On a Winter’s day in 2015, a walk on the Thames foreshore distracted me from London’s relentless traffic and hustle. Along the water’s edge, clay pipe stumps, pottery shards and spent shells spoke to me from a time when oysters were eaten, not swiped. Arriving beneath Vauxhall Bridge, my attention was taken from the City’s detritus to a curious stone, causing me to pause. Heart shaped, patterned with tiny circles and crowned with a five pointed star, I was looking at a fossilised sea urchin, or echinoid from the Jurassic period.
Echinoids have featured in our folklore for thousands of years. Believed to bring good fortune and protection to those lucky enough to discover them, they are bound up in superstition and ritual. With much of their significance lost to the written word, we have to rely on whispers of oral history and tradition for information, with local names also providing clues.
As thunderstones, it was believed they fell from the Heavens during storms, protecting their finder from lightening strikes. Some believed woodland fairies created fairy loaves, treasured charms placed in the hearth for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. And the shepherds tending sheep on chalky downland in southern England undoubtedly found these unusual stones too, earning them the name shepherd’s crowns.
Researching more about these enchanted fossils, I was surprised to read that one of the most significant echinoid discoveries occurred in my home county of Bedfordshire. In a burial mound, high on the hills of Dunstable Downs, a Bronze Age woman and child lay undisturbed until 1887. Excavations of their 4000 year old grave revealed it was surrounded by a ring of over 200 fossilised sea urchins, the largest number ever found in a burial site – certainly protection for the dead on their journey into the afterlife.
In his book The Star Crossed Stone, Kenneth McNamara discusses an even older significance for the echinoid. It is astounding to think that some 2.6 million years ago, during the Paleolithic era, early ‘humans’ (Homo hablis) were fashioning flint tools which incorporated striking echinoids into their design. This suggests a recognition that these fossils were special and held a certain aesthetic. McNamara explains that “it is not just our species that has had a protracted propensity for collecting these fossils. Even other species of our genus Homo, living hundreds of thousands of years ago were fascinated by them.”
Perhaps my special stone from under Vauxhall Bridge was washed into the Thames from its chalky tributaries, or maybe it was once the treasured amulet of another; lost or offered to the river many years previously. The most precious tideline find I own, it represents our very human need to protect against that which we cannot explain or control. The echinoid came into my life almost a year ago and since then, I must admit to clutching it on particularly worrying or stressful days to bring comfort and strength. I assert that even in 2016, an element of superstition still remains strong in our culture as it is not uncommon for people to carry small items with them for luck.
Making my way home to Bedfordshire on the train, I hold the fossil tight. I consider those people living thousands of years ago and wonder – are we really so different?
- Evans, George Ewart The Pattern Under the Plough (2013) Little Toller Books
- McNamara, Kenneth The Star Crossed Stone – the secret life, myths and history of a fascinating fossil (2010) University of Chicago Press
- Merrifield, Ralph The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987) Guild Publishing London