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Journal of American Folklore 116.459 (2003) 119-120
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The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. By Adrienne Mayor. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xx + 361, appendices, notes, works cited, illustrations, maps, index.)
This book is a study of the Greek and Roman discovery and interpretation of fossil remains. Adrienne Mayor argues that the development [End Page 119] of many mythological animals (griffins, centaurs, giants, cyclopes, and so forth) was influenced by the ancients' attempts to explain the large fossilized bones that littered their landscape. Mayor argues, for example, that griffins are derived from the bones of Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus in ancient Scythia (chapter 1); that the monster on a Corinthian vase (fig. 4.2) is an effective representation of a fossil skull weathering out of a cliff; and that the bones identified by the ancients as those of giants and mythical heroes were in fact fossil bones (chapter 3). Mayor writes entertainingly, and this book has almost more of the tone of a voyage of discovery than a scholarly work. In some places, this is rather frustrating; in particular, I found references to both ancient works and modern scholarship sometimes lacking in the footnotes (e.g., who is the "Roman poet" on p. 141; and try matching the research on pp. 165-66 with the sources in n. 4. Surely more than one endnote per page is permissible!). Given the patchy nature of her ancient sources, much of the book is necessarily speculative, perhaps rather more so than Mayor indicates in her text. But her research is intensive, her evidence strong, and her conclusions (by and large) persuasive.
The book is significantly flawed, I think, by Mayor's failure to take into account the difference in date and genre between her texts. Mayor's sources range over a thousand years; the evidence, which appears strong and obvious when gathered together, is in fact disparate and scattered. Greeks and Romans belonged to very different cultures, each one of which embraced a number of shifting ideologies; the "ancient Greco-Romans" (p. 224) are as much (and as unlikely) a hybrid as many of the monsters Mayor discusses. The advances in understanding made in the ancient world (summarized on pp. 226-27) did not occur to any one individual in the ancient world, but were scattered insights. Moreover, as she herself points out, ancient scientific texts by and large tended to ignore fossil finds, as they were far more concerned with sorting and dealing with what there is than discussing what might have been. Most of her sources are authors who dealt in the fabulous or in travelers' tales, and who, in many cases, should not be taken at face value, as Mayor tends to do. They themselves were often aware that they were recording marvels, not scientific fact. Mayor's paraphrases sometimes obscure this distinction. For example, Phlegon's account of "the triple head of a human body [which] had two sets of teeth" (Book of Marvels 11.1) becomes in Mayor's appendix "large bones with three skulls and two jawbones with teeth" (p. 271)—the human origin of the skulls is lost, and they become "large" (Phlegon said nothing about their size). Similarly, since photos are given of fossil bones, why not of the Greek pots that she refers to, rather than her own drawings? And in some places she is simply not critical enough; for example, her suggestion that the bulls in Bronze Age bull-leaping frescoes represent the aurochs (p. 102) assumes that the artists are depicting the animals in proportion and ignores the entire debate over whether bull-leaping took place at all.
Despite these criticisms, there is much in this book that is valuable and interesting. In bringing together into one place all the sources dealing with the ancient understanding of fossils, Mayor has shed light on an almost unnoticed source of ancient mythmaking. The final chapter, on hoaxes or "palaeontological fictions," as Mayor terms them, offers some intriguing parallels between the ancient and modern worlds...