East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Dragons of the ancient world


It was in 2005, if I remember correctly, and I was on my third congress of the Italian Palaeontological Society.
In the 2005 congress two works were presented – a colleague’s paper on the connection between fossils and mythology, and a poster of mine on the cultural relevance of dinosaurs.
My colleague’s work featured griffins and cyclops, my poster featured Godzilla and Bruce Willis.
We were both severely thrashed, the standard question being “You call this paleontology?”
To which the reply was of course, yes – we were after all discussing ancient remains, deep time, and the perception and interpretation of those remains – but our position was not shared by a large portion of the audience*.

And yet, the idea of Geomythology was emerging in the early 21st century – and the book I’m reading these nights, part for research duties and part for the sheer pleasure of it, was one of the first works on the subject.
It was published in 2000, by Princeton University Press.

k9435Adrienne Mayor‘s The First Fossil Hunters – Dinosaur, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (new edition, 2011) is a delightful and higly stimulating read.
The idea that a culture of fossil observation existed in ancient times – not limited to a few philosophers chancing on an old bone – is intriguing, as is the idea of a strong, direct connection between fossils and certain beasts of myth.
The book is filled with illustrations, and offers ample material in support of its central thesis.
And there’s much food for thought (and for fiction!) between its covers.

So I’m reading it both because of my job as a paleontologist (as long as I have one) and as documentation for my writing.
And anything providing a different angle on the perception we have of ancient times, is sure to slip straight on top of my reading list.
This one is highly recommended.

* one year later the situation had changed enough for two members of our hostile audience to publish in the Society’s magazine an article that followed closely my poster (curiously enough forgetting to credit my work in its very short bibliography)

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Dragons of the ancient world

  1. In June of 2007 I went to an exhibition at the New York Museum of Natural History that was entirely based on this concept, with either fossils or pictures of fossils next to pictures of the mythological creature it may have inspired. Do you have any pictures of your poster?


    • I’m sure I have a file somewhere here on my hard disk 🙂
      But apart from it being in Italian, some of contents are by now outdated.
      But coming to think of it, I might try and reprise some of that material as blog posts.


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