (although with some differences) segun this person to the same one made studies to him and the results said that it was a petrified bone of approximately 4,000,000 of anuses. One imagined surprising how is the same one.

This person (the proprietor of the stone) wishes to sell it but as the task lacks the contacts for such transacion enomendo of finding me to which this interesting, ademas to make money podria, of being this stone which we suppose, to gain much fama and prestige, we know of its value, therefore the buyer tendria that to be a person or an institute with much endorsement.

If ustede this interested in this please contactese for greater information in this means. A warm greeting Gustavo.

Attached to the mail were some jpegs of a vaguely rounded stone. Granted, if I squinted a little, the stone may have looked a little like a kid's drawing of Gordon Brown. I didn't follow up my great interest in the bone of many anuses, partly because I'm not really an institute with much endorsement, and partly because I was laughing too much.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008


Two days to Christmas, and they should be busy ones. The Grassmarket sees a lot less pedestrian traffic now than a few years ago, but it can still be relatively very busy in the shop. Not supermarket busy, but still one of the two times of year I can get queues at the till. The other being August, when the Festival and Fringe are running.

Towards the latter part of the afternoon on the 24th, people start to have a slightly frenzied look in their eyes, and become slightly less picky. As close as it gets to fossil panic-buying. 'How much is this? What is it?' 'It's a sellotape dispenser. It's not for sale.'

I hate panic buying, though I do find it very funny at the same time as being very annoyed by it. The lines at the petrol pumps whenever a tanker crashes or the price goes up, all those people that rushed to the shop to get four sacks of rice when the nice people on the news told us rice was in short supply. All that. I like to drive past the queues at the petrol station shouting out the window, to encourage the panic. 'Saudi Arabia has disappeared! North Korea has bought all the oil for the next 5 years! Quick! Fill your pockets with petrol! See how much you can carry in your hands!'

I'd love to see some real panic buying of fossils. People running in screaming, throwing cash on the counter and taking something before running out still screaming. I've heard that there is to be a world fossil shortage next year.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


I woke up yesterday morning to the radio telling me firemen had been battling a blaze in a restaurant on Victoria Street. That's very near the shop. I ran through the possibilities - there are a few places on the street, and I've eaten in most of them over the years.

It turned out to be Khushi's, a fantastic Punjabi restaurant who have been going in Edinburgh, in various localities for a long time. They had spent a lot of time, money and effort fixing up the building they had moved into, and it looked great. The fire had gutted the restaurant and the roof has caved in. A real shame.

When I have nightmares now, it tends to be about the shop. I had one recently, one I'd had before, where I got to the shop in the morning to find it completely empty - no stock, no shelves and so on. The level of theft in the dreams varies from just a few big items to absolutely everything - sometimes including floorboards.

I've been here for eleven or so years now, and in that time we've had the ceiling collapse, been flooded twice and had a few smallish incidents of shoplifting. Maybe not too bad, I suppose, but each event felt terrible at the time. A couple of Decembers ago, I got a call from Ryan, who'd just arrived at the shop following a Christmas break to find a huge flood from a burst pipe. The floor was under an inch of water; it was pouring into the basement, and it was still coming, at quite a rate. I got there before the plumbers, after a very quick 30 mile drive. It was horrible, but it all got sorted out eventually. The though of losing the place to a fire scares me rigid. I wish the Khushi's people all the luck in the world.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


Amber jewellery has been a good addition to my stock lines. The real Mr Wood was never that keen on selling jewellery, preferring to keep the focus on fossils. When I took over, I had to bow slightly to financial demands and bring in some jewellery lines.

Amber was the first thing I tried, as it stuck close to the fossil ethos. I've tried to get stuff with simple settings, keeping the stone the important part. It's done very well for me, and I've expanded the range gradually.

We've always had amber with insect inclusions for sale, as hand specimens. It almost always comes from one of three sources - Chiapas in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Baltic. There's also young amber, copal, which is considerably cheaper and still contains some fantastically detailed insects. It's usually a little paler in colour, and a bit more brittle. More bug for your buck. Mostly comes from Colombia or Madagascar.

You get some hilarious amber fakery. It can be melted down, and then recently killed beasties crammed in before it hardens again. I've seen a grasshopper and a scorpion done like this, and I think the scorpion was in plastic, not even amber. It's usually very obvious, as they tend to be perfectly posed. As it happens naturally, it's not common to find nice clear lumps with a perfectly positioned insects with no flaws or other inclusions. You'd think the insects would put up some sort of fight, rather than succumb to the oncoming sap with dreary resignation. 'Ok - you got me - I'll just sit here and pose for the people who'll dig me up in a few million years.'

I want the amber fakers to get a bit more ambitious. I want somebody to come into the shop and say 'Look what I bought at a market in Lithuania.' And then bring out a huge lump of amber with the whole head of a tiger in it. Or a cuckoo clock. Come on - some imagination, please. Victorian taxidermists used to like posing animals in weird anthrapomorphic positions - frogs fencing, mice smoking pipes and all that. Now that - in amber - would be worth seeing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


Every once in a while, much more often than you'd think, people come into the shop, walk quickly round, barely looking at anything, then leave. What are they doing? Is this some sort of global game? Is it the British version of that American sport, Mall Walking? Are they reassuring themselves that a fossil shop sells fossils? It genuinely troubles me. Browsing is ill-served by a brisk jog.

What's going through their heads?

Right. I'm in. Keep walking. Don't look at the man. What's that on the wall - some sort of stone fish? Weird. What am I doing here? Keep walking. Don't look at the man. Where am I? What am I going to have for tea? I hope it's carrots. Or at least has carrots in it. I really like carrots. That's a nice purple stone. Keep walking. Out the door. That's it.

When people come in, then stride purposefully to the counter, they are either coming to ask what happened to the kite shop, or where no.2 Cowgatehead is, or they have something very specific in mind. Once, a guy came in and came straight for me without looking around him at all.

'Hi - I wondered if you could help me. It's really a bit of a long shot, but I wanted to get a dinosaur tooth for my son. I know they're rare and everything, and probably very expensive if you have any at all, but he really wants one. I don't suppose you have one - I can't spend very much - maybe under a tenner. Maybe £5?'

'Actually, I do. Just here at the front of the counter, look. They are Spinosaurus teeth, from Taouz in Morocco. They are pretty decent teeth and exactly £5. There are a few here to choose from.'

Has a fairly cursory look at a couple of them. Long pause.

'Nah - I'll leave it. Thanks anyway.'
He turns and heads out the door.

'Goodbye', I said.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Fossils make for good pets. Don't need to walk them, feed them, clean up after them. Not a lot of interaction, granted, but at least quiet and well-behaved.

My parents were in the shop over the weekend, and my mum complained about the dust. I do make some effort to dust the glass shelving, especially where it is most visible, but it's a little demoralising how quickly it's coated again. Roadworks outside make it far worse. The real hassle is lifting all the little items and labels out of the way, then replacing them. I know I should do it more often. A New Year's resolution, maybe. In my defence, I DID buy some new hoover bags recently, a considerable gesture towards cleanliness. I will definitely fit one soon.

I do get asked what people do with fossils once they have them. I find this question a bit strange, but I suppose I can understand it. What do people do with paperweights? Who actually weighs down bits of paper on their desk? Who lievs in houses that windy? Anyway - people display them - hang them, put them on the mantlepiece, shelves etc. Or they just OWN them. It's a source of satisfaction to some people to have something that came from a dinosaur, or just that was living millions of years ago.

Some are very tactile objects, things you just have to pick up and hold for a minute. Others are fragile and delicate, with intricate patterns and shapes that draw the eye.

In any case - enough people like them to keep Mr Wood's Fossils in business for over twenty years. Proof enough.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

All about the timing

Humans have been around for either 5-6 million years or a few hundred thousand years, depending on how generous your interpretation of 'human' is. That may seem like a long time, but it's all relative. Certainly, you would have given up on a take away delivery by that point. By geological terms, however, it's the blink of an eye. Despite our impact on the planet, we've barely arrived.

Dinosaurs were around for a very long time. The first true dinosaurs appeared at around the start of the Triassic, roughly 248 million years ago, and disappeared during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Kind of puts us humans in the shade. So - despite all the jokes about walnut-sized brains, dinosaurs were a very successful line in animals.

I'll re-hash that nice illustration of our place in time - the planet's history imposed over the 24 hour clock. If the Earth was formed about 4.55 billion years ago, we take that as oo.oo - midnight. Current thinking has life beginning at around ten to six in the morning, just in time for a very early breakfast. Dinosaurs pitch up, with a flimsy, insincere apology and a paw full of wilting weeds from next door's rockery at a ten to eleven at night. We humans arrive, heads hanging in shame, at about a minute and a half to midnight. Civilisation, that important afterthought, happened within the last second. But that doesn't excuse using the wrong spoon for your soup.

The more observant among you will have noticed that if dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, and we have only be here a few million years at most, there is a significant gap between our periods of WORLD DOMINATION. So there wouldn't have been cavemen throwing little wooden spears at bewildered Triceratops. A shame, but I've come to terms with that, and you will too, in time.

Still - a lot of the fun of films is bringing the impossible to life. I would like to see a dinosaur. Much more than I'd like to see a caveman.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Art and craft

Are they real?

Of course they are... It's an understandable question. Many people don't really see a lot of fossils, and the stuff in the shop is self-selecting to a large extent. It's all material that's nice enough looking to be worth selling, and the first reaction of a good number of customers is one of surprise that such good examples can be sold to the general public. So are they casts? Models? Mr Wood's has been trading for over 20 years, and we wouldn't still be here if we weren't selling the real thing. It's a hard enough market as it is. The same holds true for dealers at trade shows. People trying to sell fakes to veterans of the fossil trade wouldn't last five minutes.

As with everything else, there is a burgeoning trade in fossils on the internet. A great many commercial fossil sites are now well established and many display a thorough understanding of their wares. Prices vary considerably, though. There are some reasonable valuations to be found, but often at the collector end of the scale prices rise exponentially over small degrees of preservation quality. Web-based auction sites certainly provide entry level prices, but have less in the way of unusual material and there are many associated pitfalls. The level of expertise is not necessarily too high, and a great many fakes make it onto this market.

The faking of fossils is a continual blight on the fossil trade, with a great deal of material from Morocco, Brazil and China needing close scrutiny before purchase. There are very few cases of entirely fake fossils; mostly you see embellishments such as exaggeration of fins, replacement of missing parts, the extension of broken genal spines and so on. Once you know what to look for, there are few difficulties in spotting any 'enhancements' and avoiding those examples outside of acceptable restoration. Broadly, Brazilian fakes are very poor and easy to spot, even for the layman; Moroccan stuff needs a closer look and will fool many people, and the Chinese can be very convincing.

The Brazilian fakes tend to be limited to fish nodules with crudely carved tails and dorsal fins, though there are many mesosaur specimens with tell-tale fractures across the rear of the slabs. Moroccan material is more divers - the clever carving of the centre of ammonites, application of resin to damaged trilobites, and insetting of shark and mosasaur teeth into matrix are all very common. Some Chinese preparators have taken their skill to a fine art. While the elaborate painted fins on the two fish species familiar to the market are clear to anyone looking for artifice, the faking of nothosaurs and keichousaurs has developed to the point where it can be difficult to spot unless familiar with the techniques being used.

If in doubt - go with a dealer with an established reputation.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Pearly whites

I collect teeth.

Ones that aren't being used any longer, that is. I don't go round ripping jaws off donkeys, or whatever.

When I started working in the shop, it was tempting to start buying nice examples of the things I was selling every day, but I realised it would very quickly get out of hand. Bulky things, many of them, and it would be difficult to stop. So when I came across a sperm whale tooth I thought that I might be able to set parameters for collecting, and limit myself to teeth. Relatively small, and more difficult to have access to a huge range all at once.

The sperm whale tooth was quickly followed by an example of each type of tooth we had in stock, and since then, I've always kept a careful eye out at fossil shows and so on. I have a glass cabinet for them, and make some feeble effort to display a good number of them at any one time. Not that I imagine very many people would be interested. In fact most people probably find it a little distasteful. That's ok. I don't mind.

I've got quite a lot now, mostly crammed into boxes in the bottom of the cabinet. With labels. Maybe it's the curator in me. I think perhaps I should have been even more narrow in focus - stick to dinosaur teeth, mammals or something. Too late now, though. I don't have any human ones in there yet. Waiting for my son's first milk tooth to come out.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Pie eyed

I had mince pies in the shop today. Not many, but some. Sometimes, some is enough.

Last night saw the switching on of the Chrismas lights in the Grassmarket. There was a great deal of marching about with lanterns, a considerable amount of drumming, and some lights going on. I missed the bulk of that as the shop sits just off the Grassmarket, so I couldn't really see what was going on. Still - people seemed happy enough, and we raised some money for a childrens' charity.

I was busy getting in the way while a friend moved all my files over to a new computer. Everything is now set up, and I'm getting used to Vista. And the new widescreem monitor. It's nice to have a keyboard that's not full of paperclips and stale breadcrumbs, too.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Stone sentinels

Why aren't all these things in museums?

Almost everything in the shop comes from sites around the world where there are high quality fossils in abundance. There are not many places like this, and in global terms these fossils are still rare things, but where they can be found in massive numbers, and are easy enough to collect and prepare, then they may well be a commercially viable product. For those prepared to give it a go. Often there are considerable start up costs, and problems finding a market, etc. Ultimately, the things I sell are of far more aesthetic worth than scientific.

There exists a vital symbiotic relationship between the commercial and academic sides of palaeontology. In one direction is the provision of fresh material - the cream of commercially collected fossils almost always end up available for academic study, one way or another. Many freely donate examples that may be of scientific value. This is prompted by law in some countries, and in the interest of good relations in others. It benefits the fossil dealer to know as much about his stock as possible, too...

In the other direction - from academia to trade - should come the establishment of appropriate collecting guidelines, and active encouragement. Most museums struggle to find the time and money to mount expensive exploratory digs, and it makes sound financial sense to buy the pick of the material from those already engaged in the activity - amateur and professional fossil hunters.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Bone of contention

One day, three guys came into the shop and marched up to the counter. One turned to the other and said 'Show him the merchandise, Tommy'. (Name is random guess). 'Tommy' plonked in front of me a nice example of articulated plesiosaur vertebrae in matrix. I think three of them, nicely aligned. They asked me what I thought. So I told them

They are plesiosaur vertebrae, looks like they are from Dorset, putting them probably roughly 190 million years old. They were in reasonable condition, but had some boreholes from marine creatures, and some serpulid worm casts. Clear signs that the item had been in the sea for some time.

It was apparent from their disappointing opening line what they were after. A valuation. I sell individual vertebra in good nick for £34, but three together and in matrix made for a nice example. To the right buyer, I reckoned a commercial value of around £180. Fairly generous, I thought. They didn't. In fact, they were within spitting distance of outraged.

'Tell him where you found it, Tommy.'

'Loch Ness.'

'Ah.' I said. Fearing the worst.
'Well, it definitely didn't come from there originally', I replied, 'You can tell from the borings and the casts, here. And I've seen quite a lot of these from the Dorset site, and it looks very much like those.' I suggested maybe it had been used as a demonstrative tool by a tour guide, but no, it had been found underneath a bit of sand, so that was definitely not how it had got there.

They weren't having it. Turns out they'd already been up to the museum and shown it to a geology curator I know. They hadn't been happy with what he'd told them, either.

Exit - stage left - disgusted.

Next day's Daily Tabloid had an excitable front page story about it - which had a couple of pictures of stern-faced finders and a piece using carefully cut quotes to make my friend the curator appear to not dismiss the claims outright, and so making him out to be a bit of a fool. Knowing him to be far from that, I phoned him. He was very angry. Turned out he'd told them more or less the same thing as I later did, but for professional reasons, was unable to provide evaluations. Hence their visit to me.

Later in the day, I get a phone call from Rival Tabloid. They want to know what I thought about the find. So I told them what I had told the disgruntled finders. And also about the hatchet job on the curator. Next day's Rival Tabloid's third page has 'Fossil Man calls Nessie Men Liars' type headline. Brilliant. But at least it cleared the curator's name a little, as it gave him a chance to make his points in full.

The anticipated return of brick-wielding finders never happened.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In stone

What are the best sellers?

There are a few lines that sell far more than the others - some fossils, some minerals.

Dinosaur teeth - a big favourite with young boys, and people who were once young boys. The site in the Kem Kem region of Morocco has led to a glut of very affordable dino teeth coming onto the market over the past decade. There are teeth from a number of species - most common are Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, Deltadromeus and Rebbachisaurus.

Sectioned ammonites - just very attractive items, and sell really just as ornaments. They're from Majunga in Madagascar, roughly 110 million years old and come in a reasonable range in sizes.

Fish - from the Green River Formation in Wyoming, they can be perfectly preserved, and again area mong the most aesthetically appealing fossils in the shop.

Shark teeth - giant megalodon teeth, little Otodus, and a few others. Appeal to the boys, again.

Minerals - it's a strange day when I don't sell a bit of chalcopyrite, amethyst, colourful calcite or fool's gold. They aren't expensive but the colours are irresistible. They look like sweets...

Monday, 1 December 2008

Repeat 'til fade

There is a short list of questions that I get asked time and again in the shop. Seems like a good idea to address them here. One at a time, though.

Most common, is probably - 'Where do you get all this stuff?'

Not really a short answer to this, but I want a cup of coffee, so it will be pretty brief. There are a number of fossil and mineral wholesalers in the UK, some generalist, toher with a more narrow focus. I get stock from perhaps five of these - and only one is truly generalist. The bulk of my stock comes from a couple of trips to trade fairs each year.

One, in Arizona, is the biggest of its kind in the world. Takes place in January and February, so it also makes for a welcome break from the British weather. It's expensive to go there, expensive to stay there, and not too cheap to get all the rocks home, but if I spend enough money the stock pays for all the trouble and outlay. I can get much better quality of stock, and from a far more diverse range of supliers by going there. Well worth it. I'm fussy, and I get to select the best examples myself this way, meet the original source in many cases, get the stories behind the sites and so on.

The other show is in France in the summer. Much more laid back affair, smaller in scale and set in a very pretty town in a wine-making region. More amateur collectors, a little more local generally, but still a good range of dealers from across Europe.

Other than this, there are a few friends I've made over the years that I'll phone up during the year for top-ups of regular lines.

Look at that. All about fossils. No mention of the drilling outside...