Folklore of fossil echinoderms

The distinct five-fold – or pentameral – symmetry of echinoderms makes them particularly striking fossils. Some even have a vaguely mystical appearance. Modern echinoderms – starfish (asteroids), sea urchins (echinoids), feather stars and sea lilies (crinoids), sea cucumbers (holothurians) and brittle stars (ophiuroids) – are all animals of the oceans. As no echinoderms inhabit freshwater environments, it is difficult to envisage what ancient people living far distant from the coast and who had never visited the sea might have thought when finding a fossil echinoderm with peculiar star-like marks on its surface. How could such a stone have been formed? What was its significance? Did the star markings point to a heavenly origin? Could the stone possess magical or mystical properties?

Even today, many folklore beliefs about echinoderms persist. For example, the echinoid, Eurhodia matleyi, is found in west-central Jamaica around Stettin, where it can be abundant on bedding planes of the Eocene Yellow Limestone Group. These fossils are locally referred to as ‘lucky stones’, because of the distinctive star-shaped pattern of the ambulacra (SK Donovan, pers. comm, July 2003). Fossil echinoderms must have seemed worthy of collecting and treasuring regardless of how they were viewed. Indeed, some were even worn as amulets to protect against evil.

Not surprisingly, echinoderms have a folklore that is matched only by that of ammonites (see Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23). Pre- and unscientific beliefs about various kinds of fossil echinoderms abound and a plethora of folklore names have been given to them, such as Shepherds’ crowns, Fairy loaves, Thunderstones, Snake’s eggs, Poundstones, Jews’ stones, crystal apples, starstones and screwstones. This article explains the origins of these and other names, and the folkloric beliefs associated with fossil echinoderms.

Echinoids and early human cultures

Echinoids are among the most common macrofossils to be found in Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks, routinely weathering into the soil from limestone, chalk and shale bedrocks, and appearing on the surface after erosion.

Fossil echinoids have attracted the attention of humans since well back into prehistory. Cretaceous echinoids, often made resistant by being filled or replaced by flint, are common fossils in the Chalk of northern Europe and would have been familiar yet mysterious objects to humans digging for flints to make into stone tools. Prehistoric stone artefacts occasionally incorporate fossil echinoids. A flint scraper featuring an echinoid is known from an Acheulian site (100,000 years BP) in Pleistocene river gravels at Saint-Just des-Marais, France (Oakley, 1971), while an individual of Homo heidelbergensis may have crafted a specimen of the echinoid Conulus in an Early Palaeolithic hand axe from Swanscombe in Kent (Fig. 1). The artisans responsible for working these flints may have favoured them over normal flints because of the presence of the echinoids with their distinctive surface markings.

Fig. 1. Cast of a hand axe incorporating a fossil of the Chalk echinoid, Conulus. Excavated from the Middle Gravels of Swanscombe, Kent. Scale bar = 1cm.

A round barrow on Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire was excavated in 1887 and found to contain an Early Bronze Age burial. Two skeletons, a woman nicknamed ‘Maud’ and a child, were surrounded by more than one hundred tests of the Chalk echinoid, Echinocorys scutata. The echinoids had been ceremonially arranged in a circle around the two skeletons. Their use in this context suggests that they were accorded a spiritual significance beyond their decorative value and it is even possible that they were considered to have had a use in the after-life.

The finding of a flint echinoid mounted in bronze in a Roman Iron Age grave in Denmark (Oakley, 1974) is evidence that fossil echinoids were used as amulets early in human history. Another flint echinoid was found in a pottery bowl, along with a portion of a Neolithic flint axe head, at an Early Iron Age cremation site in Southborough, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Such finds prompted Oakley (1974) to suggest that echinoids were important elements of Romano-Celtic religious beliefs.

Fossil echinoids are also associated with early human cultures beyond Europe. Perforated fossil echinoids, apparently threaded into necklaces, have been found at Neolithic sites in Algeria (Lebrun 2000), Libya, Jordan, Sudan and Niger (McNamara, 2011).

Shepherd’s crowns

Some Cretaceous echinoids, notably Micraster (Fig. 2), Echinocorys (Fig. 3) and Conulus (Fig. 4), have been given the name ‘Shepherd’s crowns’ in English folklore. The five rays converging on the apex of the fossil do indeed resemble the ribs of a crown. According to Bassett (1982), shepherds may have come across these fossils, eroded from the underlying chalk, while caring for their sheep on the downlands of southern England.

St Peter’s Church (Fig. 5) in the small Hampshire village of Linkenholt is remarkable for the incorporation of Chalk echinoids into the walls. On the north side of this church, a tall window is capped by a square arch containing 20 flint echinoids (Fig. 6), while a larger window on the south side has a rounded arch inset with 25 similar Shepherd’s crowns (Fig. 7). These echinoids were apparently recycled into the fabric of this small Victorian church from its thirteenth century predecessor, thus preserving a legacy of the pagan belief that they had the power to ward off the Devil (McNamara, 2011).

Fairy loaves

An interesting folklore concerning fossil echinoids is found in Suffolk. Here, the heart urchin, Micraster (Fig. 2), along with the helmet urchin, Echinocorys (Fig. 3), are sometimes known as ‘Fairy loaves’ (Evans, 1966). The resemblance between these echinoids and round loaves inspired people in northeast Suffolk to place them as charms by the hearth in the hope that the bread they baked would be influenced by the fossil’s loaf-like shape. It is said that families who kept Fairy loaves in their houses would never be without bread. Failure of the weekly bread to be properly formed was attributed to witchcraft against which Fairy loaves had protective powers.

Fig. 2. Example of the heart urchin, Micraster coranguinum, from the Chalk of Kent. The abundance and striking appearance of these attractive fossils has led to a rich folklore. This particular specimen has been artificially stained red to enhance details of the plates and their boundaries. Scale bar = 1cm.

The Fairy loaf in Suffolk was also called pharisee-loaf, which at some point became facy-loaf. Farcy is a disease in horses and it has been suggested that horsemen on farms used the fossils as charms (Evans, 1966).

Russell (2003) made a detailed study of the folklore surrounding fossil echinoids from the Chalk in the county of Sussex. Various names have been applied to these fossils, including not only Fairy loaves and Shepherd’s crowns, but also ‘Sugar loaves’ and ‘Pixies’ helmets’. They were once a frequent sight on the windowsills of Sussex cottages. When questioned by John Pull in 1938, the occupants of such cottages usually regarded them as harbingers of good luck and some believed that they prevented the cottage from being struck by lightning or were useful in predicting rain. The last of these beliefs may have a basis because any moisture present in the atmosphere might condense on the fossil first.

Fig. 3. Profile view of the Chalk echinoid, Echinocorys scutata, from Kent. The superficial resemblance to a bread bun led to such fossils being called ‘Fairy loaves’. Scale bar = 1 cm.

In both Sussex and East Anglia, Fairy loaves are also associated with fairy men, as farisses or ferrishers comes from the Gaelic word fear sidhean (fairy men) (Evans, 1966). Others considered that the marks on these echinoid fossils resembled claw marks and therefore called these fossil sea urchins ‘Eagle stones’.

The heart-urchin, Micraster, has also been recorded under the name ‘Fairy Heart’, and another Chalk echinoid, Conulus (Fig. 4), as a ‘Fairy Head’ (Duffin and Davidson, 2011).

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