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Ichthyosaurs, Sea Monsters of the Coast

For Halloween we are looking at a prehistoric monster that once lived many millions of years ago and whose remains continue to be found on our coast to this day.

A large, fossilised Ichthyosaur skull. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

In May 1902 an unusual discovery was made at Carlin How Ironstone Mine. About 150 men worked there, hewing iron with their bare hands and working towards a weekly demand of 3,000 tons. Miners had started work on a new seam of iron when they uncovered a rock unlike anything they had seen before. But this was no ordinary rock – this was the fossilised remains of a 150-million-year-old sea monster.

This was an Ichthyosaur, a marine reptile about eight feet long resembling a dolphin, but with a longer, fearsome jaw and distinctively large eye sockets.

An illustration of an Ichthyosaur. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

Ichthyosaur fossils tend to be one of the most common kinds of fossils found in the UK, but they are not always found in good or complete condition. The first specimens were discovered as early as 1699, but since they were only of their teeth and vertebrae, they were believed to be very old fish bones.

The study of fossils was also uncommon at this time. The concept of dinosaurs did not exist, and most people believed that some fossils were the result of myths and legends. For example, ammonites were often called ‘snake stones’ and believed to be snakes that had been petrified by a Saint. Locals who lived by the coast sold fossils to tourists as ‘curios’.

Fossilised skull of an Ichthyosaur. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

By the 1810s more complete fossils were found of Ichthyosaurs. The most famous find was made by Mary Anning in 1811 on the Dorset coast. Her brother had found the skull, but, at only 12 years old, she found the rest of the fossilised skeleton. One of the earliest local finds was an almost complete fossil skeleton found near Whitby in 1857. Ichthyosaur fossils continue to be found in our area to this day.

But what happened to the large Ichthyosaur fossil found at Carlin How? The mine was owned by Bell Brothers, one of the leading iron-making companies in Teesside. Sir Thomas Hugh Bell was the Managing Director at the time and kept the fossil until 1905 when he donated it to Dorman Museum. The fossil is one of the Museum’s most striking objects given its size and where it was found and is still on display in their Earth in Space gallery.