563: The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth McNamara

by Gerard


563.95: McNamara, Kenneth J. The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. 2312 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-51469-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 560: Paleontology and paleozoology
  • 563: Miscellaneous fossil marine and seashore invertebrates
  • 563.9: Echinodermata and Hemichordata
  • 563.95: Echinozoa

In March 1887, a grave was discovered in England. It was an old grave, the interred had been there for thousands of years. But the two occupants weren’t the only creatures there: they had been buried with hundreds of fossilized sea urchins. Historians and archaeologists were puzzled. Why were these fossils buried with the ancient humans? What was their significance? Kenneth McNamara’s The Star-Crossed Stone looks into the discovery, history, and folklore surrounding fossil urchins.

Like many other historical objects, once you go looking for them, they show up everywhere and in the most unlikely of places. Fossilized urchins look much like modern sand dollars, but embedded in stone. They show up in ancient gravesites, church decorations, medieval engravings, and even Egyptian hieroglyphics. Local cottage owners placed them around doorways and windowsills as good luck charms. They were used as fertility charms and used by Vikings as “thunder-stones” to connect them to their mythology. These seemingly ordinary rock formations have been known as shepherd’s crowns, button stones, and fairy loaves.

McNamara’s intricate weaving of paleontology and anthropology is both learned and lucid. Since there weren’t any creatures around that looked like the fossils, ancient peoples thought they were remnants of a time long before, of myth and mysticism. McNamara paints this cachet as more charming than provincial. To this day, there are still cottages and outbuildings that incorporate these fossils into their designs. The five-pointed skeletons of these ancient creatures lend themselves well to decoration (once you get past the fact that you are using an actual skeleton as decor in the first place). A delightful and engaging read.