The first club Med

The First Fossil Hunters
January 12, 2001

The earliest humans to walk the earth must have encountered vestiges of gigantic creatures several times bigger than themselves. Suddenly finding large fossil bones, and skulls with enormous teeth, must have been a frightening experience. It could have been the origin of early legends of terrifying giants. Even the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans was filled with gigantic heroes, dragons and mysterious monsters such as the griffin that stood guard over a treasure of gold.

Ancient naturalists reported the existence of these creatures, but modern scientists have long dismissed this information as baseless. Many of the legends in Greek and Roman literature tell of gigantic bones in several places around the Mediterranean sea. In antiquity, such bones were sometimes venerated in sanctuaries and displayed in temples, for example the shoulder blade of Pelops that resided in the temple of Artemis at Olympia. They were the subjects of much speculation, sometimes with surprising results.

The American folklorist Adrienne Mayor, "an independent researcher of classical legends about natural history", as she describes herself, explores in this book "the borders of ancient and modern knowledge, collecting unclassifiable passages in Greek and Latin texts, searching for meaningful patterns, and relating the results to modern science".

Blending the thrill of scientific discovery with the fascination of ancient folklore and legends, Mayor gives us a comprehensive overview of the ancient literature dealing with these findings and interprets legends and folklore that others have considered unclear or of dubious value. Again and again she shows that there is a good deal of truth behind the legends, and that they may give us a good insight into ancient thought and knowledge. The reader learns much about the gold-guarding griffin, the one-eyed Cyclops - an enigma that Othenio Abel had already solved about 100 years ago - the shoulder blade of the giant Pelops, the Trojan war and many other highlights of Greek and Roman mythology. Her investigations are well illustrated - some with her own skilful drawings - and by detailed source material in the notes and two appendices. In the course of her research Mayor visited many archaeological and palaeontological sites in the Mediterranean and elsewhere and consulted scientists working in the region. This cooperation with specialists has given her work an added level of competence. The sources of this information are scrupulously acknowledged.

The excellent illustration on the dust cover sums up the contents of the book: it shows ancient fossil hunters. The interpretation of the painting on an ancient Greek vase and the question of whether Hercules was really a hero or just an invention of the ancients are highlights of her book.

There are six chapters. The first, "The gold-guarding griffin: a palaeontological legend", tells the exciting story of the bird-like quadrupeds guarding gold in the Gobi desert. As the Greek historian Herodotus reported, Scythian nomads searched for gold during the night, always fearing to be surprised by the griffin. In the preface, Peter Dodson, from the University of Pennsylvania, tells how modern palaeontology contributed to solving the enigma of this mysterious creature. This chapter alone makes the book worth reading. However, as a fan of Greece, I wish she had mentioned the wall painting at Thera/Santorini in Greece showing a griffin chasing a stag in a hilly landscape with palms on the bank of a river.

The next chapter, "Earthquakes and elephants: prehistoric remains in Mediterranean lands", gives a sketch of the geology and palaeontology of the Mediterranean area and shows where giant bones were found in antiquity and where they occur today. Then, in chapter three, "Ancient discoveries of giant bones", the reader is guided to fossil sites in Greece and Egypt, where the author's investigations produce surprising results when she tells how they fit into the story of Pelops and the gigantic heroes of Troy. "Artistic and archaeological evidence for fossil discoveries" is a continuation of the previous chapter, in which Mayor shows that the ancients had extensive knowledge of fossils and had their own interpretation of their significance. Among other things, she describes the rediscovery of the fossil bones excavated by Schliemann at Troy and their connection with old Greek legends.

In "Mythology, natural philosophy, and fossils", she shows that the ancients already had a great deal of insight into fundamental palaeontology. Some of Darwin's ideas were already known in antiquity, and Pliny the Elder knew that species are not immutable. He reasoned, on the basis of the relicts of gigantic bones, that "we all are getting smaller in time". Finally, "Centaur bones: palaeontological fictions" summarises the more doubtful remains in the form of man-made "fossils". In antiquity - just as today - skilful artists were able to fool people with fantastic reconstructions made by combining various animal and/or human bones. We learn from literature of the period that fake giants were exposed.

Notes for each chapter, placed at the end of the book, are a good supplement to the text, as are the two appendices, "Larger vertebrate fossil species in the ancient world" and "Ancient testimonia".

In many ways this book resembles a detective story. When the author gets on the track of something interesting, she follows it wherever it leads - to a storeroom of the British Museum, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, or a forgotten storage box somewhere in Greece. It is the kind of book one would recommend to friends working in the Mediterranean, and to historians, archaeologists, or palaeontologists. Having read it, you will find that next time you come upon a passage in which an ancient naturalist recounts such events as a "battle between Amazons and war horses", you will suddenly understand it. The First Fossil Hunters will be a revelation to anyone interested in ancient history. For me, it is one of the best books of recent years.

Walter L. Friedrich is associate professor, department of earth sciences, University of Aarhus, Denmark. He is the author of Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano, Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis .

The First Fossil Hunters:
Palaeontology in Greek and Roman Times

Author - Adrienne Mayor
ISBN - 0 691 05863 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 361 £21.95

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments