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The First Fossil Hunters:
Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times
Adrienne Mayor
With a foreword by Peter Dodson

Paperback | 2001 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691089775
Hardcover | 2000 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691058634

Reviews | Table of Contents

Griffins, Centaurs, Cyclopes, and Giants--these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact--in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.

Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology. As Peter Dodson writes in his Foreword, "Paleontologists, classicists, and historians as well as natural history buffs will read this book with the greatest of delight--surprises abound."

Review:

"Mayor [combines] the skills of the literary scholar with those of a dinosaur hunter . . . [A]lthough readers will learn a good deal here about the remains of mammoths and protoceratops, they will learn much more about human imagination, that fertile source of science, of legend and of fraud."--Booklist

"A surprising account of material overlooked or misunderstood by both historians of science and interpreters of Greek myth . . . [T]his is clear, readable, and convincing."--Kirkus Reviews

"Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal, describing her sleuthing efforts at length . . . By the end of the book, you will find yourself filled with enthusiasm for following Mayor's lead in breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries and thus enriching your understanding of the human experience."--Kate A. Robson Brown, Natural History

"Adrienne Mayor has . . . done some digging deep into the past and found literary and artistic clues--and not a few huge fossils--that seem to explain the inspiration for many of the giants, monsters, and other strange creatures in the mythology of antiquity."--John Noble Wilford, The New York Times

"Merging the fields of paleontology, archaeology and classical literature, Mayor's research has uncovered striking correlations between modern fossil finds and many of the myths and folklore that sprang up in early Western civilization."--Bryn Nelson, Newsday

"The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art, geology, and paleontology in a convincing manner. . . . Mayor's chronicles do more that entertain; as she contends, they also show that people of Greek and Roman times had a broad understanding of fossils as organic remains of extinct organisms . . ."--Tim Tokary, American Scientist

More reviews

Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations ix
Foreword: Stones, Bones, and Exotic Creatures of the Past by Peter Dodson xiii
Acknowledgments xix
Geological Time Scale 2
Introduction 3
Historical Time Line 11
CHAPTER 1. The Gold-Guarding Griffin: A Paleontological Legend 15
CHAPTER 2. Earthquakes and Elephants: Prehistoric Remains in Mediterranean Lands 54
CHAPTER 3. Ancient Discoveries of Giant Bones 104
CHAPTER 4. Artistic and Archaeological Evidence for Fossil Discoveries 157
CHAPTER 5. Mythology, Natural Philosophy, and Fossils 192
CHAPTER 6. Centaur Bones: Paleontological Fictions 228
APPENDIX 1. Large Vertebrate Fossil Species in the Ancient World 255
APPENDIX 2. Ancient Testimonia 260
Notes 283
Works Cited 333
Index 351

This book has been translated into:

  • Spanish
  • Korean

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File created: 3/28/2014

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