Toadstones and Re-Animated Toads

Introduction

Whilst inspecting an example of a John Mawe mineral collection (from the 1820s) at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery it was observed that it contained an uncatalogued item, namely a petrified frog. (Fig.1)

Figure 1: John Mawe rock and mineral collection showing petrified frog. © John Cooke / Buxton Museum and Derbyshire County Council.

This addition may not be too unusual for the time as many miners and collectors, especially up to the Victorian period, believed that animals (especially toads) became entombed within rock during formation and were able to remain in a suspended animated condition until release. In antiquity toads were believed to have special powers because of a jewel in their head. So, what is the background to these phenomena?

Toadstone and Toads

The toadstone, also known as bufonite (from Latin bufo, “toad”), is a mythical stone or gem that was believed historically to reside in the heads of toads. Like batrochite, it was believed to be an antidote to poison and in this it is like batrachite, supposedly formed in the heads of frogs. Toadstones (Fig.2) are in fact the button-like fossilised teeth of Lepidotes, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, (201 to 66 million years ago). They were described as “stones that are perfect in form” and were set by European jewellers into magical rings and amulets from Medieval times until the 18th century.

Beliefs

From ancient times people associated the fossils with jewels that were set inside the heads of toads. The toad has poison glands in its skin, so it was naturally assumed that they carried their own antidote and that this took the form of a magical stone. They were first recorded by Pliny the Elder in the first century.

According to Paul Taylor of the London Natural History Museum:

Like tonguestones (fossilised shark teeth), toadstones were considered to be antidotes for poison and were also used in the treatment of epilepsy. As early as the 14th century, people began to adorn jewellery with toadstones for their magical abilities. In their folklore, a toadstone was required to be removed from an old toad while the creature was still alive, and as instructed by the 17th century naturalist Edward Topsell, could be done by setting the toad on a piece of red cloth.”

The true toadstone was taken by contemporary jewellers to be no bigger than the nail of a hand and they varied in colour from a whitish brown through green to black, depending on where they were buried. They were supposedly most effective against poison when worn against the skin, on which occasion they were thought to heat up, sweat and change colour. If a person was bitten by a venomous creature a toadstone would be touched against the affected part to effect a cure.

Loose toadstones were discovered among other gemstones in the Elizabethan Cheapside Hoard and there are surviving toadstone rings in the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum.

Figure 2: Toadstones from Jurassic sediments in Oxfordshire. Image in Public Domain.

Classical literature sources

The toadstone is alluded to by Duke Senior in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599), in Act 2, Scene 1, lines 12 through 14:

Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Live Toads in Rocks

Benjamin Franklin wrote an account of four live toads claimed to have been found enclosed in quarried limestone. In a letter to Julian Huxley, one Eric G. Mackley claimed to have freed 23 frogs from a single piece of concrete while widening a road in Devonshire.

English geologist William Buckland conducted an experiment to see how long a toad could remain alive while encased in stone. He placed toads of different sizes and ages into carved chambers within limestone and sandstone blocks, then buried the blocks in his garden. A year later, he dug up the blocks and found that most of the toads were dead and decayed. A few toads that had been in the limestone (which did contain small pores) were still living. However, Buckland found them all dead after reburying them in the limestone for another year. Buckland concluded that toads could not survive inside rock for extreme lengths of time and determined that reports of the entombed animal phenomenon were mistaken. A writer from the journal Nature wrote in 1910, “The true interpretation of these alleged occurrences appears to be simply this – a frog or toad is hopping about while a stone is being broken, and the non-scientific observer immediately rushes to the conclusion that he has seen the creature dropping out of the stone itself. One thing is certainly remarkable, that although numbers of field geologists and collectors of specimens of rocks, fossils, and minerals are hammering away all over the world, not one of these investigators has ever come upon a specimen of a live frog or toad imbedded in stone or in coal.”

Some of the stories may be based on outright fabrications. Charles Dawson, quite probably the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax, had some years earlier presented the Brighton “Toad in the Hole” (a toad entombed within a flint nodule), likely another forgery. Dawson presented the toad to the Brighton and Hove Natural History and Philosophical Society on 18th April 1901, claiming that two workmen had found the flint nodule in a quarry north-east of Lewes a couple of years earlier, which revealed a toad inside when they broke it open. The toad was eventually passed on to the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton via Henry Willett. However, the toad has since shrunk, suggesting that it cannot have been very old at the time of its discovery.

During excavations being made for the Hartlepool waterworks in Durham, England, in 1865, workmen inadvertently freed a living toad from a block of magnesian limestone 25 feet below ground level. The cavity [in which the toad had been contained] was no larger than its body and presented the appearance of being a cast of it. The toad’s eyes shone with unusual brilliancy, and it was full of vivacity on its liberation. It appeared, when first discovered, desirous to perform the process of respiration, but evidently experienced some difficulty, and the only sign of success consisted of a “barking” noise, which it continues invariably to make at present on being touched. The toad is in the possession of Mr. S. Horner, the president of the Natural History Society, and continues in as lively a state as when found. On a minute examination its mouth is found to be completely closed, and the barking noise it makes proceeds from its nostrils. The claws of its fore feet are turned inwards, and its hind ones are of extraordinary length and unlike the present English toad…. The toad, when first released, was of a pale colour and not readily distinguished from the stone, but shortly after its colour grew darker until it became a fine olive brown. A local clergyman and geologist, the Reverend Robert Taylor, expressed the opinion that the toad was 6,000 years old. At the last report (1865) the creature was to be given a place of honour in the Hartlepool Museum, its “primary habitation” – the rock – being provided for accommodation should it so desire. (The Leeds Mercury, April 8, 1865; as quoted in The Zoologist, 23:9630, 1865).

White Watson in his book Delineation of the Strata of Derbyshire, states that:

The author is in possession of a dried Toad, that was taken out of the stratum forty yards from the surface in the Fire Engine Pit at Eastwood Colliery but died immediately on exposure to the air; it was presented to him by Mr. Gervas Bourne of Eastwood, of whose extensive Collection of Vegetable impressions in Ironstone and other choice Fossils of that neighbourhood, it formed a part.

Furthermore, he comments; The celebrated Tourist Mr. Saussure of Geneva, made experiments on Toads by keeping them from the air enveloped in balls of Plaster varnished over, for six weeks, when on opening the balls, they gasped and died immediately, as it is said all have done that have been found in rocks.

Franklin: Account of Living Toads Found Enclosed in Limestone, 6th April 1782

ad: Académie royale des sciences; copy: Library of Congress

In submitting the following report to the Académie des sciences, Franklin joined a long tradition of people who had marvelled over the improbable discovery of toads living in niches in solid rock or in the middle of tree trunks. The Annual Register for 1761 published a survey of some of this literature, including translations of two accounts published by the Académie des Sciences in 1719 and 1731 of live toads discovered in the trunks of mid-sized trees. The author of the survey also alluded to several accounts of toads living in stone formations that had been reported by the ancient Greeks. Some of these reports he discounted as specious; others he was hard-pressed to explain, except by speculating that eggs must have been deposited in the crevices of saplings and somehow managed to derive sustenance from the moisture in the niches they created. Dr. Charles Leigh in The Natural History of Lancashire … (Oxford, 1700), and other early British naturalists, also reported having seen living toads emerge from cells in seemingly solid rock. In Hebron, Connecticut, a similar incident was described in 1770 by S. A. Peters. After detonating a large rock on his property, he discovered a frog living in a small cavity laid open by the explosion. The cavity appeared to have been accessible only by a small crevice as wide as a knitting needle. Peters’ letter was later forwarded to Thomas Jefferson, who submitted it to the American Philosophical Society.

At Passy near Paris, April 6, 1782. being with Mr de Chaumont, viewing his Quarry, he mention’d to me that the Workmen had found a living Toad shut up in the Stone. On questioning one of them he told us they had found four in different Cells which had no Communication: That they were very lively and active when set at Liberty: That there was in each Cell some loose soft yellowish Earth, which appeared to be very moist. We ask’d if he could show us the Parts of the Stone that form’d the Cells; he said no, for they were thrown among the rest of what was dug out, and he knew not where to find them. We asked if there appear’d any Opening by which the Animal might enter? He said no, not the least. We ask’d if in the Course of his Business as a Labourer in Quarries he had often met with the Like? He said never before. We ask’d if he could show us the Toads? He said he had thrown two of them up on a higher Part of the Quarry but knew not what became of the others. He then came up to the place where he had thrown the Two, and finding them, he took them by the foot and threw them up to us, upon the Ground where we Stood. One of them was quite dead; and appeared very lean: the other was plump and still living. The Part of the Rock in which they were found is at least 15 feet below the Surface and is a kind of Limestone. A Part of it is fill’d with ancient Sea Shells, and other marine Substances. If these Animals have remained in that Confinement since the Formation of the Rock, they are probably some thousands of Years old. We have put them in Spirits of Wine to preserve their Bodies a little longer. The Workmen have promis’d to call us if they meet with any more that we may examine their Situation. Before a suitable Bottle could be found to receive them, that which was living when we first had them, appear’d to be quite dead and motionless; but being in the Bottle, and the Spirits pour’d over them, he flounc’d about in it very vigorously for Two or Three Minutes, and then expired.6

It is observed that Animals who perspire but little can live long without Food, such as Tortoises whose Flesh is cover’d with a thick Shell, and Snakes who are cover’d with Scales which are of so close a Substance as scarcely to admit the Passage of perspirable Vapour thro’ them. Animals that have open Pores all over the Surface of their Bodies and live in Air which takes off continually the perspirable Part of their Substance, naturally require a continual Supply of Food to maintain their Bulk. Toads shut up in solid Stone which prevents their losing anything of their Substance, may perhaps for that reason need no Supply, and being guarded against all Accidents, and all the Inclemencies of the Air and Changes of the Seasons, are it seems Subject to no Diseases and become as it were immortal.

A Final Thought

Whilst discussing this issue with a museum curator, I was reminded that petrified frogs and toads have played a part in warding off evil. This comes under the heading apotropaic, a completely new term which needed a dictionary for immediate assistance. The entry discloses the following information:

History and Etymology for apotropaic

Greek apotrópaios “averting evil, that should be averted, ill-omened” (from apotrop-, stem in nominal derivation of apotrépein “to turn away from, turn aside, avert”

It appears that items were concealed within buildings to protect the occupants from harmful supernatural forces. These forces could include demons, fairies and the forces of witchcraft. Such counters to witchcraft included shoes, skulls, dried cats, protection marks and sometimes toads. The physical items were often concealed in fireplaces, but objects also occurred within walls. So, is there a correlation between toads in rocks and protection from the forces of evil?

Conclusion

Are there any final answers? Is there a conclusion? Do people subscribe to unfounded theories. We only have to look at the issues that have evolved during the COVID pandemic…?

It is acceptable to assume that it is almost entirely the result of fabrication or hearsay.  Or is there any basis for the phenomenon in modern science (stranger things have happened)?

Thanks are extended to Adam Jeffery of Keele University for advice and Bret Gaunt of Buxton Museum for alerting the author to apotropaios (from a book he just happened to be reading at the time!)


2 thoughts on “Toadstones and Re-Animated Toads

  1. I loved this post! Thank you so much for it. The mythology and early science is fascinating and the accounts hilarious. What a lovely example of secret histories that can be lying in the collections. I feel sorry for all those poor toads though!

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