Paul Taylor (Natural History Museum, London) is, along with his other talents, an expert on the folklore of fossils. His accounts of how fossils have been used and imagined in the past are fascinating, especially to paleontologists who work with them every day. (We had an example this summer at Whitby, England, with Saint Hilda and the ammonites.) So I was primed when Tim Palmer told me about an article on “Lapis Judaicus” or “Jews’ Stone” by Christopher Duffin (2006). Tim thought the medicinal value of these things was particularly appropriate for me.
At the top of this post is a clavate (club-shaped) spine from the echinoid Pseudocidaris. I collected it years ago from the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) exposed in Makhtesh Gadol, southern Israel. In classical and medieval times this would have been a Jews’ stone (or jewstone). Its shape is critical, of course, but also its provenance in the Middle East.
This is an illustration from Gesner (1565) showing a set of Jews’ stones (taken from Duffin, 2006, fig. 2). The image on the right (“.3”) is very close to our Pseudocidaris spine. The range of shapes for Jews’ stones was broad; all simply had to have this general clavate appearance and be from the Holy Lands.
Jews’ stones are examples of a kind of sympathetic magic attached to natural objects. It was thought that the globular shape of these spines resembled a bladder, and so these stones could be used to treat urinary disorders of various kinds. Sometimes the ancient prescriptions called for them to be sucked, but more often the stones were ground into a powder and combined with other exotic ingredients for consumption either orally … or other ways. The Jews’ stones were thought to have both preventative value as well as curative.
And that is why Tim recommended them to me. One of their primary uses was for the cursed kidney stones.
Nice to know I could have a potential treatment available right there on the outcrop!
Duffin, C.J. 2006. Lapis Judaicus or the Jews’ stone: the folklore of fossil echinoid spines. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 117: 265-275.
Gesner, C. 1565. De Rerum Fossilium. Lapidum et Gemmarum maxime, figures et similitudinibus Libel’: non solum Medicis, sed omnibus rerum Naturae ac Philologiae studiosis, utilis et jucundus futurus. Publisher unknown, Zürich.
Gould, S.J. 2000. The Jew and the Jew Stone. Natural History 6: 26-39.