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.

Fig1
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.

Fig2
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.

Fig3
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).

Fig4
Fig. 4. Conulus albogalerus, a Chalk echinoid derived into a river gravel. Preserved in flint, the fossil somewhat resembles a helmet, which may have led to the folklore name ‘Shepherd’s crown’. Scale bar = 1cm.

Thunderstones

In Denmark, a different custom prevailed. Here, it was believed that fossil echinoids originated from the heavens in the form of ‘Thunderstones’, which, if placed in the home, could act as protection against lightening and also as charms against various forms of witchcraft (Bassett, 1982). Oakley (1974) related one of Christian Blinkenberg’s stories in which a school teacher recollected his childhood: “Only when a crashing thunderclap followed the lightening did we think a stone had fallen, and it was precisely its fall and great speed which produced the crashing sound”. Natives of North Slesvig kept fossil echinoids in the home to predict storms, as the fossils were said to sweat before a storm, thus resembling the belief once held by some people in Suffolk.

Blinkenberg also stated that “… the fossils were laid on shelves in the pantry as they kept the milk fresh and caused plenty of cream”. Likewise, in some parts of southern England, fossil echinoids were also believed to prevent milk from turning sour and were consequently placed on shelves in dairies (Oakley, 1974).

Fig5
Fig. 5. St Peter’s Linkenholt, a small Victorian church in northwest Hampshire, distinguished by the incorporation of fossil echinoids into two of the window arches.
Fig6
Fig. 6. Dark, north-facing window of St Peter’s Linkenholt, with 20 algal-covered echinoids.
Fig7
Fig. 7. South-facing window of St Peter’s Linkenholt, with an arch formed by a row of 25 chalk echinoids (Echinocorys) preserved in flint.

Snake’s eggs

Fossil echinoids have also been equated in folklore with the eggs of snakes. Usually comprising regular echinoids in contrast to the irregular echinoids discussed above, they were called Ovum anguinum by Pliny (Kennedy, 1976). Druids once thought that magical eggs were formed by froth produced by snakes that congregated in midsummer. The froth, shaped into a ball, could be stolen from the snakes during midsummer’s eve but would only retain its magical powers if the ball was kept on a piece of cloth (Kennedy, 1976). The thief was required to run away with the snake egg from the angry snakes (Fig. 8), preferably over a river across which the snakes could not swim. The ‘egg’ had indentations on it, supposedly the points where the snakes were once attached. The egg was said to protect its owner from poisons and deadly vapours (Kennedy, 1976), as well as from defeat in battle (Oakley, 1974).

Fig8
Fig. 8. Woodcut from 1497 of a thief attempting to steal an egg – Ovum anguinum – from a congregation of angry snakes. The supposed snake’s egg is the fossil of a regular echinoid.

In other places, it was thought that these fossil echinoids were actually tortoise eggs that have hardened into stone (Brookes 1763). Brookes (1763; p. 307) noted that they were commonly found in Malta where “… they are called by the country people the Breasts of St. Paul, because sometimes two of them are found together”.

The fossil echinoids that come from the Chalk of Kent have been referred to as Chalk eggs. John Woodward (1729) suggested that the chalk filling the tests was a good cure for an acidic stomach. Given the composition of this chalk, which is calcium carbonate, this is a perfectly reasonable idea. Woodward also suggested that chalk eggs are good antidotes against sea-sickness, some sailors never venturing on board ship without one.

Poundstones

The large disc-shaped echinoid, Clypeus ploti (Fig. 9), is a common fossil in the Middle Jurassic of the Cotswolds and is easy to collect from field brash along the outcrop of the Clypeus Grit. Named for Robert Plot (see below), this fossil is known in parts of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as a ‘Poundstone’, ‘Chedworth bun’ or Fairy loaf’. The latter two names allude to its resemblance to a bread bun. Like the Fairy loaves mentioned above from the Chalk, keeping a fossil of Clypeus ploti in your home would not only mean you never ran out of bread, but would also protect you against witchcraft. As a boy, the great geological map-maker and stratigrapher, William Smith (1769–1839), is said to have collected specimens of this echinoid from the fields around Churchill where he grew up.

Fig9
Fig. 9. Clypeus ploti, a large irregular echinoid characteristic of the Middle Jurassic Clypeus Grit of the Cotswolds. In folklore, it has been variously called a ‘Poundstone’, ‘Chedworth bun’ or Fairy loaf’. Scale bar = 1cm.

Jews’ stones

The spines of some echinoids, especially the Jurassic Balanocidaris (Fig. 10), have a club-like shape are known in folklore as lapis judaicus or ‘Jews’ stones’. The name refers to their occurrence in Judea from where it is claimed by some they were brought back to western Europe during the Crusades. As described in detail by Duffin (2006), they were once extensively used as medicines particularly for the treatment of disorders of the urinary system including kidney stones. Jews’ stones provide an example of sympathetic medicine, their shape suggesting a link with the human bladder. Apparently, Jews’ stones can still be found for sale in some parts of the Middle East as a cure for urinary blockages.

Fig10
Fig. 10. ‘Jews’ stones’ – three spines of the echinoid Balanocidaris. Scale bar = 1cm.

Crystal apples

Cystoids are a group of Palaeozoic echinoderms with almost spherical plated bodies that are often filled with diagenetic crystals of calcite during fossilisation. In parts of the Swedish island of Öland where they are sufficiently numerous to be rock-forming, cystoids have been called ‘Kristalläpplen’ (‘Crystal apples’) in folklore.

Fig11
Fig. 11. A ‘crystal apple’ of folklore. This particular cystoid echinoderm is a specimen of Echinosphaerites aurantium from the Ordovician of St Petersburg. Scale bar = 1cm.

Star stones

The stem segments – columnals ­ of isocrinid sea-lilies – can have a pentagonal star shape (Fig. 12), vaguely resembling tiny starfish, leading to the folklore name ‘Star stones’. These fossils are particularly common in the Jurassic of England, with Pentacrinites being a distinctive fossil in the Lias.

Fig12
Fig. 12. Old mount of isocrinid crinoid stem segments (columnals) from the Lower Jurassic of Gloucestershire, some showing the stellate shape that gave rise to the folklore name ‘Star stones’.

Star Stones were much discussed by the Oxford scholar, Robert Plot (1640–1696). Plot (1705, p. 91; and Fig. 13 in this article) dutifully, and rather disdainfully, related how the common folk thought Star stones came to be on Earth: ” … the Stones some way related to the Celestial Bodies, I descend next to such as (by the vulgar at least) are thought to be sent to us from the inferior Heaven, to be generated in the Clouds, and discharged thence in the times of Thunder and violent Showers …”. He noted that others considered their origin to be organic and somehow associated with Echinus, the sea urchin. However, Plot himself remained uncertain about their genesis. Plot (1705, p. 87) also described a technique to separate the crinoid discs: “… they are so hard and so firmly cemented, that ’tis very difficult, if at all possible, to separate them from each other, without spoiling the Intagli or Workmanship of the Stars; these if but steeped a Night in Vinegar, or other sharp Liquor, may be divided the next Morning with Safety and Ease”.

Fig13
Fig. 13. Robert Plot’s (1705) figure of Star stones. In these examples, the columnals have a pentagonal outline but contain a star-shaped central perforation in Figs. 2 and 3.

Ciantar (1772, p. 424) referred to “stones in the form of stars”, which in Maltese folklore were said to be blessed by St Paul, as were many other products from the island. These fossil sea-lily columnals were considered to be antidotes for poisons, and the Maltese would implant them in special anti-poison cups made from the crushed limestone of the cave where St Paul reportedly lived for three months (Zammit-Maempel, 1989, p. 16).

St Cuthbert’s Beads

St Cuthbert’s Beads are the disc-shaped columnals of Carboniferous crinoids found on the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland. Each columnal has a central perforation, allowing them to be strung together on a thread to make a necklace or a rosary (Fig. 14). They are associated with St Cuthbert (c. 634–687; Fig. 15), whose monastic retreat was on Lindisfarne (Fleener and Wilson, 1941). In a passage from Walter Scott’s Marmion (1808) also referring to St. Hilda who reputedly turned the snakes of Whitby into stone (see Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23), St. Cuthbert is imagined to have sat on a rock forging the beads:

“But fain Saint Hilda’s nuns would learn If, on a rock by Lindisfarne, Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame The sea-born beads that bear his name: Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told …”

Fig14
Fig. 14. Carboniferous crinoid columnals with central perforations allowing them to be strung together, as St Cuthbert is alleged to have done on Lindisfarne to make rosaries, the origin of the folklore legend of St Cuthbert’s Beads. Scale bar = 1 cm.

It is unclear exactly when the legend of St Cuthbert’s Beads originated, but Lane and Ausich (2001) have suggested that this was sometime between 1200, before which they are not mentioned in studies of St Cuthbert. In 1671, they were first referred to by John Ray when he visited Lindisfarne. A limestone quarry, which began activity as early as 1344, may have been the source of the beads. Alternatively, they could have been collected from natural exposures along the foreshore.

Fig15
Fig. 15. Fresco of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.

Robert Plot described the use of the beads as a rosary: “Many of these being perforated some with a round, others with foliated or asterial inlets of 6 or 7 points, … they were strung like beads, particularly by St Cuthbert, which gave occasion to their name of St Cuthbert’s beads” (Plot, 1686, p. 191).

Screwstones

In Derbyshire and elsewhere in the English Midlands, internal moulds of Carboniferous crinoid stems are referred to as screwstones (Bassett, 1982). This peculiar fossil preservation results from the dissolution, by percolating ground waters, of the calcitic skeleton, leaving a sediment-filled axial hole (Fig. 16). The width of this hole expands and contracts along the length of the stem, being widest at the articulations between the columnals and narrowest at their centres. The flanged structure resembles a screw, but the flanges are separate and do not form a continuous helical thread like a true screw.

Fig16
Fig. 16. Decalcified Carboniferous rock containing fragments of crinoid stems preserved as moulds and known in folklore as ‘screwstones’.

About the author

Paul works and can be contacted at the National History Museum in London.

References

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

Brookes, R. 1763. New and Accurate System of Natural History. Vol. 5. J. Newbery, London.

Ciantar, G.A. 1772. Malta Illustrata Libro Primo e Secondo. In Malta nella Stamperia del Palazzo di S.A.S. MDCCLXXII per Giovanni Mallia suo Stampatore (Con Licenza dei Superiori).

Duffin, C. J. 2006. Lapis Judaicus or the Jews’ stone: the folklore of fossil echinoid spines. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 117: 265–275.

Duffin, C. J. & Davidson, J. P. 2011. Geology and the dark side. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 122: 7–15.

Evans, G.E. 1966. The Pattern under the Plough. Aspects of the Folk-Life of East Anglia . Faber & Faber, London, 269 pp.

Fleener, F.L. & Wilson, B.H. 1941. Mineral Lore. The Mineralogist 9: 292.

Kennedy, C.B. 1976. A fossil for what ails you. The remarkable history of fossil medicine. Fossil Magazine 1 (1): 42-57.

Lane, N.G. & Ausich, W I. 2001. The legend of St. Cuthbert’s Beads; A palaeontological and geological perspective. Folklore 112: 65–87.

Lebrun, P. 2000. Oursins 2. Minéraux & Fossiles, Hors Série 10: 1–224.

McNamara, K. J. 2011. The Star-Crossed Stone. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 272 pp.

Oakley, K.P. 1974. Fossils collected by the earlier palaeolithic men. Pp. 581-584 in: Mélanges de préhistoire, d’archéocivilization et d’ethnologie offerts à André Varagnac. Serpen, Paris.

Oakley, K.P. 1974. Folklore of fossils. The New York Paleontological Society Notes . 5 (1-2):11-20.

Plot, R. 1686. The Natural History of Staffordshire. Printed at the Theater, Oxford.

Plot, R. 1705. The Natural History of Oxfordshire: being an essay towards the natural history of England. 2nd Edition by John Burman. Paul P.B. Minet, London.

Russell, M. 2003. John Henry Pull and Shepherd’s Crowns. West Sussex Geological Society, Occasional Publication No. 3, 39 pp.

Scott, W. 1808. Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field in Six Cantos . John Ballantyne, Edinburgh.

Woodward, J. 1729. An attempt towards a natural History of the fossils of England. Vol. 2. Fayram, London.

Zammit-Maempel, G. 1989. The Folklore of Maltese fossils. Papers in Mediterranean Social Studies, 1: 1-29.


Buy Fossils, Crystals, Tools
Subscribe to Deposits
Join Fossil Hunts
UK Fossil Locations