Skip to page content

Press release

Find out what's fascinating about fossil folklore

A new exhibition at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, 12 February - 8 July 2007

From dragons and monsters to angels’ money and slaves’ lentils, discover the truth behind the fascinating folklore and myths that have developed around fossils. Fossil Folklore is a new family-friendly exhibition that opens at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, Tring, on 12 February and runs until 8 July 2007.

Fossil Folklore begins by examining what fossils really are and how they are formed. The exhibition includes real fossil specimens, photographs and fun interactives, where younger visitors will be able to dig for fossils and identify them. It goes on to explore how fossils have been used and portrayed in myth, medicine and magic.

‘Fossils are fascinating for people of all ages. We’ve all grown up learning about fossils and hearing the stories behind them, and Fossil Folklore gives visitors a chance to discover what fossils really are, as well as what people used to think they were,’ said Alice Dowswell, curator of the exhibition. ‘Scientists have been studying fossils for more than 200 years, but there’s still a lot of information missing. The study of fossils is very exciting; future discoveries might tell us about previously unknown creatures that used to exist and change our view of the way the earth evolved.’

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a huge woolly rhinoceros skull. Research conducted over the last 30 years by Andy Currant, Ice Age mammal curator at the Natural History Museum, has shown that rhinoceros fossils were previously thought to be dragons.

‘The historical spread of dragons is the same as that of Pleistocene fossil rhinos,’ said Andy. 'The very fact no one recognised their anatomy until about 1700 when modern rhino remains started to turn up in Europe is significant. Dragons are usually linked to caves - where woolly rhinos are often found - and rhino skulls have been found sitting on bone heaps.'

A variety of real fossils will be on display, including ammonites (sometimes known as snakestones) and belemnites. These are the internal shells of extinct animals related to modern octopus and squid. They are known as thunderbolts in folklore because people believed they were cast down from the sky during thunderstorms. Visitors will also be able to see fossilised shark teeth and a section of a fossilised tree. Perhaps some of the most strangely named specimens on show are Devil’s toenails - the shells of the Jurassic oyster Gryphaea, which were used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to cure pain in the joints. 

Notes for editors

  • The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum is the Natural History Museum’s sister museum in Tring, Hertfordshire. It opened in the late 1800s to house the collections of Lionel Walter, second Baron Rothschild. The Museum offers outstanding examples of nineteenth-century taxidermy at its very best and was bequeathed to the nation in 1938, and became part of the Natural History Museum. The public galleries were modernised, but the fascinating character of the Museum has been retained.
  • The Fossil Folklore exhibition is largely based on a popular section on the Natural History Museum’s website written by Natural History Museum palaeontologist Dr Paul D Taylor, which provides an illustrated introduction to fossil folklore, gathering stories from around the world and revealing the truth behind some of the myths that have grown up around fossils.

Visitor information:

Location: The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum,
Akeman Street, Tring, Herts, HP23 6AP
Dates: 12 February - 8 July 2007
Admission: Free
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10.00 -17.00, Sunday 14.00 - 17.00, closed 24, 25 and 26 December.
Access: Step-free access is limited to Gallery 1, the temporary exhibition gallery, the shop and Zebra Café. A virtual tour of the upper galleries of the Museum is available in the temporary exhibition gallery.
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 6171
Website: www.nhm.ac.uk/tring

For more information about Fossil Folklore or the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, please contact:
Natural History Museum Press Office
Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654, email