Guidelines for Vertebrate Fossil Field Documentation and Collection
DRAFT: September 6, 2012. The following draft document is based on input from Ad Hoc
Committee Members Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Chair (email@example.com), Mike Triebold, Remmert
Schouten, Bill Parker and Marilyn Fox.
Introduction: The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is a respected source of information for a
broad community of persons interested in finding, collecting, documenting, studying and
publishing on vertebrate fossils. It seems appropriate that SVP offer a set of “best practices”
procedures and suggestions for professionals and amateurs alike. The following guidelines are
grounded in the assumption that we all share a commitment both to discovering fossils and
making the most of the information that these fossils represent.
Ad Hoc Committee Goals for the SVP Field Collecting Guidelines document:
1-page introduction (webpage; see below), with site map to additional pages giving more
detailed information under these main topics.
The lead page should have the most desired/important information (applicable for all
purposes, e.g., GPS coordinates). Based on the goals of the surveyors/collectors, we provide
alternative guideline “packages” for different purposes – e.g., reconnaissance, surface
collecting, systematic surface surveys, full scale excavation, salvage operations.
Model this as a “decision tree” based on the specific goals of a surveyor/collector - i.e., a site
map diagram or guiding menu to help people navigate to what they need to know.
Components of the current draft:
o Introductory Page
o Detailed outline with more information and pointers to component documents
o Checklist for Fossil Reconnaissance (Committee)
o Checklist for Surface Fossil Collection (Committee)
o You found a fossil, what do you do? (Bill Parker)
o Field Gear Checklist (Mike Triebold)
o Collecting Guidelines – Professional Behavior (Mike Triebold)
o Fossil Collecting Code – United Kingdom (Remmert Schouten)
o Standardized Surface Fossil Surveys = Bonewalks (Kay Behrensmeyer)
o Basic Field Preparation of Vertebrate Fossils (Marilyn Fox)
o More Best Practices Suggestions for Field Collecting and Documenting (Bill Parker)
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 1
Outline of major topics (“menu”): for details see additional pages (e.g., on webpage – click on
each of the outlined topics to access detailed information):
a. Different approaches to surveys (prospecting)
b. Essential equipment.
c. Types of information to record.
d. Deciding when to collect or not collect.
e. Professional ethics.
2. Surface fossil collection.
a. Options: opportunistic, selective, comprehensive, standardized.
b. Equipment check-list
c. Geological context.
d. Information to record.
e. Deciding what to collect and what not to collect.
f. Additional “Best Practices” caveats and suggestions.
3. Locality documentation.
a. Best practices guidelines – what to record in your field notebook and/or datasheets.
b. Protecting localities from illicit collecting.
c. Archiving information.
a. Individual specimens.
b. Quarries or other multi-specimen concentrations.
c. Stabilizing and removing large specimens.
5. Special collecting targets and procedures.
a. Microfossils – finding, bagging, screen-washing, micro-excavating.
b. Trackways, footprints, other traces.
c. Controlling possible contamination from human contact (DNA samples).
d. Lateral sampling to control for local variation in (e.g.), sediment, soil nodule isotopes.
6. Salvage operations.
a. Working against a time-line – priority information to record.
b. Hard decisions about stabilization, recovery, etc.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 2
Detailed Information Outline:
1. Fossil reconnaissance
This means searching for fossils and fossil localities (concentrations of surface or in situ
material) or relocating previously known localities. Note: It’s assumed that you have the
appropriate permits or private land owner permissions – keep copies of any such documents
with you in the field. See: COLLECTING GUIDELINES - Professional Behavior contributed by
Mike Triebold and “Fossil Collecting Code – United Kingdom” contributed by Remmert
a. Different approaches to reconnaissance surveys (prospecting) can result in different
types of discoveries and information.
i. Known fossil producing areas.
1. Reconnaissance for new fossils – simple walk, look, and find.
2. Standardized surveys to document fossil-producing levels/strata and areas as
well as locate new fossils.
3. Relocating historic sites, follow-up with systematic surveys of producing horizons.
This can provide valuable information to supplement what is already known.
ii. New areas – basic reconnaissance, which can be opportunistic or more standardized
with survey protocols and target strata.
iii. General advice: When prospecting stop often and look around you, noting
landmarks. Look back in the direction from which you came, this is what you will see
when you return. Even before finding a fossil, it does not hurt to pay attention to
routes for removal of large specimens. For more tips, see Basic Field Preparation of
Vertebrate Fossils, contributed by Marilyn Fox.
iv. More general advice: “You found a fossil, what do you do?” by William Parker.
b. Opportunistic or standardized surveys should always record the same basic information
(see 2 below and attached checklist).
i. New or historic collecting areas – guidelines for minimum information to be recorded
under any circumstances.
ii. Standardized surveys recording surface bones along designated stratigraphic levels
also provide data on the frequency of fossils in different areas and strata.
c. Equipment – GPS, air photos, maps, pencils, pens, hand lens, sample data collection
sheets, camera, field notebook, etc. (historic site photos, if available) See Checklist for
d. Types of information to record
i. GPS points, e.g., endpoints of transects searched, positions of important fossils, etc.;
positions on air photos or on overlays also very helpful and a good back- up for
ii. Sedimentological, taphonomic, stratigraphic, topographic characteristics of the fossil-
producing areas, including notes on access, roads, landmarks, etc.
iii. Develop a field numbering, specimen numbering, and photo numbering system in
advance and use this consistently.
e. Deciding when to collect or not collect on reconnaissance surveys.
i. In some cases, it may be best not to collect on the first visit to a new area, leaving
fossils until one is well-prepared to collect and record them. If reconnaissance
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 3
permits do not allow collecting, it is important to plan how to get the most
information about specimens and their context without picking them up.
ii. Diagnostic, complete elements, rare taxa, vouchers for biostratigraphy
iii. Representative suite of taxonomically identifiable fossils, even if scrappy and only
identified to major group.
iv. Important to record your protocols for collecting or not collecting in field notebook.
f. Professional ethics – how to interact with permit agencies, landowners, other collectors,
the public. See Collecting Guidelines: Professional Behavior section by Mike Triebold.
2. Surface fossil collection.
a. Options: opportunistic, selective, comprehensive, standardized. Where possible, take
the long view and leave some fossils behind for future researchers (don’t “vacuum clean”
b. Equipment check-list: consolidant, plaster bandages, camera, photo scale (for stereo if
possible), GPS, batteries, radio or cell phone, notebook, pencils, pens, eraser, archival
and permanent markers, compass, collection bags, vials, etc., field tags, water, food).
c. Geological context – record at scale of locality and also productive stratigraphic levels
that can be traced laterally.
d. Types of information to record – especially any collection biases, protocols, etc. used by
the field team. Basic philosophy - you cannot collect too much information; have all team
member take individual notes and provide you with copies after each field season.
i. Geological context, stratigraphic level, age, etc.
ii. Collection approach – biases, targets, goals, etc.
iii. Team members (day-by-day if they vary), visitors
iv. Weather conditions, other logistical issues affecting collecting, time of day when
collection started and ended (light angle can make a difference in what you see).
v. Photography, use of GPS including GPS DATUM.
e. Decisions about what to collect and what not to collect
i. Photographing specimens in situ (stereo recommended), specimen labeling (field
numbers in permanent ink).
ii. Approaches to field preparation (reversible), stabilizing fossils, burying for future
collecting, consolidants used, etc.
iii. Photograph important specimens in place, surface or in situ; include a scale and if
possible a label that shows in the photo.
3. Fossil locality documentation.
a. Best practices guidelines – what to record in your field notebook and/or datasheets
i. Stratigraphy, geochronology, location, approximate area of locality, potential for in
situ material, etc.- sketches are very helpful; also annotated Polaroid photos.
ii. Time, weather, were things rushed, distracted?
iii. How completely was the area covered?
iv. ALL fossil localities should be photographed, preferably from several angles. Enough
background should be present to easily relocate the site. Compass should be used to
provide direction of the shot (DO NOT GUESS!). Include person or other means of
showing the scale.
b. Protecting localities from illicit collecting.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 4
i. Locality information held on file for qualified researchers – (PRPA allows for non-
disclosure of locality information)
ii. Refrain from publishing or making available GPS coordinates.
c. Archiving information
i. Back-ups in printed and digital format – use back-up website and/or institution.
ii. Photo copy and scan notes often for back-up; always leave an archive copy at home
when taking originals back to the field.
iii. Download and label photos as often as possible.
4. Excavation. See “BASIC FIELD PREPARATION OF VERTEBRATE FOSSILS” by Marilyn Fox
a. Individual specimens.
b. Quarries or other multi-specimen concentrations.
c. Stabilizing and removing large specimens – how to transport safely, etc.
d. Documentation – quarry maps, bone orientations and positions (X,Y,Z); equipment used.
e. Protection from rainstorms – drainage, tarp.
f. Equipment checklist – See examples from Mike Triebold and Marilyn Fox.
5. Special collecting targets and procedures.
a. Microfossils – finding, bagging, screen-washing, micro-excavating.
i. Crawl small areas of outcrop to locate productive sediment layers or patches.
ii. Select outcrop area/sedimentary layer with surface show of small bones and teeth, dig
and bag matrix (e.g., 20-30 lbs/bag if you need to carry it any distance), or excavate
and wrap blocks for laboratory excavation if fossils are too fragile to survive screen-
washing. Note: it’s a good idea to retain blocks for later micro-excavation to control
for what might not survive screen-washing.
iii. Equipment - collecting: burlap or other large bags for matrix, picks, shovels, toilet
paper for wrapping blocks, hand lenses, small brushes and dental tools, gel caps, vials
for collecting small items, plastic bags, marker pens, camera (with macro-capabilities)
iv. Equipment – screen washing: screens for sieving matrix, water source, buckets for
soaking matrix, large canvas or other painters’ drop cloths for spreading and drying
matrix, kerosene for dispersing clays, bags for dry concentrate (cloth or plastic),
1. Screen mesh size depends on fossil size, usually screens are ¼ “mesh for removing
coarse matrix and 1/8”, 1 mm, or 0.5 mm for catching small bones, jaws, teeth, etc.
2. Sturdy screens are usually made of wood and window screening prior to field work
– for instance, ~18” wide, 24” long, and 4-6” deep; it helps to have handles for
shaking back and forth; nested sets with coarse to fine mesh work well for
separating different size fractions.
3. Original methods reference: McKenna, M. C. 1962, Collecting small fossils by
washing and screening. Curator 5:221-235.
v. Check for small bones in matrix surrounding larger ones – it’s easy to miss them when
focused on collecting larger specimens.
b. Trackways, footprints, other traces.
i. Photograph in cross-section and/or plan view, paying attention to optimal lighting
conditions; utilize digital 3-D imaging if possible for trackways.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 5
ii. Use silicon or other molding materials backed up by plaster or fiberglass if prints are
not to be removed
iii. Excavate and protect, e.g., with plaster, if prints are removed.
c. Controlling possible contamination from human contact (DNA samples).
i. Wear latex or other protective gloves during excavation of samples
ii. Wrap in aluminum foil, then plastic bags
iii. Avoid using consolidant, glue, etc.
d. Lateral sampling to control for local variation in (e.g.) soil nodule isotopes.
i. Decide on distance and spacing of samples.
ii. Standardize amount, size of nodules, etc. to be collected at each lateral site
iii. Measure short stratigraphic sections to document each lateral site.
6. Salvage operations – what to do to maximize the value of specimens in challenging collecting
a. Working against a time-line – priority information to record.
b. Hard decisions about stabilization, recovery, etc.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 6
Checklist for Fossil Reconnaissance
GPS, maps, air photographs
scale bar (for photos)
rock hammer (chisel end)
sample data collection sheets
historic site photos, if available
Checklist for Surface Fossil Collection
GPS, maps, air photographs
Field notebook, pencils, pens
camera and scale bar (for photos)
rock hammer (chisel end)
digging tools – implements with points (e.g., ice pick)
glue and consolidant - thick and thin Paraloid B-72, Butvar B-76 or PVA B-15 (formerly known as
Vinac); in plastic bottles with funnel tops.
baggies (plastic zip-lock, cloth)
Archival pens for labeling tags, bags and/or fossils
Highly Recommended: surface fossil survey data collection sheets
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 7
You found a fossil, what do you do?
Contributed by Bill Parker
I vividly remember my first discovery and collection of dinosaur material. I descended down into
the badlands area and shortly came upon a pile of fragments eroding from the banks of a wash. I
remember the excitement I felt of encountering my first dinosaur. I knew the rocks were
Cretaceous in age and that the specimen was probably just fragments of a ubiquitous duckbill
dinosaur, maybe the rarer horned dinosaur, but maybe, just possibly, it was from the more elusive
Tyrannosaurus rex. In my state of euphoria I stuffed my pockets as full as I could with the material
and headed back out. I had collected Paleozoic age invertebrate fossils from numerous sites
through the years, but this was my first dinosaur. I had grown up with visions of this moment since
I was a kid.
I also remember the disappointment I felt when I saw the look on the paleontologist’s face at the
local museum when I showed him my prize. He tried to remain upbeat despite the circumstances,
but I remember the strong feeling come over me that was I had done was wrong. My prize was
actually a mixture of unidentifiable bone fragments and slivers of petrified wood. I had no detailed
written information as the where the specimen was from and I definitely had not asked anyone for
permission to collect the specimens. This was before I had even heard of the Society of Vertebrate
Paleontology, or any other professional society for that matter, and I had collected invertebrates
for years in the same manner with no perceived problem. I never realized, or had explained to me,
the importance of the contextual information regarding fossils and that different fossil types had
different protections. One of the greatest moments in my life had become one of the worst.
Throughout my professional career I have seen this scenario repeated over and over. People come
in all of the time with fossil and rocks to be identified. I have also seen archaeological artifacts, as
well as lots of petrified wood. The story is almost always the same, no provenance and no
knowledge of land ownership. I understand the feeling people get when they make these
discoveries. The euphoria and the feeling of “if I don’t pick this up right now I will lose it and never
know what I have found” prevails, and most of the time these people have no intention of stealing
or damaging specimens. They are just excited about the discovery and want to know what it is
(admittedly sometimes they want to know what it is worth).
This behavior in the majority of cases is simply due to a lack of education regarding the proper
procedures for collecting and documenting paleontological specimens, as well as a general
unawareness of laws regarding the collection of vertebrate fossils. When people ask me what they
should do when they find a fossil, my immediate response is – document it, document it, and
document it. If they have a GPS unit (and if they are actively seeking fossils, this should be a
mandatory part of their outfit), they should write down coordinates for the site (and be aware as
to the datum their GPS is set too), if they know something about their geographical and/or
stratigraphic (geologic) location, they should note it. They should make a rough sketch of the
spatial distribution of the specimen, or even better snap a photograph. These days many digital
cameras are pocket sized point-and-shoot models, and even if a digital camera is lacking, most
people possess cell phones that have picture-taking capabilities. In our increasingly wireless
society, everywhere except the most remote places gets some degree of cellular service. Photos
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 8
should include close-ups of the specimen, as well as an area shot showing prominent landmarks to
allow for easy relocation of the site. This is especially important if a GPS unit is not available.
Unless they know the exact ownership of the land, and have permission, they should make no
attempt to collect the specimen, especially if they are inexperienced in collection techniques. If
permission to collect is granted by the owner, in some cases it may be OK to collect a voucher
specimen to aid a professional in determining the significance of the specimen, but remember that
on federal and state lands in the United States it is illegal to collect vertebrate fossils without a
valid research permit. It is important that someone prospecting for fossils understands the
regulations of the specific state and country in regards to collecting fossils. The discoverer should
also avoid the strong desire to collect all of the fragments from an area and place them in piles.
This masks the actual distribution of the specimens and could make it impossible to discover the
location of a buried specimen.
After careful documentation of the fossil and its location is completed, if the discoverer is not a
qualified and permitted researcher, they should contact their local paleontologist whether it be at
a college, university, or museum. In some places, such an institution could be fairly far away, but in
the U.S. most states have Natural History Museums of some kind, and all have universities and
colleges. The professional can examine the documentation and give advice on the next step, which
could be collection. The professional can also help with the determination of land ownership. It
should be noted that the recently passed Paleontological Resources Preservation Act makes it
illegal in the United States to falsify the documentation of a fossil specimen found on federal land.
The absolute importance of the documentation aspect of fossil collection cannot be understated.
Several years ago I gave a presentation at a Federal Fossil Conference regarding paleontological
resource damage due to “poor science”. After several years of documenting specimens and fossil
localities at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, I determined that many of the fossils
collected from the park in the past were useless for scientific research because of the poor
documentation provided for the specimens. In one case, the permitted researcher had employed
students and volunteers to survey for and collect sites. These students and volunteers proceeded
to “vacuum clean” whole areas of their bone fragments. The specimens were then sent to the
researcher who proceeded to sort through them identifying various specimens. Many of these
specimens were later returned to the Park mixed in bags and boxes, most of them with only a slip
of paper listing a broad geographical area as the collecting site and no other information. As a
result of this practice, the exact location of some extremely significant fragmentary specimens,
which were unrecognized by the main researcher, cannot be relocated to determine stratigraphic
position or to even investigate if the remnant of the specimen is still present.
In summary, when you find a fossil the most important things to do are to document the site as
completely as you can and to avoid any activity (e.g., vacuum cleaning, piling specimens) that
would impair the scientific integrity of the site. Even the best intentions can cause irrevocable loss
to either the specimens themselves or their associated data. Collection of specimens should only
be done with land-owner approval and by experienced individuals.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 9
FIELD GEAR CHECKLIST – MACRO-FOSSILS Contributed by Mike Triebold
4417 Field glue
1 small bottle for each person, plus a supply of large bottles.
Accelerant – 1 can for each
Extra small bottles
Extra lids & tips
Bottle-tip cleaning probe
Vinac or Acryloid slurry
Dilute Vinac or Acryloid with dedicated chip brush
Paint and paint brush(es)
Plaster – hydrocal - ultracal
Separator or wrapping material to keep plaster from sticking to fossils
Poles for jacket support
String for long, delicate fossils (can be hardened to provide support)
Other Tools and Equipment
2 Masonry hammers
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 10
Estwing pick and 2 army picks
1 Exacto knife for each person
Extra Exacto blades
1 trowel for each person or more
giant block busting chisels(3)
one long broom
Pair of gloves for each person
One shovel for each person
Wash basin & towel
Maps & map software
Camera – still
Camera – movie
First aid kit
Notebook & pen
Marking spray paint
Cardboard boxes-broken down
Stone carving kits (handy set of chisels, hammer, etc.)
Air tools, etc.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 11
Emergency air compressor
Chain lube oil
Spark plug wrench
Extra spark plug
¾ inch wrench
Two long cords-heavy duty
Motor oil 10-30
Clothing & personal stuff
Can opener & silverware
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 12
COLLECTING GUIDELINES - Professional Behavior
Contributed by Mike Triebold
Some of these recommendations may seem obvious. Some are learned from hard
experience. Whether you are just starting out or have a couple of decades of work under
your belt, these tips will help you establish and maintain a positive relationship with the
owners of the land, whoever that may be. Whether you are collecting for a university or
museum, as an independent professional collector or an amateur, these tips will help keep
you in their good graces.
1. Explain in detail who you are and what you want to do. Identify yourself and your
business or institution accurately and honestly. A face-to-face meeting is critical in getting to
know one another, as the first “kitchen table visit” will set the stage for years to come. If
you are going to collect for an institution, explain what will happen to the specimens being
collected. Make sure the landowner has a realistic expectation of the display and research
possibilities, and the amount of time it sometimes takes for the results to materialize. Make
sure the landowner understands that you may eventually market the specimens if you are
collecting commercially. You are not trying to “sell” the landowner on the idea of your
traipsing around his ranch. You are attempting to provide a realistic understanding of what
you want to do so that you will be welcomed.
2. Most aspects of your collecting activity are covered in the License Agreement that you
will want the landowner to sign, and can be used as bullet points as you discuss the various
issues. Casual agreements almost always lead to misunderstandings, hard feelings and
sometimes even lawsuits! Avoid trouble by being thorough and clear. If your landowner
understands how things are going to work and your agreement is detailed and unambiguous,
the landowner is much more likely to allow you to collect than if there are questions left
The License Agreement should cover subjects including but not necessarily limited to:
A. The right & ability of the landowner to sign the agreement.
Determine that he or she truly is the landowner. If a corporation, find out if there are
others that need to sign. Make sure you have identified the land on your maps, and
verify the land ownership at the courthouse.
This section enumerates why you are there.
C. Ingress and egress.
Make sure that you have the right to enter and exit the property.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 13
At some point in the collecting process, title to the specimen(s) will transfer from the
landowner to the collector. This is usually once the collecting process commences on a
particular discovery. The agreement should also specify that the landowner will assist
the collector in proving ownership of the specimen if necessary.
Specify when and how the landowner will be compensated.
The agreement will be for a specified period of time. The agreement may be constructed
to automatically renew in most cases.
G. Conflict resolution.
A device to resolve major disagreements should be included, such as an arbitration
H. Specific limitations.
The landowner may require that you obtain specific permission before excavation occurs
on part or all of the ranch. This and any other requirements set out by the landowner
and accepted by the collector should be spelled out in the agreement.
You will hold the landowner harmless if you or any of your agents are injured in the
course of your activities.
The above suggestions are only an outline. We are not attorneys and are not giving legal
advice. Consult with your attorney to construct your agreement, and have it with you when
you visit the ranch for the first time.
3. Unless you are willing to risk wasting a day or more later, don’t begin your search until
you have a signed agreement and have verified land ownership at the county courthouse.
4. NO THANK YOU is an option. Remember that not all landowners want you there or are
worth the trouble. If you see that a landowner is going to be suspicious of your every move
or has dollar signs in his or her eyes, you may want to walk away from the deal and collect
elsewhere. There are millions of acres of privately held ranchland and you don’t have to deal
with an unreasonable host. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.
1. The landowner should know what size and type of equipment may be used, and you need
to know if larger equipment will be allowed and under what circumstances. If the landowner
is expecting to see you using shovels and you show up with a skid-steer, a conflict may ensue
unless you have previously discussed it. Once you begin your search, communicating to the
landowner what you have found and how you intend to proceed is critical.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 14
Initially at the end of each day, a brief visit to the ranch, when practical, to tell the landowner
what you have located and when and how you intend to collect one or more of your
discoveries is always a good idea. As your relationship evolves, you will learn the degree to
which the landowner wishes to be kept informed.
2. If you have been away for a few weeks or months, always call ahead to let the landowner
know you are returning and for what approximate duration. After being gone for a few
months, you don’t want your first contact with the landowner to be when you need your
field vehicle pulled out of the mud.
1. If a gate is open, leave it open. If a gate is closed, close it again once you have gone
2. If you see any livestock dead, sick or otherwise in trouble or outside the fence, tell the
landowner and be prepared to describe what you saw and where.
3. Volunteer for fire duty. If you see a range fire, drop everything, contact the landowner
and start fighting the fire if you are capable of doing so and offer your help to the arriving
4. Keep your trash. Littering will spoil a relationship in a hurry. Put all of your waste in
garbage bags and keep it with you, and that means all of it. Many landowners enjoy
occasionally walking their ground searching for fossils or artifacts, and it does your
relationship no good when he or she is in an otherwise pristine area and comes across a
candy wrapper. This also applies to your dig sites and campsites. Splattered plaster waste is
inexcusable. At the very least, dig a hole, line the hole with a garbage bag and dump your
crusted plaster bucket residue in it. When the digsite is finished, remove the garbage bag
and cover up the hole.
When you break camp, make sure your camp area is left as you found it (or better).
5. Minimize disturbance. Much of our collecting activity is done in naturally eroding areas,
but it is still important to leave as little obvious evidence of our activity as possible. If you
had to create piles of talus during your excavation, when the dig is finished, knock off the
tops of those piles to more closely resemble the natural landscape. Even large excavations
are not obvious when the talus piles have been knocked down. Typically, the notch in the hill
that you have created will soon appear quite natural in the course of just a few years.
6. Guests. Make sure that any guests you have in your camp understand and abide by all of
the same rules as you and your crew.
7. When traveling across prairie trails, a good general speed limit is 15 mph or less! Higher
speeds will damage your equipment, crew or vehicle and startle livestock. Stay on trails
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 15
unless allowed by the rancher to go off-trail. Some ecosystems are so delicate that a mere
set of vehicle tracks will compact the soil and kill vegetation, allowing the tracks to be visible
for years. Landowners will not appreciate evidence that you have been driving around their
property more than necessary. Some healthy pastures are not affected by vehicle traffic and
the rancher will know which he has and will tell you where you may go with your vehicle.
8. Do not engage in any unauthorized or illegal activity.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 16
Fossil Collecting Code – United Kingdom. Contributed by Remmert Schouten
A summary of important details.
The code in the UK has been developed especially to cover the area of the ‘Jurassic Coast’,
but it also includes and is intended to include (all) other areas.
It can be found here:
The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site and has an office that deals with the protection of
management of the area, including all people involved. Typically, these are the different
councils (local government administrations), land- owners and users and visitors including
The code aims to provide a directive for consultation with regards to what is and what is not
accepted. Importantly, except for landownership and safety aspects and Sites of Special
Scientific Interest (SSSI’s), this has no legal basis but at times comes very close to suggesting
a legal basis.
The code differentiates between Category I and category II fossils. Category I fossils are
fossils that are scientifically key and as such extremely important. These fossils require
reporting and various contacts are given through or to whom these can be reported. The
Scelidosaurus is given as an example.
Category II fossils are all other fossils, which can be reported but no one is vitally encouraged
to do so.
Safety and land ownership receive proper attention in the document and key areas are well
covered. Key is that communication with relevant people is considered paramount. This
includes unsuspecting people such as other users/visitors of the area. This again emphasizes
the sharing of information, especially with safety considerations and land ownership issues
but also other stake holders, which can be museums, academics and other interested parties.
Important landowners issues are that if a fossil is found on private land, the land owner has a
right to at least part of (the value of ) this fossil. The finder has no rights to the find if no
permission was sought beforehand.
The document appears incomplete as it does not state that digging into a cliff is illegal.
Digging into cliffs is illegal as it is endangers the safety of whomever is near the cliff, and it
can undermine cliffs causing dangerous landslides with the potential for damage to property,
roads and the cliff itself.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 17
The balance that this document strikes is between two extremes, which are academia who
wish for protection of any sites that produce fossils, and collectors who argue that most
fossils would weather away before any academic would see them or be aware of them. In
that, this code is successful in striking a sensible balance, which also provides a useful
directive and manual of ‘what to do’.
Notable in this ‘debate’ is that amateur collectors are often far ahead of academia in terms
of their knowledge of the sites and what the sites produce. Of course the collectors do often
depend on scientific reference publications to compare their finds against.
Confusingly, there are other codes of conduct available online which claim to be ‘the code of
conduct’ in the UK. These codes are well written but do not appear to have been constructed
with the governing bodies and more ‘official’ stake-holders such as the Jurassic Coast and
Natural England. Good examples of these are found here:
Comparison with Archaeological finds with some reference to other countries
This has technically nothing to do with palaeontology and that in itself can be a sore point for
collectors and academics alike.
Archaeological finds are guided much closer and in contrast with palaeontological finds do
have a legal basis. Archaeological finds of significance have to be reported to the authorities,
usually appointed finds liaisons. Gold and silver finds have further directives which the state
has a claim over and the state has to provide a suitable compensation to the finder and land
owner, if different from another.
Other countries, notably Denmark go much further in this respect and have declared
palaeontological finds part of the country’s heritage. Three times a year a panel of appointed
experts meet and decide a value for these (reported) finds and so the collectors receive
compensation. Notably, many finds fetch more money on the private market and so are not
reported. A bias is therefore present on top of a presumed bias on the types of fossils
collected in the first place.
Where often collectors are ahead of science in terms of what sites produce, in Denmark
similar specimens from the same site are being collected and offered to the country (pers.
comm.). When a particular fossil becomes over-represented in a collection then becomes a
choice for the board of experts. This potentially results in a situation where scientists are way
ahead of the collectors. It is then up to the board to be in touch with the scientists in
question. The scientists in question may themselves be biased and so this can result in
arguable waste of public money.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 18
In some provinces in Spain any fossil, including brachiopods for example have been declared
national treasure. This means that technically when picking up an ammonite and pocketing
it, you are committing an offense. This has produced some tragedies already, where people
simply decide not to collect or of course collect illicitly.
From the perspective of the UK, the Collecting code is a sensible road in the middle.
It could do with some teeth however, in case of serious bad behaviour. It should be noted in
my opinion that a code of conduct that covers how institutions and academics deal with
collectors on an interpersonal basis would be very useful.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 19
Standardized Surface Fossil Surveys – Bonewalks
Contributed by Kay Behrensmeyer
The basic goal of standardized surface sampling of the vertebrate record is to
accurately document the fossil assemblage that occurs on the ground surface at a
particular stratigraphic level. Documentation targets any vertebrate remains that have
been naturally exposed and are visible on outcrop surfaces – whole bones and teeth
to minimally identifiable scraps of all the major groups, as well as coprolites or other
The controlled fossil surveys provide information that usually cannot be recovered
from museum catalogues or traditional, taxon- or body-part oriented fossil collecting
strategies, and the two approaches are mutually supportive and complimentary when
applied to the same strata. Standardized surveys provide measures of fossil
productivity – identifiable bones and teeth per search hour, ratios of different taxa or
body parts – e.g., crocodiles vs. dinosaurs, teeth vs. axial remains, abundance of a
particular taxon relative to total identifiable sample, etc. Fossil productivity measures
can be used with geological data to investigate how sedimentary environments or
stratigraphic intervals vary in fossil richness. Taxonomic data, even at very coarse
levels of identification (e.g., mammal vs. reptile vs. fish) can provide evidence for
questions such as the abundance of aquatic components in the fauna.
Standardized surface sampling efforts should have a clear research goal in mind,
since this affects the type of data recorded and the deployment of people doing the
recording. These surveys also can address questions such as, 1) the effect of
different outcrop slopes and lighting (bright sun, overcast, etc.) on fossil collecting, 2)
variation among different individuals in finding fossils, 3) variation in skeletal parts
preserved in different lithofacies and stratigraphic intervals, 4) ratios of “good” fossils
(i.e., identifiable to major group, etc.) to scrap, 5) variation through time and by facies
of aquatic vs. non-aquatic vertebrates, 6) relative frequency of recovery of micro-
vertebrates on walking surface surveys (as opposed to crawling the outcrops).
Perhaps the most important benefit of controlled surface surveys is that they can be
repeated at different stratigraphic intervals, thereby providing standardized
information on changes in the taxonomic composition of the fossil assemblages
through time – i.e., biostratigraphic trends. The same methods can also be used for
comparisons of contemporaneous faunas and skeletal part assemblages in different
areas or lithofacies – the key is to eliminate noise from inconsistent collecting
strategies so that such comparisons result in reliable information on the bone
The goal is to cover a known area of outcrop thoroughly and record all fossil bones in
that area. In some cases, surveyors may decide to collect everything for later
identification – but this only works if fossils are relatively sparse. In other cases,
fossils with important information (depending on the question), or that need museum
comparisons for certain identification, are collected (see surface fossil collecting
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 20
section). Topography is important – steep slopes are hard to prospect and won’t
have much surface bone, while flat areas may include time-averaged lags from
multiple strata. Relatively gentle slopes on laterally continuous strata between two
distinct marker beds are easiest to survey and yield the best results in terms of
sampling everything from a specified stratigraphic interval (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Bonewalk team surveying along a clearly demarcated stratigraphic interval.
Fossils found on the surface are most likely to have eroded from between the two
marker beds rather than from higher stratigraphic levels.
Survey parties usually consist of two to six individuals. One individual (the leader) is
responsible for deciding on the search area and for keeping people on more-or-less
parallel tracks along the outcrops, noting light and substrate/slope conditions,
outlining the area on air photo overlays or by GPS, and recording the data for each
survey (see sample survey sheet; Fig. 2). Individuals vary in their ability to identify
fossils, so it is best to have one or two “experts” making the identifications for fossils
that are recorded but not collected. In practice, most fragmentary surface fossils can
only be identified to major vertebrate or mammal group, which is relatively easy to
learn, even for inexperienced collectors.
It is important to have standardized data sheets to fill in – these can be customized
for any particular project (see example in Fig. 2), and it helps to print them on green
or blue paper so they are easy to work with in bright sunlight. For each standardized
surface survey, the surveying team typically spends an hour or two walking along a
set of outcrops looking for fossils. It is helpful to divide a survey into sequential
“blocks” or segments between drainages or other topographic features. When a team
member finds a fossil, decisions are made about the identity and size of the bone or
tooth fragment. A number of rules were developed to standardize recording and
collecting of some of the materials encountered on the surveys.
1) At the start of each survey block, the leader fills out the top portion of the survey
sheet, and at the end of the block notes the endpoint GPS, finish time and total hours.
Individuals should stop the clock during any significant rest-breaks during the
2) All bones are recorded, either tallied as “scrap” if unidentifiable or “turtle scrap” if
identifiable as such, or as separate items numbered sequentially and identified to
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 21
body part and taxon. Body part can be as non-specific as “limb fragment - mammal,”
or as specific as “upper right premolar - Hipparion.”
3) Patches of multiple fragments of bones or teeth that have recently broken up on
the eroded surfaces are counted as single occurrences.
4) Each bone is scored as either larger or smaller than 5 cm maximum dimension, to
keep track of the degree of fragmentation in a survey block and also the observation
capabilities of different surveyors.
5) Two or more identifiable and separately recorded bones from the same or different
individuals that occur in a small area (e.g., ~1-10 square meters) are noted as
“clusters” by brackets on the survey card. Some of these can later be designated as
localities and given a locality number.
6) If a fossil cannot be identified, it is recorded as indt. and in some cases collected
for later identification. Usually the leader has the last say on field identification and
whether or not to collect such specimens.
7) The group leader(s) usually collect particularly good or informative specimens,
which are documented with GPS or on air photos. Surveyors who find these should
leave them in place and put a cairn at the discovery site, then get the assistance of
8) At a particularly rich patch of fossils, i.e., a locality, the survey clock is stopped and
the team gathers to collect the patch and document it as a locality. Once this is done,
the clock starts again and the survey continues.
This survey method can result in a lot of useful information in a relatively short period
of time, depending on the density of surface fossils and the size of the survey team.
It can also result in the discovery of high quality specimens in unexpected places, as
well as the collection of identifiable material to supplement formal localities.
Behrensmeyer, Anna K. and J. C. Barry. 2005. Biostratigraphic surveys in the
Siwaliks of Pakistan: A method for standardized surface sampling of the vertebrate
fossil record. Palaeontologica Electronica (Special issue in honor of W. R. Downs):
Vol. 8, Issue 1:15A:24p, 839kb. http://palaeo-electronica.org.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 22
Figure 2. Example of a Fossil Surface Survey (Bone Walk) data collection sheet. The Field #
is given only for collected specimens, “Cluster” enables bracketing of different bones that
occur near each other.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 23
BASIC FIELD PREPARATION OF VERTEBRATE MACRO-FOSSILS
Contributed by Marilyn Fox
These are some notes on basic preparation, jacket making and careful excavation of
specimens in the field. There are many variations on each method described here,
most of these work as well. With an understanding of the reason for each step, the
methods described can be varied as needed to fit changing field conditions.
It is vital to remember that the safe collection of the specimen is paramount, and that
specimens collected in the field must be prepared in the lab. With the desired result
in mind while collecting – i.e., a stable specimen with the greatest amount of
information preserved - decisions can be made that will best achieve this goal.
Items to take in the field with you every day when you plan to collect fossils:
digging tools – implements with points (e.g., ice pick), chisels, rock hammer
glue and consolidant - thick and thin Paraloid B-72, Butvar B-76 or PVA B-15
(formerly known as Vinac)
baggies (plastic zip-lock, cloth)
walkie-talkie or cell phone, if possible
pre-bagged plaster in heavy gallon-size plastic bags (can be mixed in the bag)
Items that may be needed once you find a fossil:
paleopick, mattock, shovels
plaster bandages, if the bone is large
burlap and plaster, if the bone is very large
scissors or a pocket knife
a container to mix plaster in
garbage bags to remove all excess plaster/burlap from the site.
Wood supports, e.g., 2” x 4” boards for large fossils
When prospecting stop often and look around you, noting landmarks. Look back in
the direction from which you came, this is what you will see when you return. Even
before finding a fossil, it does not hurt to pay attention to routes for removal of large
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 24
Try to be systematic with your prospecting, search an entire hill, or valley before
moving to the next one, that way you will not need to come back to finish off the hill.
Additionally, if you are in a group, which you should be for safety, you can stagger
yourselves topographically (i.e., prospecting at different heights on the outcrop) to
cover an outcrop more quickly. Areas prospected should be marked on a map at
When first spotting what you think may be a chip of bone, look at it carefully, using
your loupe/hand lens, if necessary. Things to look for, besides overall morphology,
are the grain of the bone, and the cancellous bone at the breaks.
If you have found a chip of bone, look carefully around the area, on hands and knees,
if necessary. Try to ascertain the extent of the bone - you don’t want to miss any of it
and you don’t want to step on something important. Look first below the chip and
then try to follow it up hill. Many surface chips will have come from higher up. You
may want to circle around the site and look at it from the side or above, being careful
not to cause rock from above to fall down over the area. Don’t pick up anything
beyond the first chip or two yet. If you do pick up the first piece you find, it helps to
leave a small circle of stones to temporarily mark the spot.
If you think you have found the location of the bone cropping out of the hill, dig
carefully, just a little, around with an ice pick or point and gently brush away the
surface dirt. The idea at this point is just to see if there is more material below the
surface. Do not start to excavate the specimen.
If you are sure that you have found either a good bone or skeleton, even if you do not
plan to collect it, take a picture, noting the shot number. If you are carrying a GPS,
take a reading, and otherwise take a mental picture of the site, noting some particular
landmark, so that you can return. You can use marking tape, or build a cairn, but you
must be sure to return and remove it. You cannot leave a permanent marker on any
site on public land.
At this point, you will probably want to discuss your find with others on the field crew.
With a surface collecting permit, you can collect only those specimens that lie within
the limits of your permit. If the specimen is too large or extensive, you will need to
apply for an excavation permit.
If you decide to excavate this bone, or skeleton, start by
photographing the partly exposed bone, and making
notes about the location, landmarks, and how the bone
appears, noting its condition, angle, anything that you
think might be important. Additional photographs, taken
from farther away, and showing nearby landmarks will
aid in re-locating the site in the future. It is important to
include a scale, and also a north arrow or other
Figure 1. A photograph of the site indicator of direction, in your photographs.
from a distance showing local
landmarks. Record time of day in If there are a lot of chunks you can use the end of the
your notebook – shadows change! rock hammer, bright colored poker chips or flagging
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 25
tape to make them visible in the photo, making notes as to their relationship. Get a
GPS reading. Start a field tag (label). Also, write up a second field tag, to be kept in a
separate location, in case the tag with the fossil is damaged and no longer readable.
As an alternative, where possible, data can be entered into a computer spreadsheet
We like to use a pre-printed field tag that has areas for the information we want
recorded for each specimen. Each collector is given a few of these tags to use. We
find that having the blank fields for the information makes it easier for the collector,
especially less experienced collectors, to record essential data.
Field #: Date: Collector: Photographer:
Photo # (s)
Location (quad name or sec. #):
GPS datum: GPS Coordinates: Altitude
Description of area:
Description of find:
It is a good idea to stop at this point and think carefully about the specimen, how you
will collect it, and how you will remove it to your vehicle. Remember that it is
important to maintain the stability of the specimen, to safely collect it without harm to
either the specimen or the collector. Many of the decisions on how to collect a
specimen depend on its size, number and quality of the bones.
Start by picking up all nearby surface float
bone. It probably belongs to your
specimen. Wrap each chunk in tissue
paper and place it in a baggie with a field
tag. Usually we give one field number to
the whole specimen. Sometimes, each
piece may bear some different information
about your site, such as direction of water
flow, or extent and horizon of specimen. In
that case, it is possible that each chunk
could be indicated by -a or -1, for example:
ST09.01-a, noting its relationship to the Figure 2. Fragments of float are collected
whole. There should be a good supply of first.
extra numberless field tags; you can use
them to identify the chunks.
Now you are ready to work on the in situ specimen itself.
Begin by outlining the area, working carefully. You will
not want to completely expose the specimen in the field.
Particularly with skeletons, the matrix is sometimes all
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 26
Figure 3. Begin by finding the
edges of the specimen.
that holds the bones together. The plan here is to find the extent of the bone or
skeleton, uncovering the top and slightly over the edges of the bone(s), without
digging too deeply. Too much field preparation should be avoided as it may weaken
the specimen. You can do this better in the controlled conditions of the laboratory.
Depending on the incline of the excavation area, you may need to remove
overburden before you are able to work on the in situ fossils. To protect the fossils,
you will want to cover them with a tarp to insulate them from debris piled on top.
While you are about one meter or more above the remains, it is possible to use a
mattock and shovels to remove the overburden. The closer you get to the fossils, the
less aggressive tools you will want to use on the site.
Look carefully at the matrix that you are removing because many clues to the
taphonomy and paleoenvironment of the site can usually be found. Keep an eye out
for microfossils, skin impressions, plant remains, trace fossils (e.g., burrows
penetrating sediment and/or bone) and fossils of other vertebrate species (e.g.,
microfauna associated with macrofaunal remains).
At this point you will need to decide whether or not the bone needs consolidation. If
the bone is very soft, crumbly, or very fractured (in other words if it seems liable to fall
apart in an instant), you should apply a thin consolidant onto the bone. My
preference is to use no consolidant in the field unless absolutely necessary,
remember it will have to be removed later. Any matrix that is consolidated onto the
bones in the field will be that much more difficult to remove in the lab. You will most
likely need to consolidate some bones, especially
the ends of long bones, which tend to be more
friable. If the bone seems strong, it is much better
to leave it as it is. The jacket can hold the bone
together until it is in the lab where you will have
If you excavating just a single small, sturdy bone,
you can dig all around it, remove it and wrap it in
tissue paper, placing it in a baggie with the field
tag and all pertinent information. Sometimes, you
can wrap a medium sized, sturdy single bone in
Figure 4. Extend the excavation down, tissue and then several layers aluminum foil,
creating a pedestal for the specimen.
which offers some support. The rest of the
discussion below will focus on large bones or
Once you have discovered the edges of your specimen, extend the excavation
straight out at least 4-6 inches all around the fossil and begin to dig down below it. If
you encounter more bone, just move to the outside of that and continue digging
down. The idea is to create a mushroom on a pedestal, with the bone on top.
When working at a site containing multiple bones it is important to map and document
the fossils as they are discovered. As you find the extent of the bone, keep
photographing and making notes as you go. If the specimen is extensive, quarry
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 27
maps will be a necessity for reconstruction of the whole array of bones. Do not worry
about getting the proper identification of the bone as soon as you find it. It is more
important to remove the bone safely. If you take notes as the excavation proceeds,
you may need to number the jackets with marking pen in order to relate your notes to
the bones, their positions, photographs, etc.
It is important to undercut the bone as much as you feel comfortable doing, but the
decision is very site dependent. Once you start pedestaling the bone/skeleton, you
do not want to stop working until the plaster jacket is on the specimen. Make sure
you have enough time to complete the task. Steep
sided blocks are unstable and could collapse if left
unprotected, resulting in the loss of the specimen.
If the bone/matrix is very friable, you will need to
start jacketing right away, in order to hold the
specimen together. As the newly exposed matrix
dries out it may deteriorate, and incremental
jacketing of the specimen as it is excavated may be
required. A thin jacket of plaster bandage will do
more to hold the specimen together than pouring
consolidant over it. Take a photograph before
covering the bone with a jacket, remember to include
a scale and to indicate north as well – this helps later Figure 5. Sites with multiple bones may
require a quarry map.
in re-orienting the block and the specimens inside.
Otherwise, wait until you have gone below the
bone by about 6-8 inches (depending on the size
of the fossil). The matrix should be cut under the
fossil slightly to create an overhang. Loose single
bones or fragments can be wrapped and bagged
individually, noting the field number, or wrapped
and enclosed within the jacket. Make sure to
mark their placement on the outside of the jacket.
Once you have made a mushroom, it’s time to
start the jacket.
Figure 6. Ready to start the jacket.
Take a photograph with scale and north arrow before covering the bone with a jacket.
Have tissue paper/toilet paper available and get ready a cup or bucket of water
(depending on the size of the fossil) and a 1-2 inch brush. Baggies or cut-off liter soda
bottles make good containers for the small amounts
of water needed for smaller jackets. Wind the paper
around your hand into a little packet of 5-6 layers and
either quickly dip it in the water or brush the water on the
surface. The paper should be dampened, not soaking wet.
A note here - if you’re working with a very water soluble
matrix, you’ll need to consolidate the surface first, so as
not to melt it. Otherwise, a little mud is ok.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 Figure 7. The specimen is covered
with damp toilet paper.
Place the damp pad of paper on the fossil and dab the brush onto it, pushing the
paper tightly into the crevices of the surface. The paper acts in two ways. Firstly, by
creating a separating layer it prevents the plaster from sticking to the fossil.
Secondly, it acts as padding, smoothing the surface and filling in undercuts in the
surface. The plaster jacket will protect the fossil, but it must be easily removed
without damage to the fossil. Cover the entire surface with paper, 2-3 layers deep.
Crush paper and use it to fill deep undercuts. The paper and then the jacket must be
tight to the bone/matrix to prevent movement as the fossil is transported. The jacket
will be easier to remove if you use some extra toilet paper to fill in any holes and
round off any high points in the fossil block.
Once you have covered the entire surface with
toilet paper and there are no more undercuts, it’s
time to make the jacket. There are two ways to do
this - with plaster bandage or with plaster and
burlap, or AC filter media. Generally, if the fossil
is small to medium sized it is easier to use plaster
With plaster bandages on small blocks:
Take the roll and tear it into 6-12” pieces. Place
Figure 8. One side of the jacket covered
with plaster bandage. several pieces into the water and let them soak for
half a minute. Taking one out at a time, squeeze it
a little between your fingers to remove the excess water and to activate the plaster.
Drape the plaster bandage onto the toilet paper, patting it well down onto the fossil.
Overlap layers in a crisscross pattern to add strength to the jacket - 2-3 layers are
needed. Once the plaster begins to build up you can smooth it with your fingers and
work the plaster into the pores of the fabric. I like the surface of my jackets to be very
smooth. Cover the entire surface of the fossil bringing the bandage around and under
the edge of the matrix. More layers can be added as needed, and when dry the
surface should be firm and hard, you should not be able to dent it. When you have
covered one side well, let it dry for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on whether you
are working in full sun, shade, or cloud. Rainy, cool conditions can be difficult; cover
the mushroom with a tarp or otherwise protect it so rain doesn’t affect the plaster, and
give it more time to set.
Once the bandages on the first side are dry,
write the field #, north direction (which will also
indicate which side was up), and bone location
on the jacket. Take one or more photographs
before moving the jacket. Then continue to
undercut the jacket, for hand-sized jackets; you
can insert a knife or other flat object at the base
of the pedestal until the mushroom becomes
loosened. Once the entire mushroom is
loosened, you are ready to flip to jacket. Two
things are important here, 1) do not stop flipping
Figure 9. When the first side is dry note the jacket half way through, it is very unstable, 2)
the important information on the jacket.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 29
use your hands to support the underside of the jacket as soon as possible to prevent
matrix from falling out of the bottom of the jacket.
Now that the jacket is flipped, you can remove
the loose and excess matrix, and close the
jacket with a layer of toilet paper and plaster
bandages. Once the jacket has dried, make sure
to write the field #, identification, and any other
important info on both sides of the jacket. This
should include which side was up originally up
and which side to open first. Also important is to
indicate on the jacket where the bone is
exposed. It should be small enough to place
securely in a backpack or be carried by hand to
the truck. Figure 10. The completed jacket.
For large fossils:
For much larger fossils and skeletons plaster bandage would be inadequate, so
instead use burlap or air conditioning (AC) filter media and plaster. Planning may
also be needed to figure out how to carry the specimen safely to a vehicle, and this
should be done before the jacket is applied, because attachment points can be built
into the jacket to make hauling easier.
Take a photograph or make a quarry map (remember scale and north arrow) before
covering the bone with a jacket. Remove jewelry and watches, and roll up any long
sleeves. Cut or tear the burlap into 3 - 4” by 12 - 15” strips, roll the strips into small
rolls. Using a large clean plastic bowl, place the dry burlap rolls inside, and just cover
them with water. This gives you enough water to make enough plaster impregnate
the rolls you have just soaked. Remove the rolls from the
water and tightly squeeze any excess water back into the
Sift handfuls of plaster into the water, do not put in big
globs, sift it in evenly. You should add plaster until the
water is full of plaster, generally
when the plaster comes to the
surface of the water. Allow the
plaster to soak in the water for a
minute, then mix the plaster
Figure 11. A quarry map with your hands. (yes, this is
helps maintain the very messy, you will be wearing
relationships of more than the plaster). Place the damp
one jacket. burlap rolls back into the
plaster, and allow them to soak
up the plaster. Take out one at a time, squeeze out
excess plaster and apply to the jacket. Figure 5. A field team applies a burlap and
plaster jacket. Wooden supports await
incorporation into the jacket.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 30
Use your hand to smooth the burlap/plaster tightly to the specimen. The first layer of
burlap strips should be laid in the longest direction of the specimen with overlap.
Make sure to get around the sides of the block and up on the underside of the
mushroom, contouring the strips. Two or at most three layers should be adequate.
Sometimes a doubled layer is added at the edges of the jacket for extra strength.
Additionally if the jacket is very large or long, tree branches, sticks, 2x4’s or other
material (e.g., strong PV pipe) may be added after the first two layers of burlap are
applied to the specimen. Additional bracing is site dependent, scavenging wood
should be avoided on public lands. Again the jacket should be smooth, remember you
will have to carry it out.
AC filter media can be used in larger pieces, as it will conform better to the shape of
the fossil than burlap. The cut pieces can be soaked in plaster as with burlap, the
excess plaster pressed out, the media applied to the surface, and smoothed into
Once the first side of the jacket is hard to the touch
(very large jackets may need to sit overnight, make
sure to protect them from possible rain) write the
field number on the jacket, then, begin excavating
under the lip of the “mushroom”. To preserve
potentially interesting taphonomic information
(whether or not this is a taphonomic study), you
should include an arrow showing the north direction
on the jacket as well.
You will now be removing the pedestal. Depending
Figure 13. Removing the pedestal. on the size of the jacket, and the nature of the
matrix, you may have to remove quite a bit more
material or you may be able to flip the jacket over right away. If the matrix seems
loose and begins to fall out of the jacket, you may need to add more bandage/burlap.
Another trick, especially with very large jackets, to hold the matrix up is to dig one or
more tunnels underneath the block and run plaster strips under the block to keep
everything in place inside the jacket.
Once the fossil/matrix/jacket becomes loose, the scary part begins. You now have to
quickly flip the jacket completely over without having the matrix (and fossil) fall out.
Again, do not stop flipping the jacket once you have started moving it, and place
hands on the exposed matrix to help hold it in the jacket. It may take several people
to safely flip a large jacket.
Now that the jacket is safely flipped, check in the area where the jacket was located
to see if there is any more bone in the hole. Extra matrix should be removed from the
flipped side of the jacket, again with thought given to how much can safely be
removed without threatening the stability of the jacket or the safety of the fossils. In
many cases, it is safe to remove matrix from the second side until bone is revealed.
Take a photograph (with scale) of the second side before jacketing. The jacket
should be capped with more toilet paper and plaster bandage or burlap and plaster
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 31
Once the jacket is completed, move it to the side and let it dry. While the jacket dries,
you can complete site remediation. Most permits require backfilling the hole and
returning the site, as much as possible, to its original condition. Pack up all plaster
residue, and garbage and take it with you. Ideally, there should little or no evidence
of your excavation. Take a photograph of the site before you leave it.
Once the jacket has dried make sure to write the field #, identification, and any other
important info on both sides of the jacket, this should include which side was up
originally and which side to open first. Also important is to indicate on the jacket
where the bone is exposed.
Remember that jacket will need to be opened in the lab,
possibly by someone who was not present when the
specimen was collected. Anything that you can do in
the field to make this easier will ultimately protect the
Now comes the fun part of hauling the large jacket back
to camp. When the jacket requires more than one
person to carry it, the best idea is to use some variation
of a litter or sling. The litter or sling is helpful for three
reasons. First, it enables you to get a better grip while
Figure 14. Carrying the jacket you are walking. Second, it distributes the weight a bit
back to camp. better. Third, you are able to get more people around
the fossil to lighten the load.
Field Preparation Quick Checklist
1. Look carefully around the area, uncover just enough to see bone.
2. Take photograph with North arrow and scale, take shots from some distance
away, showing nearby landmarks. Take GPS reading, start field notes on
site/specimen, start field tag(s).
3. Get materials together.
4. Pick up, wrap, tag and bag all surface float individual, loose bones.
5. Delineate in situ fossil, consolidate if needed. Photograph, with scale and
6. Remove, wrap and bag loose single bones or fragments or wrap and enclose
7. Excavate completely around fossil. Look for plant fossils, impressions or other
8. Apply tight, damp toilet paper.
9. Apply tight, smooth plaster bandage/burlap.
10. Excavate, flip, remove excess matrix, photograph, toilet paper, cap with
11. Write field #, ID, date, other info on both sides, inc. which side to open first,
note where bone is exposed.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 32
MORE BEST PRACTICE SUGGESTIONS FOR FIELD COLLECTING AND DOCUMENTING:
1. Specimens and/or field jackets should be labeled with field numbers immediately.
2. If plastic bags are used to transport specimens from the field, do not write information on
the bags, use field tags instead. Even permanent marker on plastic bags rubs off during
3. Use permanent/archival inks as there may be a long interval between collection and
4. GPS coordinates, photographs, and notes should accompany every specimen. Photos
(ideally, annotated polaroids) should show location of in situ specimen(s) as well as the
overall site. Background features should be picked wisely to aid in relocation and put
something or somebody in the photo for scale.
5. GPS and Camera should be mandatory field gear. No GPS, no Camera = No collecting!
6. GPS coordinates must include notation of the datum used and where applicable the relative
error (in feet or meters) of the position. Datum should be written every time after the
coordinates. There is a 90 meter difference between NAD 27 and NAD 83 (WGS84).
7. Label the direction the photo was taken.
8. Once an excavation is started it needs to continue until exposed specimens are removed. Do
not leave partially excavated specimens in the field for extended periods of time. Burying
such specimens can help protect them for short periods, but this strategy should be avoided
9. Remember to watch for small bones that may be preserved in the matrix around larger ones.
SVP Draft Field Collecting Guidelines 9/6/12 33