Wednesday, December 14, 2016

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - ~800 AD: Of Beowulf and Dragons


For our next entry, we move on from the Prehistoric Times into the Medieval Times:

~800 AD
Of Beowulf and Dragons

"He heeded not the fire, though grievously it scorched his hand, but smote the worm [dragon] underneath, where the skin failed somewhat in hardness."
 One of the hallmarks of the Medieval time period was, of course, dragons, and the knights that rode in to slay them. Beowulf was one of the first pieces of literature to present the dragon, along with the now synonymous fire breathing aspect of it.  

Even though there are no illustrations from the period of Beowulf to show what contemporary people thought the dragon would have looked like, here is a 1908 illustration by J. R. Skelton, which is as far removed from any modern interpretations as I could find in reference to Beowulf specifically.
Similar to the gryphon, cyclops, and Amazonians from before, the bones of dinosaurs are thought to be the basis for the dragon mythology. Ancient people would find the bones and build legends around them, much like they did in ancient Rome and Greece. However, in this instance the beasts that were created became dragons, with an ever expanding array of features like fire breathing, armored skin, and wings. Unlike dragons of modern day though, the dragons on the middle ages appeared more "worm-like" as mentioned in the Beowulf text. As we continue on through the middle ages, this will become more pronounced.

One fossil find that is even named after dragons because of it's uncanny resemblance to what we know of today as dragons is the pachycephalosaur Dracorex

Dracorex at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, photo by David Orr
Although not discovered until 2003, it is unlikely that this specific species of dinosaur was the source of the dragon mythology. But it is not out of the realm of possibility that other similar fossils sparked the medieval imagination.

The next few posts will follow the "evolution" of dragons through the Middle Ages to see how they have "evolved" in medieval culture.

For a full listing of all of the entries you can click here: DINOSAURS!: From Cultural to Pop Culture


Friday, December 09, 2016

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - ~100 AD: Battle of the Amazonians


~100 AD
Battle of the Amazonians

For our next entry, we continue on the island of Samos with the last entry in the "Prehistoric Times" (at least for now).

A long time after Euphorion talked about the Neades (about 300 years), Plutarch came and also came up with a reason for the bones on the island. Plutarch talked about a tale where the god Dionysus tried to recruit the giant Amazon warriors, however they refused, and Dionysus pursued them to Samos. A great battle took place and the Amazonians were slaughtered in "fields of blood". 

The majority of Samos is covered with white and beige sediments and rocks, however there is a significant deposit of red sediments with many white fossil bones eroding out of them. The localities of these deposits coincide with the locations of battles depicted on ancient maps.

Samos red rock fossil beds (Soulinias, 2007)
The deposits of these fossils were found within a volcanic tuffa that was interbedded with sandy marls and gravels from the Early Miocene. The variety of mammals within the fossil beds is astounding, ranging from Mastodons, rhinos, and hyenas, to flightless birds (Forsyth Major, 1893).  

One of the most common fossils that are found on the island is that of the Prehistoric horse, Hippotherium. Coincidently (or perhaps not), the Amazonian's were known to have rode horses into battle.

Fossil of Hippotherium gracile (By Ghedoghedo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - ~220 BC: The Neades


~220 BC
The Neades

Samos is a Greek island located in the Aegean Sea, near present day Turkey:

Location of Samo from Sarris et al, 2007

This island has been written about numerous times in the ancient past. One of the notable examples was the following:
" primeval times Samos was uninhabited [except for] animals of gigantic size, which were savage and dangerous, called Neades. Now these animals with their mere roaring split the ground. So there is a proverbial saying in Samos: 'So and so roars louder than the Neades.' And Euphorion asserts that their huge remains are displayed even to this day"
Euphorion (~220 BC)
Quoted in On Animals by Aelian (3rd Century AD) 
The Neades seem to be similar to other ancient beasts, which were the works of ancient authors finding the fossils and trying to come up with a story to explain them. Below are some of the fossils that have been found on the island of Samos and have been dated to the Tourolio during the Early Miocene (

Some of the Early Miocene fossils that have been found on the island of Samos (

The original writings of Euphorion had been lost, but the above section had been quoted by the natural historian Aelian in the 3rd century AD. Fossils today have been found in the Mytilini basin, which is located north of the village of Mytilini on Samos, along a major fault zone on Samos. Faults = earthquakes. Perhaps the ancient Greeks equated the earthquakes with the roar of the Neades (Soulinias, 2007). Euphorion's quote also seems to focus on the fossils being put on display. It was discovered that around the 7th century BC a large fossil thighbone was placed on an altar of the Temple of Hera, a popular place at the time (Kyrieleis, 1988). It is likely that Euphorion saw the thighbone and created a tale of his own to explain it. Besides Euphorion's tale, not much is written about the Neades (I couldn't even find an illustration depicting them), but Samos continued to be a focal point where paleontology influenced the culture of the time period. For the next stop we will look at when Plutarch made a more impactful statement about where he thinks the fossils came from.

Kyrieleis, H. (1988). Offerings of the common man in the Heraion at Samos. Early Greek cult practice, 215-21.
Mayor, Adrienne. 2000. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ