The star-crossed stone

Public history of science lecture by Ken McNamara

A fossil sea urchin A fossil sea urchin

Event details

Ken McNamara is Director of the Sedgwick Museum, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

On a March day in 1887 the skeletons of a young woman and a child were found on a hilltop in southern England where they had lain in their shallow grave for about 4000 years. Nestling close to the bones were hundreds of fossil sea urchins, each emblazoned by a five-pointed star.

Since that day archaeologists have excavated many such graves, revealing that people have been collecting fossil sea urchins for an extraordinarily long period of time. But 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, why did they bury them with their dead?

In this talk I will try to answer these questions, examining why fossil urchins are found in Norse mythology, Imperial Rome and ancient Egypt, as fertility symbols in the eastern Mediterranean, and in an axe made 400,000 years ago. I will explain what prompted a medieval church-builder to frame a window with these fossils, and why today we are still fascinated by their pattern of five-pointed stars.

Attending this event

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 12.30pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

We have a limited number of spaces for wheelchair users and ten bookable seats for people with impaired mobility who are unable to queue. To book in advance, please contact the events team. Further information about accessibility is available.

Recorded audio will be available on this page a few days after the event.

Enquiries: Contact the events team

The star-crossed stone 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK

Events coming up

  • The interaction of fire and mankind 14 September 2015 at The Royal Society, London Scientific discussion meeting organised by Professor Andrew Scott, Professor William Chaloner FRS, Professor Claire Belcher and Dr Chris Roos
  • The interaction of fire and mankind - further discussion 16 September 2015 at The Royal Society at Chicheley Hall, home of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, Buckinghamshire Scientific discussion meeting organised by Professor Andrew Scott, Professor William Chaloner FRS, Dr Claire Belcher and Professor Chris Roos
  • Open House Weekend 2015 19 September 2015 at The Royal Society, London The Royal Society's building will be open to the public on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 September 2015.

For more events please see the events diary.

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