Fossils fuel the future

A monument to one man’s passion for the past and what it tells us about today, the Etches Collection at Kimmeridge stands only just below St Nicholas’s Church.

Before it lies the village and beyond, the wave-washed ledges of the bay that has been home to the famous fossils for some 150 million years. Actually, that’s not strictly true as nearly all the 2500 specimens in the collection of fossil-hunter extraordinaire Steve Etches spent up to 35 years in various states of storage, the last twenty or so in the specially adapted double garage, dining room and annexe of the home in the village he shares with wife Sue.

Steve’s long-harboured dream of making his remarkable collection available to all in an accredited museum finally came true last October when the Etches Collection opened its doors. The £5 million purpose-built museum not only means that Sue Etches has got her family home back, but Steve’s finds are being put to the use he always envisaged for them. On show to the public, they tell a story of remarkable diversity, shining a new light on the Jurassic era and asking questions about where we have come from. As Steve tells a rapt group of U3A visitors, these fossils are not dead rocks but are evidence of living things and sophisticated, successful living things at that – the dinosaurs walked the Earth for 200 million years, whereas mankind has only just managed four million.

‘He’s in his element talking to people about his finds and what they mean,’ says Steve’s daughter, Carla Crook, registrar at the Etches Collection. ‘I grew up surrounded by all this and for years I had no interest in it – it was just what Dad got up to, a load of old fossils. But he was absolutely passionate about it and he has made enormous progress in extending what we know about the period. The collection is of international importance and he could have made a lot of money by selling it off, but that’s not what he’s about. He wants people to understand the stories of these creatures – how they lived, what they ate, how they died.’

Entirely self-taught, Steve uncovered his first fossil – an echinoid flint cast – at the age of five. His mother kept it in her sewing box as he pursued his childhood interest into adulthood, building a successful plumbing business along the way as well as bringing up three children. ‘We grew up in Wimborne,’ says Carla, ‘but Dad was always over here collecting fossils. I remember in about 1990 he and Mum almost bought a shop with a flat over it in Swanage where they were going to open a museum, but the sale fell through. Then the house they live in now in Kimmeridge came up and that meant he was closer to the bay, which was where he wanted to be all the time in any case, so it made sense.’

He earned it the hard way, but Steve now enjoys an international reputation as one of the world’s leading paleontologists. His knowledge of Kimmeridgian fossils is second to none and his services to science have been recognised with an MBE, but it wasn’t always that way and the more some sections of the academic community dismissed Kimmeridge Clay as being of little interest to paleontology, the more determined he was to prove them wrong. To date he has identified some twenty species that are new to science, found the world’s first fossilised ammonite eggs, the largest collection of pterosaur (flying reptile) remains and the first pterosaur skull in Dorset for more than 200 years. In characteristically hushed and humble tones, he tells the U3A group how he found a crestiscalpellum that is the world’s oldest barnacle fossil by some 36 million years to show traces of colour, adding almost casually that it is the missing link Charles Darwin – ‘You all know about him I take it?’ he teases – spent years trying to discover while studying barnacles before writing On the Origin of Species.

The main exhibition space on the first floor has been designed with simple but dynamic displays not to overwhelm the visitor with information. There are touch screens and video loops, but interpretation is kept crisp and succinct, leaving the specimens to do most of the talking – from shark coprolites (fossilised faeces) to a fully articulated ichthyosaur (marine reptile) with its last meal of squid and fish visible in its stomach. That the ichthyosaur is a previously unknown species – you can tell by the yellow catalogue dot – is almost incidental.

Only ten per cent of the collection is on display at any one time and at the end of the central gallery with its perpetually moving, occasionally gruesome, CGI animation is the workshop where Steve and his assistants can be seen cleaning, studying and preparing specimens. For Steve, this is only marginally less exciting than finding the fossils in situ in Kimmeridge Bay, for this is where he comes to understand what he has found. ‘That is a key aspect of the whole project,’ explains Carla. ‘It was never solely about showing off the collection. Dad always wanted there to be a strong educational element to what we do. That’s why visitors can see him at work and share in his passion. If he has time he’ll answer any number of questions, although he’ll soon say if he hasn’t.’

With footfall from its opening to the end of the year almost three times the 2700 expected, the Etches Collection already welcomes lots of younger school groups – evolution and fossils are part of the National Curriculum for years 3 and 6 – but it is looking forward to working with older students, especially those in higher education and beyond. There is already an arrangement with Southampton University for students to gain experience in the workshop, learning at close quarters directly from Steve.

Steve Etches (right) with a group of students in Kimmeridge Bay

‘We are a unique study centre,’ Carla explains. Dad has spent 35 years collecting all these specimens, but he hasn’t had time to study and describe every single one, let along write scientific papers. He wants to reach out to the next generation of paleontologists and offer them the opportunity to come here and work with new specimens that have never been studied before – there’s a very real chance they could break new ground and even identify something new to science. Now that we’re open, there’s a real focus on creating those opportunities by working with organisations and business sponsors to subsidise study groups and put the collection to lasting good use.’

So prominent is the Etches Collection that there can be no denying its impact on Kimmeridge, but it sits well in the village-scape and local people have supported the project since the idea was first discussed in public following the foundation of the Kimmeridge Trust charity in 2008 to work towards the realisation of Steve’s ambition. The building, designed by Kennedy O’Callaghan, has been nominated for yet to be announced architectural awards and also incorporates a new village hall with multi-purpose performance/exhibition space, storage and kitchen area. It has already been used for parties and fundraising functions for the new village playground, as well as lectures, film screenings, theatre and music performances. The fate of the old wooden village hall, characterful but dilapidated, has yet to be decided.

‘Thankfully everyone has been very positive about us,’ says Carla. ‘They all know Dad, of course, but we were worried that having lots of people arriving would upset the village. We were incredibly busy that first week during October half-term and I think that gave us a sense of what it will be like in the summer, so we’ve been able to look at how we can accommodate additional parking and things like that. It helps that we’re not a typical tourist attraction – we’re not a theme park. If we’ve had negative feedback online, I get the impression it’s from people who didn’t really know what to expect. So I know it’s asking a lot, but if people take a bit of time to look us up first and understand a bit about what we have here, they’ll get much more from their visit.’

Upstairs, Steve and the U3A are still going – the visitors listen in rapt attention as he relates his four-year wait for the showpiece intact pliosaur jaw – at a metre long, it is the largest single exhibit on display – to fall out of the Kimmeridge cliff. ‘I sat and stared at it for so long I memorised exactly how the cliff looked, then one day I went down there and the cliff had changed. I realised what had happened, but I couldn’t see the jaw at first until I brushed off a layer of shale and there it was – the tip of the jaw poking out at me. I had to move quickly to get all the pieces back home, but I did it. Good job I had a bit of time at home as my wife was expecting our youngest – I had the jaw in the bath,’ he tells them.

‘So your poor wife had to play second fiddle to your fossil?’ asks one lady, with mild admonishment. Steve smiles, as much to himself as anyone, and moves the group on.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

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