A petrifying walk on the beach

Matthew Chatfield
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The Isle of Wight’s geology is something that it’s easy to see – so much of it is on display at the edges… and we’ve got lots of edges. What’s more, there’s a massive variety of it, and it includes those all-important dinosaur fossils that make the headlines and draw the tourists. Most dinosaur-hunters end up going to the spectacular south-west coast of the Island, maybe to see the famous dinosaur footprints at Hanover Point, for example. A less well-known attraction is the petrified forest in the north end of Sandown Bay. Locals have long known that at very low tides, fragments of petrified wood can be found washed up on the shore.

Petrified wood, Yaverland

This week, I was lucky enough to find one. The walk north from Yaverland beach up to the toe of Culver Cliff is one that I have taken since childhood. There have been some great finds on this beach; bits of pterosaurs, crocodiles and dinosaurs. I never found any of those, but my shelves have a small selection of interesting stones and fossils from everywhere I’ve been; and the majority come from this short, fascinating stretch of beach. Pretty much every stone on the beach tells a story – and is worthy of further study.

Petrified wood is a strange type of fossil, as it appears to a casual inspection more-or-less the same as real wood. Bits of wood often get washed around by the sea, and end up looking like blackened, smoothed chunks. But sometimes, when you pick one up in certain special places, you find it’s made of stone. Instead of being 40, 50 or maybe 100 years old, it’s 100 million years old. And yet it looks the same, and you can hold it in your hand just like any other bit of wood. Despite them having hung around for millions of years, I learnt when I was much younger that the quickest way to bring the time of these particular fossils to an end is to take them home. Taken away from the sea, in a few months they oxidise and decay to a foul-smelling sulphurous dust. For some time I had a few choice bits of wood I couldn’t bring myself to abandon in a pickling-jar full of seawater. They survived longer than those exposed to air, but somehow it seemed wrong to keep them thus. Eventually, I took them back to the beach I found them on and ‘set them free’. So it was a pleasure to find another fragment – and quite a large one. It sat at the very lowest part of the strand, where the tide was just turning. I picked it up, washed the sand off it, and felt the grain of the timber with my thumb. A knot was clearly visible (you can see it at the top of the picture above) where a branch had been, and I couldn’t help but picture this piece as a part of a big tree, in some ancient forest. This wood had broken cleanly at either end and looked for all the world as though somebody had cut it with an axe – of course, they couldn’t have.

Rock formations at Culver cliff

Over us towered the white cliffs: chalk formed at a rate of 1cm per thousand years. Time weighed very heavily and visibly upon this beach: we humans and indeed this petrified wood was something of relatively recent origin compared with some of the old rocks we walked past as we returned to the car park for a cup of tea, our pockets full with little stones and fossils. The petrified wood, however, stayed where it was. I put it back into the sand and let the incoming tide take it. It might be another long wait before it sees the sun again.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

7 thoughts on “A petrifying walk on the beach

  • 6th November, 2022 at 5:28 am
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    Hello there! I have no idea if anyone still monitors this page or not, but of all the sites I’ve been to, I believe you’re the ones that might be able to help me.

    My name is Jack Harris and I currently live in Jacksonville, Florida. Last year I was in St. Augustine, FL (about 50 miles south, also on the coast). I love hunting for fossils and have gotten pretty good at it! My sharks tooth collection grows weekly! 🙂 I’ve also found fossilized turtle shell, marine mammal bones, and iron fragments from the vast amount of shipwrecks off the coast of Florida. However, what I found in St. Augustine was different.
    It’s just at 1lb in weight, and at first I thought it was fossilized wood from one of the aforementioned shipwrecks…. then I realized that’s impossible because of how long it takes wood to fossilize. It’s 3.5 inches in length, 2.5 inches in width, and 1.5 inches in thickness. It’s black with dozens of (what looks like) shiny marks, all going in one direction made by human hand tools. Some are different depths, but they all go up and down, east to west, left to right, whichever perspective you’re imagining, it’s all one direction.
    In these “tool mark” indentions is a dark earth brown/dark olive greenish color, with the linear mark made by the “tool” itself being as shiny as a new coin.

    Like I said, on the off chance any one who wants me to email them a picture of it, I’m happy to do so! Honestly, I’m super appreciative for any help with my little fossil mystery. 🙂

    Jack Harris

    Reply
  • 26th July, 2022 at 9:48 am
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    Hello, I found two black stones on the beach in Belgium, can I send you a picture of them to identify ? The largest one has white streaks and looks rather like wood, the smallest one is shiny black.

    Reply
  • 27th July, 2014 at 11:19 pm
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    Very interesting. Are you referring to Lignite – sea coal. This crumbles soon after it is removed from the sea.

    I found a piece of what looked like fossilised wood built it was too heavy to carry. Would this iodise and crumble away – it seemed very heavy and substantial. Thanks

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    A good find – most pieces I have seen were much smaller, but, as you say, showing clear signs of their tree origins.
    Are the crystals iron pyrites?

    The Ranger responds: I think so, but not entirely sure about that.

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    The Isle of Wight sounds like a geologist’s dream come true! It is a living museum, one that more people might become familiar with!

    Bill;www.wildramblings.com

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Very timely. My son was asking me about petrified wood the other day when we were beach-combing at Brook. I will show him this. Thanks.

    Reply
    • 22nd August, 2019 at 8:28 pm
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      I have found three pieces is fossilized wood.
      One the same size as the local ranger’s one twice as big and on just absolutely enormous.
      I wanted too know if they are worth anything

      Reply

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