Friday, June 17, 2005

Protoceratops or Griffin; Mastodon or Titan

Interesting tidbit from the History Channel, while watching a show called "Ancient Monster Hunters." I thought it would be a bit of fun, but it turned out to be something quite serious:

The folklorist Adrienne Mayor has written a book called The First Fossil Hunters, about the ancient Greek interest in large bones. They thought of them as the bones of 'heroes,' but modern paleontology suggests they were actually fossils -- generally of giant Mastodons, whose femurs could easily be mistaken for the bones of giant humans.

Many of the ancient Greek myths of Titans and the like might be semi-logical imaginings based on the partial skeletons they themselves found around the Aegean.

Also, the myth of the Griffin -- with the head of a ferocious beaked raptor and body of a lion -- may have been based on the fossils of a dinosaur called Protoceratops. Scythian traders in the 6th-8th centuries BCE saw the fossils in what were known as the 'Altian mountains' (sp?), and Greek travelers brought the idea of this ferocious beast back to Greece, and into Greek mythology (where Griffins play an important role in guarding the mountains where Prometheus would be described as experiencing eternal torment in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound). The idea that griffins guarded gold came into being because the same mountains where those fossils are visible were also places known for surface gold deposits.

It's an elegant way to make sense of some aspects of Greek mythology. Mayor believes their myths are to a large extent based on real artifacts they found and collected, not purely on superstition or fantasy. Though Lucretius and Aristotle are silent on the bones, later writers like Phlegon do mention them quite a bit. And until recently archeologists generally threw out "curious" bones discovered at digs, though quite a number of them have noted finding oddly shaped, large bones at many major excavations over the course of two centuries of digging. The hard evidence is slim, but Mayor has found the remains of what is probably a Mastodon femur at the Acropolis of a contemporary excavation of a smaller Greek town.

You can read a few pages of the book at Amazon.

Not everyone is impressed with Mayor. Her formal training is very minimal, and The First Fossil Hunters is apparently more a book of arguments than it is a scholarly work of archeology. Here is a respectful but critical review of Mayor's book from the Journal of American Folklore.

Disclaimer: I know nothing substantial about anything in this post, from archeology to ancient Greek mythology... just a little pseudo-scientific timepass...


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