An item of curiosity reimagined in folklore
I love how storytelling is at the core of being human and I’m particulary interested in how we explain away items of curiosities. The folklore and legends surrounding ammonites are particulary lovely, these strange objects found on beaches by beach dwellers hundreds of years ago evoked fear and confusion among many locals.
We now know the ammonites are prehistoric cephalopod molluscs – a type of Jurassic squid - however before this scientific discovery, ammonite fossils were believed to be magical, mysterious objects and became an object of folklore around the world.
One of the most common folklore stories around ammonites is that ammonites where once snakes that had been turned to stone in Whitby by St. Hilda (CE 614-680).
Part of this stoney curse was that the snakes lost their heads during their transformation to stone. If you happened to find one of these ill-fated stony serpents within a rock it would always be without its head.
Local crafters would often carve snake heads into the ammonite and sell them to tourists.
This is perhaps one of my favourite folklore stories around ammonites as they really do look like little coiled snakes!
'If you break them you find within stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but eternally without heads.' ~ William Camden: Britannia ~ 1586
Ancient Greeks believed that ammonites were sacred symbols associated with the horned god Ammon, named Cornu Ammonis (horns of Ammon), from which the scientific name ammonite is derived.
Ammonites were used as a talisman of protection from snakebites.
"I grew up in Leicester, which is on the Jurassic, and it’s full of lovely fossils. Ammonites, belemnites, brachiopods—very beautiful. How did they get there, in the middle of the rocks, in the middle of England … And so collecting all these things, and discovering what they were, and how they lived ... was abiding fascination to me from the age of I suppose about eight. And I still feel that way, actually." ~ David Attenborough
Out of this world
I love that the UK’s coast line is full of these magical little fossils. A relic of a by-gone era, ammonites would have shared the ocean with large aquatic dinosaurs such as the including ichthyosaurs and long-necked plesiosaurs.
The cold dark UK waters where very different when ammonites roamed the oceans.
During the Jurassic period most of Britain was under the sea, apart from Scotland, East Anglia and a few small islands in the southwest.
The waters were much warmer during this time and ammonites were predators who ranged in size from a few centimetres to the size of a bicycle wheel. Ammonites had long arms, which extended from their shells and allowed them to prey on crustaceans and other small sea creatures.
Did you know?
Ammonites lived during the periods of Earth history known as the Jurassic and Cretaceous.
The Jurassic Period began about 201 million years ago, and the Cretaceous ended about 66 million years ago. The ammonites existed around the same time that dinosaurs walked the Earth.
The best place to find ammonite fossils in the UK is along the Jurassic coastline, in particular Lyme Regis, Dorset
Ammonite shells are often used as index fossils, meaning they can help date other fossils that are found in the same layer of marine rock.