Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Star-Crossed Stone

Just finished reading The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil by Kenneth McNamara (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Dr. Kenneth McNamara is a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge Department of Earth Sciences with an interest in fossil echinoids (sea urchins).  Echinoids like Micraster, for example, are relatively common fossils in the Cretaceous Period chalks of southern England.

One of the most distinctive features of fossil echinoids is their pentameral (five-fold) symmetry.  This is, of course, where the author's term "star-crossed stone" comes from.

Why are stars always depicted with five points?  Perhaps, the author argues, there is a relationship between these fossils (which were collected and buried with ancient people) and our ancestor's mythologies of the skies (look up at the night sky - why draw stars with five points « ?).

Known by folk terms, of somewhat uncertain origin, such as sheep hearts, shepherd's crowns, fairy loaves, or thunderstones, they've been collected and prized by humans since paleolithic times.

One interesting artifact discussed was the Acheulian-type flint handaxe seen at left.  It was formed from a flint nodule containing a fossil echinoid (Conulus) during the Paleolithic era.  There's something cool about this artifact that still resonates with us hundreds of thousands of years later (admit it, you'd love to have this sitting on your desk).

 The idea behind this book is interesting - looking at how people have been attracted to fossil echinoids for millenia.  They collected them, were buried with them, made tools and jewelry out of them, used them in the architecture of churches and other buildings in England, and incorporated them into their mythological beliefs.

I do have to say, however, that while all of these topics are interesting and covered in this book, the writing is a bit repetitive and disorganized.  I found myself skimming parts of the book thinking "Oh, this topic again" and getting annoyed.  I'm not sure I buy into all of his ideas either, but that's another post.  It could have used some good editing to tighten things up but overall a worthwhile read.

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