26 July 2023


Adrienne Mayor. The First Fossil Hunters; Dinosaurs Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press. 2022. 

You can see the Monster of Troy in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is on a vase made in Corinth in the sixth century BC. It shows Heracles killing a monster to which the King of Troy's daughter Hesione had been offered as a sacrifice. The vase painting shows Heracles firing arrows at the beast, and Hesione hurling stones at it. 
The odd feature of this vase it that the Beast as depicted does not look like anything else in Greek art of the period.

Art historians have considered it “hideous” and called it a “shapeless unworthy head”, despite the fact that the other figures on the vase are drawn realistically and in the same style as on other Corinthian pottery. The monster on the Boston vase with its bony appearance looks more like the depiction of a fossil skull than any contemporary representation of a giant or monster appearing on other artifacts of the period.

The Eastern Mediterranean is a region that is subjected to massive geological upheavals. Over time this has resulted in fossils from distant geological eras being revealed through earthquakes, landslides, and erosion. Fossil bones were found, studied and collected in huge numbers in Classical times, but are seldom mentioned by classical scholars, who are unaware of the paeontology of the region.

Historically references to such finds were regarded as poetical fancies or popular superstition. Mayor claims that scholars have missed the realisation that these bones were actual objects, often found in the very locations which myths describe as the location of giants and heros of an earlier era.

It is not possible now to determine exactly what fossil or fossils may have been the inspiration for the artist's concept of the Monster of Troy, but author Adrienne Mayor suggests that the overall form of the skull may have been based on a Samothrium, a species related to the giraffe, remains of which have been found in the region.

Until recently scholars have thought that the Aristotelian idea of 'fixity of species' meant that Greeks would have no concept of evolution or the extinction of entire species. But the idea of evolution - or more accurately devolution of species - and extinction was familiar to the Classical world. Legends of races of giants and monsters, as well as monstrous animals such as the Nemean Lion were evidenced by the giant remains that surrounded them.

Mayor examines in detail the legends of the griffin. The stories of the griffin came from travellers and traders, not from the pantheon of classical mythology. They came from the realms of the Scythians, the desert area to the north of the Caspian Sea, today's Central Asian 'Stans'.

This was a region, and a civilization knows for its gold. It was also an area where the ferocious dry winds eroded the earth and revealed fossil remains, leaving "fields of white bones" that they were considered the remains of battles from previous eras. The Scythians, though having no written literature, had a wealth of folk-lore about griffins which was later recorded by Greek travellers and historians.

Mayor offers the possibility that the anatomy of the griffin was an interpretation of the creatures suggested by the bones of numerous extinct species. She names the protoceratops as leaving skeletal remains most closely resembling the griffin's description as a four legged creature with a bird-like beaked head. Being found in a region rich in deposits of gold it suggested that it was a creature which sought and guarded gold. 

Mayor describes other mythical creatures which may have been created from the fossils of creatures extinct for millions of years. It is clear that the Greeks and Romans were very familiar with fossils, and with the limited means they had to study them, had developed surprisingly modern theories to explain them. Much of this has been overlooked by the silo-like divisions between the different ways of studying the classical period, classicist, art historians and palaeontologists have their own ways of finding and interpreting the evidence.

Although some of the theories in this book have been challenged, for example the idea that the griffin legends are based on fossil deposits (1) it is an interesting overview of a historical topic which has been little studied, and suggests that a more holistic view is developing in relation to its understanding and that we are beginning to have a much broader idea of how the ancient Greeks and Romans saw their own history, how we have interpreted it and how much of what seems to be poetry or legend actually has a foundation in reality.

Apart from Professor William Willers' centaur skeleton discovered in northern Greece in the 1980s!
  • Richard Samuels

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