Fossil folklore: ammonites

People have collected fossils since prehistoric times. In pre-scientific times, a remarkable folklore developed about how fossils originated and their usefulness. Folklore refers to the beliefs – usually non-scientific – and customs of ordinary people. Before the true origin of fossils as the remains of once living organisms was firmly established and became universally known, fossils must have been extremely bewildering objects to anyone who found them. Although some fossils resembled living creatures, others looked quite different. For example, the internal moulds – ‘steinkerns’ – of molluscs were unlike anything from the living world. Even for fossils that did match known types of animals and plants, the fact that they came out of the ground was puzzling, as was the finding of fossil shells of sea-creatures far away from the sea and on mountain tops. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils spawned a myriad of myths. From ancient tales about their alleged magical or medicinal powers, to the uses of fossils for religious and decorative purposes, the folklore of fossils is rich and varied (for example, Bassett, 1982; Gregorová, 2006; Mayor, 2000, 2005; McNamara, 2011; Thenius and Vávra, 1996). This article is the first of a series about fossil folklore, exploring fossil myths from around the world.


Fig. 1. Württemberg snakestone, the ammonite Coroniceras, on display in the galleries of the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, Austria.

Ammonites in folklore

Ammonites are the most iconic of all fossils. Their strikingly beautiful spiral shells make them greatly valued among fossil collectors and, of course, they play a key role in stratigraphy. They have long attracted the attention of humankind. As no close living analogue to ammonites was known until the discovery of the nautilus, ammonites were particularly mysterious objects and a complex folklore developed around them. There are numerous stories explaining the supposed origin of ammonites and many beliefs about their magical and medicinal properties. They have also acted as an inspiration to builders and architects, who have incorporated real ammonites – or motifs of ammonites – into buildings.

Fig. 2. Detail from a cross in the yard of the Church of St Mary, Whitby, showing St Hild about to cast a petrifying spell on the local snakes.

Snakestones

It was once widely believed that ammonites were coiled snakes turned to stone. Snakestone myths in England are particularly associated with Whitby in Yorkshire and Keynsham in Somerset, but similar petrified snake theories also existed elsewhere in Europe, for example, at Württemberg in southwest Germany (Fig. 1).

Fig. 3. Whitby snakestone made from the ammonite Dactylioceras. NHM, London collection.

Snakestones were referred to in England as early as the 16th century. William Camden, in his book Britannia (1586), mentioned stones which, when broken open, were found to contain “stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but eternally without heads”. Legend has it that the town of Whitby was once infested by snakes, and that the infestation was brought to an end by the Saxon Abbess St Hild (614–680AD), who turned the snakes into stone to clear a site for the building of an abbey (Fig. 2). St Hild’s actions are immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion:

And how, of thousand snakes, each one

Was changed into a coil of stone,

When holy Hilda pray’d;

Themselves, within their holy bound,

Their stony folds had often found.

According to Lovett (1905), this explanation for the origin of ammonites held sway among the elderly townsfolk of Whitby even into the early 20th century.

The fact that Whitby snakestones do not have a head is supposedly due to a beheading curse issued by another Christian martyr, St Cuthbert (634–687). However, in Victorian times, to make ammonites more saleable and to reinforce the myth of their origin through St Hild’s spell, serpents’ heads (complete with eyes and mouth) were sometimes carved at the end of the final whorl. The Whitby ammonite most often embellished with a snake’s head was Dactylioceras (Figs. 3 and 4), but another Liassic ammonite, Hildoceras, named after St Hild (Fig. 5), was also occasionally used.

Fig. 4. Box containing small Dactylioceras snakestones on display in the Whitby Museum.

So strong was the snakestone legend at Whitby that ammonites became the mascots for the town. Three ammonites, complete with heads, are used as heraldic devices in the Whitby coat-of-arms (Fig. 6). A similar design also features on the badge of the local football club, Whitby Town FC, while tradesmen’s tokens from as early 1667 contain depictions of the same three snakestones.

A similar myth developed in Keynsham, where it was believed that St Keyna, a devout British virgin, who lived in serpent-infested woods, turned the serpents into stone by praying (Walcott, 1779). In some other parts of southern England, snakestones were believed to have been fairies, changed first into snakes and then stones (Nelson 1968).

The portico of the mediaeval Cathédrale St Jean in Lyon, France is adorned with numerous stone carvings, including one reminiscent of a snakestone (Fig. 7). The carving is seemingly based on an ammonite, perhaps Hildoceras, but with the head of a long-eared animal emerging from its aperture.

Fig. 5. Whitby snakestone made from the ammonite Hildoceras. NHM, London collection.

Greek and Roman views on ammonites

Ammonites were familiar to the early Greeks, who likened them to coiled goat’s horns, regarding them as sacred symbols because of their association with the horned god Jupiter Ammon. They were known as Cornu Ammonis – horns of Ammon – from which the scientific name ‘ammonite’ was later derived.

Fig. 6. Coat-of-arms of Whitby, with three snakestones.

The horns of Ammon became associated with Alexander the Great when, after his conquests, he took the title Son of Ammon. Coins that appeared near the end of his reign show horns with markings on them. However, even more apparent ammonite-like features are found on coins of one of Alexander’s generals, Lysimachus, to whom a kingdom was given.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) reported that ‘golden ammonites’ (that is, pyritized) from Ethiopia could make the dreams and aspirations of the possessor come true (Nelson, 1968).

Fig. 7. Stone carving on the portico of the Cathédrale St Jean in Lyon, France, apparently based on an ammonite, but with the head of a long-eared creature at the aperture.

Medicinal ammonites

Ammonites were once used in Britain as protection against snakebites, as well as cures for blindness, barrenness and impotence (Bassett, 1982). The notion that ammonites would be effective antidotes for snakebites is an example of sympathetic medicine, where the alleged cure resembles the cause of the illness.

Fig. 8. Saligram, an eroded pebble of black limestone from the Gandaki River in Nepal containing an ammonite.

In some parts of the Western Isles of Scotland, ammonites are known as crampstones and were employed medicinally. As Martin, in his Description of the Western Island of Scotland (1703), remarked:

These stones are by the Natives called Crampstones because as they say they cure the Cramp in Cows, by washing the part affected with water in which this stone has been steep’d for some Hours”.

Ammonites were also used for medicinal purposes in Germany, again to treat farm animals. Farmers from the Harz Mountains used:

“… a fossile shaped like a Ram’s Horn call’d Drake[Dragon]-stone…for when the Cows lose their milk, or void Blood in stead of it, they put these Stones into a Milk-pail, and by that means expect a due quantity of Milk from these Cows again” (Georg Henning Behrens 1703, quoted in Nelson 1968).

Horn stones

In Chinese folklore, ammonites were called Jiaoshih, or horn stones, after their resemblance to the coiled horns of rams. They feature extensively in Chinese writings, including Su Sung’s Pen Tshao Thu Ching (Casanova, 1983):

Fig. 9. Statue of Vishnu holding a discus, which Hindus believe is replicated in ammonite-bearing saligrams.

“… the stone-serpent appears in rocks which are found beside the rivers flowing into the southern seas. Its shape is like a coiled snake with no head or tail-tip. Inside it is empty. Its colour is reddish-purple. The best ones are those that coil to the left. It also looks like the spiral shell of a conch. We do not know what animal it was which was thus changed into stone”.

Buffalo stones

Among the medicine men of the Plains and Navajo Nations, ammonites were called wanisugna, meaning ‘life within the seed, seed within the shell’ (Bassett, 1982). The Blackfoot named them insikim – buffalo stones – because of their resemblance to a sleeping bison, and used them in spiritual ceremonies connected with the corralling of bison herds (Kehoe, 1965). They believed that buffalo stones could procreate, a mother stone hatching baby stones (Oakley, 1978). One possible explanation for this belief is the tendency for ammonites to break into fragments along the septa that separate the chambers of the shell.

fig-10-ammonites-in-lyme-wallFig. 10. Wall of a house on the seafront at Lyme Regis in Dorset, containing two large ammonites for decoration.

According to Grinnel (quoted in Kehoe, 1965), buffalo stones are:

… found on the prairie, and the person who succeeds in obtaining one is regarded as very fortunate. Sometimes a man, who is riding along on the prairie, will hear a peculiar faint chirp, such as a little bird might utter. The sound he knows is made by a buffalo rock… If it is found, there is great rejoicing.

Saligrams

Water-worn pebbles of black limestone containing ammonites and known as saligrams, or less often shaligrams or salagramas (Hagn, 1988; Taylor, 2012), are greatly venerated by Hindus (Fig. 8). They are associated with the god Vishnu, because of the slight resemblance between ammonites and the discus (chakra) held in one of Vishnu’s hands (Fig. 9). The chakra is a Hindu symbol of absolute completeness, with the eight spokes or markings indicating the eightfold path of deliverance. In saligrams, these spokes are the ribs of the ammonites.

True saligrams are found only in the valley of the Gandaki River, close to the village of Salagrama and the town of Muktinath in Nepal. They come from a Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous deposit called the Saligram Formation, which is correlated with the better-known Spiti Shale. Among the ammonites found in saligrams are Aulacosphinctoides and Blandforiceras.

The exact positioning of the chakra markings in the rock is very important to Hindus, signifying the different avatars and forms taken by Vishnu. Names such as Lakshmi-Narayana, Padmanabda and Visvambhara have been applied to differently shaped saligrams (Rao 1996).

Mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to the second century BC, saligrams are kept in temples, monasteries and households as natural symbols of Vishnu. Water in which saligrams have been bathed is drunk daily. In addition, saligrams are used in marriages, funerals and house-warmings. If a dying person sips water in which a saligram has been steeped, it is believed that they will be freed from all sins and will reach the heavenly abode of Vishnu.

Although forbidden, saligrams were once sold for large sums of money, and this lucrative business explains why fake saligrams were sometimes manufactured by carving chakra marks onto black pebbles. Damaged and broken saligrams are considered to be worthless.

Bizarrely, some Sanskrit poetical works recognise saligrams as fossils of marine creatures known as ‘admantine worms’ that created the chakra markings in the rock.

Ammonite architecture

Ammonites and motifs of ammonites often feature in architecture. An early use was recorded by Oakley (1978), who described a large ammonite forming a stone upright at the entrance to the Neolithic long barrow at Stony Littleton near Bath. The Liassic limestone containing the ammonite impression was possibly transported to the site from as far as 8km away, which suggests that the builders of the long barrow regarded the ammonite as a special object. Even in modern times, ammonites are often incorporated into walls for their decorative value (Fig. 10).

Kerney (1982) has summarised the historical use of ammonite motifs in English architecture. Ammonite motifs were apparently first used by the London architect George Dance in 1788 on the façade of the ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ in Pall Mall, now demolished. Kerney (1982) suggested that Dance’s ‘ammonite order’, which is clearly related to the ‘ionic order’ of classical architecture, was influenced by the fashion among French and English architects at the time to use primitive architectural elements. Ammonite motifs were also employed on a group of buildings constructed around 1818 in Old Regent Street, London, most probably by John Nash, but regrettably demolished in the 1920s.

Fig. 11. Ammonitic capital from the house built in Lewes for Gideon Mantell.

There are, however, some surviving early 19th century buildings with ammonite motifs. Many of these buildings were the work of architect and builder Amon Wilds who, possibly because of his forename, often incorporated ammonite motifs into his buildings. The most celebrated example is Castle Place, 166 High Street, Lewes, Sussex, built by Wilds in 1810 for Gideon Mantell, describer of Iguanodon, one of the first known dinosaurs. Wild’s son and business partner, Amon Henry Wilds, built a number of terraces in Brighton employing ammonite motifs after 1820. Other buildings known to have incorporated these elements include a house in Tunbridge Wells, and a group of stucco cottages in southeast London. Although these were erected at the same time as Wilds’ buildings, it is unclear who built them.

References

Bassett, M. G. 1982. Formed stones, folklore and fossils. National Museum of Wales, Geological Series No. 1, Cardiff.

Camden, W. 1586. Britannia. Georgii Bishop & Ioannis Norton, London.

Casanova, R. L. 1983. The Pharaoh’s Lentils: how it all began. Fossils Quarterly 2(1): 6–16.

Gregorová, R. 2006. Príbehy zkamenelin. Moravské zemské muzeum, Brno.

Hagn, H. 1988. On Saligrams – the holy stones of India. Himalayan Geology 4: 53–62.

Kehoe, T. 1965. Buffalo Stones: An addendum to the folklore of fossils. Antiquity 39: 212–213.

Kerney, M. 1982. Ammonites in architecture. The Geological Curator 3: 232–233.

Lovett, E. 1905. The Whitby snake-ammonite myth. Folklore 16: 333–334.

Martin, M. 1703. A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. A. Bell, London.

Mayor, A. 2000. The first fossil hunters. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Mayor, A. 2005. Fossil legends of the first Americans. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

McNamara, K. J. 2011. The star-crossed stone: the secret life, myths, and history of a fascinating fossil. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Nelson, C. 1968. Ammonites: Ammon’s horns into Cephalopods. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 5: 1–18.

Oakley, K. P. 1978. Animal fossils as charms. Pp. 207–240, 276–278. In: J. R. Porter and M. S. Russell (eds) Animals in Folklore. D. S. Brewer Ltd and Rowman & Littlefield, Cambridge.

Rao, S. K. R. 1996. Salagrama-Kosha . Vol. I. UBS Publishers Distributors Ltd., Bangalore.

Taylor, P. D. 2012. Saligrams and Vishnu: ammonites in Hinduism. Batalleria 17: 39–44.

Thenius, E. and Vávra, N. 1996. Fossilien im Volksglauben und im Alltag. Kramer, Frankfurt.

Walcott, J. 1779. Descriptions and Figures of Petrifactions Found in the Quarries, Gravel-Pits, etc. near Bath. Bath.


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