Dinocochlea: The mysterious spiral of Hastings

Paul D Taylor and Consuelo Sendino (UK).

Spiral structures in nature hold a particular fascination on account of their beautiful yet twisted symmetry. The logarithmic spiral coiling of ammonite shells and rams’ horns, the corkscrew helix of a plant tendril, and the planar spiral of a hurricane when viewed from space, all have an aesthetic appeal beyond that of simpler geometrical shapes.

The site in Hastings, as it appears, today where Dinocochlea was discovered during road construction in 1921.

When huge spiral objects were unearthed during road construction in Hastings, almost one hundred years ago, it was not surprising that they attracted the immediate attention of geologists. To this day, the origin of these spirals from the Lower Cretaceous Wadhurst Clay is a puzzle. The story is as follows.

History of the find

In 1921, St Helens Road in Hastings (now the A2101) was extended westerly to meet up with Seddlescombe Road North (now the A21), thereby providing a bypass to Hastings town centre. Close to Old Roar Glen (a well-known local beauty spot) the workmen excavated a shallow cutting and came across some huge spiral structures lying horizontally in the rock.

The engineer in charge of the roadworks immediately notified the Hastings Museum. Those specimens not already bagged as rockery stones by local inhabitants were sent to Dr Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History), the modern Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

Smith Woodward was a distinguished fossil fish expert and an unwitting victim of the infamous Piltdown Man fraud, a faked, composite fossil that he christened Eoanthropus dawsoni. Charles Dawson, to whom the species was dedicated, is now generally thought to have been the perpetrator of the fraud, although some have claimed that he had an accomplice, with the Hastings jeweller, WJ Lewis Abbott, being among those suspected. It turns out that Lewis Abbott also knew of the giant spirals from Hastings. In an unpublished manuscript, he noted an earlier discovery of similar spirals in the nearby Hollington Quarry where, around 1900, quarry workers told him they had unearthed “a cork-screw as big as my leg”. Indeed, some of the fragments collected in 1921 were obtained through Lewis Abbott, as a label still glued to one clearly demonstrates.

Described as a snail

To return to the main theme of the story, Smith Woodward invited a colleague at the BM(NH) to describe the Hastings spirals. He chose the unrelated Bernard Barham Woodward, who had recently retired as head librarian at the BM(NH) and was a specialist on molluscs. With the aid of Smith Woodward’s renowned preparator, Mr LE Parsons, BB Woodward set about developing the specimens and reconstructing the spirals from the available fragments.

Fig. 2Fig. 2. BB Woodward, former head librarian at the British Museum (Natural History), who described Dinocochlea as a gigantic gastropod.

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