Collections of fossils at Canterbury Heritage Museum span the period from 100 million to 20,000 years ago – from the time the area was covered by tropical sea to the Ice Age. A small selection is currently on display.
During the time of the dinosaurs, 100 million years ago, a great sea covered Canterbury (and much of Europe too). It was full of fish and other sea creatures like sponges, seashells, sea urchins and the now extinct ammonites and belemnites. Billions of tiny algae also lived in its warm waters. Their skeletons, raining down on the seabed for 35 million years, formed chalk rock.
There is a giant ammonite on display, about 95 million years old. It lived in the sea, using the buoyancy chambers inside its shell to move up and down. It could also propel itself along with a jet of water, like a modern squid.
About 50 million years ago, rivers running from nearby land deposited deep layers of clay on the seabed. In this new environment, crocodiles and snakes hid among lush tropical mangroves, while crabs and lobsters inhabited the shallow inshore waters. In the deep sea swam turtles, fearsome sharks, and nautilus. The head of a large fish on display dates from this time and came from London Clay on the Isle of Sheppey.
Over the last two million years – the Ice Age – Europe gradually took on its present form. Ice sheets covered Britain, advancing and retreating many times, and reaching as far south as the Thames valley. Mammoth and woolly rhinoceros thrived during cold periods and prehistoric people hunted the animals for food. Warm periods were hot enough for straight-tusked elephants and hippopotamus to be common in Kent.
The Mammoth tusk on display was found on the beach at Swalecliffe in the 1930s and is about 70,000 years old. There is also Mammoth hair from Siberia, Russia, about 20,000 years old. Mammoths were close relatives of modern elephants. Their thick hairy coats enabled them to live in the harsh conditions that existed during the Ice Age. Mammoths are now extinct, but amazingly preserved examples are sometimes found in the Siberian permafrost.
Fossil fish head, 55 million years old. © Canterbury Museums and Galleries collection