Lilies of the Sea: Crinoids and the Early Royal Society

An engraving of crinoid fossils or astroites by William Lodge, printed in Philosophical Transactions 10, 112 (1675), pp. 272-79. Copyright, The Royal Society, London.

As part of the circle of the York virtuosi, Martin Lister (1639-1712) worked with a variety of artists in York to illustrate his articles for the Philosophical Transactions.  William Lodge (1649-89) did this engraving of crinoid or sea lily fossils, also known in the seventeenth century as astroites for their stellate shape.  The engraving was printed in Phil. Trans., no. 112 (25 March 1675), pp. 274-279. (Copyright, The Royal Society, London).

While some crinoids, called “feather stars,” are mobile and free-swimming, a sea-lily’s base was stuck to the sea floor, and from it grew a flexible stem supporting a head or calyx. From its head grew five (or multiples of five) branched and moveable arms, which filtered food particles and tiny organisms from the seawater. Cilia lining grooves on the insides of the arms manipulated the food along the arms down to the mouth, which was situated in the center of a membrane that covered the base of arms (the tegument). The flexible branches and stem were made up of wafer-like calcareous plates stacked on each other and strung together by ligaments. In the center of the stem and each arm was a fluid-filled body canal through which a nerve cord passed. When the animals died, their remains accumulated along with shells and other hard parts of corals and brachiopods to create a calcium layer. All those remains, cemented together by carbonate mud and subjected to geothermal heat and pressure, became the consolidated limestone.

A fossil of a typical crinoid, showing the stem, calyx and ciliated arms. Wikimedia Commons, Released under the GNU Free Documentation License,

Crinoid paleontologists William J. Ausich and the late N. Gary Lan have noted that when fossilized, the individual plates of the stem and arms usually separate. At the center of each is the hole that once accommodated the nerve, thus creating the impression of a perforated bead much in the shape of a modern-day British POLO® mint or American Life Savers® sweet.  So, what you see in the drawing are the individualised plates with a central lumen, as well as intact sea lilly stems.

These particular crinoids were probably sent to Lister by the naturalist John Ray, who was fossil hunting on Lindisfarne Island with the naturalist Thomas Willisel (1621-75), the Royal Society’s official collector of minerals, flora, and fauna, and probably England’s first professional field naturalist.  As Ray described, the two men gathered the crinoids from the “seashore under the town, those stones which they call St Cuthbert’s beads.” The beads, which ranged in size from a pea to a half-dollar, were the ridged and perforated fossil disks of crinoids or sea-lilies.

Originally a shepherd boy, Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne, where during his life, he was renowned for his holiness and miracles. But it was in circumstances surrounding Cuthbert’s death that he attained his sainthood. According to Bede, the monks exhumed Cuthbert eleven years after his death to enshrine his bones for veneration, and found his corpse had not undergone any decay. Cuthbert’s body, kept on display at Holy Island, became a source of popular veneration until repeated Viking raids, beginning in the eighth century, made the monks quit their monastery around 875. The monks took Cuthbert with them to the mainland, and traveled with his remains for more than a hundred years until he could be laid to rest at Durham Cathedral. Local legend thus claimed that St. Cuthbert had made the beads to give to his brethren, to string together for their rosaries. And after his death Cuthbert’s spirit supposedly continued making nocturnal visits to his “forge” on the island to replenish the supply.

Lister was not only interested in the crinoids for their folklore, but because they presented a taxonomic challenge, and because they led to questions about the nature and origins of fossils–were they remains of animals, or were they merely formed stones?  Lister did not think his finds were actually plants, just shaped like them, calling them “rock plants.” His detailed examination of the morphology of the astroites, particularly their joints which he dissolved in vinegar and niter, led him to conclude “no vegetable, either of Land or Sea, that I know of, hath such frequent joints and short or thin internodia,” arguing that they were mere formed stones created by mineral juices surrounding them. Treating them as mineral specimens, he speculated that “I doubt not, but they will readily calcine, as the Belemnites, of a very strong and white Lime.”  Lister was in good company when he considered belemnites of mineral origin. Belemnites, cigar-shaped internal shells of an extinct squid, were regular, crystalline, and widely considered lapides sui generis until the eighteenth century when specimens with surrounding soft parts were found.

To further his morphological arguments, Lister ensured that his publication on crinoids had the highest standards of scientific illustration, producing the first illustrated paper on fossils in the Philosophical Transactions. To justify his rather extravagant illustrations to Oldenburg, he wrote:

“Words are but the arbitrary symboles of things, & perhaps I have not used them to the best advantage. Good Design (& such is that I send you, done by that ingenious young Gentleman & excellent Artist, my very good friend Mr. William Lodge.” (MS L5/61, Royal Society Library, London).

William Lodge was a local landscape artist with distant family connections, as his sister Mary married John Lister from the Gisburn branch of the family. Lodge’s mother came from a village in the vicinity of the Craven Fault, so it is entirely possible that Lister had known the family since his marriage to Hannah Parkinson who was also from Craven. A talented draughtsman who was independently wealthy, Lodge studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn, at first painting as a hobby, writing to his mother that “I make painting only a recreation, an hour after dinner and so no hindrance is it but rather a furtherance to things of greater concernment,” though later in the letter he fretted about the coverage of his pigments on the canvas. He soon left the legal profession, and, in 1669, he joined the entourage of Lord Bellasis, (Thomas Belasyse) on a diplomatic embassy to Venice. Here Lodge visited public and private art collections for which he admitted a special penchant, stating to Lister in a letter “I love curiosities.” He then published his translation of Giacomo Barri’s Viaggio pittoresco d’Italia, or “The Painter’s Voyage of Italy,” which he illustrated with his own etchings of artists’ portraits. Lodge also was a member of the York virtuosi in the 1670s, and bequeathed some of his scientific engravings to Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby for his curiosity cabinet.

Lister’s painstaking work on the origins of crinoids and other fossils would continue to be of interest to the early Royal Society, particularly when the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland was “discovered.”

Susanna Drury, A view of the Giant's Causeway, East Prospect. 1768, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Local lore had long said the Irish legendary giant Finn McCool created the causeway as a walkway for Scottish giant Benandonner, but Sir Richard Bulkeley (1660-1710) first reported its existence in a letter to Lister printed in the Philosophical Transactions in 1693.  Bulkeley described the pillar as “perpendicular Cylinders, Hexagones and Pentagons” without joins, which to him appeared to be similar to “Astroites.” Bulkeley’s comments led the Royal Society to think the Causeway might consist of giant forms of these fossils, and Lister wrote excitedly to Edward Lhwyd confirming this conclusion of the “giant pillars.”  Bulkeley, however, received his report second-hand, and the following year Sir Thomas Molyneux (1661-1733) corrected his notions in a letter to Lister, describing the ball-and-socket joining of the columns, and discarding any notion of them being crinoid, asteroids, or bamboo stems. Molyneux visited Lister in York the previous year, and “in return for the great Civility” of his host, sent a master draughtsman called Mr Sandys to visit the Causeway, to report his findings, and to bring back mineral samples. Molyneux was able to identify correctly their composition as basalt, a rock far different from the calcareous limestone of crinoid fossils, whether of organic origins or simply “formed stones”.

This example addresses key questions in this project. Images of the crinoids empowered natural philosophers to form innovative ideas about the formation of fossils. Their appearance convinced Lister that they had no relationship to extant species, and their geometric regularity led him to create a chemical mechanism of fossil formation based upon a model of the accretion of salt crystals. The appearance of the fossils as “rock-plants” also pointed to the prevalence of taxonomic questions that occurred in this period as new and exotic specimens arrived that did not fit extant categories of classification. On the other hand, the limitations of using Lodge’s images manifested itself when the Giant’s Causeway was thought briefly to consist of giant crinoid fossils; the image of the crinoids had to be supplemented with detailed illustrations of the Causeway itself and geological analysis to understand their true origins.

Lister’s own talents as an artist himself and his interests in connoisseurship also led to his insistence that his paper be illustrated, and in his insistence that a fine artist like Lodge be chosen to accomplish the task; when Lodge (as Unwin showed) later became more dilatory in his efforts, Lister then had to turn to his daughters whom he personally trained to illustrate his works in conchology.  For Lister, the image was as important as the text.

(Material was taken, with permission from Anna Marie Roos, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712): The first arachnologist (Brill, 2011), chapter eight).

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