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Started by KanKhaderKhanKan on Sep 29, 2020 9:41:56 PM
How much of an understanding did the Romans have of dinosaur fossils?

I ask because I accidentally came across this fascinating thread on a subject I previously never knew existed:

Pliny says that in 58 BC, the aedile Marcus Scaurus exhibited in Rome the bones of a giant beast (belua) found at Joppa (modern Jaffa, Israel); forty feet long, with ribs longer than those of an African elephant; perhaps an ancient whale that once inhabited the Mediterranean..For Augustus’ fossil collection see Suetonius, 72. The story of Tiberius’ monster tooth from Phlegon’s ‘Book of Marvels’. For Scaurus’ monster exhibition see Pliny, Natural History, IX.

AdonisBlue - 29 Sep 2020 21:44:22 (#1 of 23)

Not Roman but finding dinosaur fossils must have contributed to dragon myths in places like China.

KanKhaderKhanKan - 29 Sep 2020 21:44:55 (#2 of 23)

<Eagerly awaits the contributions of JtT local classicists and paleontologists>

And it does raise the interesting question does it not on whether some of the mythology of the classical period was influenced by the accidental encounters in the classical period between ordinary Greeks/Romans with accidentally exposed fossils no?

Not Roman but finding dinosaur fossils must have contributed to dragon myths in places like China.

Definitely. Not sure where I encountered it but I think I read/heard that dragons in ancient Chinese culture were associated with water, considering how many dinosaur fossils possibly got uncovered in marshes, lakes and other watery places it does make you wonder whether the myth of the dragon and dinosaur are more inter-linked then often acknowledged? I can easily see how pre-modern Chinese could have interpreted any pterodactyl fossil they accidentally uncovered as a literary basis for their dragon myth.

AlanII - 29 Sep 2020 21:58:44 (#3 of 23)

I have no idea about fossils of that age but, Roman's absolutely curated stone tools from much earlier periods.They weren't stupid.

AlanII - 29 Sep 2020 21:59:22 (#4 of 23)

Well, they were, but only from a modern perspective.

cozzer - 29 Sep 2020 23:02:00 (#5 of 23)

considering how many dinosaur fossils possibly got uncovered in marshes, lakes and other watery places it

How many do you think got uncovered in such places?

limegreen - 29 Sep 2020 23:22:43 (#6 of 23)

Gastropod (around 9m) says the Romans found bones they thought were from gods and monsters of a previous age. They put them into mythical creatures, although they don't specifically mention dragons.

[Gastropod] Of Ghost Foods and Culinary Extinction #gastropod via @PodcastAddict

xbod72 - 30 Sep 2020 06:32:44 (#7 of 23)

Marcus Aurelius pondering the jaw of a T-Rex.

A nice image.

HouseOfLametta - 30 Sep 2020 09:07:20 (#8 of 23)

Suetonius talks about Augustus Caesar decorating his villa in Capri with the bones of ancient monster (page72)

And there is a bit somewhere about the bones being said to be the bones of the giants who died in battle, but then saying that wise people knew they weren't giants but some sort of long lost animal.

(I can't find that bit)

I think the Greeks and the Romans had some general understanding of what they were looking at, and quarrying on a human scale would presumably turn up fossils with some regularity.

Later generations might have used these now confused ideas in their dragon myths (myths that are very widespread) and stories of sea monsters and the creatures lost in the flood.

brooklyn - 30 Sep 2020 22:16:34 (#9 of 23)

could Samson really slay a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass?

Ebadlun - 30 Sep 2020 22:21:37 (#10 of 23)


JohnIlly - 30 Sep 2020 22:46:06 (#11 of 23)

As to how much understanding the Romans had of the fossils, I would say "Not much" since all they knew was that they were extinct animals but with no grasp of the time scale involved.

tasselhoff - 30 Sep 2020 22:52:15 (#12 of 23)

Timescales don't really matter do they, so long as they knew they were extinct animals? That's the base understanding already.

Dayraven - 30 Sep 2020 23:07:15 (#13 of 23)

so long as they knew they were extinct animals?

Our modern concept of extinction took a while to be established across the 17th to 19th centuries, though, so I’m not sure you can assume similar understanding by the Romans so easily.

Ebadlun - 30 Sep 2020 23:08:42 (#14 of 23)

I think they had a concept of 'not around any more '.

brooklyn - 30 Sep 2020 23:09:53 (#15 of 23)

there may still be unicorns in Tibet.

I mean, who can say for sure.

Shadrack22 - 30 Sep 2020 23:11:40 (#16 of 23)

And the yeti (Abominable Snowman) in the Himalayas.

PostmodernToss - 26 May 2021 15:42:40 (#17 of 23)

Greeks rather than Romans, but Hdt I.67-8 tells the story of the Spartans bringing home the “bones of Orestes” from Tegea. As these were described as being a skeleton approximately three metres long, then - assuming the story is even true - dinosaur bones are one theory.

TheExcession - 26 May 2021 15:58:40 (#18 of 23)

The Cyclops myth may have been the result of elephant skulls

elderberry - 26 May 2021 16:21:45 (#19 of 23)

I like the idea of a fossil giant whale skeleton being a popular exhibit in prehistoric Israel. I wonder had it been public knowledge for long - it sounds like the sort of creature described as having swallowed Jonah. That's a funny book anyway, and having the pompous and indigestible prophet eaten (temporarily) by the local equivalent of Dippy the Diplodocus would have added to the comic effect.

TheExcession - 26 May 2021 16:24:52 (#20 of 23)

Things to do with a time machine: nip back and re-edit the Bible to include more dinosaurs (and ninjas).

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