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EFC Centre at Wat Tyler Country ParkWe are closed due to the Covid-19 situation, but we are otherwise normally open to the public at our centre at Wat Tyler Country Park every Saturday, Sunday and bank holiday 11am-4pm, check. We are also normally open on Wednesdays 10am-4pm.

Geology Site Account

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Little Oakley coprolite pits (site of), LITTLE OAKLEY, Tendring District, TM218292, Historical site only

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Site category: Red Crag

Little Oakley coprolite pits (site of)

(grid reference given for Little Oakley village as exact sites not known)


Fossils from the coprolite pits

In a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1857 the author, H. Falconer, recorded the discovery of an exceptionally fine molar tooth of a mastodon from the parish of Ramsey, Essex. Falconer gave a detailed description of the tooth, stating that it was “lately discovered by the Rev. Mr. Marsden in the bed of coprolitic or phosphatic nodules in the parish of Ramsey in Essex … and kindly lent to us for description”. He stated that it was 4.9 inches in length and up to 2.9 inches wide, and from the upper jaw of the creature, right side. The paper contained a fine engraving of the specimen.

Mastodons were the ancestors of mammoths and modern elephants that became extinct in Britain over a million years ago. The name ‘mastodon’ (literally meaning ‘breast tooth’) is derived from the distinctive hemispherical cusps of the molars.

Coprolite was the name given to phosphatic nodules from the basal pebble bed of the Red Crag. This ‘coprolite bed’ as it was called, was dug in Essex and Suffolk as a raw material for the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser before the advent of artificial fertilisers.

The exact place where the mastodon tooth was found is not known. The only places in the parish of Ramsey where the coprolite bed is known to be present at the surface are in the vicinity of Little Oakley. In 1900 the geologist F.W. Harmer recorded in a paper, also in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, that coprolites were dug at two locations in Little Oakley: one to the north of the village near the old rectory in Rectory Lane and one to the south near Newhouse Farm. In 1877 geologist William Whitaker, in his geological Survey Memoir of the area, reported that the Rectory glebe produced about 300 tons of phosphatic nodules and pits to the south of the village produced about 1,000 tons. Unfortunately neither of these localities are actually in the parish of Ramsey as they are just over the border in the parish of Little Oakley. It is most likely, therefore, that the specimen was found in smaller scale coprolite workings to the east, perhaps in the vicinity of Foulton Hall.

Edward Charlesworth, the geologist who coined the term Red Crag, also referred to this fossil. In Saffron Walden Victorian Studies Library is a publication by Charlesworth which he produced in 1886 consisting of an official guide to the collections of the Natural History Museum to which was added unofficial ‘manuscript notes and supplementary printed matter’. In the manuscript notes he recorded and illustrated this specimen.

The current whereabouts of the specimen is not known. In 1857 it was described as being in the collection of the Rev. J.R Marsden of Great Oakley. The exact locations of the various coprolite pits is not clear but it may be that at least one is still in existence.

This tooth of a mastodon was found in the parish of Ramsey in the nineteenth century, near the village of Little Oakley. The engraving is a side and top view of the tooth and is from the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, published in 1857. Illustration © The Geological Society.


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Reference: Falconer 1857, Charlesworth 1886, Harmer 1900 (p. 710 and 718)

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