The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

By Adrienne Mayor | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3
Ancient Discoveries of
Giant Bones

THE GIANT SHOULDER BLADE OF
PELOPS: A FOSSIL ODYSSEY

THE GREAT WAR against Troy had been dragging on for nearly ten years. The battle-weary Greeks captured a Trojan seer and forced him to reveal secret oracles. The seer predicted that his city would never fall unless the Greeks brought a bone of the great hero Pelops to Troy as a talisman. The Greeks immediately dispatched a ship to fetch Pelops’s enormous shoulder blade from Olympia.

As Pausanias relates this story (already centuries old in his day, about A.D. 150), some bones of heroic size were acclaimed as the remains of the mythic hero Pelops sometime before the Trojan War (ca. 1250 B.C.). The big bones were kept in a bronze chest at the Temple of Artemis at Olympia. Pelops’s shoulder blade— reputed to have magical powers—was apparently displayed in its own shrine. In myth, Pelops was Heracles’ great-grandfather and a founder of the Olympic Games. As a youth Pelops had been chopped up and served to the gods as a grotesque sacrifice. But as soon as the gods realized what they were eating, they restored Pelops to life. His shoulder, however, had already been been eaten, so the gods replaced it with one of ivory. And it was this ivory

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