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Dragons' Teeth and Thunderstones - Ken McNamara ***

This is a unique book. There are plenty of titles out there on fossils, and this book has fossils at its heart - but it's not really about them. It is, rather, an exploration of humanity's attempts to understand what fossils are and what (if anything) they might do for us. As the subtitle suggests, it's not about fossils, not about the search for fossils, but about the search for the meaning of fossils.

Ken McNamara's style is striking - stylish yet also often blunt and not at all academic in his wording, even though he is addressing this topic from an academic viewpoint. This comes across particularly strongly when he is describing a Stone Age person turning a piece of flint with a beautiful fossil embedded in it into a hand axe. As the flint was delicately chipped away, the stone worker took one chip too many, slightly damaging the fossil. McNamara comments 'Should they have had the power of speech at this stage in human evolution, would it be unreasonable to suggest that their response to this final misguided blow was an early, archaic human's version of "Oh f***!"?'

The part about 'should the have had the power of speech' underlines the most dramatic revelation here, which is emphasised on the very first page: 'People have been collecting fossils for hundreds of thousands of years...' By people, McNamara is going back further than the origin of Homo sapiens - remarkably, there is evidence of fossils being used ceremonially for longer than this.

So for originality and insight this should be a five star review. The approach is engaging and different. The revelation of the vast length of time fossils have been collected is remarkable. However, I do have to limit my enthusiasm, because the trouble is that after a while it all gets a little samey. This is in part because the uses made of fossils (for example as magical protection) seem to have been fairly consistent over the millennia, and similarly the fossils used were mostly from a very small group: fish teeth, fossilised sea urchins and ammonites, plus a couple of shellfish types, make up the vast majority of the finds.

I don't want to put anyone who is interested in fossils off this book. I think you will learn new things about mankind's attitude to fossils and how they have been used - and McNamara's style is refreshing and genuinely different. However, equally, it does feel quite repetitive in its topics, which in the end dragged down its star rating.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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