Fossil folklore: Molluscs

Paul D Taylor (UK) The final article of this series on fossil folklore focuses on molluscs, excluding the ammonites, which were covered earlier (see Fossil folklore: ammonites in Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23). Molluscs are second only to arthropods in the number of species living today and the resistant calcareous skeletons possessed by the majority of species accounts for their extremely rich fossil record. Most fossil molluscs belong to one of three major groups – bivalves (oysters, clams and so on), gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (ammonites, belemnites and so on). Added to these are a few minor groups, such as the monoplacophorans and scaphopods (tusk shells). Fossil molluscs are usually recognisable instantly as belonging to this phylum because of their close similarities with the shells of familiar species of modern molluscs. Some, however, are not quite so straightforward. These are more likely to have been the sources of fanciful stories about their origins and significance. Among the more obscure ancient molluscs are those dubbed ‘difficult fossils’ by Martin Rudwick in the context of the early history of palaeontology and doubts over the origin of fossils. They include the solid internal casts (steinkerns) formed by lithification of sediment enclosed by the shell and subsequent loss of the defining shell itself. In addition, there are some mollusc fossils – notably belemnite guards – that bear little resemblance to any living species, adding to their enigmatic nature. Belemnites: thunderbolts and Devil’s Fingers The first fossils I ever came across were belemnites … Read More

To access this post, you must purchase Annual subscription, 12 Month Subscription or Monthly subscription.

Fake fossils by the hundred: Johann Beringer’s ‘lying-stones’

Paul D Taylor (UK) The sorry tale of Johann Beringer has been part of the folklore of palaeontology for almost 200 years. In 1726, Beringer published a book illustrating some extraordinary ‘fossils’ reputedly found in the rocks close to Würzburg in southern Germany. However, very soon after its publication, Beringer realised that he had been tricked and that the specimens were fakes. The truth about the deception – and its perpetrators – is still shrouded in mystery, and the story of Beringer’s Lügensteine (’lying-stones’) ranks with Piltdown Man as the greatest of all fossil frauds. Who was Beringer? No portrait exists of Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667–1740) despite the fact that he was an important figure in Würzburg during the early eighteenth century. The son of an academic, Beringer became Chief Physician to the Prince Bishop of Würzburg and Duke of Franconia (Christoph Franz von Hutten) and to the Julian Hospital, and was also the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Würzburg University. Like other learned men of the time, Beringer kept a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ said to contain ammonites, belemnites and sharks’ teeth. He seems to have led a conventional life for someone of his high standing until May 1725, when an unfortunate train of events was set in motion. Three young men employed by Beringer to supply him with fossils delivered the first of a truly remarkable series of specimens purported to have been found at Mount Eibelstadt, a few kilometres south of Würzburg. These are the … Read More

To access this post, you must purchase Annual subscription, 12 Month Subscription or Monthly subscription.