The First Fossil Hunters
By Adrienne Mayor
Review by Steve Brusatte

Disproving Conventional Wisdom-Greek and Roman Paleontology!

(Book Review, The First Fossil Hunters, by Adrienne Mayor, 2000, Princeton University Press)

Every year hundreds of paleontology books are published, but rarely does a fossil book capture the attention of the masses. Yet, on occasion a paleontology book breaks the barrier of science, and goes beyond the realm of the common, 'same old' fossil rhetoric. One of these 'rare' books was published earlier this year, and tells a tightly woven tale of how the science of paleontology was practiced in Greek and Roman times. Yes, you heard that correctly, paleontology in Greek and Roman times.

To fossil buffs worldwide, paleontology is thought of as a relatively new science; a science which was born during the 1700's and introduced to the realm of scientific thought by such pioneers as Cuvier and Plot. But, after reading Adrienne Mayor's new book, The First Fossil Hunters-Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, one will discover that such a notion is far from the truth.

Mayor, a Princeton, New Jersey classical folklorist, has made a career of investigating the historical and scientific realities embedded in Greek and Roman myths. Her work has appeared in many scholarly and popular journals, including Archaeology Magazine, and she is a common visitor to Jack Horner's Montana dinosaur digs. By combining two of her loves, classical folklore and paleontology, Mayor has produced what may turn out to be one of the greatest paleontological volumes of the past decade.

Above all, in The First Fossil Hunters Mayor proves two basic points: that many of the classic Greek and Roman myths did have a basis in fact, and that the basis for these facts were fossils. Using evidence collected from personal interviews, trips to Greek and Italian museums, and careful studies of classical myths and geology, Mayor continues to prove the two above points throughout her 360-page book.

After a forward by University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson, Mayor introduces her readers to her first experience in mending classical myth and paleontology. As a classical folklorist, Mayor had long been interested in the origins of the myth of the griffin. According to Greek legend, the ferocious griffin was a medium-sized creature, half lion and half eagle, who protected vast quantities of gold in the Atlai Mountains of the Gobi Desert. Various classical scholars, ancient historians, art experts, historians of science, archaeologists, and zoologists had insisted that the griffin was an imaginary creature, a symbol created by the ancient Greeks to represent vigilance, greed, or the difficulties of mining gold. But, Mayor suspected differently.

Mayor writes that the griffin was no simple composite; that it didn't seem to belong with other 'obviously imaginary' hybrids of Greek tradition like Pegasus (a horse with wings), the Minotaur (a man with a bull's head), or the Sphinx (a winged lion with a woman's head). Unlike these creatures, the griffin did not play a role in Greek mythology, but instead was a creature of folklore, grounded in naturalistic details. Plus, the descriptions of these griffins seemed to remain constant over many centuries. These facts led Mayor to believe that the myth of the griffin may have been based in paleontological legend.

Mayor's first inclination was that the ancient giraffe Samotherium may have had a role to play in the legend of the griffin. Perhaps it showed both mammalian and bird-like features, and perhaps these features could explain the odd combination of lion and eagle traits in the griffin. In order to investigate this inclination, Mayor boarded a flight to Athens, and then made the day trip to Mytilini, a medium-sized Greek mountain village. This village was home to a small paleontological museum, a museum which contained a well-preserved skull of the rare Samotherium. But, after examining the Samotherium skull, Mayor did not find any evidence of a beak, or other bird-like characteristics. Alas, Samotherium was not the answer, but perhaps the solution lied in a more distant land?

Mayor returned to Athens, and began to partake in more research at the American School of Classical Studies. There, she came across an account by German geologist Georg Erman in which he proclaimed to have discovered the identity of the griffin. According to his account, the griffin was really a composite of mammoth and rhinoceroses bones. Mayor did not see his account as being totally accurate, but believed he was on the right track.

Three thousand years ago, she explained, the Scythian nomads prospected for gold in the western reaches of the Gobi Desert, beyond the Tien Shan and Atlai Mountains. Sometime in the seventh century B.C., Greeks first made contact with these nomads, and after contact was made stories of Scythian myths began to spring up in Greek poems and stories. One of these legends was that of the griffin, the fierce avian and mammal-like guarder of gold. Therefore, Mayor reasoned, the legend of the griffin must have originated in the Gobi Desert. But, what fossil exposures in the Gobi could explain such an odd creature? The griffin was obviously thought upon as a real, living animal by the Scythians, but what could account for this creature?

As any dinosaur buff knows, the Gobi Desert is famous for its Cretaceous dinosaur remains. These remains, which include several species of theropods and ceratopsians, were first brought to the attention of the scientific world by the 1920's expeditions of Roy Chapman Andrews. Later, during the 1960's, a joint Polish-Soviet team discovered many new dinosaur fossils in this area, and during the 1990's, after the fall of Communism in Russia, American and Canadian teams were finally allowed to re-enter the Gobi area.

Could some of these dinosaur fossils have possibly been the basis for the myth of the griffin? In order to answer this question, Mayor began to read exact descriptions of the griffin, descriptions explaining the creature's large eye sockets, head frill, beak, and four limbs, and then compared these descriptions to the descriptions of known dinosaur fossils from the Gobi. Her study produced two possible culprits: Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus. Upon closer examination, the description of the griffins by Scythian and Greek travelers more closely matched the description of Protoceratops. The long-awaited identity of the griffin had finally been found, and it was the familiar ceratopsian Protoceratops. It now seems certain that Scythian travelers noticed the fossilized remains of Protoceratops specimens weathering from the ground, and parlayed these skeletons into the myth of the griffin!

After her vivid description of the solution to the myth of the griffin, Mayor devotes an entire chapter to explaining the origin of vast, bone-filled 'battlefields.' Blackened bones of incredible dimensions continually emerged from the rocky earth near Megalopolis, and Greek legend attributed these giant bones to monsters, who had made their last stand and were blasted into the ground by the lightning bolts of Zeus. But, as with the griffin, Mayor attributed these bones to fossils. Using accounts of Greek myth and paleontological studies by University of Athens geologist Theodore Skoufos, Mayor deduced that these bones likely were the remains of mammoths, and the blackened soil attributed to Zeus' lightning was actually lignite, a low-grade coal that can burn for long periods of time. This spontaneous burning likely confused the ancient Greeks, who, as with countless other strange occurrences, simply accounted it to the actions of the gods.

Mayor then proceeds to discuss several different occurrences where fossil bones were discovered, collected, preserved, and even categorized, curated, and displayed. She then begins what is perhaps the most awe-inspiring account in the entire book.

In a small glass case in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts lies a strange ancient Greek vase. This odd vase is covered by a series of strange paintings, including one which has bewildered archaeologists for centuries. The painting in question is the oldest illustration of the story of the Monster of Troy, a creature described in Homeric legends. But, Mayor writes, the creature depicted on the vase troubles Greek art specialists, because it doesn't fit the typical Greek monster image.

The tale of the Monster of Troy was first told by Homer in the eighth century B.C. In this legend, a terrifying monster suddenly appeared on the Trojan coast after a flood, and began preying on the farmers in the neighborhood of Sigeum. The king's daughter, Hesione, was sent as a sacrifice to the monster, but according to the legend, Heracles arrives in time to kill it.

The painting on the Boston vase shows Hesione and Heracles confronting the monster, with Hesione throwing rocks at it and Hericles shooting arrows. Yet, it is the image of the monster that is most disturbing. The image of the Monster of Troy is simply that of a large skull, a skull art historian John Boardman singled out as "shapeless and unworthy, gaping balefully from a rocky cave." The creature does not take the image of a typical Greek monster. The typical Greek monster was a scaly, serpent-like creature, with undulating bodies, ears, large staring eyes, crests, and snouts. Yet, this monster had an extended skull, hollow eye sockets, forward-leaning teeth, and a broken-off upper jaw. What exactly was this creature? Once again, the answer lies in paleontology.

The painter of this vase lived in Corinth, a Greek trade hub, and painted the picture of the Monster sometime near 550 B.C. At this time Greece was in a period that Mayor calls "the bone rush," a time when Greeks were searching out large, unusual remains that emerged from the ground all around the Aegean. Of course, today we know that these remains were fossils of Tertiary mammals. The Boston vase shows the Monster of Troy emerging at Sigeum on the Trojan coast, a region known for its fossil remains. Could it have been possible that the Monster of Troy depicted on this vase was actually a fossilized skull? Is it possible that the entire Homeric legend of this monster was based entirely on a simple Tertiary mammal skull? In her fourth chapter, Mayor says yes, writing that the artist likely saw a mammal skull eroding from a cliffside, added a few details, and drew it onto the vase. The fossil in question-likely a skull of the Miocene giraffe Samotherium, a fossil you may recognize from Mayor's hunt for the identity of the griffin.

Throughout her final two chapters, Mayor continues to discuss the discovery of fossil bones in antiquity, how Greeks and Romans measured and studied these bones, and how other legends were created using these fossils. She closes by an in-depth discussion on paleontological fiction, and what we can learn from Greek and Roman examinations of fossils.

Unlike Glut's Dinosaur Encyclopedia or Farlow and Surman's The Complete Dinosaur, The First Fossil Hunters is not a massive or voluminous work. The breadth of Mayor's findings are included in 250 pages of text, which is coupled with nearly 110 additional pages of appendixes, testimony of ancient philosophers, notes, and sources to complete the book. Yet, The First Fossil Hunters is an unbelievable text, and a book that any paleontology buff should read.

When Adrienne Mayor sent me an advanced copy proof of her book in February, a full three months before the official publication date, I could not put it down. The revelations on each page were completely new to me. In no other book or paper had I ever read about Greek and Roman advancements in paleontology. For me, paleontology was always a new-age science, a science only recently created, and a science that is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, through her tireless research and writing, Mayor proves this notion wrong.

Throughout her book Mayor continually proves the two basic points that she originally set out in the introduction: that many Greek and Roman myths had a basis in fact, and that these facts were often fossils. However, she goes beyond this basis thesis, and proves that Greeks and Romans FREQUENTLY encountered the fossilized remains of mammals and dinosaurs, and that they developed very sophisticated concepts and myths to explain this bewildering and often confusing fossil evidence. Like their modern counterparts, Mayor writes, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and even displayed them in temples and museums. They attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these creatures through art and sculpture, and went even further in attempting to explain their creation and extinction.

All of these actions taken by the Greeks and Romans described above are a basic outline of what a modern-day paleontologist does. A paleontologist in the year 2000 measures fossils, he displays them, attempts to reconstruct them, and tries to explain their early evolution and extinction. These basic courses of actions were taken by the Greeks and Romans almost subconsciously. There were no National Science Foundations 2500 years ago. There were no American Museums, or Science and Nature journals. Yet, out of curiosity, the Greeks and Romans who came across large fossilized bones attempted to explain them. This simple notion changes much of the conventional wisdom on paleontology. No longer is paleontology a science invented by the French and English, a science created during the transition between the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. Mayor's book proves that paleontology as a science dates back to ancient times, and that ancient people were incredibly adept at explaining natural history.

The First Fossil Hunters is an excellent read. It breaks the mold of the 'usual' and 'common' paleontology book. When I first heard that Mayor was compiling a volume on Greek and Roman paleontology, I decided that I must get my hands on a copy, and when I received it I was not disappointed.

Recently Mike Fredericks of Prehistoric Times magazine began his annual paleontology awards poll, a poll in which he asks paleontology buffs around the world for their finalists as favorite paleontology toy, model, and book of the year. My obvious choice for book of the year is The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor. After reading it, you will certainly see my reasoning.



© 1997 brusatte@theramp.net

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