The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

In his introduction to The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times., paleontologist Peter Dodson writes:

As a child I greatly enjoyed Greek mythology (always in preference to its more derivative Roman counterpart). I might also mention that my father, a biologist, majored in ancient Greek in college. I devoured Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch and D’Aulaire.

I could say something similar about myself. I have always been fascinated by ancient Greece, even taking ancient Greek in college (rather than German like most of the rest of my anthropological peers). I have read Hamilton and Herodotus, Dodds, Euripides and Harrison, and so on ad infinitum . So when I first first heard of a book that combined my two interests of old bones and ancient Greece I was immediately interested.


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Mayor’s book starts with griffins – which Mayor argues are not cut from the same mold as other mythological creatures in Greek Mythology (Minotaurs, Pegasus and the Sphinx, for example). Griffins, according to Mayor, were not the offspring of the gods (Pegasus being a good example, in one myth Pegasus sprung from Medusa after her head was cut off by Perseus) nor were they associated with the exploits of gods or heroes. Rather, they were considered generic animals that really existed in the present (as opposed to the other mythological creatures that existed only in the past). This lead Mayor to do quite a bit of research to try and unravel the origins of the griffins (I think successfully). Griffins first enter Greek art in the 7th century B.C. – about the same time as the Greeks first came into contact with the Scythians. Mayor uses a combination of legend and archaeology to trace the griffin to the Scythians, nothing new there, but then comes the fascinating part. The Scythian culture ranged from the Black Sea to the Altai mountains and covered parts of the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts. As Mayor puts it:

In the wind scoured dunes, alluvial basins, and red sediments along the caravan trails, prehistoric remains are continually revealed by the very same forces of erosion that bring the gold down from the mountains. The desert is extremely arid with little vegetation, so it’s possible to spot fossils on the ground. The shapes of the skulls and skeletons are quite obvious, even to amateurs, and the surrounding rock is soft and crumbly, making it easy to uncover partially embedded bones. And the white bones stand out against the red matrix.

The most frequently occurring fossils in this area, is that of Protoceratops:
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which usually occur in proximity to gold deposits. Mayor makes a convincing case that the Scythians (major gold traders in that era) created the legend of the griffin based on firsthand experience with fossil Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus – and this is just in the first chapter.
Chapter Two covers the geological history of the Mediterranean area and the fossil resources in the area. This chapter set the stage for the rest of the book.
In Chapter Three, Mayor discusses discovery of bones in the Greek Pre-classic and Classic. Classical scholars should be familiar with these in a different context. For example, the Spartan discovery of the bones of Orestes or the shoulder of Pelops kept at the sanctuary of Olympia. The bones of Theseus were discovered by the Athenians (who also swiped the bones of Oedipus from Thebes). As Mayor points out there was a veritable bone rush at that time with skeletons of heroes popping up all over the place. One of the traits that united these finds was the large size of the bones. The ancient Greeks felt that their heroes were larger in stature than they were. An idea that traces back to Hesiod’s Works and Days (where he discusses the five ages of Man) and probably earlier. Over time, according to the ancient Greeks, humans have grown shorter. So when giant bones were discovered – especially those that looked vaguely human – they were interpreted as the bones of Greek heroes. The Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius also collected bones. What unites a lot of these discoveries is that they come from areas with a lot of fossils – mainly from the Miocene to the present and composed of large megafauna such as mammoths, mastodon, giraffe and rhinoceros to name a few.
Chapter Four talks about artistic and archaeological evidence for ancient fossil discoveries. The picture below is from a Corinthian krater dating to 560-540 B.C.
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The figures, like on most Greek vases and such, are fully fleshed out and well done, but note the monster emerging from the cave. Note the skeletal appearance – including sclerotic eye rings, the jaw articulation and the broken premaxilla. The skull itself is probably chimerical – that is composed of traits of several species. For example, the sclerotic eye rings appear only in dinosaurs and birds, not mammals, yet other features of the skull are mammalian. From there Mayor surveys archaeological discoveries of fossil bones. For example, Schliemann found a fossil in his Troy excavations. The fossil was in a layer dating to around the 13th century B. C. and has since been located (due to Mayor’s work) at the British Museum. Other examples are the large distal femur fragment found at the temple of Hera on Samos and the Nichoria distal femur fragment found in the acropolis of an ancient town in Messenia.
Chapter Five examines these fossil discoveries in light of popular traditions, myths and natural philosophy amongst the ancient Greeks. She points out that the Greeks interpreted such discoveries in terms of mythological events – the wars between the Olympians and various giants and centaurs (both immortalized on the Parthenon – which shows the religious and political importance of these events for the Greeks). To which could be added the fact that a large number of myths about heroes and demigods concerned the slaying of various oversize monsters (Geryon’s cattle, the Caledonian Boar, the Nemean Lion, etc,). Really, it was all part of the evolution of the world from primeval chaos (represented by Gaea, Uranus, and say the Hecatonchires) to Greek civilization (as an aside it also reflects a running down of Gaea’s creative ability from the wild chaotic forms originally produced to the more generic oversized versions of animals the Greeks were familiar with). Fanciful writers of travel tales and various frauds and hoaxsters had their say as well and Mayor discusses them too. The only AMOL group are the philosophers, who made very little mention of such discoveries.
Chapter Six covers modern frauds such as the Centaur Excavations at Volos. Well, fraud is too strong a word, perhaps a better way of saying it is paleontological fictions. Stories or art installations that say something interesting about paleontology and how we think about it. Another example is the dinosauroid created by Dale Russell and R. Seguin:
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Overall, my first reaction on reading Mayor’s book was to kick myself for not making the connections she makes. Just goes to show the value of an outside view – when done correctly as Mayor does. Add the impressive amount of work Mayor did for the book and you have an excellent addition to the literature. One that should make classicists, archaeologists and paleontologists alike reassess the way they approach the subject. Over and above that, the book will prove fascinating to those who have little knowledge and a lot of interest in the subject. My one complaint is that the book ended way too soon. Fortunately, Fossil Legends of the First Americans is even longer!

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16 Responses

  1. Very interesting. I’d never really thought about connecting Greek legends with fossils, but the Chinese dragons have always seemed pretty obvious to me, especially with their rich supply of fossils. I have no idea how much (if any) literature there has been on that.
    The Chinese seem to have made the Big Lizard Bones = Big Lizards connection, but they also made a Big Hard Things = Great Drink Mixer for Impotence connection that I don’t think is as solid. It reminds me of the Son of the Invisible Man skit: “After injecting myself with every chemical known to man, I finally perfected my father’s formula!”

  2. great post! btw, you should use the class=”inset” parameter within your images so that there is padding with the text.

  3. Thanks Razib – both for the complement and for the technical advice.
    Pough – she mentions dragons in India as well as the fact that the Chinese considered alot of bones to be “dragon bones”.

  4. I really enjoyed Mayor’s book too and got a lot out of it (at some stage I plan to write a blog article about the myth of the cyclops myth, which is still being perpetuated despite her efforts). The inclusion of the dinosauroid was also an interesting spin that I was tangentially involved in: sorry for the advert, but I wrote some about dinosaurs here.

  5. Nice post! Thanks. I’ll pick this up for light summer reading.

  6. Silly dinosaurid or not, Dale Russell is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life.

  7. Peter – Yes, it is definitely worth reading. I just hit the high points, but there is all sorts of interesting material that I didn’t mention.
    Coturnix – I’m not terribly familiar with Russell, so would you expand on that a little?
    Darren – That was a great post!

  8. Dale is a guy with enormous energy and passion! I took a class in Dinosaur Osteology with him that included a trip to Carnegie and it was teh most high-powered class I evere took, new great ideas being voiced by him or students at a rate of about 1000 per minute!
    When the NC Museum of Natural Science moved to the new building, the grand opening was a 24-hour event. People were lining up around the block, five-wide, throughout the 24 hours. The staff and volunteers took shifts – but not Dale Russell! He stood in the middle of the new dinosaur hall for the entire 24 hours, talking to little kids as if they are completely equal partners in the fascinating science of dinosaur paleontology – not talking down to them, but asking them for their opinion: do they think that Acrocanthosaur was a male or female and why, etc., etc…..- Energizer Bunny! A non-linear thinker. And always in a great mood.

  9. the sclerotic eye rings appear only in dinosaurs and birds, not mammals

    They occur in almost all vertebrates other than mammals.

    not talking down to them, but asking them for their opinion: do they think that Acrocanthosaur was a male or female and why, etc., etc…..

    That is a good idea of how to introduce science.

  10. Just in case you don’t know, there’s another book by this author about the Americas… it’s pretty good too.

  11. Coturnix – 24 hours straight? That is dedication. Just out of idle curiosity what text did you use for the dinosaur osteology class?
    BlueMako – Yes, I’ll be reviewing that as well.
    David – I did not know that, thanks for the info!

  12. “….what text did you use for the dinosaur osteology class?”
    The Dinosauria by Weishampel et al. This was some years ago when that book was still pretty new.

  13. I’m completely sold on the idea, I’m in the process of examining the possibility that Masons may have been digging up Dinosaurs for some time, and that Solomon’s Demons detailed in his Testament may well have been no more than a demonstration of his privelidged knowledge of Dinosaurs thanks to his own Masons’ toils.

  14. Um, yeah, that makes no sense whatsoever…

  15. Hmmm, if you have the time could you please explain why you think this is nonsense.

  16. Theories involving the Masons and the Bible don’t do a thing for me…

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