Welcome back , you are logged in

An ammonite or 'snake stone'

An ammonite, or 'snake stone' as it is called in one of these fossil fables

Fossil Fables

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.

People have been intrigued by petrified creatures for centuries. Skulls, bones or shells preserved in stone fired people’s imagination and captured their thirst for knowledge. Interesting folklore traditions developed and people frequently attributed magical or medicinal properties to fossils. Here are a few significant fossil fables:

Thunderbolts

Belemnites are common all over the world and are known by 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.

Petrified Snakes

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 pictures with horns and played a major role in Greek mythology. The scientific name ‘ammonite’ was derived from the Greek name Cornu Ammonis – horns of Ammon.

Toad Stones

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 concoction made from pulverised toads protected against plagues since the toad’s warty skin resembled spots that are developed by plague victims. The toad powder was placed in amulets and worn around the neck or wrists.

Some people thought that the fossil fish teeth are petrified eyes of serpents and hoped they would protect them from anything evil.

Nummulites

Nummulites are disc-shaped skeletons of single-celled organisms. They can reach up to 6 cm in diameter.

Most Nummulites are round and flat like coins and have been dubbed ‘angel’s money’ in European Folklore. Strabo, a geographer from the first-century BC, was told a different story. People believed that the lentil-shaped fossils were leftovers of food that was once consumed by slaves during the construction of pyramids in Giza/Egypt.

Giant Serpents

The fossils Lepidodendron, Sigillaria and Calamites are extinct tree-like plants that are related to modern day club mosses. They grew to heights of up to 30 metres.

Diamond-shaped leaf scars covered the thick trunks of these plants which made them look like the skin of snakes or alligators.

Devil’s Toenail

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.

Tongue Stones

When fossilised shark teeth were first discovered somewhere high up in the mountains and far from the sea, their origin was a complete enigma. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), a great Roman naturalist, 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, where the teeth of the giant shark Carcharadon megalodon are thought to be the thumbnails of Tengu Man, a mythical mountain goblin with a Pinnochio-like long nose.

Revealing their true origin

If one day in history had to be picked as the birth of paleontology, it might be the day in 1666 when 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), a Danish anatomist working at the time in Florence. As Steno dissected the shark, he was struck by how much the shark teeth resembled ‘tongue stones’, triangular pieces of rock that had been known since ancient times.

Today, most people would instantly wonder whether the tongue stones were giant petrified shark teeth, but in 1666 such a presumption was a tremendous leap. Few could imagine how living matter could be turned to stone, and beyond that, encased in solid rock – especially if the rock were well above sea level and contained remnants of a marine organism. Fossils were instead thought to have fallen from the sky, or to be ‘sports of nature’ peculiar geometrical shapes impressed on the rocks themselves.

Magical Properties

‘Tongue stones’ were widely believed to have magical properties, most notably the ability to counter-act toxins of many kinds. To work their magic, they needed only to be held against a snake-bitten body part or plunked into a suspect glass of wine and any poisons would be quickly and irreversibly detoxified. Due to these marvelous supposed capabilities, many nobles and statesmen of the Middle Ages retained these ‘tongue stones’ as amulets worn about the neck as a pendant or kept secreted away in special pockets.

Fairy Money

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. People called round discs ‘Fairy money’ or ‘St. Cuthbert’s beads’. Discs with with five pointy corners were known as ‘Star stones’.

Shepherd’s Crown

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 conical shape and five decorative ridges that meet at the top of the shell 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.

An interesting folklore originates from Suffolk in eastern England where fossil sea urchins are known as ‘Fairy loaves’. The loaf-like shape of some sea urchins 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, was believed to have the power to protect one from deadly poisons.

Sea urchins were also known as ‘Pixies’ helmets’ or ‘Heart urchins’.

Terms & Conditions

These terms and conditions (Terms) apply to the entire contents of this website. Please read these Terms carefully before using this website. Using this website indicates that you accept these Terms. If you do not accept these Terms, please do not use this website.
  1. These Terms shall constitute an agreement between you and us and shall set out the conditions upon which you may access the information available on this website
  2. We reserve the right to change these Terms, at any time and to notify you by posting an updated version of these Terms on this website, at which point they will become immediately effective
  3. Your continued use of this website after any changes referred to in clause 2 shall constitute your consent to such changes
  4. Access to this website may be suspended temporarily and without notice in the case of system failure, maintenance or repair, or for reasons beyond our control
  5. We reserve the right to, without notice, withdraw the availability of this website or any of its content and/or any of its functions, information or services
  6. We cannot guarantee uninterrupted and/or reliable access to this website and we make no guarantees whatsoever as to its operation, functionality or otherwise
  7. You are allowed to view, download and print out content from this website for personal use only in accordance with these Terms. All other copying whether electronic, hard copy or other format is prohibited and all other rights are reserved
  8. You shall only use this website in a manner that is consistent with these Terms and in such a way as to comply with all applicable laws and regulations and in particular, that you shall not (or not attempt to):
    • seek unauthorised access to our network or computer system
    • insert or knowingly or recklessly transmit or distribute a virus into our network and computer systems
  9. All copyright and all other intellectual property rights existing in this website (including, but not limited to, all design, text, graphics and the selection or arrangement thereof) are and remain our property
  10. The expression 'copyright' shall include the entire copyright, design right, rental right, right to authorise or prohibit lending and data right subsisting now or created at any time
  11. While we endeavour to ensure that the information contained on this website is accurate, complete and up-to-date, we make no representations or warranties, whether express or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for purpose of such information
  12. We make no representations or warranties, whether express or implied, that this website or any software of any nature available on, downloaded or otherwise obtained from it, will be free from defects or viruses. Your use of this website is at your own risk
  13. We make no representations or warranties as to whether the information available on this website complies with the regulatory regime of countries from which the pages of this website may be accessed
  14. We may log your IP address (which indicates the location of your computer on the Internet) for the purpose of systems administration and troubleshooting.
  15. If you provide your e-mail address in order to submit an enquiry, comment or request for further information, we may contact you regarding your enquiry, comment or request. We may also send e-mails to you about the services that we offer.
  16. From time to time we may provide your information to our marketing or IT departments for research and analysis purposes so that we can monitor and improve the services we provide. We may occasionally contact you by post, email or telephone to ask you for your feedback and comments on our services.
  17. The failure by us to insist on any occasion upon performance of these Terms shall not thereby act as a waiver of such a breach or an acceptance of any variation of these Terms
  18. A person who is not a party to these Terms may not enforce any of its terms or conditions under the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999
  19. These Terms shall be governed by, construed and enforced in all respects in accordance with the Laws of England