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The First Fossil Hunters

The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

Adrienne Mayor
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    The First Fossil Hunters
    Book Description:

    Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, and Giants--these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores inThe First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact--in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

    As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.

    Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3844-8
    Subjects: History, Archaeology, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction to the 2011 Edition Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in the Greek and Roman World: Tracing the History of Human Curiosity about Fossils
    (pp. xiii-xxviii)

    THIS BOOK was researched and written in the late twentieth century, based on a radical idea: that the prehistoric fossil record and Greek and Roman mythology were somehow related. WhenThe First Fossil Hunterswas first published, in 2000, geomythology—the science of recovering ancient folk traditions about complex natural processes or extraordinary events—was an emerging discipline. That ancient people observed, collected, measured, and displayed the fossils of immense, extinct species, and that they had, moreover, recognized them as the traces of remarkable creatures that had flourished and then perished in a distant era, were alien concepts. Scholars had...

    (pp. xxix-1)
  6. Geological Time Scale
    (pp. 2-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    THE CLASSICAL Greek landscape evokes many images—heroes and Amazons, gods and goddesses, painted vases and bronze statues, marble columns and temple ruins. The enormous fossil bones of mastodons and mammoths are not likely to appear in anyone’s mental picture of classical antiquity. But immense skeletons of creatures from past eons indeed lie buried all around the lands known to the Greeks and Romans. And for the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves, vestiges of giants and monsters of the distant past were important features of their natural and cultural landscape. This book explores the relationship between two simple but surprising...

  8. Historical Time Line
    (pp. 11-14)
  9. CHAPTER 1 The Gold-Guarding Griffin: A Paleontological Legend
    (pp. 15-53)

    I BOARDED the overnight ferry from Athens to Samos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, in the late summer. My destination was a small museum in Mytilini, a village in the mountainous interior. Intrigued by a note in an old guidebook, I hoped to see a collection of colossal bones that had been found north of the village, dug out of a dry streambed in a place known to locals as the “Elephants’ Cemetery.” The guidebook mentioned that significant prehistoric fossils had been stored in a room above the village post office since the 1880s. One of...

  10. CHAPTER 2 Earthquakes and Elephants: Prehistoric Remains in Mediterranean Lands
    (pp. 54-103)

    INQUIRING MINDS wanted to know: Whose enormous bones littered the island of Samos? The ancient historian Plutarch took on this mystery in his workGreek Questions, a compilation of curious facts about Greece written in about A.D. 100. Best known for his biographies of ancient celebrities (theParallel Lives), Plutarch studied philosophy, lectured in Rome and Egypt, and served as a priest at the oracle of Delphi. A prolific writer of tireless curiosity and staggering erudition, Plutarch left a treasure trove of antiquarian information about the topics that fascinated him, from live Centaur sightings to Persian magic. In his Greek...

  11. CHAPTER 3 Ancient Discoveries of Giant Bones
    (pp. 104-156)

    THE GREAT WAR against Troy had been dragging on for nearly ten years. The battle-weary Greeks captured a Trojan seer and forced him to reveal secret oracles. The seer predicted that his city would never fall unless the Greeks brought a bone of the great hero Pelops to Troy as a talisman. The Greeks immediately dispatched a ship to fetch Pelops’s enormous shoulder blade from Olympia.

    As Pausanias relates this story (already centuries old in his day, about A.D. 150), some bones of heroic size were acclaimed as the remains of the mythic hero Pelops sometime before the Trojan War...

  12. CHAPTER 4 Artistic and Archaeological Evidence for Fossil Discoveries
    (pp. 157-191)

    IN A GLASS CASE in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a strange creature lurks on an ancient Greek vase. This vase painting, made in the famous pottery center of Corinth in the sixth century B.C., is known to art historians as the oldest illustration of the story of the Monster of Troy, a creature described in Homeric legends. But the animal on this particular vase troubles specialists in Greek art, because it doesn’t fit the typical monster image.

    The Monster of Troy was already an old tale when Homer retold it in the eighth century B.C. In that legend,...

  13. CHAPTER 5 Mythology, Natural Philosophy, and Fossils
    (pp. 192-227)

    WHEN the ancient Greeks and Romans encountered perplexing fossils around the Mediterranean, what concepts did they draw on to explain them? As we’ve seen, myths and folklore about giants and monsters offered a strong interpretive model for huge, weird bones buried in the earth. But because modern classical scholars tend to read myth as fictional literature, not as natural history, the significant contributions of popular traditions to ancient paleontological thought have not been appreciated.

    Moreover, scholars both ancient and modern consigned descriptions of giants and monsters to the realm of fantasy and superstition. Since discussions of remarkable remains are missing...

  14. CHAPTER 6 Centaur Bones: Paleontological Fictions
    (pp. 228-254)

    PAUSANIAS, the intrepid traveler steeped in Greek mythohistory, went to Tanagra (Boeotia) in about A.D. 150 to have a look at the town’s famous marvel, a pickled Triton. The connoisseur of relics and enormous bones had already seen a smaller Triton preserved among the wonders of Rome. “But,” wrote Pausanias, “the Triton of Tanagra would really make you gasp!”

    Tritons, wrote Pausanias, “are certainly a sight, with their sleek, froggy green hair and bodies bristling with very fine scales like sharkskin.” The curators at the Temple of Dionysus told Pausanias that this half-man, half-sea creature had been killed long ago...

  15. APPENDIX 1. Large Vertebrate Fossil Species in the Ancient World
    (pp. 255-259)
  16. APPENDIX 2. Ancient Testimonia
    (pp. 260-282)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 283-332)
    (pp. 333-350)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 351-361)