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

By Adrienne Mayor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The Gold-Guarding Griffin:
A Paleontological Legend

I BOARDED the overnight ferry from Athens to Samos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, in the late summer. My destination was a small museum in Mytilini, a village in the mountainous interior. Intrigued by a note in an old guidebook, I hoped to see a collection of colossal bones that had been found north of the village, dug out of a dry streambed in a place known to locals as the “Elephants’ Cemetery.” The guidebook mentioned that significant prehistoric fossils had been stored in a room above the village post office since the 1880s. One of the skeletons was named Samotherium, the “Monster of Samos.”

The gigantic fossil bones of Samos had been pointed out to curious travelers in classical antiquity, according to ancient Greek authors. I was drawn to coincidences linking modern paleontological discoveries and ancient stories of extraordinary bones, because I was interested in the way legends of fantastic creatures can arise from observations of the remains of unfamiliar extinct animals. I was keen to see whether any of the Samos fossils might resemble the features of the griffin of classical legend. Tracing the identity of those mysterious gold-guarding creatures with bodies like lions’ and beaks like eagles’ had become an obsession for me that year in Athens. I had already learned that since the seventeenth century, classical scholars, ancient historians, art experts,

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