For at least half a million years, people have been doing some very strange things with fossils. Long before a few 17th-century minds started to decipher their true, organic nature, fossils had been eaten, dropped in goblets of wine, buried with the dead, adorned on bodies and even used to try and cause harm. What triggered such curious behaviour was the belief, passed down from prehistoric to Medieval times, that some fossils could cure illness, protect against being poisoned, ease the passage into the afterlife, ward off evil spirits and even kill those who were just plain annoying. But above all, to our early prehistoric ancestors living hundreds of thousands of years ago, fossils were the very stuff of artistic inspiration.
Drawing on archaeology, mythology and folklore, Kenneth McNamara takes you on a journey through prehistory with these strange and curious stones, and explores humankind's unending quest for the meaning of fossils.
1 A Timeless Obsession
2 In the Myths of Time
3 The Stuff of Legends
4 Fashioning the Stone
5 Delighting the Mind
6 Saving the Soul
7 Protecting the Body
8 Curing the Body
9 The Dark Side
10 A Joke of Time
Kenneth J. McNamara is a palaeontologist and former Director of the Sedgwick Museum in the University of Cambridge. He is an Emeritus Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge and Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia. He is the author of several books, including Shapes of Time (1996), The Star-Crossed Stone (2011) and, with John Long, The Evolution Revolution (2007). Like his Palaeolithic ancestors he enjoys collecting fossils.
"McNamara opens window after window on the use and interpretation of fossils by different cultures from Ireland to Australia over the millennia and up to the present. Through the strange mediaeval mythologies of dragons teeth, stone swallows, toadstones, thunderstones, snakestones and devil's toenails, an even more ancient tradition is uncovered."
– Douglas Palmer, author of A History of Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries (2011)
"A fascinating account of fossils as objects of mystical, mythological, and practical significance to ancient humans, thousands of years before written history or modern science."
– Olivia Judson, Honorary Research Fellow at Imperial College London and author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex