THE CLASSICAL Greek landscape evokes many images—heroes and Amazons, gods and goddesses, painted vases and bronze statues, marble columns and temple ruins. The enormous fossil bones of mastodons and mammoths are not likely to appear in anyone’s mental picture of classical antiquity. But immense skeletons of creatures from past eons indeed lie buried all around the lands known to the Greeks and Romans. And for the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves, vestiges of giants and monsters of the distant past were important features of their natural and cultural landscape. This book explores the relationship between two simple but surprising facts: the Mediterranean world was once populated by giant creatures, and the ancients were continually confronted by their remarkable petrified remains.
The ancients collected, measured, displayed, and pondered the bones of extinct beasts, and they recorded their discoveries and imaginative interpretations of the fossil remains in numerous writings that survive today. Yet “paleontology” is missing in the standard lists of the great cultural inventions of the Greeks and Romans. How did modern science and history come to lose the significant paleontological discoveries, thoughts, and activities of classical antiquity? That paradox inspired my project, to recover the long-neglected evidence of human encounters with fossils from the time of Homer to the late Roman empire (ca. 750 B.C. to A.D. 500).
The history of the ancient engagement with fossils has languished in shadow for several reasons. In the first place, few people are aware that millions of years ago, huge mammals of the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene eras roamed what would become