Cabinet of Curiosities

Window on the Past

Welcome to Vincent’s Cabinet of Curiosities. A fossil is simply the remains of a prehistoric plant or animal, usually preserved in rock. The word derives from the Latin ‘fossilis’, meaning something dug up and their study is called palaeontology. People have been aware of them and their origin hotly debated for centuries. For example, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was fascinated by them. Most consist of the hard parts of the once living organism, for instance shells, bones and teeth. In a sense they are a ‘back-stage pass’ into the distant past, showcasing the complex succession of plant and animal species that once inhabited this wondrous planet of ours.

My first fossil

I was 10 years old when I found my first fossil, a single shelled mollusc or gastropod, embedded in a piece of Carboniferous limestone which formed on the bed of a sub-tropical sea some 340 million years ago. This is a light grey coloured rock which is readily apparent from the photo. A pivotally important moment in my life, it marked both the beginning of my collecting and my lifelong fascination with limestone! I initially mistook it for an ammonite because of the similar spiral shape. These are however quite different marine invertebrates.

Dactylioceras ammonite from Whitby, Yorkshire

Ammonites belong to a group of molluscs known as cephalopods and are related to present day octopus, squid and cuttlefish. They derive their name from the spiral form reminiscent of the ram horns sometimes depicted on the head of the Egyptian God Ammon. They were well established in the primeval sea by around 380 million years ago. Their hard outer shells were composed of a substance called aragonite and were divided internally into a series of separate chambers. The animal occupied the outer one and as it grew added on a new section toward the front into which it moved, sealing off the back with a thin wall or septa. The disused chambers were filled with a mixture of water and gas, the portions of which could be adjusted by means of a hollow, connecting tube called a siphuncle. This allowed the animal to move up and down in the water column as its buoyancy was changed. The term cephalopod is derived from the Greek meaning ‘head-footed’ and refers to the arrangement of tentacles that radiated from its head. These were used to seize and hold prey which consisted of crustaceans and fish. Now completely extinct as a group, they varied greatly in size with some species growing to over 6 feet in diameter. In 2001 I found a pebble on a beach in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, a place famous for its Jurassic Period fossils. I cracked it open to reveal the ammonite in the photo. Called Dactylioceras, that was the first time in 185 million years that the sun had shone on it! Known locally as ‘snake-stones’, it was believed at one time that they were snakes petrified by St. Hilda, a personage associated with the town.

Ammonite cluster, Germany
Chambered nautilus

The chambered nautilus is the sole living relative of the ammonites. A nocturnal creature by habit, it is found in the Pacific down to depths of 1,800 feet. It possesses a hard beak-like appendage which it uses when feeding. The shell of an adult animal is around 6 inches across and is whitish in colour streaked with reddish serrated stripes to help camouflage it. The specimen I am holding was gifted to me when I was fifteen by my sister Barbara for my collection. I have included photos of a cross-section of an ammonite and a nautilus to show the internal chamber structure of their shells and a model of an ammonite for comparison with a nautilus.

Model of ammonite and nautilus compared
Cross sections of an ammonite & nautilus

The bullet-shaped object is the tail section of the internal shell of a squid-like cephalopod called a belemnite and was probably used for balance when the creature was swimming. Known as a rostrum, it is composed of calcite, the crystalline form of calcium carbonate. In the past they were named ‘thunderbolts’ based on a belief that they were darts thrown down to earth from the heavens during thunderstorms. The specimen in the photo is around 180 million years old.

Jurassic belemnite

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Cabinet of Curiosities

Cutting Remarks

Poleaxed cow scull, 10th century

For many years I worked as an osteoarchaeologist specialising in the study of animal bones. I am particularly interested in the craft of butchery. I first pondered a career in this area when I worked in 1981 at the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeological excavations on the medieval site of Wood Quay in Dublin. Several thousand sacks of animal bones were recovered and, exposed to such a huge body of material, it was only a matter of time before the penny dropped. This twinned my lifelong interests in natural history and archaeology. I was hooked!

Sheep ‘stunner’

Until the adoption of the captive bolt pistol, cattle were killed using an implement known as a poleaxe. The head had a spike on one edge and an axe-like blade on the other and was mounted on the end of a long wooden handle. Once the animal was tethered, the butcher drove the spike through the frontal bone of the skull, the function of which was to stun the animal prior to slaughter. The skull in the photo dates from the 10th century and clearly displays the extensive damage caused by a poleaxe wielded over 1000 years ago. After killing, the horns were often removed and horn-workers who plied their skills in the medieval towns used them as raw material from which they fashiond a range of items including combs and spoons. The photo of the chisel-like implement I am holding was used for stunning sheep and was retrieved from a derelict slaughter- house some years ago.

Cattle pelvis with ‘caput’ of femur in position

In medieval times the bones, once the main meat had been removed, were usually reduced to smaller fragments and used in the preparation of soups and stews. The triangular-shaped bone in the photos is a cow’s pelvic socket. Initially caked in clay, I found the head or ‘caput’ of the femur still in place in the socket when I washed it. Around 800 years ago a butcher had hacked through the neck of the femur in order to separate the leg from the pelvis. One image shows the caput in place in the socket, the other removed from same. 

‘Caput’ removed from its pelvic socket

I vividly recall an incident when I was around 9 years old that was perhaps the initial catalyst for my later career. I was standing, peering up sheepishly, at the formidable hulk of our local butcher. I had been dispatched by my Mother to go and ask for a bone for the dog. Accustomed to such requests, he produced the distal or lower end of a cow’s humerus, though I didn’t know what bone it belonged to at the time, wrapped it up in a large sheet of paper and handed it to me. Tightly tucked under my arm, I headed home triumphantly. We hadn’t got a dog! The bone, in reality, was destined for the pot where it would help to bulk up a soup. Different times for sure and a fine example of continuity in culinary skills with the inhabitants of medieval Dublin.

Medieval combmakers discarded off-cuts

The last photo details a pair of antler off-cuts, waste discarded by craftsmen using this material to fashion combs, pins and such like. Red deer shed their antlers between April and May each year and in medieval times these were collected and sold as raw material to the combmakers whose workshops were based in the towns. The specimen on the right in the photo is the basal section of a naturally shed antler known as a burr. The one on the left is still attached to a section of skull which indicates that this particular animal had been hunted and killed before its antlers were subsequently removed. If you look closely you can see fine saw-marks on the flat cut surfaces of this specimen, a legacy of the craftsman’s skill.

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Cabinet of Curiosities

Bobbing Along

photograph of 4 violet sea snail shells
Violet Sea Snails

I am going to take you to the western seaboard and share with you some of the unusual items I have picked up over the years while beachcombing with my wife Lindi. The warm water current known as the Gulf Stream, which originates in the Gulf of Mexico, blends into the North Atlantic Drift and passes along the west coast of Ireland on its way towards more northern shores. Carried along by this water conveyor-belt is a whole range of amazing items including plants and animals of various descriptions. One of my favourites is the violet sea-snail (Janthina janthina). This mollusc spends its entire life floating upside down on the surface buoyed up by a raft of bubbles. This buoyancy aid is formed by trapping air-bubbles in a mucus which the creature secretes from its foot and the shell is also very light. It feeds mainly on jellyfish and has a palate particularly partial to the Portuguese man-o-war and By-the wind-sailor. One of the more unusual aspects of the life cycle of violet sea-snails is that they are protandric hermaphrodites – born male but developing as they progress through life into a female – so that they get to experience the best of both worlds! They are found in equatorial and temperate waters and are blown ashore by strong winds. The specimens shown here were collected on a beach on Achill Island.

Photograph of 3 sea hearts
Sea hearts

Other Gulf Stream passengers from sunnier climes are the so-called sea-beans or sea-hearts. These are the seed of a tropical legume, (Entada gigas), a member of the pea family. Growing in profusion in central America and the Caribbean, the plant uses the support of trees to climb towards the light and in a short space of time can completely mantle expansive areas of the forest. Also going by the name of ‘monkey-ladder’, because primates use it to help them traverse the high tree canopy, the plant holds the world record for producing the largest pea pod, which can be up to 6 feet long. These consist of a number of individual compartments, each of which hold a single seed. The mature pods fall from the plants and as they decay the seeds are released. Many of these are washed into streams and rivers during tropical rains and are carried to the ocean where huge numbers begin their long sea voyage northward in the waters of the Gulf Stream. It has been calculated that the seeds take around 15 months to reach the west coast of Ireland where they are sometimes washed ashore. When Christopher Columbus visited Galway city in 1477 it is said that he was shown a collection of sea-beans which had been found locally along the coast. He apparently pondered that these were seeds from exotic plants growing in lands far to the west. In the Azores they are known as ‘fava de Colm’ – ‘Columbus bean’. Through the centuries they have excited interest and found a multiplicity of uses. In Norway a drink was made from the beans to alleviate pain during childbirth, British sailors carried them as a good luck charm for safe voyages and they were made into snuff boxes and lockets. The photo shows 3 sea-hearts, one each of which I found on beaches in Mayo, Donegal and Clare. The larger ones are 2 inches across.

I picked up the two coconuts, on separate occasions, on a beach in Clare. These are the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) and probably originated in the West Indies. The tree can grow to 80 feet in height. The nut is housed in a fibrous husk and both its flesh and liquid are nutritious. As Robinson Crusoe learned to his advantage, its leaves make an excellent material for thatching, umbrellas and baskets!! The tough fibres of the husk are processed for the manufacture of ropes and matting. The specimen below to the left in the photo has an intact husk. 


Join me for more curiosities in the coming days…..