Sunday, May 09, 2010

Fish bones & lily stones

Because my name is out there on the Internet, I get the occasional question from someone trying to find information about historical rosaries. Sometimes the questions turn out to be quite fascinating, and I learn things I may never have imagined.

One of the most interesting so far was a note I got late last summer from an archaeozoologist -- of all things -- asking about rosaries made of fish bones. She had seen my photo of a large "wall rosary" made of shark vertebrae, which I ran across when it was sold on eBay:

Shark vertebrae

She directed my attention to a painting I'd seen before, the St. Vincent polyptych. And sure enough, when I got a closer look at the "Fisherman's panel," second from left, there was Saint Anthony in the front row, holding something very similar. (The photo is still not very clear, for which I apologize: if anyone has a better one, please say so. As always, you can click on the picture to see a larger view.)

Detail of St. Antony with fishbone beds from the St. Vincent altarpiece by Nuño Gonsalves

My correspondent in this case was Dr. Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, and she has been working on a medieval excavation at the Icelandic monastery of Skriðuklaustur, where she has found a number of shark vertebrae in the church. (A paper on the faunal remains from Skriðuklaustur is available as a PDF from the Bibliography page on her website.)

Perforated fish vertebrae tentatively identified as rosary beads have been found elsewhere -- for instance, from a 13th or 14th century chapel in Northumberland, and also in Poland. Those bones, however are smaller, and might be from cod or a similar fish.

The shark vertebrae Dr. Hamilton-Dyer found were large -- an inch to an inch and a half in diameter -- and several of them showed wear and discoloration around a central hole, something that might have been produced by a cord running through them. Here's the photo she sent (published with her permission):

Shark vertebra from Skriðuklaustur, Iceland, copyright 2009 S. Hamilton-Dyer

Her guess was that these vertebrae might be part of a rosary. They are probably too large for a rosary a person would wear, but might be from a large rosary that would be placed on an altar or statue of Our Lady. She wanted to know if I had heard of such a thing -- other than the modern example from eBay -- and I certainly have.

One of the first articles I wrote on this blog was called Up against the Wall, and it was about the very large "wall rosaries" that you sometimes find for sale. The beads on these are an inch or so in diameter, making them far too big to wear or even carry around very easily. Many eBay sellers have no idea what they are. The prices being asked for them can vary from $5 all the way up to $500 -- and since they cost around $40 new, I certainly hope no one is buying them at that price!

Wall rosaries are, in fact, not at all rare, although many people have never seen one. In the 1950s and 60s, a lot of Catholics decorated their homes with many religious statues, pictures, and other devotional items like these wall rosaries, as a sign of their faith. This is something you see less of nowadays, perhaps because Catholics today feel less like an embattled minority. Wall rosaries are certainly still being made and sold, however, and at any given time there are at least two or three secondhand ones for sale on eBay. I've been collecting photos of more examples because I'd like to write more about some of the different types.

Donating a rosary to decorate a statue or altar within a church is also a very old practice, going back well into the Middle Ages and continuing today. Sometimes you see statues so draped in rosaries and other jewelry that you can barely see their bodies or clothes. Most of the ones I have photos of are ordinary-sized rosaries draped on relatively small statues. But the practice certainly extends to large rosaries draped on large statues as well.

I haven't yet seen any other photos of fishbone rosaries, but now I'm on the lookout. The bones are certainly for sale as beads on eBay and elsewhere. Both Dr. Hamilton-Dyer and I will be interested to see if any other fishbone rosaries turn up. Considering that I've seen rosaries made of rocks, sea shells, braided horsehair, plastic dice, and miniature footballs, I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Small fish bone beads for sale

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On a related note, I also ran across a charming paper by Gary Lane and William Ausich -- paleontologists -- on the legend of St. Cuthbert's beads, published in the journal Folklore in 2001. It came up in an online search because the paper mentions rosaries.

Saint Cuthbert (634-687 AD) was one of the famous preacher saints of North Britain, and his official biography was written by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. The little disks with a hole in the center called "St. Cuthbert's beads" are found on Lindisfarne, where they weather out of limestone and can be picked up in any of the island's quarries.

Saint Cuthbert's beads are not fishbones: they are segments of the stems of fossil crinoids, animals related to sea urchins. Crinoids are known from as early as 480 million years ago, and a few stalked crinoids have survived to the present day, although they are now found only in deep water. These crinoids stand on long stalks supported by a series of bony disk-shaped segments. They are often called "sea lilies" or "feather stars."

Crinoid segments from

The earliest literary reference to crinoid stem segments as "St. Cuthbert's beads" is by John Ray in 1671. In all probability the legend dates from centuries later than St. Cuthbert's life, though it might date back as far as the beginnings of limestone quarrying on the island in the 14th century. Nineteenth-century scholars, with their romantic view of folklore and religion, decided that local limestone workers must have believed these "beads" dated from Cuthbert's time and strung them into rosaries -- but disappointingly, there seems to be very little evidence this was actually done.

Many of the later references to St. Cuthbert's beads come from Sir Walter Scott's epic poem Marmion, which says:

But fain Saint Hilda's nuns would learn
If on a rock, by Lindisfarne,
St Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame
The sea-born beads that bear his name:
Such tales had Whitby's fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And hear his anvil sound;
A deadened clang -- a huge dim form,
Seen but, and heard, when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, as tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim (canto 2, verse 16).