I discovered thousands of fossils after I retired. Now I’m almost 80 and still going strong | Fossils

Mhe interest in fossils began at the age of 10 in my garden in Glastonbury, Somerset, where I discovered ammonites. Looking back, it was not the beauty that attracted me to them, but the magic of discovery. I was drawn to their age and the unfathomable nature of the distant past.

After graduating with a degree in natural sciences in 1965, I wanted to go as far away as possible, so I applied to teach biology in Ghana. It was a fantastic time in my life where I discovered much more than rocks in the garden. After eight years I returned to the UK and spent much of the next decades raising four children. Life was sometimes difficult and I put all my research dreams on hold.

I thought I would appreciate fossils when I retired at 60 – but I hadn’t planned to take them so seriously. I had a vague interest in a local site in Weymouth on the Jurassic Coast. Quickly, I could see that it was a treasure, but no one was doing any research. I am now almost 80 years old and I have discovered more than 2,000 fossils after devoting 20 years of my life to paleontological research. Retirement really is an opportunity to explore new interests – if you’re healthy.

When looking for fossils, I get on all fours to be close to the ground – they are small, usually 1 to 2 cm. I miss things now that I would have seen in the past. The place is very rocky and muddy, and kneeling in the mud at my age is difficult. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to get up or if I’m going to fall and break my hip.

Middleton built her own ‘mini-museum’ in a spare bedroom of her house

I can’t collect like before because I can’t see very well. Losing my sight is not frustrating, as I pass on my knowledge to my mentee, a serious collector, younger than me and blessed with brilliant eyesight. He found a pterosaur jaw a month ago, which is a very important and rare discovery.

I do this work for nothing. Now that I’m retired, I’m free to follow leads and have learned a lot through open access journals, the Internet, and fossil communities on social media. In some cases, I have been mistreated by academics who did not want to examine my fossils because they belonged to a private collection. You have to have thick skin. Others have been very supportive.

An ichthyosaur skull in the Middleton collection

No academic research has been carried out on these fossils at Weymouth. I have 350 pterosaur pieces, which were flying reptiles. They have flown over these seas for 160 million years – that’s far longer than humans have existed! They were abundant, like seagulls, and now they are gone, all blinking. My fossils can help establish what biodiversity looked like all those years ago.

In 2012, young doctoral students were the first to come and examine the fossils on my kitchen table. I had about 15 saltwater crocodile teeth that were 153 million years old. They were beautiful – even perfect – often with their enamel fully intact.

These two students were curious and collaborative, and I donated my crocodile teeth to them. They went on to write numerous articles on crocodylomorphs and I co-authored two of them.

Middleton: “I defend the place of women of all ages in science”

I want to inspire people, not because I want to be a saint but because I want to pass on this knowledge. When I die, everything I learned over 20 years will disappear if I don’t pass it on enthusiastically. This is a major national site and I want to be assured that the fossil collectors who visit understand the value of what they find. Otherwise, fossils of great importance will be lost, which should not be the case. I’ve just co-wrote a book about my work. My record keeping is meticulous – this is another characteristic you need. I turned a large bedroom upstairs into a fossil office, and they’re all in there. It’s like a mini-museum.

Collecting fossils is therapeutic; it’s the great outdoors, it’s exercise, and then it’s the thrill of discovery. It’s like going on safari: when you don’t find things all the time, it makes it more satisfying when you do. It’s not like Lyme Regis, where big storms generate huge discoveries. It’s a gentle site and things are revealed on a calmer scale. It takes determination and patience.

Doing the photo shoot for this article when I’m almost 80 years old is a good reason for a large glass of champagne. It’s ridiculous but I like it. This is an example of women at work, not dressed in high heels. This is an alternative vision that is very close to my heart. I advocate for women of all ages in science. What immense pleasure I had. It’s fun, for God’s sake!

As told to Phoebe Weston

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