Read the transcript for Episode 11 of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: Uncoveringg Conawindra's Forgotten Fossils

Tom Melville 0:00

Hi, I'm Tom Melville. Welcome to voice of real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. Hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs long before giant one bats and kangaroos walk the continent, the world was ruled by fish. The Devonian period, as this era is known, was when fish began to walk on land. And we know all this from studying fossils. It's a key chapter in the history of life and there's still more to learn. Conawindra is a town in central Western New South Wales less than an hour's drive from Orange. It's famous for the massive number of Devonian era fish fossils found there. David Attenborough called the find world class because the fossils are so well preserved. But it's been nearly 30 years since paleontologist Dr. Alex Richie was given just 10 days for an exploratory dig. He uncovered 1000s of fish fossils, which help fill gaps in our knowledge. But with limited time and resources, he could only scratch the surface. A museum was built in town to display the find. But Dr. Richie always dreamed of opening up the dig site again. The parcel of land near where the dig took place was recently sold. Who was sold to could mean the difference between realizing Dr. Ritchie's dream or the fossils being forgotten forever. Voice of Australia producer Laura Corrigan went to Conawindra to learn more

Laura Corrigan 1:27 So are there any fossils in among these rocks?

Bruce Loomes 1:29 Yes.

Laura Corrigan 1:31 Wow. A couple of bits.

Bruce Loomes 1:38 Do you know what that is? Yes, positive but both are lupuskritis there's another one here on this particular channel part of Alex Ritchie would have saved their insignificant you know, you wouldn't know unless you knew. But as you can see the size of the rocks. You wouldn't want to put them in your wheelbarrow.

Laura Corrigan 2:04 Conawindra local Bruce Loomes is showing me around the original fossils site. It's a narrow stretch between a public road and the boundary fence of a private paddock. Today it just looks like some scattered sandstone rock slabs on a mound overgrown with tall grasses. If there wasn't assigned to mark the spot, you just drive straight past it. The first fish fossils slab was found here by chance in the 1950s by a road worker. He didn't know what it was, but put it aside up against a rock. It was later spotted by a beekeeper, Bill Simpson, who had a better idea of its value. The 1956 slab as it was called, went to the Australian Museum in Sydney

Bruce Loomes 2:41 Back in 56 When this all happened was in first year in school, and we had local doctor Dr. Knight who did a plaster cast to the actual fish. And it was on a block of plaster of Paris and it was used as the headmaster's doorstop. And when we got in strife, of course, we used to give it a kick. So we knew about it, but nothing was ever really done about it.

Laura Corrigan 3:05 Many years passed before Conawindra could get the attention of the scientific community again. Finally, in the early 1990s, Scottish paleontologist Dr. Alex Ritchie made plans with locals for an exploratory dig where the 1956 slab had been found. Dr. Richie worked for the Australian Museum and had an interest in Devonian fish. Bruce Loomes was made foreman because he knew the area and the community and plans were made to dig in July 1993. Back at his house, Bruce shows me photos from the 93 dig, they managed to get an excavator to work for free for 10 days. And the community rallied to help in any way that they could.

Bruce Loomes 3:47 And everybody chipped in, it was all freebies, you know, everybody in town, you know really got behind it. And there's too many names to really mention and give thanks to but everybody just got behind it. And it was a fantastic thing. And then we said you know the main goal is now we got to have a museum. You know, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it? So sort of, like what normally happens, though, is it dies in limbo again for a while.

Laura Corrigan 4:10 local eateries provided pies and sausage rolls. a passer by with a trailer was recruited to move slabs. the local hardware store donated wood the fire brigade supplied water and the local high school students helped clean and prepare the excavated rocks. Angela Breen was in year 10 when her schools and Edwards Catholic school got involved with the dig

Angela Breen 4:29 I was very ill with the flu over that week but my parents certainly encouraged me to go out it was an opportunity not to be missed and to have Dr. Richie out there on site and for us children to be able to head out and assist in today's world I probably wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near anybody. I was laid out in a nice Drizabone to keep me dry and warm out on site.

Laura Corrigan 4:55 Despite having the flu and tonsillitis Angela was eager to take part as well the rest of her peers

Angela Breen 5:00 I think any day away from the classroom is a good day, then we'd really did enjoy getting out and about from memory we were actually in, in around the slab, so being very careful not to damage the fossil in situ. But working on and just having Dr. Richie tell us what we were looking at and the features that was special.

Laura Corrigan 5:23 Angela now lives in Humpty Do in the Northern Territory. She kept up her interest in science during University and her early career.

Angela Breen 5:29 I am I guess, a self professed science nerd. I encourage my children to do experiments on the holidays, I was the one with the chemistry kit. I followed that through into my senior years of school and science was certainly a theme through my university years. So I wasn't interested, I guess in paleontology or fossils, but certainly, they do still hold a deep place in my heart. And I do enjoy showing my children where the fossil came from and taking them through the age of fishes museum.

Laura Corrigan 6:03 Aside from the high school students, fossil enthusiasts could actually pay to help with the slabs. Monica young of Gondwana dreaming tours organized the manpower,

Monica Yeung 6:12 they paid for the privilege of working with Alex And that money was simply used to cover costs for the weekend. And everything else went to Alex for a research grant and also $30 per person when to the age of fishes museum building fund, because we didn't have a museum then. And I must admit, sometimes it got a bit tiring to go up there every month, sometimes twice a month. But inevitably, whenever we ended up coming together in on Friday night at the pub, and Alex arrived. All these sorts of tired of this thoughts just disappeared. Because Alex has so much enthusiasm.

Laura Corrigan 6:58 Monica had approached Dr. Richie early on with the concept of turning the dig into a tourist attraction. But he basically brushed her off

Monica Yeung 7:06 sometime later, he gave a talk at the dinosaur museum, about the people at the end of his talk said, Look, we'd like to get involved we'd like to help. Alex hadn't spoken to me about helping him or anything. But that evening, he just said to these people go and talk to Monica. She'll organize you. Yes, I was thrown this huge hole. I caught it. And so now what I'm going to do with it. So that's how I got involved with Alex and organizing digs.

Laura Corrigan 7:37 Monica says she started a geological to accompany because she dedicates her life to getting people interested in science.

Monica Yeung 7:43 When I was working for the Bureau of mineral resources, I was involved with a group called Women in Science. And we used to go to schools, and try and tell, especially the girls, that being in science is not a boy's job. Being in science is not just sitting in a lab in a white coat and having a beard. But being in science is actually exciting. And especially geology is something that you can touch. It's it's Yeah, it's a science that you can immerse yourself in every day basically when you're outdoors. And so I got quite excited about seeing the kids getting excited. And so I suppose it just became indirectly my mission to enthuse people in geology.

Laura Corrigan 8:36 80 tons of fossils slabs were pulled from the ground and moved on pallets to a nearby paddock where students and tourists sorted, cleaned and prepared them. Bruce Loomes again,

Bruce Loomes 8:46 as we got them out of the ground, Freddie Feelings the Kato driver, he could park your hair with that machine. And he used to just place them on the pallets. And we numbered the pallets with the slabs that went on. And of course we had them sitting in the paddy. And we use paint not waterproof. And of course we had rain one night overnight and washed all the numbers off the pallets. So we've sort of, you know, back to square one again,

Laura Corrigan 9:16 Bruce and Dr. Richie were Cowboys, they used their wit and charm to get things done. They discreetly dug under the public road when they couldn't wait for the slow crawl of council bureaucracy. Bruce recalls the council's Engineer Don Dean coming to the site after they'd already helped themselves.

Bruce Loomes 9:35 And you said oh, well, I'll have the paperwork for you tomorrow. And I said, Oh, that'll be good. And he stood there really, you know, he had his elbow in his hand smoking. And he stood there in real deep thought. I had to turn away I was bustin. And Alex sort of looked at me and I sort of winked at even telling him to clear out and Deanies and I couldn't hold on anymore and he just come around and looked at me. Oh you bastards. I don't know anything about it. We'd already done it.

Laura Corrigan 10:00 Bruce loomes wasn't impressed when Dr. Richie tried to name a fish after him and the local council Carbonne council

Bruce Loomes 10:07 Cabbonistis Loomsei, and I'm thinking to myself now Kevin is this Loomsei Cabonne. Bugger me! Cabonne. I hate council, I'm gonna be immortalised with council for the rest of me life. So I went back to Alex and I said to him, you know, nice, oh, you're an ungrateful bagger. And I said I would like to sooner not give it to somebody else. Anyway two or three days later, and I come back to me and they said, Oh no, we've changed it for you. We're going to call your fish -- went and picked it out. He's a real toothy looking and critter is rare. And he's got an under short jaw and he looks like he's like you are you speak the way you see it and you're pretty snappy. He said, we're going to call it Goolagongia Loomesei, Goolagong after the town. And I said, Oh, that sounds good. Oh, no, I never really thought too much more about it until sometime, you know, later on. And then I reckon I'm pretty privileged.

Laura Corrigan 10:12 One of the greatest finds at the site was a fossil of the Greenlandaspis. Dr. Richie had also found this 50 centimeter armored fish during an expedition in Antarctica. It's also been found in Greenland. Finding the fish in Australia proved the continents were once joined together. Monica remembers Dr. Ritchie's excitement when it was found,

Monica Yeung 11:17 he suddenly started to jump around. And it happened to be in a spot where I'd been told there was a big brown snake. And he was yelling and screaming. And when he gets excited in his Scottish accent, you just can't understand what he's saying. And I kept trying to tell him to sit down because I thought he'd been bitten. He just wouldn't settle. He raced to his car, and he got a model of a fish that he had made out of cardboard, and he plunked it into one of the slabs that had been uncovered. And it was a sort of perfect match to that and nothing to do with snake bite, nothing to do with any danger. He just was so excited that we couldn't understand what he was saying.

Laura Corrigan 12:00 4000 fish were uncovered. The side had been an ancient billabong where freshwater fish all along the food chain died and became buried in sediment quickly leaving them very well preserved. In the billabong, an armored fish, fish with lungs that breathe air, fish with five finger limbs, fish with an extra bone in their spine so they can lift their heads out of the water. It's an important snapshot of the evolution of life. These fish were getting ready to get out of the water, maybe some of them did, and all that in just 10 days with few resources. At the end of their time Dr. Richie lay a plastic sheet over one of the most complete fish fossils ever found, then re buried it on the hay and soil for a future date that never came. It's believed there's a lot more to be found under canal Dre, which has been ignored for decades. Host Tom Melville visited Dr. Alex Archie and his daughter shown at their house in Canberra.

Tom Melville 13:01 that's as big as his This is this. You hear me? Yeah. There you go. So this fish is about as big as

Laura Corrigan 13:10 Dr. Ritchie is 85 years old and now lives with dementia. It can be a bit difficult to understand, but his famous enthusiasm still shines through.

Alex Ritchie 13:19 There's a lot of the big fish never nearly complete. There's no other place in the world. I know these things are present and not an accessible

Tom Melville 13:30 not just a couple,

Alex Ritchie 13:32 but probably hundreds. Yeah, sure. Only half of the 200 or so fish slabs we recovered on the site. And unresolved.

Tom Melville 13:45 I mean, when you started you got a sense of the importance of this site. How did that feel?

Alex Ritchie 13:53 Oh, fantastic. Yeah, I mean, it's one thing to find a lab coat and discover that another few 100. Again, my main project in life, I still think is one of the greatest was the size of its kind anywhere in the world, but it seems sort of ignored.

Laura Corrigan 14:14 Shana Ritchie says having a paleontologist for a dad made for an interesting childhood.

Shona Ritchie 14:19 My friend's father's were like accountants and lawyers and stuff like that. And I had this crazy scientist. He wore shorts, socks and sandals back in the 70s. And he was always bringing back strange things and our house still is, as you can see, surrounded by strange bits of fossils and stuff.

Laura Corrigan 14:46 Over the years. It's been Dr. Ritchie's dream to open up the original dig site and make it available as an open air museum and research facility so that the fossils still waiting to be found can be unearthed and everyone can share in the discoveries.

Alex Ritchie 15:00 Give it as a nation and then roof gate and then charge entry for people to come and see the thing undercover protected forever. And there's not many places you can go and see how see fossils 300, 400 million years old. Yeah, like what are they they died. What they should do is just turn it into an on site attraction you could take every one of these slobs and put them into museum and that's what you'll see in the museum. The best ones, but that is left of their food coloring busloads

Laura Corrigan 15:43 Shona wants to see her dad's dream come true.

Shona Ritchie 15:46 The whole bottom layer is still there. The top layer is been exposed and dealt with and dad's vision for the site is that it becomes a working open site where paleontologists are working away excavating the bottom layers and viewers to the museum can watch them at work.

Anne Clark 16:10 See big hairy teeth. So, doing cars makes brings it sort of to life.

Laura Corrigan 16:19 I visited the age of fishes museum in Canowindra. It's a fairly small museum attached to the visitor center, but it has plans for expansion. It's one of only two Devonian museums in the world and a major educational and tourist attraction for the region. museum manager and clock shows me around

Anne Clark 16:36 well our fossils are incredibly important. They are 360 million years old. So for example, dinosaurs were about 150 200 These were some of the first animals we have fossil record of one of our fish. The Greenlandaspis, has been found in Canada, Greenland and Antarctica, thus proving that the continents who wants join together our fish were the first animals to move from the water land on Earth. They had five fingers and their fins, lungs and gills and the one body and armor plating. David Attenborough actually visited the museum and 2013 and described them as world class because we had a whole freshwater billabong perfectly preserved. One of our our big fellas I call him Mr. Fairfaxei, he's the New South Wales state fossil emblem. Our fish also proved our hips developed much earlier than first believed in history. Dr. Richie also believed that the first tetrapod in the southern hemisphere can be found at billabong, and that's why he's been trying to reopen the site.

Laura Corrigan 17:36 There's a few slabs on display, but the majority of the 80 tonnes is stored in a temperature controlled warehouse. But they'd only been moved there in 2019. Before that these world class fossils were just stored under the grand stand at canowindra Showground, further evidence of the neglect of this historic find. The fossils were gifted to the Australian Museum by carbonne council two years ago. And last year, the Sydney museum made 3d scans of every single slab, the slabs and now available to scientists across the globe for the first time,

Anne Clark 18:09 as you can see, showed you the ripples from the billable. Yeah, even they are perfectly preserved.

Laura Corrigan 18:17 Anna's excitement for the fossils is obvious. The former science teacher hadn't been involved in the original dig, but she's certainly determined to facilitate any in the future. I asked her why she thinks so little has been done over the past 30 years to tap into what lies beneath

Anne Clark 18:32 many reasons I don't think we've valued science as much as we should have in Australia, we really hasn't had the recognition that it should have full stop. And now everybody wants a vaccine. I think people are saying, Oh, yes, science is slightly important. So I think that's the big one. And also, you know, in regional areas, there's been, you've got a smaller population, and money has to be spread further. And you know, infrastructure such as water supplies have been always been a big issue. So there's many reasons. But I think people are starting to realize that tourism is a big industry in itself. Now, the best thing that for us has been the borders have been shut. Because people are going, oh, there is a world outside the Blue Mountains. And they're coming out to see their own country, which is wonderful. And investing in their own country. So I think right, please do that.

Laura Corrigan 19:22 The original dig site is in an awkward position. It's basically a nature strip between a road and a private property. diverting the road would not only be expensive, but where do you divert it, you need cooperation from the landowners nearby. Then there's the private property itself. Dr. Richie had been constrained by its boundary fence. The land owners gave little thought to the side it was just a rocky outcrop in their paddock. their interests lay elsewhere, understandably, in their agricultural livelihood. But just two days before my visit to Canowindra that land - a property of 100 hectares on fish fossil drive - was sold. when the land was put up for sale. Made fossil levels anxious. But I tracked down the new buyer and I'm certain his plans would thrill them.

Dr David McGrath 20:06 David Conawindra is for sale when I nearly fell off my chair. And so what are you talking about can address the fossil dig is up for sale. So I really rang up the agent and we were there next day, and we're walking over the block and said, yeah, we want to buy we're still delighted and settling on the idea that we actually own the book.

Laura Corrigan 20:30 Dr. David McGraw is a medical doctor based in Canberra, he bought the canal property, and he bought it specifically because he loves fossils.

Dr David McGrath 20:38 Yeah, I'm interested because the story of life is so interesting. And here's a page or a chapter in the story of life. And it's a really important chapter. All these things were happening in fish, we developed the head, the ears, the eyes, the nose, were all developed as fish. And the brain structure was developing as fish, you know, we're getting really complicated brains, and then the four limbs, you know, so we could walk onto the land that developed and lowlands you know, so we could breathe air on land. This all happened in this period. It's a fabulous fossil site for that for the period of time the chapter. But in addition, I can't believe she only just slightly west of Sydney, a major metropolis. In Australia, it's so close to everything. Whereas the other great fossil sites in Australia are like miles from nowhere. You're going to get a reverse lead right up there in Northern Territory or Narracote in South Australia or Ediacaran in South Australia. These are fairly remote. Here, this is just on the doorsteps of Sydney and here it is a major fossil site. So yeah, I think Australians do slightly more aware of that fish are really interesting. A lot of things happening during this period. Fish has retired from medicine, this is a fantastic thing to do just contribute to the spirit of science.

Laura Corrigan 21:55 David had visited Conawindra with his son on one of monitors tours in 1993. he'd met Dr. Richie and heard his dream. He's already been in talks with the conundrum museum and community.

Dr David McGrath 22:05 My plan is to move this site forward. for educational purposes. This is a major fossil location in Australia. It's right up there with major fossil finds in the world actually. Yet its educational value has not been properly explored. We have the age of fishers Museum, which is doing a good job. But I think we need to go back to the original site and open it up now for the full scientific value. At this site has got fabulously well preserved fossils. And we hope that we we might find fossil plants and and further fish, and even possibly the first amphibians. So it's very exciting for us to reopen up the site. And we will be doing that in cooperation with the Australian Museum and the age of fishes museum and the local council. And we want to develop the whole thing for the world actually Australia as a national gym, and the world as a piece of world history.

Laura Corrigan 23:07 monitors tours, which helped fund the construction of the age of fishes museum proved that there's interest in these kinds of tourist attractions. It's not just geologists and paleontologists that would benefit from digging deeper with Dr. Richie found in just 10 days contributed so much to science. Imagine what the reopening of the site could offer. Perhaps we'd find the first tetrapod in the southern hemisphere, the walking fish, as Dr. Richie and many others predict and further map out our understanding of the evolution of life.

Tom Melville 23:38 What kind of fish

Laura Corrigan 23:40 after 30 years of stagnation Dr. Ritchie's vision seems to be just around the corner.

Shona Ritchie 23:45 My dad has friends who named dinosaurs after the children. My brother and I have nothing named after

Laura Corrigan 23:53 Tom met with Shona and Dr. Alex Richie again on a rainy day in Canberra, to tell them the hopeful news,

Shona Ritchie 23:58 and this new guy has bought it. He's from Canberra. He was there right at the beginning when you were uncovering the fossils. So he's bought it and he's going to do what your vision was

Alex Ritchie 24:13 I hope I live long enough to see it.

Tom Melville 24:16 So he loved the place. I thought, why isn't this one of the most famous in the world?

Shona Ritchie 24:27 I can't wait to talk to this man. He's made an old man's End of Days very happy.

Tom Melville 24:38 That's Shona Ritchie and her dad Alex, they're excited about what may soon be uncovered at Canowindra's famous fossil site. And that's it for this episode of voice of real Australia. Thank you so much for listening, subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast, please share it with friends and give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. if you'd like to share your story email voice at asked community media.com.au that's voice at asked a ust community media.com.au our Facebook page is facebook.com slash voice of real Australia. Voice of real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Lara Corrigan and me your host, Tom Melville. You can follow me on twitter @TomMelville124. Our editors are Gale Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks this week go to Jason soderBlom, Ian Robertson and Coleman Pryor. This is an ACM podcast.

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 11 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.