Fossil Collecting

From Left to Right:  Fossilized Turritella Shells, Fossilized Oyster, Trilobite.

Starting and taking care of any sort of collection can be a daunting task, especially with items as exotic as fossils.  Fossil collecting may not be as expensive and confusing as you think, though; there's more to it than just unearthing dinosaur bones!  If you educate yourself about the different kinds of fossils available to you, you can own a piece of the prehistoric past in your own home.

So What Exactly is a Fossil?

A fossil is the remains of a prehistoric organism that has been preserved by time.  If an animal or plant dies and then is covered by mud, the mud will eventually harden and become sedimentary rock around the organism.  The actual carcass or dead plant rots away, so don't worry about smell or cleanliness!  Rock literally takes the place of the animal, creating an exact replica.  This is why fossils are so important to scientists.  They can use them to see into the past, even if there aren't any photographs or pictures of that time period.

Types of Fossils

Fossils come in many different varieties.  These are some of the basic kinds.

Trilobites are probably the most well-known beginner fossil.  They can be found all over the United States, or you can buy them for very little money.

Ammonites are another well-known begginer fossil.  They are frequently cut in half to display their beautiful, chambered interiors.  Ammonites are commonly pyritized, which happens when iron pyrite, or fool's gold, is what takes the place of the dead organism, giving them a beautiful golden look.

Brachiopods are most easily described as what looks like fossilized clams, although there is a slight difference between brachiopods and actual fossilized clams.

Gastropods are the fossilized remains of aquatic and land snails.

Crinoid fossils are the "stems" of fossilized sea lilies.  Although crinoids look like plants, they are actually considered animals.  There are crinoid fossils, but crinoids are still living today.

Where to Get Fossils

You are probably closer to fossils than you think.  A lot of the United States was once underwater, where fossils are most easily formed, so there's a great chance that you live near possible excavation sites.  Just Google, "fossil digging sites in (your state)."  Sometimes you have to pay to use excavation sites, but sometimes you can just show up and dig.  There's no "right" way to dig for fossils.  Just look for prehistoric treasures, be safe, and have fun!

If you would rather not get your hands dirty and actually dig for fossils, you can always buy them instead.  Most local science/geology museums, rock stores, and state park gift shops will have a wide selection of "starter collections."  These collections usually contain various basic fossils, such as trilobites, ammonites, etc.  Although they're very basic and sometimes overpriced, they're a great start to having a well-organized fossil collection.

Another great place to buy fossils is online.  Ebay and Craigslist always have steals, but there are also offers out there that are way overpriced.  Always do your research before buying anything from another person.  Amazon is much more trustworthy, but sometimes the prices can be higher.  Amazon is also a great place to buy starter collections.  Wherever you buy from, try to avoid replicas.  Replica fossils will usually say "replica" on the sale page, but sometimes it's hard to spot.  Don't disappoint yourself and buy a fossil that's actually made out of plastic.

How to Make a Collection

A fossil collection isn't just a pile of fossils.  It's an organized group or display that is logically laid out.  You can store smaller fossils in tackle boxes or collection boxes, and larger specimens in drawers with dividers.  Always try to have the locality, date of collection, and species data on a catalog card or a label.  This makes your collection more formal and professional-looking.  Remember, a good collection takes time to put together.  It isn't made overnight.  Take the time to organize and catalog your fossils so that they're easier to find when you want to view or study one of them.  Most importantly, have fun with your collection!


This is a well-organized collection of small fossils.  Notice how all of the specimens have labels.