Thursday, April 24, 2008

Geomythology: Greek and Roman fossil-hunters ?

Geomythology is a term first coined in 1968 by the geologist Dorothy Vitaliano. It is best defined as the study of etiological traditions of pre-scientific cultures to explain geological phenomena. While the field of study is relatively new, the concept however is rather ancient and could easily be traced back to the ideas of Euhemerus.

In 2000, Adrienne Mayor published The First Fossil-hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press) in which she exposed the idea that classical traditions surrounding mythological creatures could be factually based on the mis-interpretation of paleontological remains. While the idea of the incorporation of metaphorical interpretations of fossil discoveries into myths is not in itself completely original, it was pushed further by Mayor in a way to open some new paths of exploration in Geomythology, mainly by providing convincing evidence that many paleontologic findings were indeed unearthed from sites where legendary accounts originated. A most convincing example is given for the mythological griffins which, according to Mayor, were inspired by the numerous cretaceous paleontological remains that emerge in the Gobi desert thanks to erosion.

A culminating point in Mayor' study is her re-interpretation of the scene depicted on a Late-Corinthian Crater (mid-6th century B.C.) held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts known as the "Hesione vase". The scene shows Herakles rescuing Hesione from the "Monster of Troy". The Crater is unique in that it is the only known iconographical depiction of this legendary monster which is usually considered to represent a sea monster (ketos). Mayor instead proposes that the artist used the fossil remain of an extinct type of giant giraffe (Samotherium) as a model for the "Monster of Troy", making this vase painting the earliest iconographical attestation of a fossil. Adrienne Mayor has detailed her interpretation in an article entitled "The 'Monster of Troy' vase: the earliest artistic record of a vertebrate fossil discovery?" and published in February 2000 in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

In the last chapters of her book, Mayor goes on to argue that Greeks and Romans almost systematized the research of fossils which they measured, collected and even put on display after trying to reconstruct their appearance from scattered and incomplete remains, almost as modern Paleontologists do today. In my opinion, this is the weakest point of Mayor's book. As Moses I. Finley brilliantly showed in The use and abuse of History (New York: Viking Press, 1975), the Greeks had obviously the conscience that past events left a material trace in the ground but they did not systematize the research to the extent of making it a science. And indeed, the reconstruction of the past in classical times never became a pragmatical knowledge which would have led the Greek or Roman antiquaries to seek answers to their questions in the ground. Thus, the collection and display of fossil remains in classical times certainly held more of the collection of "curiosities" than of modern Paleontology as is more or less clearly suggested by Adrienne Mayor.

All in all, Mayor's thesis contains very interesting points which certainly create the need to reconsider some traditional interpretations of classical myths involving legendary monsters. As is frequent with new and ground-breaking ideas, Mayor might have sometimes gone too far in her interpretations but she certainly has opened a new research opportunity and perspective. More recently, Mayor has extended her researches to Native American history in a book entitled Fossil legends of the First Americans (Princeton University Press, 2005) which I haven't read yet. If one of our visitors had this opportunity however, I would love to hear comments about it.

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