When you look at one or, better still, pick one up it’s not hard to understand why fossilised sea urchins (echinoids) have for many thousands of years been viewed by people as special objects. I have an interest in them because they appear as grave goods in the prehistoric archaeological record, for example at the Whitehawk Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Sussex. They’ve been collected and utilised in various ways right back as far as the Palaeolithic up until the present and there are many beliefs in folklore about these aesthetically pleasing fossils, known as shepherd’s crowns or thunderstones, which are believed to variously bring luck and ward off the Devil. A nice summary of the history of fossil collecting by Dr Ken McNamara of the University of Cambridge can be found here.
The echinoid pictured is, I only discovered yesterday, an heirloom of my family’s. When I was a child my grandparents lived at the other end of the road to us and my grandpa was often to be found working in his sizeable vegetable garden at the bottom of the orchard that separated it from my grandparents’ house at the top of the slope. I mostly remember the apple and pear trees and the gooseberries, runner beans, carrots and potatoes but I know Grandpa tended many other crops too. One day my dad was digging in the vegetable patch and came across this fossil. He took it to show Grandpa who said, “Oh yes, that’s a shepherd’s crown. I buried it in the garden for luck”. Some years later, after Grandpa had sadly passed on, my dad was digging in the vegetable patch and again turned up the shepherd’s crown; Grandpa had obviously buried it once again to bring good luck to the garden crops.
Today the orchard and vegetable patch are no longer there as they’ve been built upon but my dad has kept the shepherd’s crown safely in his home – which is the same house that my grandpa lived in (and indeed built). Unfortunately we’ll never know how Grandpa came to have the shepherd’s crown in his possession or whether it had perhaps been handed down to him but I think it still qualifies as a rather special family heirloom.