Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Fossil Hunting & the Snakestones of Whitby

Fossil Hunting & the Snakestones of Whitby

The Yorkshire Coast, sometimes known as the Fossil Coast, the Jurassic Yorkshire Coast or, Dinosaur Coast, is the second most popular location in the country for fossil hunting. One of the most popular locations on this coast is the beautiful and historic seaside port of Whitby, North Yorkshire, home of the snakestones....

As a young child I once went on an outdoor pursuit holiday to the North York Moors. As part of the holiday, we spent a day hunting for fossils around the cliffs, and on the beaches around Whitby. I loved it, finding all sorts of fossilised ancient creatures that, to me, were the most amazing treasure.
As an added bonus, in the last few moments, I also found a lump of Whitby Jet - a type of fossilised tree, similar to the modern day Monkey Puzzle or Araucaria Tree. The finest, and most intensely black jet, is found around Whitby, and has been prized for thousands of years as a commodity to carve into exquisite jewellery and ornaments, particularly popular in Victorian times through the patronage of Queen Victoria after she started wearing jet jewellery in remembrance of her beloved Albert, who died in 1851.

Whitby Harbour Mouth
The entrance to Whitby from the sea. Cliffs to the left of the picture hold many treasures...

Ammonite impression in rock at Whitby
Ammonite impression in a rock near Whitby

The experiences that I gained from this day, were just a few of many that embedded in me a great love that I still have: that of searching and hunting for treasures in the landscape. I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere in the great outdoors without a constantly scanning eye!

Washed up tree trunk on beach near Whitby
Sadly, some 'treasures' are too large to take home!

Ammonite seating in Whitby town
Ammonite seating in Whitby town

Whitby is a premier destination for fossil hunters, and it is possible for anyone to find something, even without any equipment or knowledge, simply by spending some time searching amongst the rocks, and on the beaches. The most common finds are ammonites which are abundant, although visit Whitby Museum's Fossils & Geology section to see just what can be found.

Whitby Abbey from Pannett Park
Whitby Abbey from Pannett Park, where the Museum is located

A replica of a Gharial crocodile, in Pannett Park Whitby
  A replica of a Gharial crocodile, in Pannett Park: the earliest example of a complete marine crocodile: found in 1824 at Saltwick near Whitby.

Nowadays, the study of fossils is part of the science of paleontology, and much is known about them. This was not always the case, and, in times gone by, people created many different explanations for fossil finds. Tales were told to explain these curious oddities, and, in Whitby, where ammonites regularly turned up on the beach, it was believed the area had once been infested with snakes, until St Hilda, the Saxon Abbess of Whitby, turned them into stones through diligent prayer.

St Hilda memorial Whitby By Wilson44691 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
St Hilda memorial Whitby
By Wilson44691 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Traders in Whitby saw an opportunity and began carving snakes heads into the end of the fossilised ammonites and selling them - these became known as Whitby Snakestones.

Snakestone Ammonite: Photo credit James St John under Creative Commons Wikimedia

I still search for fossils whenever I visit Whitby. I am not a fossil enthusiast or expert, but I still love finding something that fires my imagination with its impossible age. The ancient creatures that I find also help to expand my mind and perceptions, providing as they do, the tangible evidence that the world was not always as I see it now, and that change is one of the immutable certainities of life.

Fossils sculpted wall plaque by Justbod

 'Ammonite' & 'Fossils' are two pieces I created to honour those many delightful hours I've spent (and will continue to spend,) poking around under stones with the wind in my hair and the smell of sea salt in my nostrils. Very many, happy hours!

Ammonite sculpted wall plaque from Justbod

 Both plaques are comprised of hand-shaped metal inlaid into handcrafted 16 cm square oak frames. Every stage of the process was done by me, by hand.

Pop over to our main shop/website  to find them.

If you haven't already visited Whitby, and you get the chance, please do take it!

Thanks for reading!

Justbod Team 

~ Justbod ~

Artwork, carvings and sculptures
~ inspired by history and nature ~

Celtic, Viking & Mythical Wall Plaques from Justbod

Other articles you might also be interested in:

  A Brief History of Whitby Abbey


A Tale of Two Lovers, and a Bridge


Tree Of Life Wall Plaque from Justbod
Tree Of Life wall plaque from Justbod

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Sources and further information:

Whitby Jet: Wikipedia
More About Whitby Jet: W.Hamond of Whitby
Whitby Museum: Fossils & Geology of Whitby
Hilda of Whitby: Wikipedia
Whitby Snakestones: A Natural History of Britain


  1. I have been to the other Jurassic coast down south and have found fossils the same as you. Best one is a Mammoth tooth I was given and was found locally

    1. How lovely! The Mammoth teeth I've seen have been beautiful - what a great gift!

  2. This is fascinating. I have been to Whitby, twice and both times got a piece of jet jewelry. I also went to Stump Cross Caverns in 2007 and came home with a few fossils from their store, one of them being ammonite. I wish I had time and means. I would be over there for extended periods of time! I feel a strong connection to the island, probably because my father was born and grew up there but it goes deeper than that, if that makes any sense. I love your website, your posts on Google+ and Facebook and one day I will order something..one day!

    1. Many thanks for the kind words! Sounds like a great set of experiences. It is such a beautiful island, with rich history & landscapes - I hope you get more chances to visit. Thank you for taking the time to comment ☺

  3. Always had good finds just up the coats at Kettle ness in Runswick Bay. The descent down the sea cliff is not for the faint hearted however and if time and tide permits its much safer to access the Ness via Runswick Beach (2km walk). After a good storm you can get huge slabs of Ammonite and Bellamnite death assemblages preserved in Pyrite intermixed with Bivalves and the occasional collection of fish bones. you can also recover some large Ammonite specimens in flint and chert nodules. Theres also the occasional Trilobite if your really lucky and an another one which is often overlooked is Graptolites which are often discarded as commercial collectors have little retail value for them. If you do go Please don't hammer the cliff face its unstable ( really suggest a hard hat anyway) and can collapse on you plus there is plenty of specimens on the foreshore.You simply dont need to be destructive in your collecting here. Fossil Hunting is a great hobby as long as you respect the environment and importantly stay safe and enjoy yourself. Good Luck

    1. Many thanks for such detailed information - I'll definitely try that area. Have been to Kettleness, but never ventured down the sea cliff. The walk from Runswick Bay sounds a good choice! Thank you again - much appreciated :)