Many fossil fables have developed to explain the existence of fossils. Before the mid eighteenth century the origin of fossils was generally regarded in terms of superstition and myth. Different cultures explained the formation of fossils in differing ways.
These petrified creatures have intrigued people for centuries. Skulls, bones or shells preserved in stone fired people’s imagination. They wanted to know more. Folklore traditions developed and people often attributed magical or medicinal properties to fossils. Here are a few significant fossil fables:
Belemnites are common all over the world
and have many other names in folklore. Chinese people called them ‘sword stones’. Scandinavian folklore regards belemnites as candles belonging to elves, gnomes and pixies.
A term widely used across Europe is ‘Thunderbolt’. People believed that the pointy fossils were cast down from the heavens during thunderstorms. Regional variations like Devil’s Fingers or Saint Peter’s Fingers existed across England.
Legend in England has it that ammonites are petrified snakes that once infested the Whitby area in North Yorkshire. After years of suffering the Saxon Abbess St Hilda (614-680 AD) turned all snakes into stones and brought the infestation to an end.
Ancient Greeks regarded ammonites as sacred symbols because of their resemblance to coiled goat horns. Their god Jupiter Ammon was often pictured with horns and played a major role in Greek mythology. The scientific name ‘ammonite’ comes from the Greek name Cornu Ammonis – horns of Ammon.
Toad stones are the button-shaped teeth of the fossil fish Lepidotes. In folklore they were once thought to originate from the heads of living toads.
Toads were of particular interest to medical practitioners in the past. People believed that mixture made from crushed toads protected against plagues. this is because the toad’s warty skin looked like spots on plague victims. They placed the toad powder in amulets and worn around the neck or wrists.
Some people thought that the fossil fish teeth are the eyes of serpents turned to stone. They hoped they would protect them from anything evil.
Nummulites are disc-shaped skeletons of single-celled organisms. They can reach up to 6 cm in diameter. The name ‘angel’s money’ is often used in European Folklore to describe these round, flat and coin-like fossils.
Yet, Strabo, a geographer from the first-century BC, heard a different story. People believed they were leftovers of food once consumed by slaves during the construction of pyramids in Giza/Egypt. This is because they look like lentils.
The fossils Lepidodendron, Sigillaria and Calamites are extinct tree-like plants. They grew to heights of up to 30 metres. Modern day club mosses are relations.
Diamond-shaped leaf scars covered the thick trunks of these plants which made them look like the skin of snakes or alligators.
For a long time people believed that the robust, curved valves of the oyster-like shell Gryphaea are toenails of the Devil.
Internal stone moulds of bivalves are also known as Bulls’ hearts.
When fossilised shark teeth were first discovered high up in the mountains and far from the sea, their origin was a complete mystery. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was a great Roman naturalist. He believed that they fell from the sky during lunar eclipses. A later tale tells that Saint Paul turned the tongues of serpents into stone while visiting the islands of Malta.
An entirely different legend developed in Japan. People believed that the teeth of the giant shark Carcharadon megalodon were the thumbnails of Tengu Man. He was a mythical mountain goblin with a Pinnochio-like long nose.
People once thought tongue stones had magical properties, particularly the ability to counter-act toxins. A stone held against the bitten body part could cure snake bite. A stone placed in a poisoned glass of wine could quickly purify it. Due to these miraculous properties many nobles and statesmen of the Middle Ages kept ‘tongue stones’. They may have been amulets worn about the neck as a pendant or kept secreted away in special pockets.
Some rock layers contain hundreds and thousands of tiny stone discs. They can be as big as an English penny and often have a little hole in the middle. These discs were once stuck on top of each other, like beads on a string, and formed the stems of ancient sea lilies.
Given the abundance and characteristic shape of the stone discs it is not surprising that they found their way into folklore and fossil fables. People called round discs ‘Fairy money’ or ‘St. Cuthbert’s beads’. The name ‘Star stones’ is sometimes given to discs with with five pointy corners.
Who would have thought that there are royal headdresses for shepherds? English
folklore describes the internal moulds of fossil sea urchins as ‘Shepherd’s crowns’. Sea urchins have a characteristic cone shape. They also have five decorative ridges that meet at the top like the ribs of a crown. Notably the Cretaceous sea urchin species Micraster, Echinocorys and Conulus have found their way into English folklore.
Shepherds may have come across petrified sea urchins while caring for their sheep on the chalky downlands of southern England.
In Suffolk people call fossil sea urchins ‘Fairy loaves’ because of their shape. This inspired people to placed them by the hearth as charms.
Some legends refer to sea urchins as ‘Snake eggs’. People believed that snakes created stony eggs from their froth on midsummer nights. The froth, shaped into a ball, supposedly had the power to protect one from deadly poisons.
‘Pixies’ helmets’ and ‘Heart urchins’ are other alternative names for fossil sea urchins.
Fossil fables proved wrong
If we were to choose one day in history as the birth of paleontology (the study of fossils) it might be in 1666. In the 1660s few could imagine how living matter could become stone. It was even more unbelievable to imagine why they found stone fish high above sea level.
One day in 1666 two fishermen caught a giant shark off the coast of Livorno in Italy. The local duke ordered that this curiosity be sent to Niels Stensen (better known as Nicolaus Steno). He was a Danish anatomist working in Florence. As Steno dissected the shark, he noticed how much the shark teeth resembled ‘tongue stones’ (mentioned above).