The star-crossed stone

Posted by pt91 at Nov 25, 2011 12:35 PM |
Mysterious archaeological finds of fossil sea urchins examined at Leicester Lit & Phil Society meeting
The star-crossed stone

Drawing by Worthington G. Smith of skeleton of woman (he called Maud) and child that he found on Dunstable Down in 1887. The skeleton was buried with hundreds of fossil sea urchins during the Bronze Age.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 24 November 2011

Images of fossils and historical drawings available from

A great mystery going back hundreds of thousands of years will be unravelled at the next meeting of the Leicester Lit & Phil Society on Monday 28th November at 7.30pm in the Main Hall of the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

Dr Ken McNamara, Director of the Sedgwick Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, will reveal some of the myths and beliefs surrounding fossil sea urchins and why they turn up in such numbers in prehistoric burial sites.

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 where they had lain in their shallow grave for about 4,000 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, each emblazoned by a five-pointed star.

Since that day archaeologists have excavated many graves that contain fossil sea urchins. Such discoveries, along with the recovery of fossil urchins from many other types of archaeological excavations throughout much of Europe, the Near East and northern Africa, have revealed that people have been collecting fossil urchins for an extraordinarily long period of time.

“Just 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 importantly, what drove them to so often bury them with their dead?” asked Dr McNamara.

“In my talk to the Leicester Lit & Phil I will try and answer these questions and explore what Norse mythology tell us about the Vikings’ association of fossil urchins with hand axes; why another species of human 400,000 years ago made a hand axe with a fossil urchin in it; why the lives of a Roman Emperor and an ancient Egyptian priest were both touched by fossil urchins; why, 10,000 years ago, people in the eastern Mediterranean region apparently viewed these fossils as fertility symbols; what prompted a Mediaeval church-builder in England to frame a window with a collection of fossil urchins; and why today we are still fascinated by five-pointed stars.”

As always, visitors and new members are welcome to meetings of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, generally known as the ‘Lit & Phil’

Meetings take place fortnightly during the season and present a distinguished speaker who answers questions after the talk. The talks are followed by refreshments.

Membership of the Society is £12.50 a year (£5.00 for students) for twelve events.

Dr McNamara’s talk is the last Lit & Phil meeting before Christmas.   The first event of the New Year will take place on Monday 9th January, when Dr Trevor Brown from the University of Derby will speak on: ‘The Use and Detection of Performance Enhancing Drugs in Relation to the 2012 Olympics’, in a lecture sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

For more details, including dates of events or membership, please see the website   Information about membership is also available from tel 01455 209291.

Swanscombe axe

Swanscombe axe (left) – An Early Palaeolithic Acheulian flint hand axe made about 400,000 years ago by Homo heidelbergensis and incorporating the base of a fossil sea urchin, displaying the five-pointed star motif to best effect.

Ovum anguinum

Ovum anguinum (right) – Woodcut said to be from 1497 depicting the myth of the ovum anguinum. This type of fossil sea urchin was thought to be a powerful antidote against snake poison, illness, ensuring success in battles and disputes. The Celtic tradition in Gaul was that they were originally balls of froth exuded by a mass of entwined snakes at midsummer. The snakes tossed the ball into air. If caught before hitting the ground it retained great magical powers. But the catcher was not safe until they had crossed the river through which the snakes were unable to swim.

Camp a Cayeux

Camp à Cayeux (left) – Neolithic hand axe collected by Roland Meuris at Camp à Cayeux in Belgium



Ain 'Ghazal ech

Ain 'Ghazal (right) – Fossil urchin from Ain ‘Ghazal in Jordan that about 9,000 years ago had a hole drilled through it, implying that the five-pointed star was representative of the human body.

Notes to Editors: Further details are available from the President of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, Professor John Fothergill, Head of Engineering, University of Leicester, email, tel 0116 252 2569.

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