Tom Holland explores how our ancestors sought to explain the remains of dinosaurs and other giant prehistoric creatures, and how bones and fossils have affected human culture.
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People have always thrilled to tales of monsters.
But there is nothing in myth that can compare for sheer wonder
with creatures from Tyrannosaurs to Woolly Mammoths that once actually existed.
Today, we know life on this planet evolved over many millions of years
and we have some idea at least of how prehistoric creatures once actually looked.
But such knowledge is comparatively recent.
When people in the past came across the fossilised bones
of large, vanished animals, it begged any number of questions.
What sort of creatures could they possibly have come from?
How old were these skeletal remains?
Above all, perhaps, what did they mean?
Just like us, ancient peoples were fascinated by the giant bones
they found in the ground.
Like us, they obsessed about their origins.
In this programme, I'm going to explore the ways in which our ancestors sought to make sense
of the remains of dinosaurs and other giant prehistoric creatures.
And how they tried to reconcile such finds
with their own understanding of life on earth.
That these explanations were wrong doesn't mean that they deserve our contempt.
Just the opposite.
Science begins in wonder
and a yearning to fathom what may at first seem unfathomable.
In that sense, at any rate, our ancestors did have something of the palaeontologist about them.
And in one fundamental respect, they were absolutely spot on.
Monsters had indeed once trodden the earth.
I made this, er, masterpiece when I was five. Looking at it now
I think, well, I was never going to cut it as a sculptor.
But I do remember the intensity of yearning.
A kind of love, really, that went into the making of it.
How desperately I wanted to see a dinosaur.
Going out from my garden, the most exotic thing I could hope to see was a cow.
But if I shut my eyes, I could imagine
there was a long-necked Brachiosaur, reaching higher than the trees.
A horned and crested Triceratops, making the fields shake.
And, of course, if I was feeling particularly ghoulish...
..a blood be-slathered Tyrannosaur.
Why was the present day so dull?
Why didn't I live in a world full of swamps and pterosaurs,
and perpetually exploding volcanoes?
Why couldn't my life be Mesozoic?
And in a way, all my prayers have been answered.
35 years too late for my seven-year-old self,
but visit a museum today,
and the displays have never been more...animatronic.
Nor for 65 million years has flesh been put more convincingly
on the bones of dinosaurs like this Tyrannosaurus Rex.
CGI - the dinosaur lover's best friend.
Now the truth is, of course,
that no human being has ever seen a living dinosaur.
This is the Peabody Museum in New Haven,
on the East Coast of the United States.
It contains this fabulous mural, painted in the 1940s.
Dinosaurs first appear here around 230 million years ago.
And they last another 160 million years, right the way up to there
where...no more dinosaurs.
Of course, there are no humans anywhere in this mural.
Homo sapiens didn't appear on Earth for another 65 million years.
But always, and it's certainly not just me who has it,
that yearning in the imagination.
That desire to know what these extraordinary creatures
had truly looked like.
And perhaps that's why,
in the kind of science fiction story to which I was addicted as a boy,
our prehistoric ancestors are always being shown alongside dinosaurs.
Total fantasy, of course.
But still, it made me wonder.
When cavemen came across the bones of dinosaurs,
what did they make of them?
It's an abiding mystery. By definition, they wrote nothing down.
But there were some prehistoric peoples, for all that,
who survived into historic times.
Take North America, for instance, where hunter-gather tribes
that for generations had been roaming the Great Plains,
had long observed fossilised bones weathering out of the rocks
and invented stories to explain them.
Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient fossil-hunting,
with a high regard for scientific abilities of the native peoples
who lived in America before Columbus.
Peoples who, by and large, were pre-literate, pre-historic.
Their theories and their speculations and their myths,
oral traditions, preserved in oral traditions over generations,
over thousands of years, they were based on observation over time.
They knew anatomy.
They compared, they tried to imagine the creatures while alive,
how they behaved, what they looked like, what kind of habitat.
They actually had a sense of deep time.
They had a sense of different ages on the earth,
past ages before the appearance of present-day humans.
Each age characterised by different fauna and flora.
Different land forms.
These are all prototypes of modern science,
although they were all in mythological language.
Even in the 19th century, by which point bone-hunting,
or palaeontology, had become an all-American obsession,
these Stone Age myths were still being re-told.
And among those pricking up their ears were scientists
such as Othaniel Charles Marsh,
the first director of the Peabody Museum.
Marsh was one of the first great palaeontologists
and a genuine pioneer.
He rode shotgun on the Great Plains.
He hung out with Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull,
and he was adopted as a blood-brother by the Sioux.
Wicasa Pahi Huhu, they called him.
He Who Digs Up Bones.
Many of the dinosaurs in the Peabody were dug up in the 1870s,
a time when the West really was very wild.
Among the collection
are the first specimens ever found of iconic species
like Stegosaurus, and Apatosauraus,
the dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus.
Marsh's expeditions took him to the Badlands.
There, in his hunt for fossils,
he was drawing on the very latest in scientific research.
But some of his sources were altogether more prehistoric.
The Sioux, and other Native American peoples too,
told stories of mysterious beasts, supernatural creatures,
whose bones might be found scattered across the ground.
But what had prompted these legends?
From the Sioux, Marsh learned the legend of Thunder Horses,
creatures that galloped over storm clouds
and made them echo with the crashing of their hooves.
His fascination with such stories helped to win him the trust of native Americans.
In 1874, at a time of great tension,
when the whites were encroaching on their lands,
Marsh was able to employ a Sioux as his guide.
He learned about some impressive bones found by the tribe.
They said they were from strange creatures
that had once lived in the land of the Sioux.
Bones now turned to stone.
Marsh was shown the bones of this magnificent beast.
A colossal mammal, some 12 feet long,
which had lived around 35 million years ago,
and was indeed, amazingly enough, a relative of the horse.
This is the very specimen that was shown to Marsh
and, in honour of the legends of the Thunder Horse told him by the Sioux,
he named the creature a Brontotherium - a Thunder Beast.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps,
were the tales told across the Great Plains not of Thunder Horses
but of Thunder Birds.
Stories passed down the generations and still retold today.
Long, long ago, when the two-leggeds were new to walking on Mother Earth,
the Thunder Birds were their friends and advisors.
They were great beasts, with wingspans as long as two war canoes.
They had sharp pointed beaks with sharp pointed teeth
and they lived in the sky, on the edge of the clouds.
Many of these legends tell how the Thunder Birds
had as their deadliest enemies giant aquatic monsters.
Now, at this same time
lived the Water Monsters.
They were huge,
shaped like a snake with feet.
They had a big horn on their head,
and spikes on the tip of their tail.
It's surely suggestive that the stories often derive from regions of America which once,
back in the age of the dinosaurs, were indeed covered by seas.
Nowadays, the Great Plains consist of weathered sediment,
complete with the skeletons of long-necked marine reptiles called Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs.
Flying reptiles of the kind
that were always carrying off Raquel Welch.
And what do we find in Marsh's collection?
And a Pterosaur. A Pteranodon.
What all this suggests is an intriguing possibility.
Almost all of the tribes had stories about water monsters
and sky creatures, Thunder Birds.
And, of course, these are personified violent forces of nature.
Thunder and lightning, very powerful, forces of nature,
and then flooding which was supposedly caused by water monsters.
And when they found very large bones,
fossilised bones of extinct creatures
eroding and weathering out of river banks and lake shores,
they naturally thought they must have been water creatures.
And when they also found fossilised shells and fish and turtles,
they understood that this land had once been underwater.
Now, it's not only on the Great Plains of America
that we find evidence for a fascination on the part of
pre-literate societies with the bones of vanished creatures.
Go back far enough in time,
and you find it on the opposite side of the Atlantic as well.
First and greatest of the Greek poets was Homer.
But the two poems he wrote down some 2,800 years ago,
the Iliad and the Odyssey,
almost certainly contain material far older than that.
Perhaps, then, even before the time of Homer himself,
people were telling the story
of one of the most celebrated monsters in all Greek mythology.
The story, well, it's a thriller.
The hero Odysseus, in his wanderings across the wine-dark sea,
finds himself trapped in a cave by a hideous monster.
A monster that snacks on human flesh
and has, in its forehead, just a single, circular eye.
It's a Cyclops.
What is the trapped Odysseus to do?
Well, he gets the Cyclops drunk.
Then he and his men take a large spike.
They aim it over the Cyclops's single eye.
In goes the spike.
Splat goes the eye.
Who could doubt the truth of such a story,
when there was evidence of the tale to be found in the earth?
Now, of course, this isn't actually the skull of a one-eyed monster.
It's the skull of an elephant,
and this is the large nasal opening from which its trunk once extended.
The Greeks didn't become familiar with real live elephants until the fourth century BC,
long after the story of the Cyclops first emerged.
But we know from the fossil record
that prehistoric species of elephant lived on Mediterranean islands
long before humans were around.
When Ancient Greeks came across
the preserved fossil skulls of these creatures, eroded from the rocks,
or perhaps dug up by a farmer,
did they mistake the outsize skull for a giant's head?
And the large nasal cavity as a huge single eye-socket?
Is this what inspired Homer's tale
of the island-dwelling giant Cyclops?
Now, no ancient source directly confirms the Cyclops theory,
but it seems eminently plausible nevertheless.
Not only were there large bones to be found
scattered across the entire sweep of the Mediterranean,
but we know as well from other legends,
from the writings of classical authors,
that the Greeks did take an interest in the fossil bones of giant beasts.
On a few occasions,
ancient writers wrote down what they thought of large bones.
They are among the earliest surviving written records of paleontological knowledge.
Take this, from the Life of Apollonius by Philostratus.
"I agree that giants once existed because gigantic bodies
"are revealed all over earth when mounds are broken open."
This is the site of what in classical times
was one of the most celebrated buildings in the entire Greek world,
the temple of Hera on the Aegean island of Samos.
But it wasn't just its scale and beauty that wowed the Greeks.
It was famous as well for something else - a collection of giant bones.
But where had they come from?
Well, as everyone on Samos knew, their island had been the scene,
way back in ancient times, of a quite spectacular battle.
One that had been fought between an army of ferocious
female warriors called Amazons, and the god Dionysus.
And what had Dionysus brought with him as back-up?
Nothing less than a war train of elephants.
Panaima, the ancients called the site of this battle -
"the Blood-Soaked Field".
And its location?
Well, its location seems to have been here.
The soil, which elsewhere on Samos is a dirty white,
here, you can see, is the colour of dried blood.
And on either side of it,
hills that are absolutely stuffed with prehistoric elephant bones.
So what that implies is that this site was witness to
an absolutely key event in the history of palaeontology.
The ancients who came across the bones here, and explained them
as the remains of elephants, were blazing a trail that would be
followed by 18th-century, by 19th-century palaeontologists.
For the very first time,
the fossils of long-lost megafauna were being identified correctly.
Nor was that the limit of ancient Greek paleontological achievement.
Take the evidence on this Corinthian vase from the sixth century BC,
now in a Boston museum.
Here's a brave hero, Heracles,
coming to the rescue of Hesione, a princess of Troy,
who is being menaced by a monster.
Most art historians, specialists of vase painting,
had identified this monster
as a very poorly drawn sea monster peeking out of a cave. To me,
it looked a lot like a fossil skull eroding out of a cliff-side.
You can see that it's disembodied. It has no body.
So this monster looks the way it does,
not because the artist was rubbish at drawing monsters?
You think that it might actually be The fossil of an actual beast?
Well, if you look at the other figures on the vase,
the humans and the other animals,
they are all very well drawn, and so the artist was actually
a good artist and he has given us a very good rendering of what
a fossil skull would look like as it weathers out of a cliff.
I think the model may have been a Samotherium,
which is a giant giraffe species.
They lived in the Mioscene and they left a lot of fossils.
In the Aegean, on islands in mainland Greece,
that would be a very common fossil.
Paleontologists notice the large empty eye socket,
the broken-away nasal area which is a very realistic rendition
of a skull that's been in the ground for a long time. The jagged teeth,
the back of the skull, it really matches
what a Samotherium skull looked like.
This appears to be the oldest surviving
artistic representation of a fossil in Greek art.
So what we have here is an object of absolutely
key significance in the history of paleontology.
I think it's a really powerful evidence that fossils
did influence the way Greeks thought about their myths.
For it to have been drawn so realistically,
the skull must have been in good condition.
But how did the Greeks think it had been preserved like that in rock?
One answer can be found in the story of a second princess
rescued from a monster.
This is a book which used to belong to my grandmother,
and if I open it here,
there is a fabulous picture by the Victorian artist Lord Leighton.
And yes, it's true there's a half-naked woman tied to a rock,
but when I first came across this book,
back in my grandmother's house, I was still of an age to be far more
interested in the fact that here was what seemed to be a dinosaur.
In fact, it's a sea monster, sent to ravage Joppa,
in what's now Israel, after the local queen had been
foolish enough to insult Poseidon, the god of the sea.
And the naked woman is Andromeda, the queen's daughter,
who is being offered to the monster in an attempt to calm Poseidon down.
But no need to panic, because here comes the hero Perseus,
armed with a Gorgon's head,
and anyone who looks at the head is immediately turned to stone.
And this, as you can see from the painting,
is precisely the mistake that the monster has made.
Andromeda was saved...
and the monster, well, the monster was turned to stone...
just like a fossil. All of which raises an intriguing possibility.
Was the story of the Gorgon's head an attempt by the Greeks
to explain what would otherwise have been inexplicable wonders?
Colossal skeletons fashioned out of rock?
Certainly, one thing is clear.
Giant fossilised monsters, back in Classical times as now,
made for phenomenal box office.
In 58 BC, when a flamboyant showman
by the name of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus
returned home after a spell throwing his weight around in Judea,
he brought with him a giant fossil, which he claimed to have been
the very monster turned to stone by Perseus.
The monster, we are told, was over 40 feet long,
the height of its ribs was greater than that of an Indian elephant,
and its spine was one and a half feet thick.
Now, we have no idea what it was that Scaurus had actually brought back with him -
the fossil of some prehistoric beast, clearly, a giant whale perhaps,
or even it may be some composite monster,
fashioned out of a whole assortment of fossilised remains.
But of one thing we can be absolutely confident.
It wasn't a dinosaur.
All the giant bones found across the Mediterranean came from mammals.
Elephants, rhinoceroses, Samotheriums.
We know this because the rocks that contain them
are of relatively recent origin - say eight million years old.
To contain the bones of dinosaurs, they would have had to be
more than eight times that age.
But what about dinosaur remains outside the Mediterranean?
Did the Greeks know anything about them?
Adrienne Mayor thinks they did. And for someone like me,
whose childhood craze for dinosaurs
evolved seamlessly into an obsession with the ancient Greeks,
it's a completely gripping theory.
The Greeks might have had knowledge of dinosaur remains
if they travelled further east, along the silk routes
where there are dinosaur remains,
much further east than the Mediterranean world.
Beyond the land of the Scythians,
a people who inhabited a vast stretch of central Asia,
there rose a steepling chain of mountains.
So reports Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century BC.
And beyond these mountains there exist mysterious creatures
Herodotus reported stories that he heard from the Scythian nomads.
They told him about griffins. Strange creatures with beaks,
four legs, nests on the ground for their eggs,
that guarded the gold deposits that the Scythians mined and prospected.
These creatures were fearsome.
They preyed on horses and miners.
Looking at the way Greeks represented griffins,
as in this fine collection on Samos,
you might think that these were fantastical creatures,
the product of over-heated imaginations.
But that was not the understanding of the Greeks themselves.
The early travellers may have been shown fossils of dinosaurs
to support those stories of a beaked creature with four legs,
burrows - nests on the ground near the gold,
guarding the gold, actually.
Now, in the Gobi desert, east of the Altai Mountains,
there stretches one of the richest hunting grounds
for dinosaur fossils anywhere in the world.
In 1922, when an American adventurer,
a kind of proto-Indiana Jones named Roy Chapman Andrews,
made the first paleontological survey of the region,
he and his men were astounded by what they found.
Fossils, he reported,
were strewn over the surface almost as thickly as stones.
The desert was positively paved with bones.
Most astounding of all, there were nests - nests filled with eggs.
The very first dinosaur eggs ever found.
This film shows the creature who laid them.
It was a distant ancestor of one of the most celebrated dinosaurs ever found in the Wild West,
the three-horned living tank Triceratops,
and so, perhaps not surprisingly, it was named Protoceratops.
And if it seems to resemble descriptions given by Greek writers of the griffin,
well, perhaps it's not entirely coincidence.
And there's further evidence for the link
between dinosaur bones and griffins.
We're told by Ctesias, a Greek physician at the court
of the Persian king in the fifth century BC,
"griffins are a race of four-footed birds, almost as large as wolves,
"and with legs and claws like lions."
The Scythians described griffins as combining the features of birds and mammals.
They were attempting to describe accurately
the fossils that they saw, the fossils of dinosaurs,
things that they had never seen alive.
And the fossils of the dinosaurs, Protoceratops dinosaurs,
combine the features of mammalian, four-legged creature, a predator,
with the beak of a raptor, or an eagle, or a bird of some sort.
If Mayor's Protoceratops as bird-like monster theory is accurate,
and it's received wide support both from classicists and from palaeontologists,
then it suggests something really rather remarkable.
The mural in the Peabody is called The Age of Reptiles.
It shows us dinosaurs as terrible lizards.
But the ancient nomads of Mongolia, it seems,
recognised in Protoceratops not a reptile, but a kind of bird,
which prefigures what is pretty much the consensus of scientists today.
The notion that birds are so closely related
to dinosaurs, that they are in fact a kind of dinosaur themselves,
has been fundamentally shaped by recent discoveries in Asia.
So how haunting it is to see
in the fabulously ancient figure of the griffin,
a possible foreshadowing of insights
that embody the absolute paleontological cutting edge.
And just maybe, griffins weren't the only mythical creatures
to have been inspired by the discovery of dinosaur bones.
In China, the figure of the dragon was for millennia
an emblem of the Emperor, and it remains to this day
a potent symbol of Chinese identity and culture.
The earliest representations of dragons
reach as far back as 6,000 BC.
Could it be that the fossils of dinosaurs also gave rise to this fabulously enduring creature?
Were dragons ancient China's attempt to explain the mystery of outsized bones,
the bones of dinosaurs such as those that today
are known as Tsintaosaurus,
The evidence, as you might expect, is, to put it mildly,
All the same, a fascinating demonstration of just how
potent the hold can be of fossils on the Chinese imagination
came to light only a few years ago.
In 2006, in central China, palaeontologists discovered that
the remains of dinosaurs were being dug up and sold as "dragon bones".
900 grams were going for the equivalent of 50p.
Villagers told the palaeontologists that they had been excavating
the seam of fossils for a couple of decades.
But the antiquity of Chinese medical practises suggests that
the attribution of dinosaur bones to dragons
may reach very much further back in time.
Certainly, what we do know is that in China, dragons have been
associated with health and good fortune for millennia.
Ancient recipes employing the fossilised bones of large,
prehistoric mammals, and probably dinosaurs too,
are included in the Chinese Materia Medica -
compendia of centuries-old traditional medicine.
The size of the bones that are recorded in the Materia Medica,
they are clearly large bones and not of ordinary mammals,
and they would have been given tremendous significance in the Materia Medica.
In a culture which believed in the reality of dragons,
these large bones were clearly at a premium.
This is one of the earliest recipes to mention dragon bones,
first recorded in the third century BC.
What you do is that you grind the bones to dust,
and mix them with various herbal medicines.
Then you eviscerate two swallows and you pack the bone,
which is now fine dust, into small bags and place them
inside the swallows and hang them overnight over a well.
Once you have done that, they are magically efficacious.
-So let's put our bag inside and let it boil.
-It's like a tea bag.
Like a tea bag. Exactly.
So we're expecting all the essence of these various herbs
to come out of the bag into the surroundings.
Chris Duffin, a historian of geology and folklore, made tea for me
following the ancient recipe, but omitting the eviscerated swallow.
He didn't recommend I drink it, though.
One of the herbal ingredients -
not the powdered bone - turns out to be highly toxic.
When Huang Di, the First Emperor,
died more than 4,000 years ago, his admirers declared
that he had risen into the heavens in the form of a dragon.
An intriguing thought,
that long before scientists gave Tyrannosaurus his surname of 'Rex',
the Latin word for 'King',
royalty and dinosaurs might have been paired up in ancient China.
Nor was it only in China that big bones were
believed by the ancients to bring good luck.
The Greeks too, when they weren't listening to travellers' tales about griffins,
might be busy harvesting fossils themselves.
In Greece, giant petrified bones were seen as talismans
that might bring power, prestige, even victory in battle.
The best example comes from a war that featured that Tyrannosaur
among the cities of ancient Greece, Sparta.
Now, most Greeks, relative to the Spartans, were herbivores.
Which isn't to say they were exactly wusses.
When they marched to battle, they would make a fearsome sight. They would have their shields,
the equivalent of the crest of this Triceratops,
and they would use them to make a phalanx, out of which would bristle their spears,
the equivalent of a Triceratops's horns.
When they met with another city's phalanx,
they would charge one another
and shove and gouge and hack
until one side turned and fled.
But the Spartans were different.
Unlike the warriors of other cities, they were full-time - professional.
The very earth would shake to the rhythm of their metronomic approach.
As they emerged through the dust of battle,
they would reveal a terrifying wall of scarlet and bronze.
When they charged,
it wouldn't necessarily be a full-frontal attack.
The Spartans, unlike other Greeks,
had the training to launch their wings in a flanking action.
Their aim - to attack the vulnerable sides of an enemy phalanx
and shred it to pieces.
Their style of battle, I suppose, was like that of a Tyrannosaur.
Not that the Spartans always won.
When, in the early sixth century BC, they sought to conquer
the neighbouring city of Tegea, they suffered a humiliating defeat.
But just like Tyrannosaurs, which often seem to have suffered
quite serious wounds and yet invariably come back for more,
the Spartans rarely took defeat lying down.
In the wake of this reverse,
they sent a delegation to Tegea under cover of a truce.
News had reached them of a strange find in a blacksmith's yard -
the spine of a giant skeleton.
No wonder the Spartans were excited. They had been told, you see,
by an oracle, that they would only ever conquer Tegea
if they could first capture a skeleton,
the bones of an ancient prince called Orestes.
Orestes had the kind of dysfunctional family background
that the ancient Greeks loved in their heroes.
His mum had killed his dad. He'd killed his mum. Outsize events.
And so who was to say that Orestes had not been outsize as well?
And if he had been on a physically sensational scale,
indeed, a giant,
then what else could the skeleton in the blacksmith's yard be,
if not the very bones of the great hero that the Spartans wanted?
All just a bit of a stretch, you might have thought,
except that sure enough, it turned out
that the Spartans' hunch had been spot on.
The bones were dug up, smuggled to Sparta, shown off, then re-interred.
the Tegeans submitted to their mastery of their hated neighbours.
A resounding triumph for the Spartan military-paleontological complex.
So what was the skeleton? Almost certainly not the bones of Orestes.
We can't be certain,
but the remains most likely belonged to a mastodon,
a large prehistoric kind of elephant, the remains of which
were still being dug up around Tegea as late as the 20th century.
All of which makes for a puzzle - why should the Spartans
have presumed that the bones belonged to an ancient hero?
The Greeks, when they contemplated the Earth's ancient past,
conceived of it as an age of giants.
Heroes in particular had been built on a colossal scale.
Now, it is true that, for all the restlessness of their curiosity
and the sheer sweep of their metaphysical speculations,
they had no real understanding of the vastness of time
that had preceded the appearance of humans on Earth.
What they did have, however,
was a sense that humanity had evolved and changed over time,
albeit not in a way that Darwin would have recognised.
To classical thinkers, it was a fundamental presumption that everything was going to the dogs.
What had once been a golden age was now an age of iron.
The human race, originally a breed of heroes,
had degenerated and diminished
and ended up literally dwarfish.
And what had served to give the Greeks this particular notion?
Of course, in a sense it's just human nature to presume
that things were better in the good old days.
But the Greeks weren't just drawing on a gut conservatism
for their understanding of the distant past.
They had evidence for it,
such as the outsize bones dug up at Tegea by the Spartans.
The people of Samos may have identified the elephant bones on their island correctly
but most Greeks, confronted by a giant fossil, would like as not
believe it to be the remains of some legendary giant hero.
Indeed, so wide-spread was this presumption that the relics
of renowned big-hitters such as Theseus or Ajax
became must-have accessories for any temple keen to make its mark.
Here is one of those venerated giant bones, now recognised
to be part of the femur of an Ice Age Woolly rhinoceros.
It was dug up in a temple at Nichoria near Sparta.
This is one of only two
fossilised bones of this sort that are known
from Greek sanctuaries.
-So is a really rare and precious object.
-It is indeed.
It's a very rare discovery.
They would have seen it as a relic, almost certainly of a lost hero.
Very much like the way we see relics of saints,
displayed in reliquaries in churches today.
So it was that fossil bones ended up as tourist attractions
across first the Greek, and then the Roman world.
Even Caesars might come to gawp.
The emperor Hadrian, we are told,
when a skeleton with kneecaps the size of a discus was exposed
on a beach, "embraced and kissed the bones, and laid them out."
No wonder, then, confronted by such seemingly incontrovertible evidence
for the colossal stature of ancient men, that the Romans
should long have clung to their belief in a form of evolution -
"survival of the unfittest".
400 years on from the birth of Christ,
and scholars still clung to it.
"The older the world becomes, so the smaller will be the bodies of men."
The man who spoke these words was Augustine,
a brilliant intellectual living in what is now Tunisia,
even as the Roman empire was busy imploding all around him.
Tumultuous though the times were, Augustine didn't let them
distract him from his excitement at the discovery of an elephant tooth.
Not, however, that Augustine thought that it was an elephant tooth.
In size, as he pointed out, "it was as big as 100 human teeth combined."
No wonder, then, that he should have stated confidently,
"I believe it belonged to some giant."
Living as he did in the fourth century AD, Augustine's take on
this mysterious relic, however, was complex.
He had one foot in the waning world of classical culture,
but he was also a Christian, a bishop, a saint.
He knew and loved his Virgil, but he lived to see Rome sacked.
In attempting to explain the mysterious giant's tooth,
he looked backwards to the traditions of the Greeks and the Romans,
but he looked forwards as well, to those of the Middle Ages.
As the gods and heroes of the classical world
faded before the triumph of the Church, so new explanations
for the existence of huge fossilised bones took their place.
This time, they were derived from the Bible.
Of course, the scholars of the Middle Ages,
like the philosophers and biologists of ancient Greece,
had no real idea just how ancient life on Earth really was.
But they weren't wholly lacking a notion of a vanished age
that had belonged to beings larger and more exotic than themselves.
These creatures, like the heroes of ancient Greece, were human.
But where had these giants gone?
The answer to that, so people in the Middle Ages believed,
was to be found in the greatest cataclysm ever to afflict humanity -
Now, the animals may have gone in two by two,
but not everyone got out of the rain.
"There were giants in the earth in those days."
So we're told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible,
about the world that preceded Noah's flood.
And sometimes, in the course of exploration or excavation,
people would find the bones of these same giants.
Augustine was one of the first, but certainly not the last,
to explain fossils in terms of the Flood.
In 1342, for instance, a cave was discovered in Southern Italy
that contained the skeleton of a man 400 feet tall -
or so we are told by the great medieval writer Boccachio.
"To display their discovery to posterity, the citizens
"of Trapani strung the bones on a wire and carried them to a church."
Not every wonder discovered in rock, however,
was to be explained as the relic of a vanished giant.
What, for instance,
were good Christians to make of mysterious footprints like these?
We now know that these bird-like tracks,
discovered in Oxfordshire,
were left by the ancestors of carnivorous dinosaurs
But it's no wonder that back in the Middle Ages, when similar prints
were discovered in locations ranging from Poland to the Alps,
that some rather diabolical explanations
should have been provided.
"Whence comest thou?" God asks Satan in the Bible.
Back comes the answer,
"From going to and fro in the Earth, and from walking up and down in it."
Indeed, so closely associated with the Devil were the footprints
of prehistoric creatures that it was not unknown for attempts
to be made to neutralise their malign power by incorporating them
into the fabric of a church, as here at Bebington in Cheshire.
But Satanic walkabouts weren't the only explanation for dinosaur tracks
that seem to have grown up in the Middle Ages.
As in the East, so in the West, people told tales of dragons.
Those of Europe, however, unlike those of China, were malign,
worthy trophies for a passing hero.
Indeed, dinosaur footprints have been found
beside the Rhine in the very spot traditionally associated
with Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon slain by Siegfried,
and immortalised in the opera by Richard Wagner.
Nice to think that a dinosaur's plod through a Jurassic swamp
might have contributed to the Ring Cycle.
In fact, so vividly did dragons haunt
the imaginations of Germans in the Middle Ages that in 1335,
when this huge skull was dug up
outside the Austrian town of Klagenfurt,
the locals had no doubt what it was.
The story goes that once, back in the earliest days of the town,
a nearby swamp was the haunt of a monstrous serpent...
until a bold knight, as bold knights tended to do
back in those days, decided to take the dragon on.
So what the knight did was he got hold of a cow,
he stuffed it full of quicklime and then he used the cow as bait.
The dragon came roaring down,
devoured the cow, the quicklime ignited, the dragon exploded,
and bang, Klagenfurt had been made safe for civilisation.
Two and a half centuries on from the discovery of the mysterious skull,
and the legend had only improved in the telling.
So much so, that in 1590, the good folk of Klagenfurt were inspired to commission...
Once again, a fossilised bone inspired a fabulous creation,
this time in three dimensions. Which I suppose begs an obvious question.
To what creature had the skull dug up in 1335 actually belonged?
The answer - not a dragon, but a woolly rhinoceros.
And this forlorn spot north of the town was where it breathed its last.
There's a sense, then, in which the sculpture,
fashioned within the lifetimes of Galileo and Francis Bacon,
might seem a last spasm of medieval superstition.
But that, I think, would be unfair.
Yes, it looks back to a time when people believed that dragons
and giants had actually existed.
But it looks ahead as well,
to something that we can almost recognise as modern palaeontology.
This, after all, is not a monster conjured up
purely from the imagination - it constitutes, however inadequately,
the oldest surviving reconstruction of a prehistoric beast.
A century on, and to scholars touched by the dawning rays
of the Enlightenment,
talk of dragons or giants was becoming an embarrassment.
In 1683, when the world's original university museum, the Ashmolean,
first opened its doors in this Oxford building, a mysterious bone
dug up near the village of Cornwell was one of its prize exhibits.
In his book, The Natural History of Oxfordshire, Robert Plot,
the first keeper of the Ashmolean,
tried to work out what the bone had come from.
First he speculates that it was the bone of an elephant
brought to Britain by the Romans.
And how he actually eliminates this as an option
is in 1676, the year before his book is published, an elephant is
actually exhibited in Oxford as part of a travelling menagerie.
And you can imagine Plot going up to the elephant itself
and pulling out his tape measure and measuring it,
and actually comparing it to the bone he had in hand.
He determines they're different in shape and size and eliminates that.
He very quickly also eliminates horse and ox as viable candidates
and he concludes in the end, basically with the only, the only
other conclusion that he could draw, was that it was the bone of a giant.
This is the illustration in Plot's book of the mysterious relic.
The original has vanished.
In 1763, when a scholar named Richard Brookes inspected it,
he gave it, in the most up to date scientific style,
an imposing classical name, he called it - what else? -
Now, reflected in this name was the fact that Brookes,
although he knew he wasn't really dealing with a pair of unfeasibly large testicles,
still had no idea what kind of creature his "Scrotum Humanum"
had actually been.
Like the Ancient Greeks,
like the Christians of the Middle Ages, Brookes and his contemporaries
had not the faintest notion of just how ancient the planet truly was.
But all that was about to change,
and fossilised bones, no longer embarrassments,
would be enshrined as prize exhibits in a scientific revolution.
In 1788, a Scottish geologist named James Hutton published an almost
literally epochal book in which he proposed that the Earth
was infinitely more ancient than humanity.
Indeed, Hutton could find no evidence for there having been a creation at all.
"The result," he declared, "of our present enquiry is
"that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."
The implications of this theory for the study of ancient beasts
were not long in being in felt.
Between 1815 and the early 1820s,
a whole series of fossils were uncovered by men quarrying for slate
down mine-shafts like this, at Stonesfield, north of Oxford.
So this narrow, cramped passageway is where slate was mined
for the roofs of Oxford colleges and Cotswold cottages
and it's where in the course of that mining the teeth,
the bones of a mysterious and monstrous beast were found,
and the significance of these finds
is precisely that they were made down here underground,
because it meant that the origins of these bones
could be very precisely identified to a particular layer
in the sequence of rocks.
Whatever the creature was that these fossils had come from,
one thing was absolutely clear.
It was old, it was very, very old.
The bones belonged to the same mysterious creature
that Richard Brookes had named "Scrotum Humanum".
But now there was to be no talk of giant's testicles.
This was because the fragments ended up in the hands of the man
perhaps best qualified in the whole of Britain to identify them.
A clergyman named William Buckland,
who also just happened to be Oxford's Professor of Geology.
What Buckland deduced was that the fossilised bones had belonged
to a very carnivorous and very large lizard.
By 1822, the name had appeared for the first time in print.
The animal identified by Buckland
"must in some instances have attained a length of 40 feet,
"and stood eight feet high."
The notion that such a monster might once have wandered
over Oxfordshire was, of course, a thrilling one.
With the remains of other similar giant lizards simultaneously
being found elsewhere across southern England,
it opened up to the eyes of the public a quite staggering prospect.
Once, it seemed, in the chillingly unfathomable reaches
of a pre-human past, there had existed an entire world
of savage reptiles, "red in tooth and claw".
"Time, cruel time. Come and subdue that brow."
Quite how the existence millions upon millions of years ago
of ravening Megalosaurs was to be squared with a Biblical chronology
that had man being fashioned by a loving God on the sixth day of Creation,
was for theologians, a most unexpected and alarming poser.
Buckland was merely the first of many clergymen
to wrestle with the implications.
Certainly, the discovery of so many fossils opened a vista
of monsters to the wide eyes of the Victorian public
that compared with anything in the Bible
or Greek mythology.
"Dragons of the prime", as the great poet Tennyson put it,
"that tare each other in the slime."
Except, of course, that "dragons" was precisely what they were not.
The scientist who came up with a name for them was this man,
When he wasn't busy founding the Natural History Museum in London
and being quite sensationally rude to all his colleagues,
Owen had a day job as Britain's leading anatomist.
Megalosaurus, and creatures like it, he announced,
had ranked not merely as lizards, but as "terrible lizards".
In Greek, dinosaurs.
The name reflected the two sides of Owen's complex personality -
the brilliant anatomist who had correctly extrapolated from a few scattered bones
an entire kingdom of vanished creatures, and the devout Anglican,
awestruck before the revelation of just how stupefying
God's creations had always been.
Nor was Owen alone in his wonder.
Within a decade of his first use of the word,
dinosaurs had become a veritable craze.
In 1854, Owen himself and an associate,
the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, blazed what would prove
a popular trail. They opened a dinosaur theme park.
And here it still stands - Crystal Palace in south London.
When Hawkins explained his motives for sculpting this Mesozoic wonderland,
he did so in words that not only foreshadow Jurassic Park,
but also echo the myth-making of our ancestors.
His aim, he declared, was "the reviving of the ancient world,
"to call up from the abyss of time and from the depths of the Earth,
"those vast forms and gigantic beasts which the Almighty Creator
"designed to inhabit and precede us in possession of this part of the Earth called Great Britain."
No wonder, then, that he and Owen
wanted to include this particular beauty.
So what we have here is none other than Megalosaurus itself.
Except that, as palaeontologists have long appreciated,
it actually looked nothing like this.
Megalosaurus was not built like a people-carrier.
In point of fact, it was a theropod, a two-legged proto-Tyrannosaur.
Which means that it looked like... this.
And that's why, when I was a child, I made a point of refusing
every offer from my parents to take me to Crystal Palace.
These reconstructions offended every last bone in my dino-geek body.
But now that I'm here, I can realise what a little prig I was being.
This model built of concrete may not be cutting-edge palaeontology,
but it tells you everything about why dinosaurs still fascinate us.
About the sense of awe and smallness we feel
when we contemplate the immensity of geological time,
and about how extraordinary it is, considering the millions
upon millions of years that separate us from the Mesozoic,
that we know anything about dinosaurs at all.
The achievements of palaeontology, ever since the heroic
pioneering days of Buckland and Owen,
have certainly been astounding.
And recent finds, especially in China,
have opened up new worlds of wonder and fascination.
But there is perhaps a sense, after all, in which
we are not so wholly far removed from those who saw in fossils
the remains of Thunder Birds, or griffins, or giants, or dragons.
Our understanding of dinosaurs today is defined for us
by the discoveries of scientists.
And yet, the nature of the fossil record being what it is,
those same scientists will never be able to fill in all the gaps.
And so it is, into those same gaps, that we,
just as our ancestors did, project all our manifold obsessions,
as variable and contradictory as human society itself.
It turns out that the science fiction stories were right all along.
Just when you think you've got dinosaurs pinned down,
they always break free.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Email [email protected]
From dinosaurs to mammoths, when our ancient ancestors encountered the fossil bones of extinct prehistoric creatures, what did they think they were? Just like us, ancient peoples were fascinated by the giant bones they found in the ground.
In an epic story that takes us from Ancient Greece to the American Wild West, historian Tom Holland goes on a journey of discovery to explore the fascinating ways in which our ancestors sought to explain the remains of dinosaurs and other giant prehistoric creatures, and how bones and fossils have shaped and affected human culture. In Classical Greece, petrified bones were exhibited in temples as the remains of a long-lost race of colossal heroes. Chinese tales of dragons may well have had their origins in the great fossil beds of the Gobi desert. In the Middle Ages, Christians believed that mysterious bones found in rock were the remains of giants drowned in Noah's Flood.
But far from always being wrong, Tom learns that ancient explanations and myths about large fossilsed bones often contained remarkable paleontological insights long before modern science explained the truth about dinosaurs. Tom encounters a medieval sculpture that is the first known reconstruction of a monster from a fossil, and learns about the Native Americans stories, told for generations, which contained clues that led bone hunters to some of the greatest dinosaur finds of the nineteenth century.
This documentary is an alternative history of dinosaurs - the neglected story of how mythic imagination and scientific inquiry have met over millennia to give meaning to the dry bones of prehistory. Today, as our interest in dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures continues unabated, it turns out we are not so far away from the awe and curiosity of our ancient ancestors.