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Prehistoric Whitby

Whilst little can be found of Whitby's human past before the 6th Century, discoveries of fossilised creatures, minerals, plants and other treasures found on Whitby's beaches, and in the locals rocks and cliffs, can give us a glimpse of the areas prehistoric natural history.

Many of these findings whilst of scientific importance have inspired local myth and folklore, with the discovery of dinosaur bones, entire pterosaurs' skeletons and an abundance of ammonites. These have given the town a unique scientific reputation as well as creating opportunities for lucrative commerce and trade with its relative wealth of high quality jet supplies. In fact these discoveries have given rise to the North East Yorkshire area being give the nickname the 'Dinosaur Coast', as it boasts some of the best Jurassic and Cretaceous geology found in the world to date. An in depth and renowned collection of these finds are held and can be viewed at Whitby Museum.

Over 6500 specimens of fossils and minerals are actually held at Whitby Museum which thus houses one of the largest collections of Jurassic geology form the Yorkshire coast in the world. Some of the most exiting examples, which were found locally to Whitby, are of internationally renowned importance including: Lower Jurassic fossils, ranging from large marine reptiles, such as Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs and a crocodile, to ammonites, belemnites and fish, along with an extensive collection of Middle Jurassic plants and a collection of material from the last Ice Age and minerals from the alum mining industry. There is also the opportunity to view samples which are the first of their kind ever to be described on display. For the fossil enthusiast Whitby and it's surrounding bays offer prime hunting venues for amateur and veteran alike, as the land is made of shale and clay and with each rainy downpour the cliffs give way to reveal more fossilised treasure. This has ensured that Runswick Bay, which lies just north of Whitby, has been voted the best beach combing venue in the country.
Perhaps the most well know myth regarding the area's fossils is that which relates to the creation of the ammonites , a local emblem and often found in the area. Ammonites are actually the fossilised remains of an extinct marine animal which first appeared in the Late Silurian to Early Devonian (circa 400 million years ago) and became extinct, along with the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous period (circa 65 million years ago). Legend has it, however that St Hilda , (614-680AD), during her position as Prioress of Whitby Abbey, protected the locals and their town from a plague of snakes by calling upon God and turning the vicious creatures to stone with her staff. This has paved the way for the claim that ammonites are actually the petrified remains of those snakes. Indeed in appearance an ammonites tightly spiralled shell does resemble the coils of a snake and as a result it had once even been the practice for local tradesmen to carve snakes heads onto ammonites in order to take advantage of the myth and to sell them to believers as religious relics supporting the legend.

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