Footprints of the past

When you walk into Mike Marshall’s workshop, you have to leave your sense of time behind you. Trying to understand the abstract concept of the prehistoric takes some doing. Holding a small grey fossil that is 180 million years old catapults you back to well before our presence here. This is the land and time of the dinosaurs.

The workshop is a converted cattle shed that sits on the edge of Mulgrave Forest, and is a few hundred yards from the beach. Perfectly located, it is sheltered but quickly exposes you to the vagaries of the North Sea. Cold, harsh but also wild and beautiful. Mike gazes out and says, “That’s actually my office, out there on the beach,”

It takes Zen-like patience and passion to create a living from what you love. Especially when it comes to uncovering fossils.

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The Jurassic coastline is rich in history, minerals and natural beauty. Dotted with seaside villages, each one is unique and has its own specific charm. There’s Sandsend, once a favourite with the Vikings, who would sail in and trade on the beach. Robin Hoods Bay, which feels caught in time, was infamous for its smuggling reputation. And Staithes, with its natural harbour where Captain Cook learnt to love the sea.

This coastline’s mineral deposits provided generations with work and helped define it as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and grew ever more demanding of the potash, alum and jet which made this region unique.

“I grew up in Whitby and looking for fossils is something that I’ve always done,” says Mike. “I dig it up and preserve it and if it’s of significant importance I sell it on to a museum. Ever since I was a boy I’ve gone out looking for fossils.”

He also creates jewellery from jet, prepares other peoples’ finds and is often asked to take on commissions. A 200 million-year-old Plesiosaur discovered in the Atlas mountains of Morocco has been sent to him by a dealer to be cleaned and preserved. Then it will make its debut appearance in Tucson Arizona at the world’s largest fossil show.

A fossil 20 million years old is the equivalent of a teenager. The oldest ones are around 570 million years. Mike mainly concentrates his searching on the coastline from Ravenscar to Boulby on a stretch of the Jurassic, also referred to as the Upper Lias, which runs from Yorkshire through the middle of the country to Somerset and Dorset.

In this part of Yorkshire you will expect similar geological finds to Lyme Regis,and both are popular with people who love to go fossiling.

“The difference with Lyme Regis is that it’s easy access,” says Mike. “Thousands visit it every year. Here the coastline is more remote. The less people and more empty a place is the more I prefer it.

“A trace fossil is an imprint which you can’t remove. For example there’s a dinosaur footprint in a rock a few miles away. In situ is a fossil that you remove from a cliff face. And ex situ are the fossils found in beach deposits such as shingle. In the Upper Lias you find certain fossils at certain levels.

“Older rocks are found in the Lower Lias and this all occurred due to faults and erosion during the Ice Age. Ammonites for example, act as dating mechanisms and help us to understand geological history.”.

Mike knows his territory and his experience has given him what sounds like a sixth sense. “‘I can tell by looking at a rock what’s going to be inside it, nine times out of ten I’ll find something.”

Why do so many people seem to love going on the beach and cracking away at rocks? “‘The appeal lies in that man has always been a collector. Fossils are a curiosity and each one is unique.

“When I started there was no-one on the coast that was preparing fossils. Thirty years ago the tools were still very simple and practically the same as what the Victorians used – a hammer, a chisel and masonry nails.”

Mike’s equipment today, modified by himself and others is based on engineering tools. “‘It’s similar to light archaeology techniques. It’s about removing the soft sediment then cleaning and consolidating it.

“To preserve it you use parloid – these are perspex beads that dissolve in acetone and are then painted on. This evaporates and acts as a protector.”

On the outside a fossil is grey and crenellated with an interesting texture. Once cracked open and cleaned it’s a thing of beauty. It’s like finding strange ancient jewels, the prehistoric equivalent of Tiffany’s.

The colours range from white to mid-earth tones of caramel, dark chocolate through to ebony, and once cleaned they are transformed into a shiny, beautiful and precious rock. Watching Mike at work, it’s easy to see how this could become addictive.

“ When you open one you are the only person to have seen it for 180 million years and you get such a buzz from that.

“The 70s and 80s were the height of popularity for finding minerals and it coincided with my business developing.” A combination of good timing and love for what he discovered meant that he managed to make a living out of the coast.

“If you’re passionate about what you do, it brings you luck. If you feel like you’re at one with nature it works with you.”

A Victorian fossil and jet dealer, Brown Marshall, first discovered a rare Plesiosaur around Whitby. In 1961, the year Mike was born, a second one was discovered. Mike then found the third one at Saltwick.

“A Plesiosaur would have looked similar to the Loch Ness Monster, a marine reptile with a long neck, long tail and a small head. It had fins and flippers and was 18 metres long, ” says Mike who enjoys the synchronicity of the discoveries and the manner in which they have run through the generations. For him, it’s what makes his chosen livelihood feel so right.

The next find was an Icthtyosaur – a fish lizard, but similar in appearance to a dolphin. But the hidden gem which makes Mike’s eyes shine was a three-foot long complete crocodile skull.

There’s something decidedly dark and gothic and wholly appropriate when he describes this, his favourite discovery. This crocodile skull still had all its teeth and was completely black. The latter was due to the fact that it came out of jet rock – something that you could only find along the coast of Whitby.

It’s this which provided a second string to Mike’s bow. “I’ve always found my own jet and spent a huge amount of time looking for it. I then started to make jewellery for people to wear.”

This also threw up an extraordinary generational connection. When undertaking a repair of an old jet broach for an aunt Mike found that the figure on it was a cameo of Lord Byron that his great great grandfather had carved and was so fine that it had been exhibited in Glasgow in the 1800s.

Whitby jet was world famous and became the lifeblood of the town. There were more jet workers here in the mid-19th century that there were fishermen. A sea of shiny black jewellery washed over the country when Queen Victoria gave herself over permanently to mourning black after Prince Albert died and a fashionable cult was born.

“The jet workers made the most money – £3 a week for the best carvers, some who were taught techniques by Italian craftsmen,” says Mike. “They were the best paid artisans.”

The Victorians’ love of jet peaked in the 1860-1870s when it became impossible to cope with demand. “When this happened jet was imported but it didn’t have the same high polish. The market became flooded with inferior quality jet. In the 1920s with the revival of black and white in Art Deco designs, jet again became popular.

“ Not all jet sold locally is the real thing, especially as it is getting rarer to find. You need to be sure it’s authentic.” Mike’s is. And this means that in its raw state, the jet is very light, feels relatively warm to the touch, and is a dusky matt black. Once polished it takes on the appearance of a wet seal – brilliant shiny and black.

The only colour in Mike’s workshop comes from jars of turquoise, amber, mammoth ivory and pink Argentinian Rodacrosite stalagmites. These can be turned into rings, bracelets and earrings.

This part of the world is rich in history and it takes a unique perspective to create something original out of ancient things. That Mike both preserves this and make something modern and beautiful out of this heritage is almost as rare as finding a Plesiosaur.