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Sea Dragons, Fairy Loaves
& Serpents of Stone
Fables & Fossils of Lyme Regis
by Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker
|Dr. Karl Shuker and life-size megalodon jaws,Lyme Fossil Shop, Lyme Regis|
In July 2010, I visited Lyme Regis on Dorset’s south coast, a relatively small town but one that is to fossil enthusiasts what Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh-English border is to book lovers. Indeed, Lyme Regis is famous worldwide – and justifiably so - for the exceptional fossiliferous diversity and fecundity of its rocky cliffs and beaches, which have revealed untold palaeontological treasures down through the ages - from complete fossilised skeletons of giant prehistoric marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, to a vast array of ancient invertebrates, including trilobites, ammonites, archaic crinoids or sea-lilies, and much else besides. Even so, the correct zoological identities of these remarkable relics from our planet’s far-distant past have only been established by science during the last two centuries. Before then, as revealed here, the true nature of many of Lyme Regis’s fossil fauna had inspired all manner of fascinating legends and lore, as well as some very ingenious (albeit wholly inaccurate!) proto-scientific speculation.
Crocodiles, Dragons and Monsters - Oh My!
Ichthyosaurs were specialised Mesozoic marine reptiles that due to convergent evolution were deceptively fish-like (‘ichthyosaur’ translates as ‘fish lizard’) or even, in some cases, dolphin-like in superficial external appearance. They inhabited seas around the world from the mid-Triassic Period to the late Cretaceous Period (245 million to 90 million years ago), and many remarkably well-preserved specimens have emerged from the fossil-yielding rocks of Lyme Regis.
Indeed, the most famous single fossil specimen ever to be found here was an ichthyosaur. Moreover, in the eyes of many palaeontologists, it is still the ichthyosaur – the 17-ft-long skeleton that was discovered by local teenage fossil seeker Mary Anning in 1811. Although, to be strictly accurate, its 4-ft skull, the first part of the specimen to come to light, was actually discovered by Mary’s brother, Joseph, after which Mary sought – and found – its skeleton.
Portrait of Mary Anning by an unknown artist.
Mary went on to discover many more scientifically priceless specimens at Lyme Regis during the next three decades, including plesiosaurs and even an early pterosaur, Dimorphodon, which she sold to various scientific institutions as well as to wealthy natural history collectors. So eminent did Mary become in her own right that she was ultimately immortalised in a tortuous tongue-twister still familiar today – “She sells sea shells on the sea shore”.
Today, palaeontologists recognise that ichthyosaurs constitute a major reptilian lineage of their own, taxonomically discrete from all others. In earlier days, conversely, their spectacular remains incited much controversy and confusion among researchers attempting to categorise them. In the pre-scientific age, their fossilised relics were considered to be the bones of antediluvian sea dragons that had survived the Great Flood and which may still exist in the vast oceans even today, thereby linking them directly with sightings of sea monsters and other maritime horrors of legend or cryptozoology (depending upon your personal opinion of such beasts!).
|A plesiosaur, Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, found by Mary Anning in 1821 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, and on display in London's Natural History Museum|
Occasionally, an even more exotic identity was offered. In neighbouring Somerset, for example, a certain uncovered ichthyosaur skull was long deemed in local tradition to be that of Blue Ben of Kilve, the devil’s own steed, which reputedly fell from a rocky causeway and drowned in the deep mud below. The skull can now be viewed in a nearby museum.
Mary Anning sold her ichthyosaur skeleton for the then-princely sum of £23 to Henry Host Henley of Sandringham, Norfolk, who was also Lord of the Manor of Colway, just behind Lyme Regis. He in turn deposited it in William Bullock’s London Museum of Natural History, at Piccadilly. During the original excavations in November 1812 to remove its skeleton from the rocks, newspaper reports had referred to it as a petrified crocodile.
|Ichthyosaur skeleton, Dinosaurland, Lyme Regis
Although this may seem an unlikely misidentification to make, it must be remembered that, back in those days, no ichthyosaur remains presented for scientific scrutiny exhibited any impression of the prominent dorsal fin and caudal fin now known to have been sported by most ichthyosaur species – the first such fossils were not disinterred until the 1890s, in Germany. Without these finny accoutrements, therefore, to the casual untrained observer an ichthyosaur skeleton would indeed look somewhat crocodilian in basic form, especially with regard to its elongated jaws.
Conversely, when in 1814 the Mary Anning ichthyosaur was formally described by early palaeontologist Everard Hume, he discounted a crocodilian identity for it but was just as erroneous in his own taxonomic judgement, because he considered it to be more closely allied to the fish. Notwithstanding this, when in May 1819 it was sold by Bullock’s museum at auction, where it was purchased for £47 and 5 shillings by Charles Konig of the British Museum. It was Konig, incidentally, who had first coined the term ‘ichthyosaur’, in 1813, it was listed as “a Crocodile in a Fossil State”.
Although it is often claimed that the Mary Anning ichthyosaur was the first ever to be discovered, this is not true. Several notable, albeit incomplete, specimens had been documented prior to this. The earliest illustration of an ichthyosaur fossil – a vertebra from the Severn estuary - was published as long ago as 1699 and had been variously (but invariably) misidentified as the mortal remains of erstwhile whales, giant lizards, and even the (very) odd sea lion! The jaw of what was evidently a many-toothed ichthyosaur, obtained from the Dorset coast, was in 1783 exhibited in London to the Society for Promoting Natural History, but contemporary naturalists believed it to be from a fossil crocodile.
During the 1820s, scientific opinion swung away from fish or crocodiles and towards whales as being the ichthyosaurs’ closest living relatives. By the time that the finely-preserved German fossils of the 1890s had been revealed, however, the ichthyosaurs’ correct status as a separate, reptilian lineage had been firmly established, and the dreams of biblical sea-dragons were done with forever.
Headless & Petrified - and that's just the serpents!
|Plesiosaur & ichthyosaur, 1895 lithograph|
Had there really been sea-dragons lurking offshore at Lyme Regis, they might well have become embroiled in some serious battles with the giant serpents also once deemed by local lore and fable to exist here. And constituting silent but very substantial evidence for these erstwhile claims are the countless specimens of what initially do resemble tightly-coiled stone serpents visible in prolific quantities embedded in the rocks on the beaches and emerging from the cliffs all about Lyme Regis and its environs. You can even walk directly over them, as I did, in the slabs of pavement comprising the Cobb – a curved mass of masonry sheltering the town’s harbour. Further out is the famous Fossil Pavement composed of limestone, where untold numbers are encrusted. Many are tiny, but there are hundreds of much bigger ones too, some of which are almost the size of cart wheels – so, if uncoiled, these would have been serpents of truly prodigious size...but is this really what they were?
|Arietites ammonite cast, Monmouth Beach, Lyme Regis|
In bygone times, many people did genuinely consider them to be the petrified remains of the great sea serpents long believed to frequent the vast marine waterways of our planet. And, if so, perhaps these colossal beasts did engage in lethal confrontations with other maritime monsters after all, because one very curious characteristic shared by virtually every specimen of stony serpent, however great or small it may be, is that it is headless - a decapitated fossilised corpse devoid of skull, eyes, or mouth.
In reality, of course, these cephalically-challenged animals were not snakes at all, but ammonites – prehistoric cephalopod molluscs that inhabited Earth’s ancient seas from the early Jurassic Period to the end of the Cretaceous Period (200 million to 65 million years ago). They were related to today’s squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish, but lived inside tightly-whorled, ornately ridged shells, like the modern-day nautiluses, which are superficially ammonite-like in outward form but have much more fragile shells.
|Ammonite reconstruction model|
In life, their many-tentacled heads would have protruded out of their shells (which were usually, though not exclusively, planispiral in shape), but as the tissues constituting those structures are relatively soft, they are preserved far less successfully or abundantly than are shells, skeletons, and other harder materials during the fossilisation process. Consequently, ammonite fossils exhibiting these details are much less readily encountered. Coupled with the ostensibly serpentine appearance of their shells, it can be readily understood, therefore, how untrained pre-scientific observers may have assumed such fossils to be the remains of headless snakes.
"When Whitby's nuns exalting told,
Extract from the poem 'Marmion' by Sir Walter Scott (1808)
Moreover, the very sizeable Titanites ammonites, often measuring 2 ft or more in diameter, found in Dorset’s Jurassic-dated Portland Stone greatly impressed the Isle of Portland quarrymen when encountering them in earlier ages, because they were convinced that these mega-fossils were the antiquated remains of gigantic eels. This explains why they are still colloquially referred to here as Conger eels. Other giant ammonites of Dorset include Arietites and Coroniceras, found in Lyme Regis’s Blue Lias limestone slabs on Monmouth Beach.
In a chapter discussing ammonite frauds and fables within my latest book, Karl Shuker’s Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), I note that the deceptive headlessness of these ‘stone serpents’ inspired all manner of charming legends throughout Britain and elsewhere. These usually involved a local saint ridding the area of snakes by touching them, whereupon their heads immediately dropped off and their bodies then curled up and turned to stone. I also mention that when the sale of fossils became lucrative, some enterprising vendors would even skilfully carve snake heads out of the stone matrix surrounding the open end of the ammonites’ shells, thereby restoring these supposed serpents’ lost heads! Clearly, it was not only the local saints who were capable of miracles!
Thunder Bullets, Fairy Loaves and Devil's Toenails
|Belemnites on slab, close-up
Ammonites are not the only ancient cephalopod molluscs whose remains are liberally preserved within Lyme Regis’s rocky repositories of fossils. Also represented here in prolific quantities, particularly amid the Black Ven Marls, are long, slender, bullet-shaped objects that have traditionally been referred to in southeast England as 'Thunder Bullets' or 'Thunderbolts', because they were believed to have been cast down from Heaven during thunderstorms. Elsewhere around the world they have acquired even more memorable nicknames, such as 'Scaur Pencils' in Whitby, 'Jien-shih' or 'Sword Stones' in China, and 'Vätteljus' or 'Gnomes’ Candles' in Sweden.
In reality, of course, they are none of these exotic items. Instead, they derive from prehistoric cuttlefish-related molluscs known as belemnites. Like ammonites, alongside which they too died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period, belemnites sported ten tentacles at the front of their body, encased inside a small chambered cup-like shell or phragmocone but which was straight in form rather than spiralled like the much larger shells of ammonites. Their body’s rear portion was supported by a long bullet-shaped guard, and it is this, believed to have served as a counterbalance device, that has survived during fossilisation to yield the supposed thunder bullets encountered today.
The English antiquarian John Brand in "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" (Vol II, p.513), says:
"In Dorset the Pixy-lore still lingers. The being is called Pexy and Colepexy. The fossil belemnites are named Colepexies-fingers; and the fossil echini, Colepexies-heads. The children, when naughty, are also threatened with the Pexy, who is supposed to haunt woods and coppices."
Moving from Gnomes’ Candles to 'Fairy Loaves', the latter are small heart-shaped fossils commonly found around Lyme Regis, especially in 100-million-year-old Cretaceous Upper Greensand flints lying on the beaches. It was once believed that they were not only loaves created by fairies but also imbued with fairy magic themselves, for according to traditional southern England folklore a family whose house contained one or more of these curious little objects would never be without real bread, even in times of shortages or famine, and their milk would never turn sour either. Eventually, however, such quaint legends were brushed aside by the rather more prosaic scientific reality that these were in fact the fossilised shells or tests of a sea urchin known as Micraster.
As for 'Devil’s Toenails', these very distinctive-looking objects, commonly encountered in Lower Lias (Jurassic) rocks up and down Great Britain, including the Blue Lias of Lyme Regis, are the large, fossilised incurved left valves or shells of specimens belonging to a species of prehistoric marine bivalve mollusc known as Gryphaea arcuata, which was ancestral to today’s oysters. The right valves of Gryphaea specimens were much smaller, flat, and lid-like, thus attracting less attention from casual observers.
|Devil's Toenail, Gryphaea arcuata|
Today, the East Devon and Dorset coastline incorporating Lyme Regis’s fossil-rich repositories is known as the Jurassic Coast and has very deservedly been listed as a natural World Heritage Site, England’s first, with its spectacular wealth of palaeontological treasures internationally renowned and extensively documented in the palaeo-literature. Happily, however, their scientific eminence has not entirely banished their associated folkloric traditions from the modern world, which persist just as tenaciously as the fossils themselves. And rightly so - after all, a planet without sea dragons, fairy loaves, thunder bullets, and stony serpents would certainly be an infinitely drabber, sadder one!
Anon. (2010). Jurassic Coast: Dorset East Devon Coast – England’s First Natural World Heritage Site. Information brochure.
Bassett, Michael G. (1982). ‘Formed Stones’, Folklore and Fossils. National Museum of Wales (Cardiff).
Castell, C.P. et al. (1962). British Mesozoic Fossils. Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History) (London).
Clarke, Nigel J. & SARGENT, Chris (no date, c.2003). The Fossil Map: Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Nigel J. Clarke Publications (Lyme Regis).
Davies, Steve (2003). Fossils in Lyme Regis. Dinosaurland Fossil Museum (Lyme Regis).
DAWES, Colin (2003). Fossil Hunting Around Lyme Regis: A Practical Insight Into The Jurassic Period. Colin Dawes Studio (Lyme Regis).
Edwards, W.N. (1967). The Early History of Palaeontology. Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History) (London).
Figuier, Louis (1891). The World Before The Deluge. Cassell & Company Limited (London).
HOWE, S.R., SHARPE, T., & TORRENS, H.S. (1981). Ichthyosaurs: A History of Fossil ‘Sea-Dragons’. National Museum of Wales (Cardiff).
Lavenás, Tilly (ed.) (2010). Jurassic Coast Visitor, no. 1, 40 pp.
McGowan, Christopher (1991). Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons. Harvard University Press (London).
Wendt, Herbert (1968). Before The Deluge. Victor Gollancz (London).
Also, be sure to check out the official Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site website at: www.jurassiccoast.com
Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker BSc PhD FRES FZS is a zoologist and expert in Cryptozoology, animal mythology and wildlife anomalies. A Scientific Fellow of the prestigious Zoological Society of London, a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, a Member of the International Society of Cryptozoology and other wildlife-related organisations. He is the author of more than a dozen books on mysterious phenomena and cryptozoological books, including a collection of poetry.
His books are: Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts (Robert Hale: London, 1989), Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (Robert Hale: London, 1991), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (HarperCollins: London, 1993), Dragons: A Natural History (Aurum Press: London/Simon & Schuster: New York, 1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors: Do Giant 'Extinct' Creatures Still Exist? (Blandford Press: London, 1995), The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Natural and Paranormal Mysteries (Carlton Books: London/JG Press: North Dighton, 1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (Llewellyn Publications: St Paul, Minnesota, 1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable (Carlton Books: London, 1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature (Reader's Digest: Pleasantville/Marshall Editions: London, 2001), The New Zoo: New and Rediscovered Animals of the Twentieth Century (House of Stratus Ltd: Thirsk, UK/House of Stratus Inc: Poughkeepsie, USA, 2002) [fully-updated, greatly-expanded, brand-new edition of The Lost Ark], The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals (Paraview Press: New York, 2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited: From Singing Dogs To Serpent Kings (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007) [fully-updated, greatly-expanded, brand-new edition of Extraordinary Animals Worldwide], Dr Shuker's Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008), Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals on Stamps: A Worldwide Catalogue (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008), and Star Steeds and Other Dreams: The Collected Poems (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2009).
Aside from books, Karl acts as a Contributing Editor and cryptozoological columnist for Strange Magazine, and is a longstanding contributor to FATE Magazine, both published in the U.S.A. In the U.K., he is a Special Correspondent for, and also has two cryptozoological columns in, Fortean Times. Over the years, he has contributed to a vast range of other publications too, including All About Cats, Cat World, All About Dogs, Wild About Animals, Animals Animals Animals, BBC Wildlife, The Biologist, History For All, Goblin Universe, Fortean Studies, CFZ Yearbook, Sightings, Western Morning News, Prediction, The Unknown, Uri Geller's Encounters, Alien Encounters, Me Magazine, Avicultural Magazine, World Pheasant Association News, Animals and Men: Journal for the Centre for Fortean Zoology, ISC Cryptozoology Newsletter, Jack Magazine, Mas Alla, Bizarre, Bike Magazine, Athene, Scan, The X-Factor, Beyond, and, most recently, Paranormal Magazine.
- For more information about Karl's publications and news visit his website at www.karlshuker.com or blog www.karlshuker.blogspot.com
Copyright - Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker 2010Article updated Saturday 24th July 2010