Over the 35 years that Dorset plumber Steve Etches has spent collecting fossils from the county’s Kimmeridge Bay, he never thought that one day he would be addressing a room of university graduates as recipient of an Honorary Doctorate.
That reality recently came true when the University of Southampton made Steve an Honorary Doctor of Science during ceremonies to celebrate the graduates of degree programmes in Ocean and Earth Science.
“It feels quite extraordinary to receive an Honorary Doctorate; it’s well out of my remit when you think about my background,” said Steve. “I didn’t go to university. I should have but I was a late developer – still late developing now – and I’ve done it on the back of running a business as well, so the sky’s the limit.
“If you’ve really got the passion and the flair to do something I’m sure that anyone can do the same,” he continued. “I think that everyone’s got a gift and if you find that gift, you develop it and this is what it’s really led to for me in so many ways.”
Although he had a fascination for fossils as a child, he admits that it wasn’t until he began taking his family for days out along the coast – in the midst of working long hours when he established his business – that he started finding materials from the Kimmeridge clay which form the basis of his collection.
At last count, Steve now has over 2,000 Late Jurassic specimens from the Kimmeridge clay of Britain. His finds include the world’s first ammonite eggs, the first pterosaur skull from the Kimmeridge clay and the first from Dorset for 200 years, the largest collection of pterosaur remains and a diverse Kimmeridgian fish collection.
In 2016, those specimens found a home in the Dorset village of Kimmeridge with the opening of The Etches Collection Museum of Jurassic Marine Life realising one of Steve’s long-held dreams. The museum, which features a learning and visitor centre, is also home to a virtual aquarium and interactive exhibition that brings to life the incredible stories from deep time.
“It’s fantastic to see the collection now housed in the museum and the nice thing is that a lot of the material we’ve got is completely new to science,” Steve enthused. “We have it on good authority that the Natural History Museum has got the best fish collection in the world but they believe that the knowledge of the Kimmeridge Bay fish collection we’ve got is far superior to what they’ve got. We also hold some of most diverse and best assemblages of flying reptile and invertebrate material from the Kimmeridge clay, so our collection covers the whole spectrum.
“The really nice thing with the museum is that we’re telling stories from time – through deep time,” Steve explained. “We’ve not gone for the classification names and everything else, but done things in notebook form with illustrations to draw people in and give them the opportunity to examine our collection and the secrets within the fossils, which can tell you how that creature died, what it predated, and what it’s eaten.
“Receiving this Honorary Doctorate will, I hope, create a more natural link between the Museum and the University of Southampton to push their students – geological and palaeontological – to visit us in Dorset and use the collection further and through Professor John Marshall we’re going to do that,” Steve concluded. “We’re still actively collecting material and there is much more to be discovered.
Steve’s previous achievements and contribution to the world of palaeontology have been recognised with awards from The Palaeontological Association (The Mary Anning Prize, 1993 and 2005), The Geological Society of London (the R.H. Worth Prize, 1994) and The Geologists’ Association (The Halstead Medal). In 2014, Steve was awarded an MBE for services to Palaeontology, the first time an MBE has been awarded for this category.
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