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Oxfordshire's greatest dinosaur discoveries
Megalosaurus bucklandi
The Megalosaurus (pictured) was the first dinosaur to be given a name
The world's first dinosaur bone was discovered in 1677
The only full skeleton of a Eustreptospodylus found in Oxford

Oxfordshire is a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils.

The county was home to some of the most important finds during the pivotal early years in the study of palaeontology.

Dinosaurs roamed the local landscape from the middle and upper parts of the Jurassic period, between 170 and 150 million years ago.

They thrived on a landmass which extended from Oxfordshire across towards London and into Belgium.

The landscape consisted of tropical lagoons reminiscent of the Bahamas in the present day.

Fast forward to the 19th century and as a seat of higher learning Oxfordshire was well placed to play its part in the early scientific study of these prehistoric animals.

In addition, the numerous brick pits in and around the city provided ample opportunity for new discoveries to come to light.

BBC Oxford asked Professor Jim Kennedy, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, to talk us through some of the biggest finds over the last two centuries.

'Giant lizard'

"The earliest account we have a proper record of is in Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxfordshire that was published in 1677, and in that he illustrated what we would now recognise as the end of a dinosaur limb bone," Professor Kennedy said.

"He then debated in his account at length what it might be, whether it may be the remains of a giant or giantess, or whether it might be the remains of an elephant.

Cetiosaurus oxoniensis
Cetiosaurus bones were discovered in 1825 in Chipping Norton

"Because he knew elephants had come across to Britain during the Roman invasions, he concluded that that was a possible explanation of the object.

"Somewhat later in 1699 a man called Edward Lhwyd illustrated and described a tooth of a dinosaur but both he and Plot had no idea what fossils were."

The bones were identified much later as a Megalosaurus bucklandi.

It takes its title from William Buckland, who has the distinction of being the first man to assign a name to a dinosaur.

The Oxford geology lecturer had acquired some bones and a jaw from Stonesfield.

"Buckland had these remains for about a decade and he recognised them to be the bones of what he thought was a giant lizard but for reasons that are unknown he didn't immediately describe them," Professor Kennedy explained.

"In 1818 following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the great French comparative anatomist Baron Cuvier came to Oxford, and he agreed with Buckland that he indeed had the bones of a giant lizard which they described in their discussions as a creature of something like 46 feet long."

'Huge animal'

One of the most common dinosaurs unearthed locally is a giant herbivore known as Cetiosaurus oxeniensis.

"In 1825 near Chipping Norton bones of a huge animal were recovered and early workers thought they might be the remains of whales.

The dinosaur tracks at Ardley Trackways near Bicester
Dinosaur tracks in Ardley are of special scientific interest

"More bones were recovered particularly at Enslow Bridge - by the Rock of Gibraltar pub on the way to Kirtlington - and these were described in 1871 by John Phillips who was Oxford's first Professor of Geology and the first keeper of the Natural History Museum.

"He had the limb bones and vertebrae of a giant creature which he called Cetiosaurus which means of course 'whale lizard'."

That same year workers at a brick pit in North Oxford - now the location of a health club on the Woodstock Road opposite St Edward's School - uncovered a nearly complete skeleton of a bipedal carnivorous dinosaur.

It is the only known specimen of the Eustreptospondylus oxoniensis.

The final major dinosaur discovery in Oxfordshire was in the brick pit at Cumnor Hurst.

A dinosaur called Camptosaurus prestwichii, an early relative of the better known Iguanadon, was discovered there in 1879.

When people were doing house repairs they noticed little dinosaur footprints on the surfaces of their roofing slates.
Professor Jim Kennedy


However, evidence of dinosaurs has surfaced in other ways.

Natural England has recently confirmed it wants to make Ardley Trackways, near Bicester, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Footprints of both the Megalosaurus and the Cetiosaurus were discovered by a school teacher there in 1997.

"Footprints have turned up in other places over the years," Professor Kennedy said.

"We have for instance two slabs from roofs. When people were doing house repairs they noticed little dinosaur footprints on the surfaces of their roofing slates."

More recent discoveries include a Stegosaurus discovered by an amateur collector in Woodeaton quarry and a big marine reptile in one of the gravel pits south of Yarnton.

21st century discoveries include a Stegosaurus in Woodeaton

But Professor Kennedy fears that modern methods of quarry extraction will limit finds in the future.

"The trouble is these days quarries are worked mechanically and therefore clay is scooped up in vast amounts, limestone is picked up in vast blocks and they're all crunched up without anybody being more than 20 feet from them.

"The quarrymen of old worked things by hand and would simply pick out any curiosity and put it to one side."

The quarrymen may have gone the same way as the dinosaur, but our fascination with the bones of these long dead beasts seems set to remain.

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