One myth is that of the ‘thunderstone’. A fossil urchin with a stone axe in a pot in an Iron Age cremation deposit in Kent indicates a link with Norse mythology through the god Thor. Folklore gathered in Denmark and southern England in the early 20th Century revealed that both fossil sea urchins and stone axes were called ‘thunderstones’ and were thought to have been thrown to Earth by Thor. But Thor was not only a malevolent thunder god. He was also the peasants’ god, who gave them protection. So these fossils were placed near windows and doors not only to ward off Thor’s frequently over-exuberant lightning strikes, but also to protect the house from evil.
Image: St Peter’s church Linkenholt, Hampshire, which has fossil urchins inserted around two of the church windows.
The other folk names commonly used for fossil urchins in England - ‘shepherd’s crowns’ and ‘fairy loaves’ - both likely derived from Celtic or pre-Celtic terms and beliefs in the association of these objects with the afterlife. Their frequent occurrence in burial mounds (sites of passage from this life to the next) points to a significance attached to ensuring the rebirth of the bearer. These spiritual beliefs degenerated in Christian times into folk traditions of ‘good luck’, so that ‘fairy loaves’ placed on window sills were thought to ensure that bread would rise and help keep the milk fresh. They were still also placed bear to doors to help keep the devil at bay. Perhaps this is why at the entrance to the churchyard surrounding a gypsy church (known as a ‘tin tabernacle’) constructed in Hampshire in 1883, 40 fossil sea urchins were set in cement in the shape of the date.
One of the more obvious clues to the activity of prehistoric fossil collectors comes from fossil urchins that have had a hole deliberately drilled through them. This activity goes back to the Upper Palaeolithic when, 35,000 years ago, fossils were drilled and used in necklaces. At one of the earliest known Neolithic settlements in the eastern Mediterranean, a site in Jordan nearly 11,000 years old called ‘Ain Ghazal, all fossil urchins recovered had been drilled. This behaviour continued for thousands of years, but was not just confined to the eastern Mediterranean. Drilled urchins have turned up in archaeological sites from North Africa, to France, to Gloucestershire. Was the only reason for drilling these fossils to wear them as necklaces? Probably not. Many were almost certainly used as spindle whorls while spinning wool. There may also have been a spiritual element to this activity related to the five-pointed star motif.
The importance of the five-pointed star pattern is reinforced by the discovery of some fossil urchins from Neolithic and Iron Age sites in Jordan that have been altered to enhance the five-rayed star pattern. Could these people have been seeing an image of themselves in this pattern – like the classic ‘stick drawing’ of the human form? Just think of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ – arms outstretched, legs apart, head held aloft – a human five-pointed star. This might explain one of the drilled urchins from ‘Ain Ghazal, where the hole was drilled off-centre, through what could be interpreted as the junction of the legs – a potent fertility object, perhaps.