Today’s Story from the Museum Floor is a guest post by Sarah Scott, one of Manchester Museum’s volunteers who facilitate objects handling for our visitors, she also volunteers behind the scenes, transcribing the Egyptology Correspondence Archives. Sarah is currently studying the history of empires, both ancient and modern, and today, as we celebrate the opening of our new temporary exhibition, Nature through Roman Eyes, she takes a look at the history and mythology of ammonites, and their connection with Pliny the Elder.
For more information about volunteering at Manchester Museum, have a look at our website.
Nature through Roman Eyes is open now and runs until 30th November 2018.
The Story Ammonites – Myth and Nature
Some of the most familiar fossils in any museum collection are ammonites. An array of ammonites from across the globe are displayed throughout the Fossils gallery at Manchester Museum. Visitors are captivated by their iconic spiral shape evoking memories of childhood dinosaur books and fossil hunting expeditions.
Ammonites on display in the Fossils gallery at Manchester Museum.
The word ‘ammonite’ comes from the Latin Ammonis coruna which translates as ‘horns of Ammon’. The term references the ancient Egyptian god Ammon (or Amun) who is often depicted as wearing ram’s horns. The earliest record of the use of this term can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedic work consisting of 37 books on natural history.
An ostracon showing Amun-Re as a ram, Manchester Museum (Acc. no. 9658). Image ©Paul Cliff (Source: Egypt at the Manchester Museum)
Ammonites are an extinct group of marine mollusc animals. They are closely related to coleoids which include octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. The earliest ammonites appeared during the Devonian period about 400 million years ago. Ammonites flourished across the globe during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, became extinct in the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction event about 66 million years ago.
Polished cross-sections of ammonite fossils, on display at Manchester Museum.
The spiral shell grew with a tentacled animal inside the last chamber or ‘body-chamber’ of the shell. The empty chambers or septa were filled with gas or fluid enabling the ammonite to control its buoyancy and movement in the water and strengthened the shell to prevent it being crushed by the external water pressure.
A quick guide to ammonite anatomy and movement (Source: Jurassic Coast Trust)
It is believed that ammonites fed on plankton and vegetation on the sea bed. There is a possibility that some ammonites may also have eaten small creatures including foraminifera, ostracods, small crustaceans and brachiopods, corals and bryozoa.
There are over 10,000 known species of ammonite. Fossils are found worldwide; the largest known ammonite fossil is 2 metres in diameter and was found 1895 in Germany.
Geologists Carl Albert Oppel (top) and Friedrich August von Quenstedt (bottom), and Plate 102 from ‘Die Ammoniten des Schwäbischen Jura’ (1883-85) by Friedrich Quenstedt.
Ammonites are especially useful as ‘index fossils’ as they evolved quickly therefore each species had a short life-span, meaning that they can be used to identify geological time periods to within 200,000 years, an accurate estimation, in terms of Earth’s history!
Pliny the Elder
Born Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder lived from CE 23-79. He was a Roman natural philosopher. Pliny was descended from a wealthy family. He studied in Rome before beginning a military career where he rose to the rank of cavalry commander. After returning to Rome Pliny held several official positions during the reigns of both Nero and Vespasian.
Frontispiece and Portrait of Pliny the Elder from a 17th century edition of the Natural History. Images © The Tabley House Collection. (Source: Ancient Worlds Manchester)
Pliny the Elder spent most of his spare time studying natural and geographic phenomena which he wrote about in his encyclopaedic work Naturalis Historia. Pliny’s work refers to several fossils including echinoids, insects in amber, sharks’ teeth and ammonites.
“Hammonis cornu inter sacratissimas Aethiopiae, aureo colore cornus effigiem reddens, promittitur praedivina somnia repraesentare.”
– Pliny, Naturalis Historia 37.167
“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.”
Ammon or Amun was one of the most important gods in ancient Egypt. He was first attested in the Pyramid Texts during the Old Kingdom. By the 11th Dynasty Amun had risen to the position of patron deity of Thebes. During the New Kingdom Amun acquired national importance through his fusion with the sun god Ra, appearing as Amun-Ra or Amun-Re. He represented the hidden nature of existence, he was a creator god, and worshipped as a god of the air and the sky.
Amum-Ra retained importance as the head of the Egyptian pantheon throughout the New Kingdom. As the chief Egyptian deity he began to be worshipped outside Egypt. Greek historiographers record his identification with Zeus as Zeus Ammon.
Bust of Zeus-Amun. Roman Period c. CE 100 (Acc. No. 59.148.126) World Museum, Liverpool.
Amun is usually depicted as a bearded man with a headdress with a double plume. After the New Kingdom, he is often portrayed as a ram-headed man or as a ram.
Statues of Amun (E 11609 and AF 2577) The Louvre, Paris.
Ammonites and Mythology
Ancient human communities are known to have collected and depicted ammonites as early as 25,000 years ago. There are representations of a ‘planispiral’ form in Mesolithic rock from south-eastern Spain and on a carved reindeer horn from France dating to c. 15,000 BCE.
During the 6th century BCE ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes became the earliest known writer to acknowledge that fossils were the remains of once living creatures, although ammonites were not specifically mentioned in Greek writings. Despite this knowledge ammonites have often been attributed to mythology rather than natural history.
Ammonites found at Whitby in Yorkshire were supposed to have been snakes that had been turned to stone by St. Hilda (CE 614-680). Snakes heads were often carved on the fossils which were then sold to tourists. There are three ammonites with snake’s heads on the coat of arms of Whitby.
Whitby Coat of Arms, including three ammonites (Source: Heraldry of the World), detail from a monument to St. Hilda in Whitby, shown with ammonites at her feet, and ammonite with snake’s head carved following St Hilda’s banishment of the snakes in Whitby (LL.11837) (Source: Manchester Museum Collection Online)
The Blackfoot from North America called ammonites insikim or buffalo stones as they believed that they looked like sleeping bison. They could call out to be found in the prairies and were also used in spiritual ceremonies.
In the valley of the Gandaki River in Nepal and in northern India ammonites are called saligrams. They are considered as a symbol of Vishnu. Their radial markings are called ‘chakras’ which resemble the discus held in one of the six hands of the Vishnu.
Statue of Vishnu holding a discus, which Hindus believe is replicated in ammonite-bearing saligrams. (Source: Deposits Magazine)
The stones are kept in temples, monasteries and houses and are used in marriage and funeral ceremonies and house-warmings. If a dying person drinks water in which the saligram has been soaked, they are believed to have been freed from their sins and will reach the heavenly house of Vishnu.
In the Western Isles of Scotland ammonites are known as ‘crampstones’. They were used to cure cramp in cows by washing the cow in ammonite-soaked water. And in Germany ammonites were known as ‘dragon stones’. Putting a dragon stone in a milk pail would help cows to produce milk.
Ammonites on display in the Fossils gallery, Manchester Museum.
There is definitely something magical about ammonites. For millennia they been connected with mythologies across the globe from but even with a 21st century knowledge of fossilisation they inspire wonder and amazement.
Nature Through Roman Eyes is open now, and runs until 30 October 2018.
Find out more about our volunteer programmes at Manchester Museum on our website.