Liverpool really rocks for fossil fans; You don't need to go digging about on the coast to see fossils. Emma Pinch learns where to find them in the city centre.
IT'S one of Liverpool's newest, swankiest shopping centres. But next to the polished floors and up-to-the-minute styles inside the Metquarter is a mine of altogether older treasures.
We make a curious sight hunkered down on the steps, armed with water spray and closely examining a section of walls next to a stainless steel banister.
But three inches across, its perfect swirls etched with pristine clarity onto pearly white limestone, this ammonite is the highlight of our tour of the fossils sprinkled across the buildings of Liverpool. It's from the late Jurassic period - about 150m years ago - and floated down into the fine mud sediment of a sub-tropical lagoon in Bavaria. Some, remarks geologist Tony Morgan, from the city's World Museum, were more than a metre high.
He and Liverpool Geological Society colleagues are running a fossil and rock tour of the city centre for National Science Week.
They show us that you don't have to go to a museum to find prehistoric wonders - they're literally embedded in the city's fabric.
Here, next to the ammonite, is the darkbullet shaped mark of a belemnite, which would have had squidlike tentacles emerging from it.
Suddenly we're spotting fossils all over the walls.
Liverpool's a hot-spot for fossilspotters because of the liberal use of Portland limestone by town planners 150 years ago. It was formed 150m years ago, and excavated in Dorset. "A lot of Liverpool's grand buildings, built during the last century, were made from Portland stone, from Cornwall, because it was such a lovely white colour, weight bearing and easy to work with.
"Buildings like the Victoria Monument, the Blackburn Assurance building at the bottom of Dale Street and the tunnel ventilation towers on North John Street, the NorthWestern Halls on Lime Street and, I think Lewis's, all have a lot of different species in them.
"Sometimes you have to get behind them to check them out properly."
Tony opens our eyes to the wealth of ancient wonders contained in building plinths, shop cladding and lintels.
He takes us to the Abbey building, on North John Street, with its white limestone frontage.
He points out the inch-long icecream cone shapes of tower snail shells, with their delicately separated chambers.
"It's from the Jurassic period formed in salty lagoons, in nice quiet conditions, which preserved the shells." The high salt content meant predators were few and far between.
We stop at the old Allied Irish bank building, on Dale Street. It's eye-catchingly pretty, pink and grey mottled granite, but nothing more than that stands out.
In fact, its Rapakivi granite, explains Tony, is possibly the oldest rock in Liverpool.
"It's 1.5 bn years old," he says.
"The only rock we have that is older is meteorite."
Next stop is 27 Dale Street, and its step and lintel of dark Carboniferous limestone from the Isle of Man. It's the office of a working solicitors. "It's normally closed when we do the fossil tours on a Sunday," Tony explains, but he gamely gets his water spray out to clean it up to better show off the fossils.
Dark, rounded comb shapes are corals, he explains, from semi-tropical shallows, 340m years ago. The high salt content meant not much lived there and the reefs kept them calm - perfect conditions for shell preservation.
The crunched-up fragments of old clam shells on the plinth of the William Rathbone memorial, in St John's Gardens, were from less calm conditions.
The bench and step raound the Kings Regiment memorial, made of Portland limestone, are packed with large oyster shell shapes, 10 to 12 of them, three inches across.
The Polo-sized fossils you find here are made by the crosssection of crinoid stems, or sea lilies. "These were animals related to starfish and sea urchins," says Tony. "But instead of crawling on the sea floor they were anchored by a long stem to the sea bed, so they could feed in the currents."
Crinoids also feature on the knobbly bollards linked by a chain round the Steble Fountains, in front of the Walker Art Gallery.
They appear to be drab concrete, possibly used for target practice by the wheeling gulls overhead.
In fact the rock in the bollards dates back 340m years, formed in the shallow tropical sea in North Wales, surrounded by reefs.
Tony points out brachiopods, the white deposits which turn out not to be courtesy of the seagulls at all. They're related to clams.
The delicate wave-like patterns, in the shape of small fans, are solitary horn corals.
The lines marking the "nobbles" are worm burrows.
Now we know what we're looking at, it's fascinating.
"These were all the animals that lived in the mud to feed," says Tony.
On several of the pale paving slabs outside the World Museum, Tony points out two-inch wide lines going across the paving stones. They look like grooves cut by channels of water draining over them, and you'd walk over them every day thinking nothing of it.
They're striated in the direction of the groove and are 320m-year-old fossil tree roots, from coal forests, called stigmaria.
"They're branching tap roots which went down into the mud and had little roots off them," says Tony.
"You sometimes need to have a look behind a statue or building to find them, but there's plenty of fossil life to see in Liverpool city centre if you look for it."
It's good to know that, amid all the constant renewal in Liverpool, the past is all around us.
JOE CROSSLEY, of the Liverpool Geological Society, is staging a Family Fossil Hunt on March 8.
For details, phone 0151 426 1324 or email him on email@example.com
It's good to know that, amid the constant renewal, the past is all around
Geologist and fossil tour guide, Tony Morgan, with one of the Museum's ammonites Pictures: PAUL HEAPS/ ph230209fossils-1; This beautiful ammonite is a feature of one of the polished slabs in Liverpool's Metquarter shopping centre; Tony, left, reveals a stigmaria tap root, right, from the Carboniferous period 350m years ago, on the paving stones outside the World Museum; A 244myear- old coral fossil, on the bollards by the Steble Fountain