And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 15. mai 2011

Land of the Ammonites

Howbeit for all this he obtained not the principality, but at the last received shame for the reward of his treason, and fled again into the country of the Ammonites.
- 2. Maccabees 5:7

The Horn of Ammon, which is among the most sacred stones of Ethiopia, has a golden yellow colour and is shaped like a ram's horn. The stone is guaranteed to ensure without fail dreams that will come true.
- Natural History, Pliny the Elder

Were the beautiful volute and cone shells of the Eocene epoch, and the gracefully sculptured ammonites of the Secondary period, created that man might afterwards admire them in his cabinet? 
- The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin

As a part of the CMS excursion to Whitby in January we visited Whitby Museum, a charming and charmingly eclectic display of articles and items, covering the fields of natural history, Medieval history, modern history and what may be termed colonial history, all of which are on display in the main hall of the museum. It was a great delight to more or less randomly meander the various shelves and sections, and whenever the museum personnel noticed my interest in something particular, they would lecture me on the subject. It was in this way I learned a great deal about ammonites.

The coastline of Yorkshire is famous for its many fossils. It was due to the increasing amount of fossil discoveries caused by the alum mining of the early 19th century that local intellectuals decided to found the Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society in 1823, the main purpose being to establish a museum for the numerous finds.

into the country of the Ammonites.
- 2. Maccabees 5:7

I had previously never been exposed to large quantities of fossils in real life, so I became quite intrigued by the many beautiful specimens displayed in the museum. One of the museum guards perceived my interest and started lecturing me on the history of ammonites, a species found in great quantities in the Whitby area. As he told me how the ammonite shell was constructed and showed me how the ammonite had evolved through aeons and how their age could be established, I was immensely awestruck, first of all as a Christian, to behold the minute intricacies of Creation presented before me. Until then I had had only a vague interest in fossils, considering them fascinating yet not compelling to such an extent that I would give it a lot of thought, but all this changed as I learned about the ammonites and their history. To me it was a deeply religious and humbling experience to witness the complexity of primordial life, and this added another dimension to my appreciation of fossils.

When we were about to leave I rummaged through the souvenir shop and came upon a selection of ammonite fossils available for purchase. I was very excited to discover this, picked one I considered pretty and brought it to the counter. Fortunately it was the museum guard who had lectured me on ammonites who was behind the counter, and when he saw I wanted to buy an ammonite fossil he said he'd find an even prettier one. So he went into the backroom and returned with a box of nearly pristine ammonites of which I could pick the one I found to be the prettiest. I decided on one, paid the 3 pounds and left the Museum in many ways vastly richer than when I had entered.

Photographs taken by Ragnhild Birkeland.

The discovery of fossils is not solely a modern occurrence in Whitby. In the Middle Ages these petrified coils were found on the sea-shore, but naturally interpreted according to the worldview of the Medieval mind and given a legendary genesis that would explain their existence in plausible terms. Consequently there arose a legend claiming that Hilda, the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey in the 7th century, gathered the numerous serpents found on the site of the abbey and tossed them from the clifftop into the ocean, a story similar to that of St. Patrick and the expulsion of snakes from Ireland. In the process the serpents petrified and lost their heads, and the fossils of ammonites were therefore dubbed snakestones. Later, curiosity dealers used to carve serpent heads into the fossils in order to purvey these to credulous customers, hence the name Whitby snakestones. Snakestones, it is said, were used as charms agains snakebites, and three snakestones are found in the Whitby Town Arms.

How of a thousand snakes each one
Was changed into a coil of stone
When holy Hilda prayed.
- Marmion. A Tale of Flooden Field, Sir Walter Scott

Picture is taken from the Whitby Museum website

Picture taken from

The name "ammonite" derives from the fossils' similarity in shape to the coiled horns of the Egyptian god Ammon, as noted by the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), and has no etymological connection to the Ammonite nation found in the Old Testament. Ammonites were squid-like carnivores harrowing the Mezosoic seas some 240 million years ago and onwards to their extinction, together with the dinosaurs, at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Due to their long duration they are considered one of the most successful species of world history. Among their living relatives are included the nautilus, whose shell is divided into chambers in the same manner as the ammonites. Also, like the ammonites, the nautuli lives only in the outermost chamber. Below is the shell of a nautilus exhibited in the Yorkshire Museum.

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,--
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
- The Chambered Nautilus, Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Yorkshire Museum also has a nice selection of ammonites, along with other fossils, but not nearly as extensive as that of Whitby Museum. However, I enjoyed spending time in the fossil section there too, and on one occasion I remembered to take pictures, something I sadly forgot when in Whitby. 

Sign showing the entrance to the geology room at Yorkshire Museum. 

The dead body of an animal, particularly a shelly one like an ammonite, acts as a nucleus around which lime and other rock forming minerals tend to accumulate.
- Life Stories, David Attenborough

Modern rendition of an ammonite. The tube-shaped implement close to its shell is called a siphuncle and served as an air-pump that helped them move through the water.

As a consequence of this new-found fascination I began to discover ammonite shapes and forms in everyday surroundings. Whenever I stood on the top of the stairs in the Constantine annex I would see that its winding route strongly resembled the coiling features of the ammonite. It may also have been this tendency of noticing ammonite shapes that caught my attention in the bookshop at Durham cathedral, where I bought Alister McGrath's splendid book Why God won't go away, which, despite not mentioning neither nautili nor ammonites, has a cross section of a nautilus shell on its cover. I'm heartily glad for it, since the book is an excellent read. 

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