Whitby’s "Snakestones" and the legend of St.Hilda
I have loved fossil hunting since being a child and over the years with my kids I have spent hours scouring the beaches around Staithes and Whitby for the remains of long forgotten sea creatures which lived in a warm shallow sea during the Jurassic.
The grey alum shales at the foot of the cliffs around Whitby date to about 200 million years ago and are very productive for finding ammonites, belemnites and if you are lucky bones of long extinct sea monsters such as Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.
Ammonites are probably the most common fossil around Whitby, their distinctive coiled shape being easy to identify.
But what were ammonites?
They were actually a type of mollusc and classed as cephalopod (their nearest living ancestor is probably the nautilus), but they come from the same family as octopus, squid and cuttlefish, they are basically tentacled creatures but without a shell.
Ammonites would float around, using the chambers of their shell for buoyancy. The creature would live in the last chamber using it’s tentacles to ensnare food and jet propel through the Jurassic seas.
The fossilised remains of ammonites were a mystery to early settlers around Whitby. Before science came up with an answer, these mysterious items created their own folklore.
Because of their round, curved shape, they resembled coiled snakes and so throughout history they have been referred to as “snakestones”.
During Saxon times, a high ranking Northumbrian woman Hilda was tasked with founding an Abbey at Whitby. Hilda or Hild was eventually to be made a Saint and the legend of one of her miracles certainly helped her cause.
The story goes that when she arrived in Whitby in the 7th century , the town was over-run with snakes. During these Saxon times it is worth noting that Whitby was known as Streonshalh and that snakes were seen as associated with the devil and therefore evil.
Before the holy Abbey could be built, the area had to be cleared of snakes. The story goes that Abbess Hilda cast a spell and turned all the snakes into stone before throwing them off the edge of the cliff.
This feat was immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his poem Marmion
When Whitby's nuns exalting told, Of thousand snakes, each one Was changed into a coil of stone, When Holy Hilda pray'd: Themselves, without their holy ground, Their stony folds had often found.
Whitby’s Coat of Arms
The coat of arms of Whitby features 3 Ammonites. I once had a family from Australia over on an Ancestry tour and their surname was Whitby.
They wanted to see and learn about Whitby and understand what ammonites actually were. They were delighted when we found a rucksack full of the fossils at Saltwick Bay just south of Whitby!
The Victorian Tourist Trade
When the railway came to Whitby it opened up Whitby to mass tourism in Victorian times. Polished Whitby jet – a black stone found in the same Jurassic rocks as ammonites and formed from fossilised monkey puzzle trees was a popular purchase for tourists.
But enterprising Victorians also found that by carving snakes heads onto ammonite fossils made them much more valuable.
These fake heads really do make the coiled fossils look like the “snakestones” which they had been named.
As Victorian naturalists started understanding fossils and ammonites in more detail, one of the two main types of ammonite found in the Jurassic shales around Whitby was given the name Hildaceras in 1876 by the US Palaeontologist Alpheus Hyatt in a nod to St.Hilda.
I’m lucky enough to have picked up a couple of the Victorian snakestones on Ebay over the years and they have become sought after collectors items. But, I think it is a great historical item to have – encompassing a history from 200 million years ago in the Jurassic to the 600’s of Saxon Britain and the advent of Victorian tourism in the 1800's.