A shell, allegedly from Red Crag

A shell, allegedly from Red Crag (Suffolk, England)

In 1881, the architect and engineer Henry Stopes (1852-1902, father of the feminist and pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes) presented a curious fossilised shell of the species Pectunculus glycimeris, with a crude but recognisable human face on its surface, at the York meeting of the British Association. As well as the ‘face’, there was a hole close to the top of the shell, evidently to enable it to be suspended. According to his account, the shell had been found some years before in the well known Late Pliocene shell-bearing deposits at Red Crag, Suffolk. He presented it as evidence for very early humans in England (Late Pliocene deposits date from between 2.1 and 1 million years ago), but it was not well received by the members of the Association, who seem to have held the carving up to ridicule. No academic journal would accept it for publication and he resorted to a self-published pamphlet.

A cursory glance at a photograph of the object reveals that there is no trace of deliberate carving and the overall impression is that it belongs to the same class of artefact as the ‘Face’ on Mars.

The face resembles those carved into pumpkins at Hallowe’en by American children, consisting of two round ‘eyes’ above a crescentic ‘mouth’. It is tempting to regard it as a simulacrum, a natural object that nevertheless bears a resemblance – albeit slight – to a human face. However, in an issue of Lithics (volume 30, 2009), Francis Wenban-Smith argues that it is a genuine discovery, but of medieval rather than Pliocene date. He notes that the face was carved after the shell had already become fossilised, so if it was found in Red Crag deposits, it could well have been carved long after the Pliocene.

Its provenance is not certain: Stopes was given it by a collector friend in 1880, who had apparently found it some years before. There was sand embedded in cracks in the shell and it had the typical staining of Red Crag deposits, so there is little reason to doubt its provenance; what is less clear, though, is whether it came from undisturbed Pliocene deposits or from a talus formed from material derived from those deposits. Francis Wenban-Smith suggests that it should be compared with the scallop shells (associated with Santiago de Compostela) sewn onto clothing by medieval pilgrims and notes that many such tokens were deliberately buried in locations overlooking the sea. This would account for the site of discovery.

However, the childish appearance of the face, which prompted the laughter of the members of British Association in 1881, does not look medieval and raises suspicions of forgery, not by Stopes and not necessarily by the collector from whom he obtained it but by persons unkown.