Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Pallisy the potter

This feature first appeared in Fortean Times

In the beginning, the Earth spontaneously generated forms in rock, some of which resembled living organisms. Stone forms grew within stones. Just as living organisms above ground gave birth to living young, so the Earth itself produced subterranean stone simulacra of living organisms. As above, so below. That was how they came about – mostly.

Some fossil seashells on the tops of mountains were said to be formed by the stars. Swiss physician, zoologist and botanist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) wrote that gems were earthly reminders of the jewelled heavenly City of God. Influential Persian philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) stated that fossils were produced by vapours and exhalations in the depths of the earth, like gallstones and pearls.

Some fossils were assumed to be generated through astrological influences, or were "sports of nature", put there by a playful Mother Nature or by a time-travelling Satan to test men's faith. Other fossils were the bodies of the many people and animals that were collateral damage from and evidence for Biblical Flood, including the shells of sea creatures found at the summits of mountains.

Or fossils were just artefacts left by supernatural beings – such as the lethal darts and arrows of the fairy folk. Or fossil finds were "thunderstones" that fell from the sky, or the curled ram's horns adorning the brows of the god Amun, or the chakras from the centre of the hand of Vishnu. Some were the bones of human giants, as documented in Genesis - "There were giants in the earth in those days." In the earth, so presumably underground.

Where fossils did look like the bones of animals that bore little resemblance to animals still alive, it was deduced that such animals were still extant, just awaiting discovery in a part of the world yet to be explored. The American Incognitium, whose fossilised bones were discovered in the Ohio River in 1740, displayed similarities to an elephant but with teeth suggesting a carnivorous diet. The backers of the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition that set out in 1805 were confident the Incognitium (later known as the mastodon) would be found alive and well by the explorers in the vast prairies of the American West.

Illustration showing Palissy, from a 19th-century Methodist hagiography published in London. Artist unknown, out of copyright.

There couldn't anyway have been much time for the animals still alive at the time of the fossil bones' discovery to have changed over the generations from something originally very different. There hadn’t been all that many generations in which to pass on characteristics in a universe in which most of human and natural history were packed into the four millennia between the Creation (on 4th October 4004BC, as helpfully calculated by Bishop Usher of Armagh) and the birth of Christ.

There wasn't even the expectation that fossils were once anything alive. The word "fossil" comes from the Latin fossilus, literally something dug up. Interesting-looking minerals, worked flints used by early humans and meteorites (FT 265) were all lumped together with what we today would define as fossils.

The idea that fossils were the petrified bones of long-dead animals, was quite the least fashionable explanation. The baggage of fossil folklore about fairy darts, fairy loaves, "tongue stones" and "thunder stones" didn't help – such old wives’ tales made natural philosophers wary of approaching the subject.

The great Aristotle, who had dominated the "natural philosophy" curriculum for centuries, could still do no wrong. Aristotle had dealt with the issue of fossils definitively inOn Generation and Corruption. Here he concluded that the starfish found turned to stone in the mountains had spontaneously formed and had come to life when the mountains "hardened", there followed much discourse about wetness and dryness and life and death. Aristotle’s idea of two extremes of "wet and dry" dominating the world were themselves informed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived from around 570BCE to 478BCE and whose works survive in commentaries by Hippolytus. Xenophanes argued that fluctuating extremes of wetness and dryness would result in the extinction of humankind, and later bring it back to life.

As evidence, Xenophanes cited fossilised fish and seaweed in Syracusian quarries, a bay leaf found in marble and impressions of “all kinds of marine life” far inland on Malta. He concluded that water must once have covered the Earth’s surface. Albertus Magnus in The Book of Minerals, the first major work on mineralogy, developed Aristotle's ideas. Magnus was convinced all stones are formed where they are found through "some force of the configuration of heaven," that in “regions of the Pyrenees” rainwater turns to stone, that "reliable reports" mention a spring in Sweden that turns everything dipped in it to stone, and that "sigils" - signs on stones showing the markings of leaves – indicate that those stones have medicinal properties. Other natural philosophers attributed fossils to a vague "lapidifying virtue", a “plastick virtue" or "moulding force", an inherent Aristotelian characteristic of the Earth.

At a time of very limited knowledge of skeletons and anatomy, the principle of comparative anatomy was not as obvious at it seems today, with so little collected physical evidence to go on. A tooth of St Christopher venerated in Italy turned out to be a mammoth molar.The long-venerated bones of the founding fathers of Christianity on the island of Cyprus turned out to be those of pygmy hippos.

A 1538 illustration from a work by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, a contemporary of Palissy, notes the similarity between "tongue stones" and the teeth of living sharks. We know understand these "tongue stones" to be fossil sharks' teeth.

Invertebrate fossils were even harder to interpret – their soft tissue is rarely preserved, only the hard shells survive, often less recognisable. The numerous internal cast fossils of the innards of the fossil shrimp Branchiopoda, preserved in abundance in strata in Michigan after its shell had rotted away, were easily mistaken by European settlers as the petrified trackway of ancient deer. The spines of sea urchins seldom survive fossilisation, so what remains is their inner shell. When these were dug up inland they were taken to be “fairy loaves” because of their resemblance to a roundish loaf of bread.

German philosopher, scientist and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz (1646-1716) reconstructed mammoth bones as a unicorn. As late as 1850, fossil mammals were still being interpreted as mythical beasts. It’s noteworthy that the serious investigation of fossils and their origins really took after the invention of printing, which made comparison of specimens much easier.

That the most obvious explanation is probably the best one was an alien concept in the days when scholarship was the preserve of a very narrow elite, their thinking dominated by the study of Aristotle and the fathers of natural philosophy.

Into this world of stone simulacra spontaneously generated by the Aristotelian “wetness” or “dryness” stepped a proto-fortean outsider, heretic, polymath, dissident and genius Bernard Palissy, who by accident stumbled across the truth about what fossils were. He was not the first and certainly not the last in a long line of thinkers who played a part on the gradual process of figuring out fossils and who did their bit in overturning the prevailing fashionable scientific Establishment paradigm.

Palissy breaks up his furniture to feed the furnace of his kiln, an illustration by Tasei Ijenden from Lives of the Great People of the Occident, Tokyo, 1870, out of copyright.

Palissy was a surveyor (his most profitable side-hustle), a worker in stained glass, a potter and a builder of aqueducts who hadn’t even learned Greek or Latin but whose programme of public lectures would later inspire the foundation of the Academie Francaise. Despite enjoying the patronage and protection of the Queen Mother of France, Pallisy became a martyr to his beliefs, refusing to recant when facing life imprisonment in old age in the Bastille. Although it wasn’t for any scientific heresy about fossils that Pallisy was condemned, but for his Protestantism.

He was some 40 years ahead of his time in setting up a Parisian "Little Academy 'at which he gave paid-for lectures on a variety of subjects. One of the regular attendees was a young English University of Paris student named Francis Bacon, who was greatly influenced by Palissy’s ideas, in particular Palissy’s assertion that "Practice is the source of theory... By experiment I prove in several places that the theory of several philosophers is false, even of the most renowned and the most ancient."

Bernard Palissy was born into a French family of modest means around 1510. Speculation places his birth at either the town of Saintes, in the Charente region of Aquitaine (Western France) and not far from the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle, or possible la Chapelle-Biron, near Agen or in the nearby glassworkers' settlement in the woods in Agenois.

He certainly spent much of his early life around Saintes. His father was poor, but of "noble birth" and Bernard inherited his father's profession of painter in stained glass and a manufacturer of roof tiles. This was at a time when fashions in church decoration meant that the demand for stained glass was falling, with plain glass becoming more fashionable, so Bernard struggled to make a living. His education in literature and maths was of a high standard for the time, later landing him surveying work.

Contemporary illustration of Palissy, artist unknown, out of copyright.

It was as a semi-itinerant stained glass painter that the young Palissy wandered across France for at least five years starting from 1525, a voyage that took in Nimes, the southwest, the Paris region, through the and the Pyrenees and onward to Antwerp and Brest, possibly even into the Netherlands and into Germany.

It was while travelling to find work that he came across whole strata of the petrified shells of sea creatures. He later noted that the flood from Genesis would have left just a layer of dead seashells at the tops of mountains as the waters receded after 40 days – but here in the mountains was layer upon layer of seashells – if you hacked into that bed of seashells there were just more and more of them underneath. Bernard eventually settled in Saintes in 1535 as a glazier and painter in stained glass. He married in 1539 at the age of 29 and went on to have six children.

One day in Saintes, so the probably embellished story goes, Palissy was shown a small cup made of enamelled pottery, which had probably come from Italy or possibly have been majolica earthenware from Spain, via Italy. In any event, such techniques were unknown at the time in France. He was transfixed, he found the cup “enamelled with so much beauty the from that time I entered into controversy with my own thoughts... I began to think that if I should discover how to make enamels I could make earthen vessels and other things very prettily.” He vowed to his make it his life’s mission to recreate that enamel glaze on pottery, becoming "Pallisy the potter".

He built a kiln near his home and threw all his resources into experimenting with exotic and expensive glazes at high temperatures for the next six years. Palissy later described this as a time of being "wonderfully” poor" and "despised... as one little better than a madman." He recalled smashing up and burning the "tables and floorboards of my house" to fuel the kiln, although this story is probably an invention.

Palissy's Final Experiment, unknown, 19th century, out of copyright

In 1543 King Francois ordered a new - much-hated - salt tax, whose orderly administration required a survey of the salt marshes around Saintonge, near Saintes. Palissy spent most of the next year carrying out the survey, the fee for which allowed him to renew his efforts into finding that perfect white enamel, using higher temperature glass blowing kilns with more success.

Palissy "began to look for enamels as a man gropes in the dark." In his ten-year search (or sixteen years according to some versions), he in his own words “blundered many times at a great expense... pounding and grinding new materials and constructing new furnaces, which cost much money and consumed my wood and my time... I fooled away several years with sorrow and sighs.” Eventually, out of the glass furnace he pulled a shard with "a suitably beautiful white enamel."

There followed seven months in secret learning to work clay. In his third furnace he discovered the earthenware came out encrusted with jagged bits, the local clay being so flinty. Clay from other regions of France solved that problem.

It's not clear whether Palissy had actually cracked his quest for the perfect enamel, although he claimed to have. At around this time, though, he began to produce rustiques figurlines (“rusticware”, later known as Palissyware). This caught the eye of the Constable (later Duke of) Montmorency, who was in the area on a punitive expedition against a salt tax rebellion. Montmorency had seen some fine examples of Palissy’s “rusticware” in local manor houses and on the strength of these commissioned Palissy to build retreats on his estates.

"Rusticware" attributed to Pallisy, although the attribution of many Pallisyware pieces is uncertain. This one is in the Wallace Collection. Photo: Matt Salusbury

The striking Palissyware took the form of sumptuous dishes and bowls in natural colours, with mouldings and reliefs in the shape of a cornucopia of creatures - usually frogs, snakes, snails, small fish, plants, bugs, tortoises, crustaceans and seashells from the local Santoigne marshes, painted in a smooth glossy glaze that resembled their glossy skin. He used coloured lead glazes, lead silicates with added oxides of copper, cobalt, manganese or iron with tin added.

The animals depicted on Palissyware were extraordinarily realistic – because they were actually cast from moulds made from dead animals. These included impressions taken from fossils of the shells of long-extinct Tertiary gastropods from the Paris basin. He took his secret of how he cast these creatures "from life", with no signs of harm, to the grave.

Through making moulds for his pottery using the real bodies of recently dead animals, Palissy quickly grasped that a similar process was at work in nature – sediments formed around the remains of plants and animals and over time these solidified into rock-hard fossils – particularly the hard shells of invertebrates. There were no stones forming within stones, nor was some sort of Aristotelian natural mechanism at work that threw up spontaneous forms or through “wetness” or “dryness” petrified still living animals or brought them back to life again. The great philosophers were wrong.

It was around the time that his Palissyware began to take off that he converted to Protestantism and became one of the founders of the Reformed Church of Saintes, after holding meetings in his studio.

Another "rusticware" piece attributed to Palissy in the Wallace Collection, photo: Matt Salusbury

After 16 years mostly in poverty, Palissy suddenly found rich patrons. As well as Montmerency, the Count of Maulevrier, the Montpensiers and the Valois family all employed him to decorate their palaces, grottos and gardens. Palissy spent a while working on tiles for Montmorenci’s new palace, Chateau d’Ecouen. He came to the attention of the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, the powerful regent of France during the minority of her son Charles IX. Catherine’s accounts for 1570 include, "To Bernard, Nicholas and Mathurin Palissys, sculptors in earth, the sum of 2600 livres for all the baked and enamelled work which were required for the completion of the four bridges which lead to the grotto commenced for the queen, in her palace near the Louvre".

The laying out of royal gardens at Tuileries in Paris, a project originally for the Constable of Paris, was quickly taken over by Catherine, who employed Palissy on it. He became "Bernard of the Tuileries". His work on landscape planning became important in the development of forestry conservation.

Palissy's aristocratic clients issued him safe conducts to complete his work. But his openly expressed views identified him as a Protestant. His enemies broke into his pottery studio at a time when they knew that Palissy’s client Sire de Pons, the king’s lieutenant in Saintogne, would be away. They destroyed the studio and arrested Palissy for Calvinism. He was imprisoned first in Saintes and then in Bordeaux. His protectors managed to have him moved from Bordeaux - away from the vindictive Bordeaux Parliament - and to prison in Paris. There he wrote his first book, Recepte véritable par laquelle tous les hommes de la France pourront apprendre à multiplier et augmenter leurs trésors (True recipe by which all the men of France will be able to learn to multiply and increase their treasures), published shortly after his release in 1563.

In Recepte véritable, Palissy recalled how walking among rocks around the town of Saintes, he came across "stones which are made in the manner of a sheep's horn, not so long nor so curved, but commonly are arched" are about half a foot long. Years later a citizen of Saintes gifted him "one of the said stones, which was half open, and had certain indentations, which joined admirably one in the other." From then on, Palissy “knew that the said stone had been at other times a fish shell, of which we no longer see any. And we must estimate and believe that this kind of fish has frequented other times in the sea of Saintogne: because there are a great number of said stones, but the kind of fish has been lost" - through over-fishing, he speculated.

Palissy the Potter, artist unknown, 19th century, London, out of copyright.

Palissy commented “how ignorant people assert that nature or the sky created [the fossils] by celestial influences”. He posed the question, "Why do we find so many fragments of shells between two layers of stones, if not because these shells already deposited on the beach were covered with a land thrown back by the sea, which land then came." He argued that minerals, dissolving into water to form “congelative water,” would precipitate and thereby petrify once living organisms in order to create fossils. He even observed that a recently dead sea urchin was beginning to shed its spines, making it more closely resemble the "fairy loaves" of its fossil form.

A "fairy loaf", once popularly believed to be the petrified bread of the fairies. We now know these are fossil sea urchins. This one's in the collection of Dunwich Museum. Photo by the author.

Montmorenci persuaded Catherine to declare Palissy a "royal servant", which shielded Palissy from the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, after which he laid low in Sedan, returning to Paris two years later. It was there that he started the Little Academy, lecturing on subjects as diverse as fountains, drinking water, alchemy, metallurgy, the causes of earthquakes and volcanos and fossils. These were a great success and continued to 1584.

The Little Academy included a cabinet of curiosities – fossils, shells and natural history illustration. He describes spoil form roadworks in La Rochelle containing chunks of rock so crowded with shells he couldn'g put a knife between them. He employed "a score of women and children" to hunt fossil shellfish him.

During his Little Academy period, Palissy wrote his second book, Discours admirables de la Nature des Eaux et Fontaines tant naturelles qu'artificielles des métaux, des sels et salines, des pierres, des terres, du feu et des émaux (Admirable Discourse on the Nature of Waters and Fountains, both Natural and Artificial, Metals, Salts and Salines, Stones, Earths, Fire and Enamels), a collections of his lectures which appeared in 1580. The Admirable Discourse described in detail his theories on fossils, along with rants about “immodest” contemporary fashion and condemnations of doctors prescribing gold dust to patients.

The Biblical deluge, felt Palissy, had been of too short a duration to explain seashells on mountain tops. He’d heard of a cliff high in the Apennine Mountains where shells are hacked out of the bottom, the beginning and the middle of a deep fossil bed. He asked, “By what door the sea entered to place the said shells in the middle of the hardest rock".

Bernard Pallisy in later life, artist unknown, out of copyright.

Arrested again in 1586, Palissy was banished to Sedan in 1587. He breached the terms of his exile and returned to Paris the following year, where he was arrested yet again and condemned to death. One of his admirers, the Duke of Mayenne, tried to obstruct and delay his trial for the next four years. His friends succeeded in having Palissy’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. King Henry III visited Palissy, then aged 79, in the Bastille, where it is said Palissy rejected the King's offer of a pardon if he converted to Catholicism. Palissy also gave help and comfort to younger Protestant prisoners, at great personal risk. He died of "hunger, cold and poor treatment" in the Bastille in around 1589.

Palissy's lack of Greek or Latin meant he didn't enjoy an international audience. But some 30 years after the young Francis Bacon had attended Palissy's Little Academy, Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) became the basis for what's now known as the Baconian Method for scientific investigation, partly inspired by Palissy. Another attendee at Palissy's little academy had been Pierre de la Priumaudaye, the presumed author of the book series Academie Francaise - an attempt at an encyclopaedic work begun in 1618, including a "notable description of the whole world". Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), author of the groundbreaking 36-volume Histoire Naturelle also read and was influenced by Palissy's works.

A statue of Palissy by Louis-Ernest Barras at the National Museum of Ceramics, Sevres, France. Note the ammonite by his left foot.

© Matt Salusbury 2021

Further reading:

Oeuvres de Bernard Palissy, Rualt, Paris, 1777,

"Bernard Palissy : artiste, savant, écrivain et naturaliste de la Renaissance", Aurélien Morhain, Ouest Paleo,

Prehistoric Mammals and Fossils, Micheal Smith, Ladybird, Loughborough, 1974

The Book of Minerals, Albertus Magnus

The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Gary D. Rosenberg (ed.), Geological Society of America Memoir, Boulder, Colorado, 2009

On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle,

"The Bacon brothers in France", Peter Dawkins, Francis Bacon Research Trust 2020.

The Rise of the Mammals, Dr Michael Benton, The Apple Press/Quarto Pubs, 1991

Bernard Palissy the Huguenot Potter, Annie E Keeling, Wesleyan Conference Office, London 1881

Palissy the Potter, Henry Morley, Chapman and Hall, London, 1885

The Story of Palissy the Potter (Lessons from Noble Lives), T. Nelson and Sons, London, 1875 ‘

Friday, 21 January 2022

Celebrating Saturnalia

This first appeared in Fortean Times, FT ; , December 2021. A similiar article first appeared in History Today.

A public holiday celebrated around 25th December in the family home - a time for the exchange of gifts, feasting and decorating trees. Christmas? No, this was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But did the Christian festival of Christmas really have its origins in pagan Saturnalia?

The 2013 Saturnalia parade in Chester, England, Photo: Donald Judge, Creative Commons Licence

Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as "the best of times": small gifts were exchanged, dress codes were relaxed, social roles were inverted. Masters and slaves were expected to swap clothes, the wealthy to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn't afford it. Households rolled dice to choose a temporary Saturnalian monarch, who wore a pilleus – a pointy hat. in Lucian of Samosata's first century AD poem Saturnalia, the god Cronos (Saturn) says: "During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping... an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water..."

Saturnalia was very ancient, beginning as a farmer's festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Holly was one of several evergreen plants associated with Saturn. The foundation stone of the first temple of Saturn at the edge of Rome's forum was laid when Rome was still a kingdom, around 495 BC, and completed as Rome became a Republic. Numerous archaeological sites from the coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the third century AD.

View of the Temple of Concord and the Temple of Saturn, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Rome, 1760-1778

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates during the Roman period. In the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on 17th December, heralded by sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn and shouts of "Io Saturnalia!" By the time Lucian described the festivities it had become a seven-day event.

From as early as 217 BC, and probably much earlier, there were public Saturnalia banquets. Rome cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) tried - with little success - to restrict it to five days.

The popularity of Saturnalia is shown by an incident in AD 43 during the disembarkation of legions of the Emperor Claudius to invade of Britain. Mutiny was brewing on the Gaulish coast - legionnaires refused to leave the known world for uncharted territory. Up stepped Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, freedman (former slave) of the Emperor and the most influential figure in his court, urging the legions to board the ships. Seeing a freedman taking charge reminded them of a fun festival, they broke into a chant of "Io Saturnalia!" This lightened the mood and the legionaries agreed to set sail.

It may have been the Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) who moved Saturnalia to 25th December, in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia's subversive tendencies by marking it with lavish events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45-95), in his Silvae describes the entertainments Domitian presided over. Games opened with fruit, nuts and sweets showered on the crowd and featured flights of flamingos released over Rome. These were Rome's first ever illuminated night-time shows, with female gladiators and fighting dwarves.

The Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in AD 312 started imperial patronage of Christian churches, but Christianity didn’t become the Roman Empire’s official religion overnight. Dr David Gwynn, reader in ancient history at Royal Holloway, University of London, told me "Saturnalia continued to be celebrated in the century afterward". The poet Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius wrote another Saturnalia, describing a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome. Dated to between AD 383 and 430, it describes a Saturnalia alive and well under Christian emperors. The calendar of Polemius Silvus from around AD 449 mentions Saturnalia "used to honour the god Saturn," so by then it had become just another popular carnival.

There's a rival contender for Saturnalia as the inspiration for Christmas, though - the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, "birthday of the unconquered sun", a Roman public holiday on 25th December. Originating in the monotheistic cult of Mithras, sol invicta was introduced in AD 274 by Emperor Aurelian, who effectively made it a state religion. Sol invicta flourished because it was able to assimilate aspects of Jupiter and other deities into its figure of the Sun King. But in spite of efforts by later pagan emperors to control Saturnalia and absorb the winter festival into an official cult, the sol invicta civil holiday ended up closely resembling the ancient Saturnalia.

Constantine was brought up in the sol invicta cult, in what was already a predominantly monotheistic empire: "It is therefore possible," says Dr Gwynn, "that Christmas was intended to replace this festival (sol invicta) rather than Saturnalia."

© Matt Salusbury 2009, 2021

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Sandie Sheals finds fossils on the sea shore

This appeared in Discover Dunwich, the historical and archaeological journal of Dunwich Museum, Issue 3, Summer/Autumn 2021.

MANY OF the fossils in Dunwich Museum's collection have been kindly donated by Sandie Sheals. She has a good eye for unusual objects among the shingle.

What makes these many finds extraordinary is that Sandie's usually in Dunwich for just one week a year. How does she do it? What's her secret?

Sheals finds in the collection – top left: whale vertebra; top right: fragment of a mammoth or elephant's tooth; bottom left: fragment of a fossil deer antler; bottom right: a piece of prehistoric mammal bone. Photos: Dunwich Museum.

I've always loved finding things. As a child I was one of those kids who walked looking down at the small things rather than the taking in the big views. I'd find lots of things, from a small weed to an interesting stone, a fossil, bit of glass or something that's been lost by someone recently or thousands of years ago.

When I was about eight I found a bit of Fool's Gold (the mineral iron pyrites) in a piece of flint in a pile of builder's rubble, It made me wonder what else I would find.

I lived in Suffolk as a child and often visited the Suffolk coast. I still visit with my family and my own grown-up children. Every year we stay for a week or two and we do the odd day trips as well. We always seem find something interesting.

We love beachcombing, and the great walk between the mysterious Dunwich and Walberswick.This is where I find most of the treasures I take to Dunwich Museum. I think it's because this is where we spend most of our time, relaxing, playing, watching the wildlife and the sea.

Between Dunwich and Walberswick we've found treasures including fossils, worked flint, semi-precious stones, seed pods from thousands of miles away, bits of coral reef, bits of ancient petrified wood, bricks, pottery and glass. Also bits of ancient leather shoes including very small children’s shoes, fragments of human bone, a World War Two mine and much else that would need identifying.

I've also found things nearby at Southwold and Covehithe and Minsmere beaches too.

I have little knowledge of fossils so I gratefully rely on the Dunwich Museum to look and let me know what my finds are.

Visiting local museums like Dunwich helped me imagine what I might find.

I don't go out to look for fossils or anything in particular. I walk along, zigzagging across the beach looking for anything that has an interesting shape or colour or just looks out of place among the shingle. The dark brown colours and shapes of bone fossils stand out against the pebbles.

Advice? Go out to enjoy the walk.You will find something.

Sandie Sheals

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

"My dad saw Shuck in the Seventies!"

This article first appeared in Fortean Times magazine, issue FT412;58-59, December 2021.

I investigate reports of big cats in Suffolk, I've received over a hundred of these over the past seven years. But while seeking testimony on Suffolk big cat sightings, a surprising number of unsolicited accounts of encounters with the phantom East Anglian hellhound Black Shuck seem to come my way. Shuck can't possibly exist, of course. Nonetheless, I still receive testimony of his antics in the country of Suffolk. An interesting and surprisingly consistent pattern in this handful of Shuck reports is that most of them describe encounters from 40 years ago, usually reported by sons keen to tell me how "my dad saw Shuck in the Seventies."

Detail of the coat of arms of Bungay on the "Welcome to Bungay, a fine old town" sign. Bungay is the epicentre of Black Dog culture in Suffolk.

During Shuck's long history, the two peaks in reported East Anglian Shuck activity occurred in the 1920s and in the groovy, cool, fab era that was the 1970s. The ancient horror that was East Anglia's Black Shuck was at large scaring the residents of Seventies Suffolk as never before.

Ivan A.W. Bunn's excellent contemporary analysis East of England Shuck traditions, "Shuckland: Analyzing the Hell out of the Beast" remains unequalled to this day.

Among the many 1970s Shuck experiences that came to Bunn's attention was one via a letter from 1973, in which Lincolnshire man with no previous knowledge of East Anglian black dog traditions told how he was laying drainage pipes across the marshes behind the massive Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh (so huge it's known as "the Cathedral of the Marshes"). Suddenly, he heard a dog loudly panting behind him. He turned round and there was... nothing. It was only when he told some locals in the pub that they produced a book of local Shuck stories.

Although Bunn's researches were turning up "hitherto unrecorded characteristics" in Seventies Shuck sightings, he observed at the time that 1970s reports don't mention the more spectacular aspects that Shuck displayed in earlier times. Seventies Shuck tended not to be headless, not to have one eye in the centre of its head, not to have horns, not to wear chains, nor to resemble a calf or grow in size or shape-shift or foretell deaths or explode. He didn't even seem to walk in step with witnesses that much.

Even Shuck's red eyes were seldom mentioned anymore. He was increasingly just a strange, rather big dog that appeared out of nowhere. He still did his vanishing act, although witnesses just reported not being able to work out where he could have gone. Modern Shuck witnesses were left wondering whether they’d in fact seen a huge, black but otherwise ordinary dog.

They came thick and fast, the Seventies Shuck sightings, particularly around Lowestoft, Suffolk's next biggest town after Ipswich, where Shuck chronicler Ivan Bunn is still based. A woman spotted Black Shuck in the bushes at Lowestoft's Belle Vue Park in 1975, although her husband saw nothing. Folklorist Theodora Brown claims to have had an encounter of her own with the Black Dog in the churchyard of St Mary's Bungay in the 1970s. A Mrs Whitehead saw a death-portent Shuck in the streets of Bungay at the moment her mother died, while Police Constable Jenkins had several seventies Shuck experiences around the A12 road at Blythburgh. Peter Jennings's Haunted Suffolk records an early Seventies sighting of a large white dog seen by a woman walking in Beccles cemetery. The dog faded away as she approached. Keith Flory contacted Ivan Bunn's Hidden East Anglia team to tell them about the night in 1973 when, motorbiking home from Woodbridge, he was followed by a Great Dane-sized Black Shuck who bounded after his motorcycle all the way down the town's Old Barrack Road - effortlessly keeping up with him all the way until Flory finally lost his pursuer in Seckford Hall Road.

Old Barrack Rood, Woodbrige, scene of a Seventies motorcycle chase featuring Black Shuck

Some 40 years later, a few of my Suffolk Shuck informants said they'd never before communicated to anybody else what their fathers had related to them in the Shuck department, one informant felt they could only tell me because their father had since passed away. Some informants expressed regret at not having pressed their dear departed dads for more on their Shuck sightings. It's as if there's a complicated Shuck-experience dynamic in father-and-son relationships in the county of Suffolk.

The other pattern emerging in these testimonies of Seventies Suffolk Shuck sightings is more the absence of a pattern - they are all very, very different. While the magical powers of Shuck seem to have been gradually shaved away over time, the sheer variety of shuck encounters has if anything increased.

A man from Rattlesden told me his father, back in the 1970s, was driving on the A140 from Ipswich to Stowmarket one night when he collided with Black Shuck in the dark. He got out of the car to take a look and found... nothing. The next day there was a strange deposit on the bonnet of his car, "like eggshells." Another bizarre encounter narrative came from a man identifying himself as "Major Pickle" on Twit'er. He disclosed how his father (eventually) told him that on 5th August 1973, he (Major Pickle's father) and a friend were driving from the small, mostly agricultural village of Henstead, west of the A12 to the coast at Bawdsey to go canoeing.

Coming round a corner on the road near Henstead, the canoeists saw a huge black dog with something like a mane, standing in the road just looking at them. It "seemed to be there and was just gone" according to Pickle's account. When his dad got out of the car for a look, there was nothing to see except (then) open fields. It was what happened next that made those two 1970s canoe enthusiasts think they'd had a brush with a beast of ill omen. The friend with whom my informant's dad went canoeing always mapped and researched their canoeing routes. They'd regularly been canoeing off the coast at Bawdsey before, but "they never encountered anything like this". Their canoe went into a "freak tidal whirlpool", they capsized and were almost drowned. They were washed up on the Ministry of Defence's Bawdsey Island Radar Station, "an interesting experience during the Cold War". Their inadvertent trespassing in a then restricted Cold War-era defence installation meant they kept quiet about the events of that day.

Major Pickle said of his dad's encounter, "To the day he died he was convinced it was Shuck and the story never changed in any way." Could it have been a big cat? Dad insisted it was a really big dog.

Folklorist Theo Brown claims to have had an encounter with Black Shuck in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Bungay, in the 1970s.

Jim Bradley, a Norfolk birdwatcher, contacted me to tell me how "my friend's father who I would say is now in his 60s" encountered the Black Dog himself "in Orford in the late 70s... He and a friend were out walking and a black dog, calf-sized, wandered onto the track and stared at them. It eventually lumbered off into the scrub. They followed its path but the beast had seemingly disappeared, no trace whatsoever."

This wave of Seventies Suffolk Shuck sightings may have been Shuck's last hurrah, after that reports of Shuck encounters tailed off. The few Shucks that have manifested in Suffolk since then seem to have lost many of their supernatural powers. Christopher Reeve, co-author of Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay, told me that by 2014 he couldn't find any adults who would give him new accounts of Shuck experiences. Small children still seem to see Shuck locally, or at least have no inhibitions about relating other people's sightings.

Bungay's football team is the Bungay Town FC, known as the Black Dogs, although its training ground is just a couple of hundred metres over the Norfolk border in Ditchingham.

While "my dad (or my dad's best mate) saw Shuck in the seventies" accounts emerging over 40 years later are still surprisingly common, accounts of more recent Suffolk shuck experiences are rare. From Rendlesham Forest comes a 1980s story of an encounter by Paul and Jane Jennings “on a cold winter’s afternoon in 1983”, as related by ufologist Nick Redfern in his article "Weirdness in the woods". The Jenningses encountered a big black dog on the forest path. Jane said the beast's head "was clearly canine in appearance… much larger than that of any normal dog. Yet... its body seemed to exhibit characteristics that were distinctly feline". It had an "eerily mournful expression upon its face... Suddenly, the beast began to 'flicker on and off for four or five times', then finally vanished” leaving a strange metallic smell.

A post on the Centre for Fortean Zoology's blog from "Woody" related his how he and his dog Max had a 1994 Shuck encounter on one of their regular runs around "Martlesham Creek... by the river Deben, that runs to nearby Woodbridge." It was there that Woody became "aware of being watched, checking behind me about 50 yards back stood a huge black dog, my own wouldn’t take his eyes off it. It stood stock still, watching us ... (I) put my dog on a lead” and walked out of sight of it." Max turned again and growled. "There stood the big black dog again... I began to worry a bit." There followed three or four more sightings of the same black dog, always the same distance away, always with the same stance, and "with me very nervously looking over my shoulder until we got level with Martlesham Church, when Max turned, growled and practically broke the lead in his eagerness for a fight only... there was nothing there!" Woody and Max then "ran like hell the remaining mile... home and locked the doors." Woody admitted "the dog I saw may just have been someone's... be it a bloody big one."

This dog from the coat of arms of the Gooch family watches over the Benacre Estate on the North Suffolk coast.

One of my unsolicited Shuck informants told me a story of "a guy" out near Coddenham, north of Ipswich, who in the early 2010s took his dog for a walk on a windy, rainy day and they were apparently chased by a big dog, as soon as it got nearer to them it would vanish and the process started again."

Twenty-first century Shuck witnesses often concede it could have been an ordinary dog they saw. When a "shaken driver" reported his encounter with "a white wolf stalking the back roads of Suffolk" in 2009, he believed he’d seen an escaped exotic animal rather than a Suffolk Shuck phantom. Nigel Stebbing, who was able to photograph the "white wolf" from his van at Kersey, near Hadleigh. didn't think he'd seen a phantom hellhound. (There's a tradition of a White Shuck around Woodbridge and a ghostly "White Dawg" in Lowestoft, though.) By 1998, a couple from Bungay visiting Suffolk's Dunwich Forest who heard panting or growling no longer assumed - as did our pipe-laying Lincolnshire man back in the 1970s - that it was Black Shuck. They were instead convinced they'd heard an Alien Big Cat.

© Matt Salusbury 2021
A talbot, a white dog, on the coat of arms of the South Suffolk town of Sudbury. There are white Shucks as well as Black Shuck in Suffolk too. Woodbridge has a White Shuck and Lowestoft has a ghostly "White Dawg."

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Wreck’s identity remains an enigma

Some think that this ship's chest on display in Dunwich Museum, believed to be 15th- or 16th-century from Belgium or the Netherlands, could have been recovered from the Dunwich Bank Wreck. The elaborate locking mechanism certainly resembles Spanish Armada ship's chests recovered from Armada wrecks off the coast of Northern Ireland and now in the Castle Museum, Derry.

Graham Scott gives an update on the mysterious Dunwich Bank Wreck

This article first appeared in Discover Dunwich, issue 3, summer/autumn 2021

THE DUNWICH Bank Wreck is 700 metres out to sea off Dunwich Heath, roughly level with the Coastguard Cottages there. It was discovered by Stuart Bacon in the 1990s, Stuart hauled up the magnificent bronze cannon that greets you as you come in through the front door of Dunwich Museum. (See here for more on the Dunwich Dives and the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon.)

Following in the footsteps of Stuart is Graham Scott, Senior Marine Archaeologist with Wessex Archaeology, who has been on several dives on the Dunwich Bank Wreck. He gave an update on the most recent (2020) dive on the Wreck to volunteers of Dunwich Museum at a talk via Zoom in March.

The Wreck is one of the most challenging marine archaeology environments in UK waters, "extremely difficult to investigate," says Graham. His team found the wreck wrapped in recently abandoned fishing nets, which they had to cut free before they could proceed. Visibility is poor to non-existent, with peat and sediment emptying into the sea from nearby rivers, constantly swirling around in a strong current. It seems the Wreck is gradually being buried by silt. Sometimes the divers could only work for an hour a day on the wreck, so gruelling were conditions there.

Little remains of the actual ship. What Stuart Bacon's team - working in poor visibility – took to be ship's timbers now appear to be natural wood that's been washed out to sea.

The Wreck may be scattered over a larger area than first thought. It’s difficult to date the wreck with certainty. Some ships from both the Dutch and English fleets were lost at the inconclusive Battle of Sole Bay (1672), several miles out to sea from Southwold, there are contemporary accounts of the masts of sunken fire ships visible above the waves south east of Aldeburgh soon after the battle. It's more likely the Wreck was a Spanish Armada ship, or possibly even a cargo ship transporting artillery for the army or navy of England's King Henry VIII (1509-1547) - he ordered many bronze cannons from Belgium and Germany.

Stuart Bacon's Dunwich Dives recovered these cannon balls, which were probably stacked in the hold at one point. These ones - on display at our special exhibition on the Dunwich Dives, are too small for the Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon. There are smaller some iron swivels cannons for use in close-quarter combat still in the Wreck, these cannonballs could have been for them.

Dunwich Museum's magnificent bronze Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon. Strong, swirling currents bringing with it silt and sand than empty into the sea from nearby rivers has sandblasted away most of the detail and decoration after 400 years on the seabed.

At least two bronze cannons rest on the seabed around the Wreck. On a rare day with some visibility in the Dunwich Dives the word "Remigy" could be read, engraved on one of these. ("Gun 3" - which was subsequently stolen from the seabed sometime around 2012.) This led to the identification of Dunwich Museum's cannon as one made by Belgium-based German gunfounder Remigy de Halut.

However, gun experts Ruth Brown and Kay Smith note that the squared-off ring on the breach of the Dunwich Museum cannon, its "breach dolphin" (a dolphin shaped handle or knob on the end of the breach) and the "bearded man's head" decoration round its muzzle are signatures of Gregor Löffler, another Hapsburg Empire gunfounder based in Augsburg in Germany.

Then there's a 1684 Royal Ordnance Office report of a Mr Lincoln being dispatched to Knodishall (not far from Dunwich) to buy a "brass" (bronze) cannon. Had it been recovered from the Dunwich Bank Wreck?

The "bearded man" decoration on the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon's muzzle is now only just visible.

The word "Remigy" visible on the muzzle of another cannon, this one cast by him is outside the Town Hall in Enkhuizen, Netherlands. The cannon on which the name "Remigy" was briefly seen amid the Dunwich Bank Wreck was later stolen.

While a pair of dolphin handles on bronze cannons was almost standard throughout Europe at the time, a "breach dolphin" like this one on the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon in Dunwich Museum is thought to be a signature of gunfounder Gregor Gregor Löffler. The dolphin comes out of a circular ring which is slightly squared off (not very visible anymore in the worn-away features of this cannon), also a feature of cannons cast by Löffler.

Another Gregor Löffler cannon, this one's a smaller piece from when he still worked in Innsbruck, Austria. It shows the characteristic Gregor Löffler "beared head ornament" more clearly. By kind permission of Peter Finer antique arms and armour dealers.

Words and photos © Matt Salusbury

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The Light Ages (book review)

This review first appeaed in Fortean Times magazine.

The Light Ages - a Medieval journey of discovery

Seb Falk, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2020

£10.99 paperback, 416 pages, bibliography, index

Front cover image for the purposes of criticism or review, fair dealing under the Copyright Act 1988

The myth of the "darkness of the Middle Ages" descending after the fall of Rome is dispelled in The Light Ages. Here historian, science historian and broadcaster Seb Falk demonstrates that "medieval science" is no contradiction in terms, while religion and science weren't antagonists in the medieval world. Falk illustrates this through a fascinating biography of John Westwyk, a thirteenth-century Benedictine monk based at St Albans abbey who wrote important treatises on astronomy, accidentally rediscovered in the 1950s.

The astrolabe was a flattened, portable model of the solar system made from brass discs slotted on top of each other, through which you could measure the "ascensions" of moving celestial bodies.

Functioning regardless of whether the universe was geocentric or heliocentric, astrolabes calculated how many daylight hours in each day, reckoned the dates of Easter, predicted when the heavens were moving into zodiacal "houses" whose influence may affect us, forewarned of planting seasons heralded by the appearance of certain stars visible just before dawn. Such calculations may have been a form of meditation for monks. Physicians' astrolabes chose auspicious times to administer bleedings. Previous inmates at St Albans had produced new discs to add to the astrolabe "for all altitudes.: Westwyk added a guide to these, demystifying earlier manuals and correcting their errors.

A copper-alloy astrolabe from the British Museum's collection. Dating from 1326, this example is believed to be the earliest surviving one made in England. It was on show at the BM's recent Thomas Beckett exhibition. Photo: Matt Salusbury

Astrolabes dominate The Light Age, and while the astrolabe was a "simplified" instrument compared to its predecessors, after a 39-page digression on astrolabes I was struggling with the azimuth and the obliquity of the elliptic. Aaargh!

This was an exciting time for astronomy. A standardised 24-hour day with 60-minute hours was proliferating, along with clocks. The long transition to Arabic numerals was apace. There was a flood of philosophical works emerging in Arabic, Greek and Hebrew - pagan sciences could now become "the handmaiden of religion".

My favourite section of The Light Age describes the rise of the universities. In 1336 the Pope called on monastic orders to send one in 20 monks to university. Today's Worcester College, Oxford began life as a Benedictine institution. As a graduate returning to the monastery, Westwyks' privileges included being excused midday Mass. The new universities were particularly awestruck by the recent rediscovery of Aristotle, his works quickly dominated the curriculum. Periodic ecclesiastical bans on the study of Aristotle were largely ignored.

Around 1370 Westwyk left for the bleak cliff-top subsidiary monastery at Tynemouth, taking with him some astronomy works to copy. Tynemouth was three degrees further north than Classical philosophers had ever been, so Westwyk wrote a treatise with instructions on engraving an astrolabe dial for "ascensions" at a new latitude, 55 degrees North.

Like many clerics, Westwyk joined the debacle that was the 1382 Bishop's Crusade (better known as Despenser's Crusade after Henry de Despenser, Bishop of Norwich). This Crusade fought not in the Holy Land, but in Belgium. Led by an incompetent warrior Bishop of Norwich, the crusaders -n outnumbered by Franco-Flemish forces loyal to anti-pope Clement - fought with extraordinary courage, the clerics in particular. They withdrew to England in disgrace within six months. Westwyk kept his head down for the next decade.

Westwyk next pops up at London's Benedictine inn, where he wrote a manual - in English, daring and innovative at the time - with instructions for building an enormous astrolabe six feet in diameter. This manual, Equatorie, is a computer and equation solver. Its 140 pages of tables allow the user to calculate the motion of the planets back to the birth of Christ and to any point in the future, adjusting for leap years, aided by charts for roots and "sexagesimal ninths". Nothing equalled the Equatorie until the first printed astronomy textbooks appeared nearly a century later.

VERDICT: Joyous celebration of Medieval science - although a bit astrolabe-heavy! **** (four stars)

© Matt Salusbury 2021

Monday, 13 September 2021

Vote for Matt Salusbury for a London seat on the NUJ’s National Executive Council (NEC)

Photo: © Hazel Dunlop

As Chair of NUJ London Freelance Branch (LFB), the Union's biggest and most active Branch, I have been providing leadership and pastoral care to members throughout the pandemic, chairing lively online Branch meetings where there are often over 70 members present.

I have been deputy editor of the Freelance, the online and print newsletter and resource for the NUJ's freelances, since 2006, re-elected annually. For the Freelance, I have covered developments in the Union and throughout our industry in detail for many years. This has given me a unique insight into the workings of the NUJ and the issues that affect and engage our members. The role has involved working together with members, officials and staff across the Union.

I also worked part-time as a staff journalist for many years, as a commissioning editor for a business-to-business magazine, so I understand issues that affect staffers as well as freelances - I have in the past called on the services of one of our excellent NUJ Organisers when I was myself facing redundancy.

I am also a former NUJ representative on the Writers' Organisations Advisory Group and a former Freelance Industrial Council representative on the Newspapers and Agencies Industrial Council. I currently sit on the Journalist Editorial Advisory Board.

I have served on the Freelance Industrial Council representing our London members in the sector since the late noughties. COVID and changes in the industry are now leading to increasing numbers of London's staff journalists being made redundant and many are moving to the freelance sector. This will mean the sector will need more representation within the Union.

However, I feel that with my background, experience and insights I can conscientiously represent all of London's NUJ members on the National Executive Council, whether staff or freelance, whatever their employment status.

Please give me your first vote and also give your second vote to London Freelance Branch's Deborah Hobson.

"I can't think of a better candidate for the NEC than Matt Salusbury.

I've known Matt for a great many years – having sat with him on London Freelance Branch Committee and seen him chair meetings over the last year in very difficult circumstances. In the past, I have sat with him on the Freelance Industrial Council, and know well the depth and breadth of his experience across the media – both nationally and internationally – and his commitment to the NUJ and trade unionism.

I've seen first-hand how his work on the Freelance has given him a detailed insight into and understanding of issues that affect freelances, and his experience as a staff member broadens that understanding. As co-editor of the Freelance he has become an invaluable source of information for members about our industry and extremely knowledgeable about the Union in general.

He is never afraid to question and challenge the status quo, while always grasping the complexities of issues as they arise. He is an excellent communicator, always ready to take the time to explain the mysteries of the NUJ to lay members and to give support to colleagues.

The freelance sector is growing throughout the union. Matt's understanding of the sector and how this fits in with and impinges on other sectors will be an invaluable contribution to the executive, while his firm grip on the basics of trade unionism and understanding of how the union as a whole works will mean he can be relied upon to work hard for all sectors and regions."

Jenny Vaughan – Treasurer, NUJ London Freelance Branch, NUJ Gold Badge owner

"For years Matt has been working hard and unshowily for LFB, FIC and the NUJ generally. Lately he's chaired the Branch with great care for firm-fairness in all ways, while sustaining an affable, relaxed atmosphere. Co-editing with Mike Holderness, he's ensured that the Freelance newssheet is always cogent - and there on time. He's a wholly decent, good man."

Phil Sutcliffe, NUJ Member of Honour, LFB membership secretary, ex-NEC/FIC, etc.

See also: