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A field in England - Fossils and Folklore

My fiance takes photos of me whenever we're on holiday. This probably does not strike you as unusual but they are usually pictures of my back as I lean in to examine something. While I may be surrounded by a glorious cathedral he often captures me staring at a seemingly featureless wall or pillar. "I'm looking for historic graffiti," I protest. If we are at the beach I have my back to the sea and my face stuck up against a cliff I have to explain that I'm searching for fossils. He must have felt safe when we went to the countryside with nothing but expanses of lovely fields.

Little did he expect me to glance down and see a tiny fragment of a tubular stone and rush to pick it up. It was a belemnite, or at least a bit of one. These bullet shaped stones are the fossilised remains of a squid-like organism that swam through the seas that covered Warwickshire over 200 million-years-ago.


My excitement was not only because I love fossils but because I love folklore. Our ancestors, who had no concept of the deep time that the Earth has existed, had to interpret fossils through their understanding of the universe. These strange stones were not animal remains to them but the remains of lightning strikes. During thunder storms belemnites, known to them as 'thunder stones,' rained from the sky.


These thunder stones, shown above in a picture from Wikimedia because all the ones I found were broken (thanks user: 5snake5), were not only a relic of lightning they also offered protection. Throughout Europe having one of these about your person, or tucked into the roof of your home, would ward off lightning.


Beyond their powers against lightning the stones could be used to cure ailments like rheumatism and sore eyes. Simply touching the point against the eye was enough to drive out the illness. In Scotland soaking them in water and getting a horse to drink from it was a provided a powerful equine medicine.


While I love a belemnite as much as the next man, probably a little more, I was excited by the fragment I found because where you find one fossil you are bound to find more.

Moments later I spotted something I had never found before. A star stone! Really a fragment of a disarticulated creature called a crinoid. These perfect little stars, imprinted with a beautiful design, must have made people in the past as amazed as they did me. Nothing like this, miles from the ocean, has any right being in the middle of a field.


Those who had never seen a sea lily must have been baffled.

These crinoid fossils are parts of the structure that makes up the crinoid's body. But in folklore they are much more than that. Their starry shape was a hint of their heavenly origin. Like thunder stones they were thought to fall from the sky during storms.


Not all crinoid fossils are star-shaped. When the fossils were round the fossils were called "Saint Cuthbert's Beads." Tradition had it that the saint would carve his beads at night and scatter them on the shore throughout the night for the faithful to find in the morning. Passing a string through the hole in some crinoid fossils would allow rosaries to be made from these fossils. As Walter Scott put it:


"Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame

The sea-born beads that bear his name."


A less Christian explanation was that the round crinoid fragments were actually fairy money dropped by some careless little elf.


The last type of fossil I was lucky enough to stumble across has perhaps the most pleasing name. No, not it's scientific name, Gryphaea. These charming fossils are known as Devil's Toenails.


I can only imagine that someone seeing these fossils was reminded of the their old father's toenails and thought them similar - if only a little more gnarled. They were interpreted as the clippings from the Devil's toenails but they were not shunned as you might think. Despite being diabolical in both appearance and origin they were put to use in curing arthritis - possibly because of their resemblance to painfully distorted arthritic bones.


All this folklore, and all these fossils, were found in a single field in England. Folklore runs under our feet wherever we go.


I can only imagine what folklore will develop around this giant chair we stumbled across. At least it got me to stop looking down at the ground...


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