The introduction to

The Star-Crossed Stone

The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil

Kenneth J. McNamara


On a March day in 1887 the skeletons of a young woman and a child were found on top of a windswept hill in southern England. But this was not a case for investigation by the local constabulary, for the simple reason that the two bodies had lain in their shallow grave for about four thousand years. Little would be remembered today about this discovery were it not for one very strange feature of the burial. Nestling close to the very fragile bones were hundreds of fossil sea urchins—balls of flint engraved with a five-pointed star. All appeared to have been carefully buried with the bodies in their chalky grave at the time of their interment.

Since that day other graves excavated by generations of archaeologists have been found to contain fossil sea urchins. Such discoveries—along with the recovery of these fossils from many other types of archaeological excavations throughout much of Europe, the Near East, and northern Africa—have revealed that people have been collecting fossils for an extraordinarily long time. Often these fossils show signs of having been altered in some way by their ancient collectors, in some cases many thousands of years ago. It may be just a single fossil that is discovered, but every so often a paleontological treasure trove is found in which hundreds, or in one case thousands, of fossil urchins pour forth from dusty graves.

It would seem that many aspects of our behavior haven’t really changed much over tens of thousands of years, for some of us still like collecting fossil sea urchins. These days, though, rather than popping them into a grave, we put them in museums—safe havens for objects accumulated by those with the lust for collecting. We may like to comfort ourselves with the thought that we are far more “civilized” than our jut-jawed, hairy Stone Age ancestors. But is our habit of carefully putting objects like these fossils into serried ranks in cabinets that sleep deeply inside the bowels of our museums really very different from what our ancient ancestors were doing? Their museums were the graves in which they buried their dead, or the houses in which they lived, or the shrines and temples at which they worshipped. For here, too, fossil urchins sometimes took pride of place.

In this book I will use this rather strange object, a fossil sea urchin, to investigate how our collecting habits, and other aspects of our behavior, haven’t changed much from those of early humans who lived not just thousands, or even tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of years ago. For as we shall see, they, too, seem to have had an inordinate fondness for fossil sea urchins, and been bitten by the collecting bug.

For the last three hundred years or so, most people have accepted the view that such fossils represent the petrified remains of animals that once lived millions of years ago. But what did these prehistoric collectors make of them? Sports of the devil? Gifts from the gods? Why did they bother to collect them? And more important, what drove them to so often bury them with their dead? Not something we do these days. Yet long before they began tucking up their dear, departed friends and relatives for eternity with a cache of fossils, people had been making use of them in other, more practical, ways in their daily lives. But these were not the kind of people that you and I would recognize, for 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. But just what was it about these particular fossils, which millions of years ago had been sea urchins plowing through the muds of ancient seas, that made them so attractive to so many people, so long ago? And what, if anything, can this tell us about the evolution of the human mind?

Archaeology is more than just digging up fragile bones and mud-encrusted fragments of pots. It is the methodology for studying traces of past human behavior from the remains of objects that have been constructed or modified. While studies of trace fossils, such as footprints, can provide compelling insights into the physical behavior of our distant ancestors, studying archaeological traces has the potential to unravel the thought processes of people who lived long ago. Some archaeological objects may shed light on the more mundane aspects of people’s lives, such as what they ate, where they lived, how they clothed themselves, and so on. But there are a small number of objects that, either from their archaeological context or the way in which someone modified them, can illuminate how people might have behaved thousands of years ago. In other words we can gain some small insights into how they might have thought for a brief moment in their lives. We might, then, even begin to understand a little about how individuals tried to come to terms with the complex world into which they had been born.

So how can we ever hope to know what someone who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago thought? One way that we might be able to delve into the thought processes of people who lived long before written records would have fossilized their thoughts for future generations is by looking for clues they left behind in the way that they manipulated the environment they inhabited. We see their reverence for the dead in their burial practices. We can look through their eyes at the wildlife they shared their lives with through their paintings and engravings. How they built their dwellings tells us a lot about how they would have interacted with one another. Yet can we ever hope to unravel what an individual was really thinking? This is a hard enough challenge when we are looking at members of our own species that lived up to two hundred thousand years ago. But what of the hominid with whom our species coexisted, Homo neanderthalensis, or what of even our ancestral species, Homo heidelbergensis? Is there any way that we can unlock their minds and see through their eyes? I think there is.

From the time the first species of the genus Homo evolved more than 2 million years ago, they and all subsequent species increasingly manipulated their environment. We know this because they began to use objects extracted from the environment. Typically only the most resilient items, like stone tools, have survived the destruction of time. But what these objects reveal is that the power to reason must have developed very early in our evolutionary history. The earliest species of Homo, H. habilis, had probably learned that a broken stone could be used to cut, to chop, to scrape, even to kill. As the brains of their descendants became larger and increased in complexity, their tools became more sophisticated. Then, about 1.4 million years ago the mind made what is arguably its most important evolutionary breakthrough: it developed the ability to understand and appreciate the concept of symmetry. The mind had begun to think in the abstract and to conceptualize. And with this ability might have come an inquisitiveness about the world in which these people had been born, and in which they lived and died. Where did they come from, why were they here, and after death, where did they go? And how to explain this amazing world around them: Who created the thunder and lightning that so terrified them? What could make the land on which they walked periodically shake so violently, or have the power to spew burning gobbets of rock high into the air?

We know that an understanding of symmetry and the acquisition of abstract thought appeared quite early in our evolutionary history because of the beautifully crafted stone implements, known as Acheulian tools, which display perfect bilateral symmetry. Such tools would have been the basic implement used by Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis for cutting, scraping, and chopping for at least one million years. Although most were made to be used for such practical purposes, some are so small, and others so large, that it is hard to imagine that they could ever have been fashioned to be used as practical objects. The only alternative explanation for the manufacture of such objects is that they must have been constructed for the simple pleasure of crafting these early manifestations of the human creative imperative. What, though, drove this quest for producing an object of simple, yet profound symmetry? Was this just an inevitable consequence of the evolution of our increasingly more complex brain and greater cognitive powers? The world in which these early species of Homo lived abounded with symmetrical shapes, from the flowers and fruits that they gathered to eat, to the animals that they hunted, and to the animals that on occasions hunted them. Evolving first the ability to mimic this symmetry, and second the desire to carry it out, must surely have been a pivotal moment in the evolution of our cognitive abilities.

Having evolved the ability to think in the abstract and reflect this in the objects they fashioned from material in the world around them, our ancestors would have begun to question their very existence, and their place in the cosmos. And with the development of this abstract thought would have come the first glimmerings of an interest in, and an attraction to, other types of symmetry and patterns—patterns seen in curious structures in the rocks they gathered to make their tools. From this burgeoning imaginative mind sprung forth all manner of wondrous mythological beings: creators of the Earth, providers of life-giving rain who inhabited the star-spangled firmament. And from this it was just a small step to the more formalized concepts of spirituality, of religion—all interwoven in an evolving nexus as this nascent abstract mind flexed its cerebral muscle along the relentless pathway of time.

Then into this mix rolled a flint ball. This was no simple flint ball but one engraved with a five-pointed star. Today we call it a fossil sea urchin. Once the mind’s eye had grasped and embraced the concept of symmetry, it latched on to this pentamerous shape that combined the appeal of both bilateral symmetry and a strange form of radial symmetry. It was almost as though some deity with a quirky sense of humor thought, OK, guys, see what you make of these—and flicked these stones like cosmic marbles into the world of humans. Sometimes they were as perfectly round as an eyeball or shaped like a heart. At other times they resembled one of the simple huts in which the people dwelled. But in all cases they were seared with the same mark—the five-pointed star.

In this book I will argue that it is possible to use this one strange and seemingly obscure fossil to unlock the ancient mind and to trace how it has evolved, not only in our species, but even in species ancestral to our own. Our bones may hold the key to the evolutionary history of our bodies, but it is the scattering through time of objects that we have treasured, either created or collected for nearly half a million years, that has the power to reveal the secrets of the evolution of the mind. The evolution of abstract thought, of aesthetics, mythology, spirituality, and concepts of fate and destiny, are all in some small way encapsulated in the little stone balls that we now call fossil urchins.

• • •

As a species, we are not alone in the animal kingdom in collecting and hoarding objects. While our quarry may be anything from paintings to books, fossil sea urchins, Victorian teapots, or seventeenth-century Bolivian handkerchiefs, almost without exception all other animal species that carry out this acquisitive habit do so for some more practical reason than that it provides them with a rather nebulous degree of satisfaction. The Australian bowerbird (Ptilonorhyncus violaceus), for instance, collects whatever blue objects it can lay its beak on. It does so, however, for a purely ulterior motive: to impress the females. But do we collect to impress other members of our species, or only ourselves? Just why should we gain satisfaction from accumulating objects? And if we have been doing this for countless generations—as witness the thousands of museums around the world containing every type of natural or man-made object imaginable, reflecting our collective urge to hoard—have humans, in fact, been as possessive of objects for as long as our species has existed? Exactly what can the apparent evidence that our species (and maybe even earlier species of humans) collected fossil sea urchins tell us about ourselves?

If we think about all the species of animals and plants that have ever been described and given names, the diagnosis of Homo sapiens is arguably the vaguest. When a species new to science is formally described, it carries a diagnosis that sets out those features which are unique to the particular species. A species of shark, for instance, may be diagnosed by the size and shape of its teeth and the number of denticles present on the biting surface, along with the shape of the body and so on. For humans, however, Linnaeus (who formally described us in 1758) defined the genus Homo as Nosce te ipsum, or “Know thyself.” Interestingly, William Turton, in the English translation of Linnaeus’s work written in 1806, omitted this. Our species, though, Homo sapiens, is diagnosed as being “diurnal, varying by education and situation.” Such a diagnosis would, I am sure, fail to impress the editor of any modern-day scientific journal dealing with taxonomy (the scientific description and naming of new species).

If someone today were to set out to provide a slightly more embellished diagnosis than the one Linnaeus gave, it is likely to be very different. One characteristic feature that could be included, and that perhaps fits Linnaeus’s all-embracing description, would be our propensity to collect, acquire, gather, or otherwise accumulate objects for no apparent practical reason, other than our inquisitive nature. As Linnaeus remarked in the preface to his Systema Naturae: “Man, always curious and inquisitive and ever desirous of adding to his useful knowledge; among other sources of amusement and instruction, is naturally led to contemplate and to enquire into the work of nature.”

Such an interpretation would suggest a genetic cause for this collecting condition. But there are some who argue that in the “nature/nurture” collecting debate it is all nurture (or more specifically a lack of nurture during development). In his book Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Werner Muensterberger argues strongly for the impact of an individual’s early upbringing in determining whether or not he or she gets bitten by the collecting bug. In his view, collecting is a compulsive act, molded by irrational impulses that arise from an emotionally unstable upbringing. Thus, the object comes to represent something that will provide emotional support. The collector assigns power and value to the objects, virtually akin, so Muensterberger argues, to a religious fervor. Irrespective of the type of object that is collected, Muensterberger believes that it is the emotional state that collectors achieve by surrounding themselves with magically potent objects that drives them on. But to my mind, it is not just the acquisition of the object; it is the hunt to find it that provides the impetus. It is the hunt that matters, whether for porcelain, fossils, or beer-bottle caps. There is a preoccupation with the challenge—an emotional hunger to collect.

Gathering an object may generate some degree of satisfaction—a warm inner glow that yet one more Roman coin has been added to our burgeoning collection. But for most people it is the hunt that matters most. While our ancient ancestors had plenty on their plate, so to speak, hunting for food in order to satisfy their inner being’s nutritional urges, perhaps humans’ insatiable appetite for collecting the seemingly most useless of objects satisfies a deeper craving: food for the mind, rather than for the body. And perhaps as our ancient ancestors fulfilled this more cerebral urge they developed a need to collect certain symbols, such as a five-pointed star. Food for the mind could have evolved into food for the soul.

• • •

Bones, urchins, and stars—they are a recurring theme in this book. Until the attitude that frowned on the practice of burying goods with the dear departed became prevalent during the Christian era, for thousands of years people had been placing all sorts of items in their loved ones’ graves, much to the later delight of archaeologists. In addition to objects of personal adornment, such as clothing and jewelry, the most common articles buried with the dead were those deemed to be of practical use in the afterlife: weapons, animals, pots, bowls, tableware, and such like. Different meanings may be attached to the significance of these funereal collections: they may tell us much about the personal items that the deceased treasured during their life. However, the nature of the grave goods might be indicative of what those who buried the dead thought they would need for their journey into the afterlife.

For the most part it is hard to imagine that fossil sea urchins had any apparent practical purpose. Their presence in graves like those of the four-thousand-year-old woman and child indicates that either the fossils meant a lot to the deceased when they were still alive, or in some way they had a meaning to them in the afterlife. So, to unravel what fossil sea urchins meant to people who lived thousands of years ago—and why they thought it so important to collect them and at times to be buried with them—it is necessary to extract every scrap of evidence from these occasional, often strange, archaeological finds. It is important to look for patterns, such as the occurrence of an axe or dagger with a fossil urchin in a cremation, and also other associations. For example, fossil urchins have been found in archaeological contexts that are directly associated not with the dead, but with the living. The discovery of a cache of fossil urchins in the remains of a settlement that stood in the county of Dorset, England, between the first and fourth centuries is a particularly potent example. These fossils appear to have been deliberately buried under houses a number of times during this period. No written record exists of why people did these things, but we can possibly glean some insight into their motives from oral history, in the form of folklore. It may even be possible to tie this evidence in with certain mythologies, thereby allowing a greater understanding of people’s motives for reburying the fossils that had previously been unearthed.

The association of these fossils with the living is shown in other, more tangible ways. There is clear evidence that some urchins were deliberately collected thousands of years ago from specimens found in many parts of Europe, in the Near East, and in Africa: the fossils have been artificially altered. Some have had a hole drilled through them, while others had been scraped or artificially colored. Perhaps the most striking is a fossil urchin found in Egypt on which hieroglyphs of the name of its finder and where he found it were inscribed more than three thousand years ago.

This book tells the story of the fossil sea urchin–collecting habits of early peoples of Britain, much of northern Europe, the Mediterranean region, the Near East, and parts of Africa. It also investigates how these star-crossed stones fascinated different societies for literally hundreds of thousands of years, from the interest shown by early Paleolithic people who shared a northern European landscape with lions and elephants, to those people thousands of years ago who seem to have incorporated them into their spiritual beliefs. Using evidence from archaeology and folklore, it is possible to reconstruct the myths that may have grown up around these fossils—myths that may now be represented merely by a folk name. Just what myths were transmitted from generation to generation about stones known as shepherds’ crowns or fairy loaves? And how can we reconstruct these faded myths that exist merely in the shadow of a name?

In this book I also examine the nexus that exists between these fossils and the symbolism of five-pointed stars. These days it is hard to escape this star. It spangles our clothes. It clings to our footballs. It takes pride of place on more than fifty national flags. The marketing moguls have seen to it that it appears in myriad places: on the packaging of our food, on our beer bottles and the logos of our coffee shops. It may even tattoo our bodies. And at Christmas it becomes almost impossible to walk down a street in any city center without being visually assaulted by this heavenly symbol every few seconds as it glitters at us from decorations and merchandise, all shouting, “Buy me! Buy me!” And all the while it sits smugly on top of the Christmas tree, the poor angel having been unceremoniously demoted to one of the lower branches.

As I began delving, some years ago, into the misty world of the fossil-collecting habits of people who lived thousands of years ago, it soon struck me that there are many parallels between why people wanted to collect these star-marked fossil urchins and pop them into their graves, and the interest that, for at least five thousand years, people have shown in drawing the symbol of the five-pointed star itself. For instance, while people were putting the fossil in their graves in many parts of Europe, five-pointed stars were being plastered on the ceilings of burial chambers in ancient Egypt. Some fossil urchins collected in the Near East over ten thousand years ago have been artificially altered in such a way as to enhance the close similarity between the symbol of the five-pointed star and the human form, a relationship personified by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man and recognized for thousands of years.

The similarity between the fossil and the star is also evident in some European folklore, indicating a long history of using fossil urchins for their perceived apotropaic properties—that is to say, their ability to ward off evil, in exactly the same way that the five-pointed star pattern was often used in medieval Europe. Folklore and mythology also reveal a link between the way both fossil urchins and five-pointed stars were associated with the heavens—for instance, in Norse mythology the fossils were thought to have been hurled to Earth during thunderstorms by Thor, the god of thunder, weather, and crops. These days the five-pointed star is symbolic of the pinpricks of light that pepper the night sky and which we call stars.

But what was it that triggered this mental link between the five-pointed pattern and a bright star in the heavens? To find the answer we must look not to the sky but to the ground. For thousands of years people have been finding and collecting stones to turn them into tools. In so doing they have occasionally encountered these little star-crossed stones. Surprisingly, of all natural objects it is these rather strange fossils more than any other that seem to have fascinated people for the longest period of time. By searching back far enough through the archaeological record of fossil sea urchin collectors, from Paleolithic times hundreds of thousands of years ago right through to the present day, it may be possible to unravel this link between the five-rayed star that sits astride the fossil and the stars in the sky.

The archaeological record shows not only that people collected fossil sea urchins for thousands of years, but that they often did so in huge quantities. But why? What could it have been about these fossils that so attracted them, apart from the five-pointed star? They put them in their houses, buried them with their dead, made tools from them, drilled holes through them, painted them, and put them in necklaces. Could these little star-crossed stones, the fossilized remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago, perhaps be the very source of inspiration for the ubiquitous symbol of the five-pointed star? How different is the desire of someone today who wants to wear a tee shirt emblazoned with a five-pointed star, from our ancestor from four hundred thousand years ago who fashioned a tool from a piece of flint emblazoned with exactly the same symbol? And could, perhaps, our shared fascination with the five-pointed star indicate that maybe the minds of our distant ancestors weren’t really so very different from our own? Have all aspects of the mind undergone a steady evolution over the last few hundred thousand years, or are there some fundamental features (such as our ability to conceptualize and imagine) that, once evolved, have changed little in all that time? Can the five-pointed star tell us?

To unravel the critical links between fossil urchins and the star symbol, it is necessary to travel down disparate pathways; many answers must be found for many questions. What can Norse mythology tell us about the Vikings’ association of fossil urchins with hand axes? What drove people five thousand years ago to construct a burial chamber twenty-two yards (20 m) across for the sole purpose of placing a single fossil urchin in a box at its center? Why were a Roman emperor’s and an Egyptian priest’s lives both touched, albeit in very different ways, by fossil urchins? Why, ten thousand years ago, did people in the eastern Mediterranean region apparently view these fossils as fertility symbols? And what prompted a medieval church builder in England to frame a window with a collection of fossil urchins?

In revealing the long-term fascination people have held for these fossils, we owe a debt to five men, each of whom plays a significant role in this story: Cecil Curwin, Worthington Smith, the impressively named Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, Herbert Toms, and John Henry Pull. Their archaeological endeavors spanned the late nineteenth  and early twentieth centuries. The first three, because of their diligence, played an important role in recognizing the significance of the fossil sea urchins that they discovered at their respective archaeological excavations. The fourth, Herbert Toms, was instrumental in recording the fading folklore of these fossils in early twentieth-century England. The last of the five, John Henry Pull, not only found fossil urchins in a number of archaeological excavations, but also, like Toms, explored their recent folklore in an effort to discover why people living in one small area in southern England had been collecting these fossils four thousand years ago.

The lives of three of them—Curwen, Pitt-Rivers, and Toms—were interwoven. Pitt-Rivers employed Toms and inspired him with a love of archaeology; Toms, in turn, fostered and encouraged Curwen’s archaeological exploits. The lives of Curwen and Pull were also interwoven, but in a less than auspicious way: their relationship led to Pull’s work being almost totally forgotten by modern archaeologists until recently.

It is because of the efforts of people such as these that we are able to hear faint whispers about these little star-crossed stones—whispers that have traveled like half-forgotten memories through vast tracts of time in the form of myths and legends as people changed from hunter-gatherers to cultivators of the land. Listening carefully to these distant societal murmurs, we may just be able to comprehend something about this ancient preoccupation with fossil sea urchins and the myths they engendered. And herein may also lie the root of an ongoing fascination that people have had for thousands of years with the symbol that brazenly brands these rather strange little fossils: the ubiquitous five-pointed star.

Copyright notice: The introduction to The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil by Kenneth J. McNamara, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Kenneth J. McNamara
The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil
©2010, 256 pages, 26 halftones, 1 line drawing
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226514697

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Star-Crossed Stone.

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