History for the fantasy buff: Roman fossil collecting

centaur_skeletonRemember the Calydonian Boar, the oversized boar of Greek mythology? The ancient Greeks possessed a pair of tusks which they claimed had belonged to the Calydonian Boar, and they kept them at the Temple of Athena in Tegea. These were said to be of enormous size for boars’ tusks. Most likely they were in reality the fossilized remains of a prehistoric elephant found in the Pleistocene beds near Tegea.

Later, Augustus, the future emperor of Rome, stole the tusks from the Temple of Athena and ultimately placed them in the Sanctuary of Dionysus in the Emperor’s Gardens in Rome.

As emperor, Augustus had an interest in “giants’ bones” and created the world’s first paleontological museum on the island of Capri. There he kept a collection of “the huge limb bones of immense monsters of land and sea popularly known as giants’ bones, along with the weapons of ancient heroes” (Suetonius). It appears the Romans had advanced the understanding of these bones beyond the ancient Greeks’ understanding, in that they recognize them as being the bones of animals and not humans.

Interestingly, it is during Roman times that con men began to create hoaxes. By mixing the bones of a human with the bones of a horse, one could create a “centaur” skeleton and then charge people admission to see it. Pliny wrote about one such exhibit that drew crowds in A.D. 47. In A.D. 180, Lucian wrote an expose of a fake human-headed serpent that a charlatan created and exhibited throughout the Roman Empire.

Both the Greeks and the Romans struggled with the idea of whether to take their mythology literally. Many naturalists in ancient Greece and Rome insisted that a creature such as a centaur was physically impossible; it could never have existed. But many people did believe in them, and that opened the door for hoaxers to make money by supplying fake “evidence” that centaurs had once walked the earth.

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3 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Roman fossil collecting

  1. Another post with fascinating history. Thanks for sharing, Amy.

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    Whenever I see a centaur, I think, ouch, that kink where the withers abruptly becomes lower back must ache like a bitch. LOL.

    Fascinating to think what kinds of things the ancients found interesting and memorialized in museums.

  3. Mithradates Eupator says:

    See Adrienne Mayor’s “The First Fossil Hunters” for the origins of this story and many more accounts of discovering and interpreting giant fossil bones

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