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When fossils inspired folklore


Long ago, in a land of gods and giants and monsters, brave Heracles rescued a young woman, Hesione, from the gaping jaws of the gruesome Monster of Troy. Hesione threw rocks at the sea creature while Heracles shot arrows at it.

The heroics of mythic Heracles are chronicled on a Corinthian vase from the sixth century B.C., the earliest depiction of the Monster of Troy story and a prized artifact at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

For years, art historians have deemed the vase's rendering of the sea monster amateurish - not at all like the undulating bodies with piercing eyes rendered on other vases from the same period. Instead, the head of the beast emerges from a cave or cliff, its hollow eye and forward-leaning teeth giving it a ghastly countenance.

When classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor studied the vase, however, she saw something else entirely - something immediately familiar about the monster's disembodied head and something historians had long overlooked.

"I had been looking at so many fossils from the coast of Troy, it just jumped out at me that it had to be a fossil skull," she says. "They thought it was a poorly drawn sea monster, but actually it's a very well-drawn fossil skull."

A number of paleontologists agreed: the vase is indeed an example of the connections between classical mythology and early paleontology.

Mayor's research has uncovered striking correlations btween modern fossil finds and many of the myths and folklore that sprang up in early Western civilization. Bolstered by evidence linking contemporary dig sites to the origins of monsters and heroes in ancient texts, Mayor theorizes that these myths contain at their core a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to explain the sudden appearance of bones of immense proportions.

"As a classical folklorist, I believe that legends about nature are usually based on something real, even if it's exaggerated or has elements of fantasy," Mayor says. "There is usually a core of truth, or they wouldn't be so widely told."

Mayor, an unaffiliated researcher whose analyses of ancient natural history have appeared in a number of scholarly journals, became interested in how people in Greek and Roman times viewed unfamiliar fossils when she traveled to the Greek island of Samos in 1979. Her husband was compiling topographical histories of military sites in Greece at the time. Mayor, a freelance editor and artist, drew the accompanying illustrations.

An obscure reference in an old tour book led them to the island, where they planned to view giant fossils dug up from a dry local streambed known as the "Elephants' Cemetery."

They visited a museum displaying local archaeological finds, and Mayor was immediately intrigued by the ubiquitous bronze statues of griffins. The mythological beasts, with the bodies of lions but the beaks and wings of eagles, were said to guard the gold caches of central Asia and attack unwary prospectors who threatened their nests. To Mayor, however, the griffin statues resembled modern reconstructions of dinosaurs.

Then, in the island's paleontology museum, Mayor saw colossal bones unearthed by farmers from the nearby fossil bed.

"It just struck me that ancient farmers must have dug these up and that they couldn't have just thrown these aside without coming up with some kind of explanation," she says. "It was kind of an epiphany. That's where it struck me that you could put archaeology and paleontology together and maybe come up with something."

Large fossil beds on mainland Greece became widely known to scientists in the mid-19th century, when paleontologists converged on a dry creek bed near Athens that yielded scores of prehistoric species, including normous elephants, three-toed horses and tortoises.

In 1885, paleontologist Charles Forsyth Major tracked down a similar fossil bed near Mytilini with the help of descriptive clues from the ancient Greek scribe Plutarch and directions from the village doctor. Barnum Brown, a famous fossil hunter and former curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, dug on Samos in the 1920s and brought back about 5,000 fossils from the island.

For millennia, fossils in the area have washed out of gullies during sudden rainstorms, emerged from eroding hillsides and coastlines, and appeared after being thrust up by violent earthquakes. More recently, farmers plowing their fields have made a number of surprising finds and in some cases have come to rely on their new cash crop, the mysterious bones of huge beasts.

Mayor maintains that scholars of classical literature dismissed the ancient mention of these big bones as little more than poetic license. "They just assumed that it was pure fantasy or fiction," she says. Most scholars were unaware of modern fossil finds in the area, and paleontologists studying the bones were largely unaware of the local myths.

Mayor may have tracked the source of the legend of the griffins to the fossilized remains of Protoceratops, a beaked, lion-sized dinosaur whose fossilized bones litter the Asian desert where prospectors searched for gold. Similarly, several paleontologists told Mayor that the Monster of Troy might represent an artist's interpretation of a fossil skull commonly found in the area, such as those of the giant giraffes of the Miocene Epoch.

Another especially popular myth among the Greeks concerned a supposed battlefield of the giants and gods in southern Greece, where the ancients discovered blackened bones jutting up from a scorched field named Megalopolis, which means "giant city." In reality, the bones had been blackened from the surrounding lignite, a soft, brownish-black coal. But according to the myth, Zeus sent lightning bolts to destroy the giants, an explanation that Mayor says wasn't as far-fetched as it might appear.

"The myth is obviously based on a pretty good observation of nature," she says. "If lightning does strike lignite and the conditions are right, it can actually burn for hundreds of years," contributing to the blackened earth and bones and even smoke emanating from the ground.

Mayor's original fieldwork has blossomed into a number of related research ventures, such as her recent collaboration with William Sarjeant, a professor of geology at the University of Saskatchewan. Sarjeant, whose interest in fossils ranges from tiny dinoflagellates to enormous dinosaurs, helped Mayor assess the relationship between fossilized dinosaur footprints and folklore - including an analysis of fossil prints in Germany's Rhine Valley and their potential influence on the popular local legend of Siegfried and the Dragon.

Many of the Greek myths arose during a historical period sometimes called the first Greek Dark Age. From the 11th century to the ninth century B.C., storytellers often waxed nostalgic for the early Greek glory days of Mycenaean civilization in the 13th and 12th centuries. Besides recounting tales of war heroes and epic battles, the storytellers also turned their attention to the natural world.

"The point [Mayor] is making is at that time, the largest known land animal was the horse," says Richard LaFleur, head of the department of classics at the University of Georgia. "You can imagine these farmers plowing their fields and clanking their plows on something that they thought was a stone, and then unearthing this bone that was bigger than anything they had known."

The resulting tales would have had at their cores the element of direct observation, perhaps transforming a mastodon thighbone or scapula into the larger-than-life remains of a local hero.

But the bones of these strange beasts weren't relegated merely to myth and folklore. Emperor Augustus, who ruled the Roman empire from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D., established the first known paleontological museum, built specifically to house the remains of sea monsters and giants, including some of the fossils he plundered from Greek temples.

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