Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Snake Stones

Snake-Stones a Hampshire name for Ammonites

We gathered snake stones on the corrugated shore at Charmouth.

Just as hundreds of children, over hundreds of years have done, we gathered our precious little finds and took them home, turning them over and over in our pockets, little snake stones. Some still held fast in the parent rock but escaped, others caught in the womb like nodule awaiting birth.

Complete magic.

The snake stone and the spiral.

Meanwhile hundreds of miles away and a thousand years away on a wind torn coastline in Yorkshire, sat St Hilda of Whitby.  Then she transferred all the divine power she had, turning hundreds of writhing snakes, that would insist on slithering their way up the coast, into stone. In the process of turning them into stone she removed their heads and there they lay strewn across the shore. Above her was the monastery Hilda had established in 657AD. She had created Snake stones. Carvers then got to work putting the ‘heads’ back onto the snakes bodies and the story grew.

This is just one of the legends that have grown up around the fossils of animals called ammonites. Therefore it is no surprise that humans have, over time, used stories to explain the existence of these perfect spirals. Spirals occur everywhere in nature. With careful observation it is possible to see spirals everywhere in the world around us. Look at the way the snail shell grows. Observe the leaves on stems, spiral in eddies of air, in hurricanes. Look at the patterns on your finger tips, the tendrils of climbing vines, the water spiraling down the plug hole. Our daily lives are surrounded by spirals.

It is no wonder then that artists engage with the spiral so much. It is a mathematical reality for us all to see, the logarithmic spiral of the ammonite, the golden spiral.

Art and Mathematics.

The distinctiveness of the Golden Spiral lies in the fact that it is derived from the golden rectangle and has the number Phi as its growth factor. This means that for each quarter turn the spiral makes, it gets wider or away from the origin by a factor of Phi and these two quantities are in golden ratio.

The golden spiral and the golden ratio are found throughout nature, throughout the whole universe. It is a blue print for growth from the massive galaxies to the tiniest patterns in dna.

Return to the Snake Stones.

My piece of artwork was conjured out of childhood days with dad on the beach and a beautiful ammonite found. The book ‘Landmarks’ by Robert McFarlane re-awoke the lost word and so I created my own interpretation of my own ammonite, my snake stone.

     And how, of thousand snakes, each one
    Was changed into a coil of stone,
    When holy Hilda prayed;
    Themselves, within their holy bound,
    Their stony folds had often found.

Walter Scott Marmion 1808