Sunday, March 9, 2014

Prehistoric fossil collectors.


Ken McNamara on the earliest evidence of the fossil collecting instinct in humans

Geoscientist 22.05 June 2012
It was a cold Spring day in 1887 on the Chilterns when amateur archaeologist Worthington Smith made one of his most impressive discoveries – the skeletons of a young woman and a child that had lain entwined in their shallow grave for about 4000 years. But there was something very strange about this burial. They were not alone. Hundreds of balls of flint, each engraved with a five-pointed star, lay with the fragile bones – a cornucopia of fossil sea urchins. And to Smith’s expert eye, they all seemed to have been buried very carefully with the bodies in their chalky grave. Yet of all the possible grave goods that could accompany the deceased pair into the afterlife, why choose such strange objects?

Image: Drawing by Worthington G. Smith of skeleton of woman (he called Maud) and child that he found on Dunstable Down in 1887. The skeleton was buried with hundreds of fossil sea urchins.


It has only been for the last three hundred years or so that most people have accepted the view that fossils represent the petrified remains of organisms that once lived millions of years ago. In 1665 the great English physicist, astronomer, geologist, chemist, architect and microscopist Robert Hooke published his seminal book Micrographia, in which he argued that fossils “do owe their formation and figuration, not to any kind of Plastick virtue inherent in the earth, but to the Shells of certain Shell-fishes which...came to be.... filled with some kind of Mudd or Clay or petrifying Water, or some other substance, which in tract of time has been settled together and hardned [sic] in those shelly moulds into those shaped substances we now find them.”.

Image: Neolithic skeleton from Whitehawk causewayed camp, Brighton, found in 1933 buried with a fossil sea urchin (top left).

This may come as no surprise to us today, but in 17th Century Europe such thoughts were not only radical, but verged on the heretical. One who found this out to his cost was the late 16th Century Frenchman Bernard Palissy, who became the first martyr to palaeontology. He died of malnutrition and consumption two years after being incarcerated in the Bastille for having had the temerity to propose that some fossils were “sea-hedgehog [sea urchins] which in the course of time had been turned to stone”.

Hooke’s similar ideas had, in part, been prompted by the little fossils he called ‘button-stones’ and ‘helmet-stones’ that he had collected as a boy on the Isle of Wight. The former are what we now know as ‘regular’, radially symmetrical, sea urchins, the latter being the bilaterally symmetrical ‘irregular’ heart urchins. Both types occur commonly as fossils in Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks in England, and throughout much of Europe and the Mediterranean region.


Archaeological evidence from these areas reveals that, like Hooke, people have been intrigued by fossil sea urchins and have been collecting them for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Fossil collecting has, undoubtedly, a proud and extraordinarily long heritage. But what did these prehistoric collectors make of their fossil finds? Did they see them as sports of the Devil? Or were they gifts from the Gods? And why did they sometimes bury them with their dead?

Image: Fossil urchin Echinocorys scutatus preserved in flint, collected by Mr Alan Smith from a field in Linkenholt, Hampshire, and known by him as a ‘shepherd’s crown’ and kept by the front door of his cottage.

Long before people began popping fossil urchins in their graves, their distant ancestors had found more practical ways to use them in their daily lives. But these were not the kind of people that you and I would immediately recognise, for it is not just our species, Homo sapiens, that collects fossils. Other species of our genus Homo, living hundreds of thousands of years ago, were equally fascinated by them. But why fossil sea urchins in particular? What was it about these particular fossils that made them attractive to people so long ago? The answer lies, I believe, in the distinctive five-pointed star emblazoned on them.

The earliest evidence we have for someone collecting a fossil sea urchin is a flint handaxe made about 400,000 years ago and found in the gravels of Swanscombe, Kent. Taking pride of place on the axe is the distinctive five-rayed star pattern of the fossil urchin Conulus. Such an Acheulian hand axe is usually worked to a sharp edge on both sides. This one, though, has only been worked on one side. The last blow caused a sliver of the fossil to break off, making it likely that the flint knapper reasoned he would only destroy more of the fossil if he worked the other side. This prescient collector was probably a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis and appears to have been particularly taken by its five-pointed star. It seems that ours was not the first species to evolve an aesthetic sense.

A third species, Homo neanderthalensis, also liked collecting fossil urchins. A number of distinctive Mousterian culture scrapers have been found in France, some made entirely from these fossils, others, like the Swanscombe handaxe, incorporating them into the tool. And this tradition seems to have continued right through to Homo sapiens, many flint tools made about 5000 years ago that contained, or were constructed from, fossil urchins, having been found near a Neolithic flint mine at Spiennes in Belgium.


and incorporating the base of a fossil sea urchin, displaying the five-pointed star motif to best effect.Homo heidelbergensis The Neolithic marks the time when many societies gave up their nomadic hunter-gatherer existence and established permanent settlements. This is when we first find evidence of fossil urchins being used as grave goods. For thousands of years before the Common Era, people had been burying all sorts of items with their loved ones, to the great delight of archaeologists. As well as objects of personal adornment, such as clothing and jewellery, articles were usually those considered to be of some practical use in the afterlife – weapons, animals, pots, bowls, tableware and such like. So why place fossil urchins in graves? Either they must have meant much to the deceased when they were alive, or they had a meaning to them in the afterlife.Graves with both cremated and interred remains have been found to contain fossil urchins. In an Anglo-Saxon grave in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England, a woman lies grasping a fossil urchin in her hand; in a grave of the same age near Cambridge another woman, who suffered from leprosy, is buried in her bed with a leather bag around her neck, containing a sole fossil urchin to accompany her into the afterlife. And high on the chalk downland in the Isle of Wight, five out of a cluster of 12 Bronze Age barrows excavated in the mid-19th Century contained burnt human bones, and all bar one contained a fossil urchin.
TabAll this points to a great spiritual significance attached to these fossils for thousands of years, from at least the Neolithic. Although the Bronze Age grave found by Worthington Smith yielded an impressive haul of more than 300 fossil urchins, this pales into insignificance when compared with the two to three cubic metres of fossil urchins found in a Bronze Age site near Héricourt in France. It has been calculated that this could represent an astonishing 20–30,000 fossils. At the other extreme large barrows (burial mounds) are known from Brittany that when excavated were found to contain nothing but a single fossil urchin - not even a body.

Image: Church-in-the-Wood, a Gypsy “tin tabernacle”, Bramdean, Hampshire. The date it was built, 1883, has been framed using fossil sea urchins.

Fossil urchins were not always found with the dead. Sometimes they show evidence of having been valued by the living, though not as tools. For instance, a cache of fossil urchins discovered in the remains of a settlement in Studland, Dorset that was inhabited between the first and fourth centuries seems to have been deliberately buried under the houses a number of times during this period - and always close to doors and windows! As no written record exists of why people did these things, the only way we can glean some insight into their motives is from the folklore attached to the fossils. Further, it may even be possible to link this with the myths that may have grown up around them – myths that may now be represented merely by a folk name, such as ‘shepherds’ crowns’ or ‘fairy loaves’. Together, archaeology, mythology and folklore allow a greater understanding of the motives behind the activities of prehistoric fossil collectors.



One myth is that of the ‘thunderstone’. A fossil urchin with a stone axe in a pot in an Iron Age cremation deposit in Kent indicates a link with Norse mythology through the god Thor. Folklore gathered in Denmark and southern England in the early 20th Century revealed that both fossil sea urchins and stone axes were called ‘thunderstones’ and were thought to have been thrown to Earth by Thor. But Thor was not only a malevolent thunder god. He was also the peasants’ god, who gave them protection. So these fossils were placed near windows and doors not only to ward off Thor’s frequently over-exuberant lightning strikes, but also to protect the house from evil.

Image: St Peter’s church Linkenholt, Hampshire, which has fossil urchins inserted around two of the church windows.

The other folk names commonly used for fossil urchins in England - ‘shepherd’s crowns’ and ‘fairy loaves’ - both likely derived from Celtic or pre-Celtic terms and beliefs in the association of these objects with the afterlife. Their frequent occurrence in burial mounds (sites of passage from this life to the next) points to a significance attached to ensuring the rebirth of the bearer. These spiritual beliefs degenerated in Christian times into folk traditions of ‘good luck’, so that ‘fairy loaves’ placed on window sills were thought to ensure that bread would rise and help keep the milk fresh. They were still also placed bear to doors to help keep the devil at bay. Perhaps this is why at the entrance to the churchyard surrounding a gypsy church (known as a ‘tin tabernacle’) constructed in Hampshire in 1883, 40 fossil sea urchins were set in cement in the shape of the date.

One of the more obvious clues to the activity of prehistoric fossil collectors comes from fossil urchins that have had a hole deliberately drilled through them. This activity goes back to the Upper Palaeolithic when, 35,000 years ago, fossils were drilled and used in necklaces. At one of the earliest known Neolithic settlements in the eastern Mediterranean, a site in Jordan nearly 11,000 years old called ‘Ain Ghazal, all fossil urchins recovered had been drilled. This behaviour continued for thousands of years, but was not just confined to the eastern Mediterranean. Drilled urchins have turned up in archaeological sites from North Africa, to France, to Gloucestershire. Was the only reason for drilling these fossils to wear them as necklaces? Probably not. Many were almost certainly used as spindle whorls while spinning wool. There may also have been a spiritual element to this activity related to the five-pointed star motif.

The importance of the five-pointed star pattern is reinforced by the discovery of some fossil urchins from Neolithic and Iron Age sites in Jordan that have been altered to enhance the five-rayed star pattern. Could these people have been seeing an image of themselves in this pattern – like the classic ‘stick drawing’ of the human form? Just think of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ – arms outstretched, legs apart, head held aloft – a human five-pointed star. This might explain one of the drilled urchins from ‘Ain Ghazal, where the hole was drilled off-centre, through what could be interpreted as the junction of the legs – a potent fertility object, perhaps.

Fossil urchinAPOTROPAIC

But of all the altered urchins found by prehistoric collectors, the most striking, surely, is one found at Heliopolis in Egypt which had hieroglyphs inscribed on it in about 1500 BCE. These tell us the name of the priest, Tja-nefer, who found it and also where he found it – in ‘the quarry of Sopdu’, a god sometimes known as the ‘Morning Star’. The presence of the distinctive five-rayed star on this fossil and the extensive use of this symbol by ancient Egyptians in their burial chambers to symbolise the stars in the sky to which the spirit of the pharaoh returned, suggests that these fossils might have played an important role in Egyptian funeral rites.

Image: Fossil urchin from Ain ‘Ghazal in Jordan that about 9000 years ago had a hole drilled through it, implying that the five-pointed star was representative of the human body.

As the perceived powers of fossil urchins declined with changing belief systems, so we find the five-rayed star pattern increasingly being used on its own in many societies. It was as though the star had been sloughed off the fossil. Five-pointed stars were being used in decorations nearly 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and the symbol’s use as an apotropaic object (one that protects against evil) was widespread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region through to the Middle Ages. Not unlike fossil sea urchins, it was used commonly in mediaeval times above doors of houses or stables to protect against the devil. This star also came to symbolise traits such as chivalry, courtesy, piety and kindness, which is why Sir Gawain’s shield was decorated with such a star.

These days it is not easy to escape this star. It spangles our clothes, sits on our footballs and proudly appears on more than 50 national flags. It clings to our food packaging, our clothes, our beer bottles and coffee shops. It even tattoos our bodies. And at Christmas you can’t walk down a street without being assailed by this heavenly symbol glittering in decorations and sitting smugly on top of the Christmas tree.
HeiroThe fossil sea urchin with its distinctive star is unique as an object whose significance can be traced through many cultures over hundreds of thousands of years. Its importance has changed from an early aesthetic attraction of the five-pointed star by early hominid species to being an object imbued with power and great spiritual significance, one that was thought to ease the passage into the afterlife. Its power then faded as it firstly came to be seen more as an object that protects against evil, before becoming just a lucky object.

To find out where the urchin lies in our imagination today you just have to travel to the north-west corner of Hampshire. Here, high on Salisbury Plain, sits the little village of Linkenholt. For millennia, those who have ploughed the flinty fields around the village found an abundance of ‘shepherd’s crowns’. And what did they do with them? They collected them of course, and in the 12th Century when they built their flint church, what else to do but set some around a window on the north side of the church – the devil’s side – no doubt to try to keep him out. When rebuilt in the late 19th Century, the villagers could not bear to lose this window and its protective fossil wreath, so they were reinstalled. As the fossils had obviously done such a good job, why not have more? So a window on the south side was also garlanded with fossil urchins.

And what of the local farmers? They still collected the fossils, in days of horse and plough, and took them home where they were placed in pots by the front door – faint, fossilised memories of protecting the house. But if you asked them why, they would simply reply, “Well, it’s just something you do, isn’t it?”.

* Ken McNamara is a Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Sedgwick Museum. He is author of The Star-Crossed Stone, published by University of Chicago Press.

Source: The Geological Society

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