The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil [NOOK Book]

Overview

Throughout the four hundred thousand years that humanity has been collecting fossils, sea urchin fossils, or echinoids, have continually been among the most prized, from the Paleolithic era, when they decorated flint axes, to today, when paleobiologists study them for clues to the earth’s history. 

In The Star-Crossed Stone, Kenneth J. McNamara, an expert on fossil echinoids, takes readers on an incredible fossil hunt, with stops in ...

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The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil

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Overview

Throughout the four hundred thousand years that humanity has been collecting fossils, sea urchin fossils, or echinoids, have continually been among the most prized, from the Paleolithic era, when they decorated flint axes, to today, when paleobiologists study them for clues to the earth’s history. 

In The Star-Crossed Stone, Kenneth J. McNamara, an expert on fossil echinoids, takes readers on an incredible fossil hunt, with stops in history, paleontology, folklore, mythology, art, religion, and much more. Beginning with prehistoric times, when urchin fossils were used as jewelry, McNamara reveals how the fossil crept into the religious and cultural lives of societies around the world—the roots of the familiar five-pointed star, for example, can be traced to the pattern found on urchins. But McNamara’s vision is even broader than that: using our knowledge of early habits of fossil collecting, he explores the evolution of the human mind itself, drawing striking conclusions about humanity’s earliest appreciation of beauty and the first stirrings of artistic expression. Along the way, the fossil becomes a nexus through which we meet brilliant eccentrics and visionary archaeologists and develop new insights into topics as seemingly disparate as hieroglyphics, Beowulf, and even church organs.

An idiosyncratic celebration of science, nature, and human ingenuity, The Star-Crossed Stone is as charming and unforgettable as the fossil at its heart.

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Editorial Reviews

Adrienne Mayor
The Star-Crossed Stone is outstanding and original, a fascinating story about sea urchin fossils from Neolithic times to the present. It is much more than a summary of the folklore surrounding a particular fossil, however: it also traces the evolution of mythmaking, the human urge to collect, and the development of complex symbolic thought, combining archaeology, paleontology, folklore, and anthropology in wonderful, surprising ways that will delight general and scientific readers alike.”
C. J. Duffin
“Kenneth McNamara is the undisputed authority on fossil echinoids in archaeological contexts. He is one of that rare breed of scientist who is able to cross traditional divides and marshal carefully weighted facts and ideas from a broad range of disciplines, and he writes with a clear, lucid style. Drawing on a disparate set of records of fossil sea urchins from a wide range of archaeological contexts, he weaves a novel and compelling tale of their reflection of the beliefs and traditions of humankind. Tracing their use by humans from early Palaeolithic through to Victorian times, with prominent excursions into (among others) Neolithic, Egyptian, Celtic, and Nordic cultures and beliefs, McNamara fairly romps through complex questions such as the origins of abstract thought and aesthetic appreciation. Using this fossil in an attempt to unlock the ancient mind, he succeeds admirably in opening up that of the reader to larger questions of origins. On the way, he introduces us to some wonderfully eccentric, driven personalities who were instrumental in bringing these seemingly inconsequential fossils to the attention of the world. This is an extremely interesting read.”—Dr. C. J. Duffin, fellow of the Geological Society and coauthor of Handbook of Paleoichthyology
Stephen T. Asma
“McNamara has written a beautiful secret history of a small and seemingly insignificant fossil—the round, star-crossed sea urchin. But he uses this important collectible of prehistoric humans as a lens for seeing into the culture and even the mind of our ancestors. Like a good mystery writer, McNamara takes us on a journey all the way back to a shallow grave and the two bodies that laid there for four thousand years. The Star-Crossed Stone is a masterfully crafted story, and an enlightening glimpse into the evolution of the human mind.”
Times Higher Education
 “There is much in The Star-Crossed Stone to inform, stimulate and entertain.”-Times Higher Education
Dr. C. J. Duffin
“Kenneth McNamara is the undisputed authority on fossil echinoids in archaeological contexts. He is one of that rare breed of scientist who is able to cross traditional divides and marshal carefully weighted facts and ideas from a broad range of disciplines, and he writes with a clear, lucid style. Drawing on a disparate set of records of fossil sea urchins from a wide range of archaeological contexts, he weaves a novel and compelling tale of their reflection of the beliefs and traditions of humankind. Tracing their use by humans from early Palaeolithic through to Victorian times, with prominent excursions into (among others) Neolithic, Egyptian, Celtic, and Nordic cultures and beliefs, McNamara fairly romps through complex questions such as the origins of abstract thought and aesthetic appreciation. Using this fossil in an attempt to unlock the ancient mind, he succeeds admirably in opening up that of the reader to larger questions of origins. On the way, he introduces us to some wonderfully eccentric, driven personalities who were instrumental in bringing these seemingly inconsequential fossils to the attention of the world. This is an extremely interesting read.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226514710
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 1,126,304
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Kenneth J. McNamara is a lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge.

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Read an Excerpt

The Star-Crossed stone

The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil
By Kenneth J. McNamara

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-51469-7


Chapter One

Awakenings

High on the northern part of Salisbury Plain sits the tiny village of Linkenholt—a few houses, a dairy, the old manor house, and a church. It is early October, 2003. The Sun shines on the churchyard, but meekly, its strength whipped away by the icy northerly wind that sweeps across stubbled fields. It's a pretty church. The walls are made from dark gray and white knuckles of flint, sweated from the Earth, and then collected from the nearby fields. The colors of the flint are mirrored by the black and white wood of the tower, above which rises a conical, shingled spire. St. Peter's of Linkenholt is like many of the flint churches in the remote villages that nestle in the dry valleys of this chalk downland. But this one sits proudly, high on a ridge, the flinty fields fading away in all directions. The flint has fed the people of Linkenholt for thousands of years: they have grown their crops in its biting shards, while their sheep have fed on the springy grass that managed, somehow, to grow in it. And it has fed the walls of their houses, their church, and their dairy.

Little moves in the churchyard apart from a few pied wagtails snapping up unsuspecting insects. But 132 years ago this churchyard was a much less soporific place. Then, it was crowded with more than a hundred people. The village had probably never seen so many people together in one place in its entire existence. They were here in 1871 to celebrate the consecration of the church, which had just been erected on this new site, a couple hundred yards from where its predecessor had sat for almost seven hundred years. But the new structure wasn't a complete break with the past, and with the old traditions. A few choice parts of the original medieval church had been retained. It might well have been easier to build it all again from scratch, but there were some things that had been so important to the people of this village for so long that they couldn't bear to give them up. The stone arch around the door was one. After all, their ancestors from time immemorial had passed through it on their way to be christened, married, or buried. The bowl of the font that had baptized every child since the time of King Richard I was another. And there was a third—a little window. But this wasn't one that took pride of place on the sunny side of the church where it could be easily seen by the parishioners as they entered every Sunday. No, this was a simple, unprepossessing, round-headed window, a mere hand's span in width, and a little over five spans long, hidden away on the dank north side of the church. Few would ever go and see it. Here is a place where the Sun has never shone: it is a place to be visited neither by the living, nor by the dead, who aren't even buried here. Some, long ago, are said to have called it the devil's side of the church.

Turning the corner of the building, passing from bright sunlight into perpetual shade, I disturb a flurry of pheasants that whirl into the air. So there is some life here after all. But such activity is rare. The walls of the church here are pale green. A thin layer of lichen is the only permanent life-form, imperceptibly growing on the cold, damp flints. The window is so small that in this eternal twilight it lets little light into the church. Why did the rebuilders bother to keep it at all? It's really not very attractive. But maybe it wasn't the window at all. Perhaps it was what surrounded it: yet more flints. But these flints, like twenty-two pale green hens' eggs, are most unusual: etched onto each of their domed surfaces is a five-pointed star. They are fossil sea urchins. Seven hundred years earlier they had been plucked from the flinty fields that surround the village and, for some strange reason, cemented with great care around the little window.

About 70 million years ago these urchins had crawled through the chalky mud of a warm sea that covered much of what is now northern Europe. They died, and their soft tissue was eaten by myriad hungry marine organisms. Into their empty shells oozed a silica-rich jelly, which eventually hardened to form a perfect flint cast of the inside of the urchin. For tens of millions of years they lay cocooned within their chalky grave. But the despoliation by water, ice, and wind relentlessly shaved layers of chalk from the Earth. Plants did their best to arrest this merciless march of erosion by growing on the thin, flinty soil that covered the chalk. But then a species of mammal arrived that had learned how to scrape off the trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses that coated the hills.

One day, about fifty years ago, one of these humans was plowing the flint-riddled soil of Linkenholt when he noticed something he was more used to seeing on Sunday mornings. Ah. Shepherd's crown, he thought. He reined in his horse, bent down, and picked up what looked like a flint egg. Like many who had plowed these fields for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, he couldn't resist keeping the flint. Popping it into his pocket, he thought no more of it for the rest of the day. The evening was getting cold. Walking up the path to his front door, he put his hands in his pocket to warm them up. As his hand touched something smooth and cold he remembered the fossil urchin. He took it from his pocket and dropped it in the flowerpot by his front door, like he had done a number of times before. As he closed the door behind him the last gasp of the evening Sun slipped from behind a cloud and lit up the star on the stone egg.

* * *

Hundreds of miles to the east of Linkenholt, and some four hundred thousand years earlier, someone else is scouring the chalk downland for flints. But this person is not quite human. A little smaller and stockier than you or I, he has prominent eye ridges perched on top of a large face that slides down to a powerful, protruding jaw. This is a descendant of Homo erectus, a highly successful species that more than a million years earlier had spread out of Africa: first into Europe and western Asia, then across to China and as far east as Java—maybe even beyond. Not quite Homo sapiens: some scientists call it Homo heidelbergensis.

He keeps an eye to the ground, scavenging for good, hefty flints to knap into tools. Here, high on a downland ridge, is not the best of places for flint, though. The river gravels are better. But he is up here on his way across to the next valley. He is also keeping a wary lookout for some of the less than companionable fellow mammals: the lions, wild boar, and rhinoceroses that roam this area. Down in the valley herds of fallow deer feed on the lush meadows; a family of straight-tusked elephants makes its way to the river. The valley echoes with their mournful trumpeting. An Ice Age had come, and an Ice Age has gone. Others had yet to spread their white shrouds over the land.

Like other early humans for hundreds of thousands of years before him, this ancestor of modern Homo sapiens would appear not to have been very imaginative in the way that he crafted his tools. But the fist-sized flint hand axe that he makes, shaped like a huge teardrop, serves his purposes very well. It is crafted to fit neatly into the palm of his hand and is flaked to razor-sharp edges on both sides. Limited in its design, certainly, but this axe was the Swiss army knife of our ancestors for nigh on a million years. It would probably have been used to skin animals, to chop up the carcasses; grub up roots, cut wood, and chop down trees. Why make anything different, when a single tool can do all this?

He slows down as he notices some large trees, uprooted in a recent storm that wreaked so much havoc. Soil and rocks litter the tendriled feet of these fallen behemoths. Worth checking for flints. Most are probably too small for his purpose. But tucked beneath one of the roots is a larger chunk. It is about the size of a fist, though a little longer and thinner, and dirty brown-gray in color. It would make a good tool. He pushes it with his foot and it rolls away from the tree roots.

As he bends down to pick it up, something on its surface catches his eye—a strange shape, round like the Sun and raised above the surface of the rest of the flint. He runs his rough fingers over its smooth, round surface. As he does so he feels what seem like scratches running across it. He spits on it, and rubs the chalk dust off its surface. Looking more closely, he sees them: five lines, spreading out from the middle of the circle like the main struts of a cobweb. But there is no spider sitting in the center of its web here. It is a strange flint, this one.

Although it takes great skill to turn a rock such as this into a hand axe, for him it was unlikely to have been difficult—knapping away at one edge of the big flint, paper-thin slivers, sharper than a scalpel blade, fly away in showers of sparks. Soon he has done all that he can—another teardropshaped tool. Well, almost. He has created what we now call an Acheulian hand axe—the trademark tool of Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. Although limited in technology, this tool is special because of the bilateral symmetry it possesses, reflecting, perhaps, a mind capable of conceptualizing. This one, though, that today sits in a drawer in Liverpool Museum, is different. Only one edge had been sharpened; the other was left untouched. The last blow had flaked a sliver off this circular object with its five-rayed star pattern. Why was it left unfinished? Why was the imperative to produce this bilateral shape not realized? Did our ancient ancestor reason that trying to sharpen the other edge would only have resulted in the attractive pattern being destroyed? Anyway, what did it matter if it only had one edge? The axe would have rested comfortably in his hand. Even though a small piece of the strange five-stranded web had chipped off, when he held the flint his thumb would have fit neatly into where the lost piece had been, his other fingers curling around the smooth side of the axe. It was almost as though his hand had grown this cutting edge—a cutting edge marked with this curious pattern.

Eagles die, and a beech tree falls. Leaves shrivel, but fungi flourish. Beetles gnaw the bark, and fungi's strangling tendrils consume the wood. Soon the tree has faded into the soil, little more than a faint memory—a wan shadow on the ground. Then even that has gone. Days get cooler. Days get colder. Flints, the only remnants left by these waning people, pile up in streams and in the bottoms of rivers. The sands and gravels cover the lost tools of Homo heidelbergensis, hidden, lost to the world. Ice smothers the land for what seems an eternity—almost as permanent as the flints.

Eagles fly, and beech trees sprout. The ice fades, and the land greens. Taller people appear. Cleverer people. Eventually they discover that flints have uses other than simply as hand tools. Now that there are tools of iron, who needs tools of flint anyway? But flints can be used to build walls and dwellings, schools and places of worship. Men dig large pits in the gravels, and move thousands upon thousands of flints. A different time, a different species of human.

It is the early twentieth century, and another man is looking through the flints in a quarry in Swanscombe in the county of Kent. Since they were first found in the 1880s, the quarry has yielded more Paleolithic flint implements than any other site in Britain, in excess of sixty thousand, along with three pieces of hominid skull. They belonged to the so-called Swanscombe Man who had evolved beyond Homo erectus, but had not yet become modern Homo sapiens. The man is searching through gravels from the middle part of the quarry. He spots one that he is looking for—an Acheu lian axe: hand axes that in their shape mimic, in many ways, a human hand minus the thumb. With the evolution of symbolic thought in early species of Homo, the Acheulian hand axe may have been subconsciously manufactured in this shape because it symbolized a third hand—but a hand with edges so sharp they can cut and skin carcasses. Unlike our asymmetrical hand, this artifact has perfect bilateral symmetry. Yet this one is different. He spots it right away, for it carries on one side, engraved like a Paleolithic logo, a five-pointed star set within a perfect circle—a fossil sea urchin. And the flint has been worked only along one edge.

* * *

Trying to delve into the mind of someone who lived nearly half a million years ago is clearly no easy task; impossible, perhaps. Did this individual really select this flint simply because of the fossil urchin? If so, was the underlying urge the same as that which drove people to pick up flints around Linkenholt in far more recent times, and to put them in the walls of their church and in a pot by their front door? If so, it has profound implications for our understanding of how the ancient mind worked.

Although the Swanscombe hand axe no doubt attracted the attention of the more recent finder, what was it about the flint that attracted our paleocollector to it? Dorothy Downes, formerly a curator at the Liverpool Museum where the hand axe is now kept, was in little doubt. As she reported to the paleoanthropologist Kenneth Oakley, who first described it: "Although the fossil has been slightly damaged by the removal of a flake, it was evidently intended to be the central feature of the hand-axe." Certainly, it could be argued that the presence of the fossil sea urchin was a matter of pure chance. On the other hand maybe the shape of the fossil and its strange symmetry caught the paleocollector's eye. If this was the case, what was it about the five-pointed, radiating star blazoned across the fossil's surface, like a forlorn starfish splayed across a rock, that attracted him? Could this person have been driven by the self-same fascination that we have with natural objects today—especially ones with a strange pentagonal symmetry? If so, then this chunk of flint attains almost monumental importance, for it would mark one of the earliest pieces of evidence that we have of an object being collected and kept for some reason other than purely utilitarian. It would have been not just a case of "I need," but, more potently, "I want." The fossil would therefore have appealed to a nascent aesthetic sensibility—an awakening, perhaps, of the perception of what might, in the broadest sense, be construed as beauty. Our beetle-browed, hirsute, jut-jawed ancestors might not have been quite so thuggish as we generally consider them to be. Although their table manners might have left a little to be desired, they appear to have appreciated a good fossil when they found one.

We often think of the birth of art as beginning a little over thirty thousand years ago, when people living in what is now southern France began daubing the walls of caves with exquisite drawings of animals, such as horses, aurochs, and deer. These paleoartists had obviously developed what has been called visual symbolism. Four cognitive and physical processes are recognized in this development: making visual symbols; classifying an image as a type of symbol; communicating information about the symbol; and giving the image a meaning. Yet visual symbolism should also include receptivity on the part of an observer: an "appreciation" of the drawn symbol, or even of the pattern observed in nature. I cannot draw to save my life, but I can appreciate a painting by Monet or Turner. So, too, those living long before people first put ochre to rock face could well have developed what can only be termed an attraction to, or appreciation of, a shape, a form, or a symmetry that they encountered in their everyday world.

Our appreciation of a painting or a sculpture may lie as much in its form as in its color. In its simplest manifestation, this is the orderliness of circles, portraying a symmetry and a completeness—a satisfying closure. Or the form may be a spiral, or radiating rays. It is an appreciation of these qualities in the natural world as much as in the created world, where handprints or an exquisite head of a horse painted on the wall of a cave is just another manifestation of this strange, aesthetic appreciation that we humans have of the world around us. We can obviously gain an insight into peoples' conceptualization of art thousands of years ago from these paintings and engravings decorating cave walls. But to gain an insight into when they first began to obtain some intellectual satisfaction from an appreciation of patterns and shapes in nature, we have to search elsewhere for clues.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Star-Crossed stone by Kenneth J. McNamara Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue

Introduction   

1 Awakenings   

2 First Collectors   

3 Urchins   

4 Skeletons   

5 Fossilized Memories   

6 Maud   

7 Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers   

8 Shepherds’ Crowns and Fairy Loaves   

9 Thunderstones   

10 Holy Urchins   

11 The Morning Star   

12 Snakes’ Eggs   

13 Star of Destiny   

14 Five-Star Attraction

Epilogue

Acknowledgments
Notes
References

Index
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    An fascinating read

    In this fascinating consideration of the life of fossil sea urchins, McNamara melds together the archeology, mythology, folk customs, and our penchant for collecting. I will never look at sea urchins the same.

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    Posted May 18, 2012

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