Travel Fossils: Recipe for cement: take one fossil...

Deep in the heart of Florida, fossils are quarried for the building and chemical industries.
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A TACO Bell car park just off Interstate 75 does not sound a terribly optimistic place to begin a quest into the past. But when the opportunity arises to join an eminent palaeontologist on an expedition to a small, prohibited corner of a foreign country, you do not decline the invitation, or quibble with the rendezvous. So it was that, a little disoriented with jet-lag, I found myself en route to the fast-food joint near Sarasota, Florida, to meet a small company of experts who were searching for fossils in the Deep South.

Morning pleasantries completed, a motley mini-convoy was soon under way heading eastbound, back across the freeway, and inland away from the pleasure beaches and ritzy shopping malls. In the early morning sun, the expectant procession of cars and pick-ups that wound slowly into the private quarry roads had the vaguely sinister echo of menace that hung over the opening scenes of the film Deliverance. Escorted by Dr Roger Portell from the Florida Museum of Natural History, we headed for an open quarry where Quality Aggregates Inc produces material for the chemical and road-building industries.

Only the Deliverance theme music was missing as the convoy passed into a strange landscape that had a deserted, lunar quality, with huge white conical mounds dominating the skyline in all directions. Even the Florida licence plate on the truck ahead was spooky - it read FOSSIL 1. Huge earth- moving lorries rumbled past, carrying raw aggregates to be crushed and processed into more mini-mountains. Their passing left lazy dust trails that settled slowly in the still, hot morning air; and a baking silence broken only by the odd, shrill, roadside cricket.

Ahead was a vista that was from another age: a huge, open quarry where the occasional Caterpillar digger appeared toy-like against the vast prehistoric deposits of shells and corals, preserved in a state of near perfection since the demise of their living occupants some 2 million years before. It was a desert landscape, white-hot, broken by the occasional reed-fringed pond where alligators and deadly water-moccasins watched brilliant iridescent dragonflies flitting over the surface as if time had stood perfectly still.

And everywhere, in their multi-millions, shells from an era before time, when Florida was sea-covered and tropical and the land was the domain of the dinosaurs: a rich legacy of raw history now uncovered and doomed to become fertilisers, cement, and road-aggregates.

Stepping out from the cool comfort of a modern vehicle on to an unbroken carpet of prehistoric fossils that ran for miles in all directions, relieved only by sheer 20-ft cliffs where the excavators had been working, was unnerving.

But then the whole state of Florida is a living testament of strange anomalies - home to the manatee and the Everglades from a primeval past, it also spawned Cape Canaveral and Disney World.

Now the troops were weary, sweat-stained and dust-covered. It had been a torrid time, but there was a sense of satisfaction as buckets full of pre-history were consigned to the car boot. Conversation was muted and technical, but there was time to pause and look about after the intense hours of staring downwards. Then a finger pointed, the talk ceased, and eyes turned to a small creek where an alligator lay, log-still, unmoved and unmoving despite the trespassers in his ancient kingdom.