The star-crossed stone
Public history of science lecture by Ken McNamara
A fossil sea urchin
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
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Recorded audio will be available on this page a few days after the event.
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