Friday 27 April 2018

Unicorns, dragons, monsters and giants: palaeoart before palaeontology

Quick painting of Polyphemus, the Homeric cyclops, taking very literal inspiration from elephant face anatomy in reference to the well-known idea that fossil elephant skulls inspired the cyclops myth. So, do ancient illustrations of cyclopes count as early palaeoart?
The genre of natural history art we call 'palaeoart' is not a modern invention: it is actually centuries old, emerging in Europe at the same time as palaeontological science. We often credit Henry De la Beche's 1830 painting Duria Antiquior as the original palaeoartwork, but several attempts to reconstruct fossil animals using modern scientific ideas were made beforehand, dating back to at least 1800 (Taquet and Padian 2004). They include relatively speculative paintings, satirical sketches, and detailed anatomical reconstructions (Rudwick 1992; Martill 2014). Duria Antiquior was a major milestone for palaeoart development, but not the origin of the genre itself.

A case can be made for palaeoart being even older than these oft-overlooked works, however. A small number of artworks created by historic, maybe even ancient peoples attempted to restore the life appearance of fossil animals in much the same way we do today, albeit outside of a true scientific context. Whether or not these artworks qualify as true palaeoart is questionable as adherence to scientific theory is a pretty major component of the genre. Scientific methodology as we understand it today was not developed until the 18th century, and this included many concepts essential to palaeoart, such as fossilisation, extinction and geological time. Can we truly define a work as palaeoart if it was made without knowledge of these cornerstones of palaeontological science? My take on this is that artworks attempting to rationalise fossils against contemporary understanding of natural phenomena (even if that rationale is pre-scientific and mythology-based) have the same intention as palaeoart produced today. We can probably consider these early artworks 'proto-palaeoart', the forerunner of the genuine, science-led article we developed in the 19th century.

I thought it might be of interest to run through some early artworks claimed to be among the oldest palaeoart. I won't pretend that this list is exhaustive, but I hope there may be some examples, or facts behind commonly given examples, that will be unfamiliar to most readers. In researching this article, I was surprised at how little data existed behind some claimed examples of historic palaeoart, including several widely 'known' examples. Other cases are more plausible, if missing smoking gun evidence, and a couple are undoubted facts of history. For those interested in the origins of palaeoart, the question is not 'does proto-palaeoart exist?', but 'how much proto-palaeoart is there?'

Of griffins and cyclopes

Archaeological data shows that humans have been interacting with fossils for thousands of years (McMenamin 2007; Mayor 2011). It is not unreasonable to assume that ancient peoples pondered the nature of fossils and perhaps drew or sculpted the creatures they were interpreted as. Othenio Abel (1914) and Adrienne Mayor (2011) have argued that fossil remains influenced or even wholly inspired famous mythical animals such as griffins and cyclopes. As previously discussed here at some length, some researchers propose that fossils of the Asian horned dinosaur Protceratops were subsumed into the mythology of the griffin (e.g. Mayor and Heany 1993; Mayor 2011), while the bones of elephantids – with their huge, eye-like central nasal openings in their skulls – spawned stories and artwork of the one-eyed cyclops (Abel 1914).

Line drawing of perhaps the oldest known image of a griffin, from Susa, 4th millennium BCE. From Frankfort (1937).
Superficially, both these claims seem reasonable. Griffins, if you squint a little, do somewhat resemble a Protoceratops with their four legs, beaks and cranial frills interpreted as wings. The skulls of elephants and their relatives look somewhat like the skulls of monstrous giant humans, too, mostly because of their short faces and partially-defined true eye sockets. But what's lacking from these claims is evidence beyond the circumstantial. The Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is presented as having support from historic events, geographic details and ancient texts, with traders from far eastern lands bringing tales of their fossils to the Greeks in the first millennium BCE. Long term readers may remember I suggested a number of issues with this scenario in a previous article. I won't rehash the full argument here but, in brief: griffins appeared in Near East societies several millennia before they became popular in Ancient Greece, meaning the Orientalisation of Greece during the 8th-5th centuries BCE - when the Greeks adopted culture from Near Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean cultures - more than accounts for the sudden Grecian interest in griffins. Ancient texts said to refer to Protoceratops fossils seem to pertain to (probably fantastical) living species, not fossils, and provide no details of geography of environment that are specific to genuine Protoceratops localities. The trade routes and gold mines said to bring Asian cultures within viewing distance of Protoceratops remains are, in fact, several hundred miles west of all known Protoceratops sites, and there's nothing about griffin form - in any of its guises (griffins are a complex of creatures, not just one) - that necessitates influence from horned dinosaur anatomy: all griffin features are accounted for by living species. Citations and references for these points can be found in my article, so please check it out if you'd like more details. I've not encountered anything since writing that piece to change my opinion on the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis, so I can't see any reason to consider griffins proto-palaeoart of horned dinosaurs.

Historic and biogeographic details align better with the idea that elephantid fossils may have begat cyclopes. Fossils of elephantids are found around the eastern Mediterranean and their bones were probably known to the Ancient Greeks (Massetti 2008; Mayor 2011). It's plausible that Greeks living several thousand years BCE would be ignorant of living elephants too, these animals dying out in Europe around 11,000 years ago. The nearest contemporary elephant populations were of the now extinct Syrian elephant, over 1000 km away in eastern Turkey. Elephant skulls are pretty odd, and without knowledge of living elephants it might be easy to misinterpret them. Homeric accounts of cyclopes - from the 7th-8th century BCE, among the earliest on record - cast them as cave dwellers, which matches the recovery of elephantid remains from Sicilian caves (Masseti 2008). The link between these bones and cyclopes has been noted for centuries, dating back to the first 'modern' archaeological exploration of Mediterranean islands in the 17th century (Masseti 2008).

A funerary urn showing the cyclops Polyphemus being blinded by Odysseus and his crew, c. 660 BCE. From Wikimedia user Napoleon Vier, CC BY-SA 3.0
These details put elephantid bones in the right place and time to inspire cyclopes but, as hardened sceptics, we must view this as circumstantial evidence only, and thus insufficient to support the elephantid-cyclopes link on its own. It's here where we hit a problem: beyond these details, there's not much else to support this idea. It's important to ask the right questions in sceptical inquiry and in this case it's not 'did elephants inspire cyclopes?, but 'do we need elephants to explain depictions of one-eyed giant humans?'. The answer is probably 'no'. Accounts of ancient cyclopes I'm aware of - both those in illustration and literature - are just giant men with unusual eye anatomy (example above), and without obvious elephantine facial features (tusks, steep-fronted rostra etc.). Citing elephant skulls as a source might complicate the myth more than explaining it - where's the rest of the elephant anatomy gone? An entirely human source - cyclopia, a fatal genetic condition sees human eye anatomy fail to divide fully - is an alternative origin of the cyclopean myth (Kalantzis et al. 2013) which does not require artists to cherry-pick elephant features. Cyclopia is rare among live human births (Kalantzis et al. 2013) but occurs in one of every 200 lost pregnancies - as sure as ancient Greeks saw fossil elephant bones, they also surely saw patients of cyclopia.

We must also consider that a real-world source was not needed at all. One-eyed men and other monocular creatures are ubiquitous throughout mythology all over the world, and it's unlikely they all developed after finding fossil elephant skulls. Eyes are a well established symbol of wisdom, clairvoyance and authority in many cultures, so the modification of eyes - reduction in number, blinding and so on - has clear symbolic value in many legends. It's entirely plausible that Grecian cyclopes had one eye simply because the ancient poets and storytellers thought it suited their characters. It's difficult to prove that fossil elephant skulls were not the basis for cyclopes but with only circumstantial evidence to support the idea, it's no better supported than any other interpretation outlined here or elsewhere.

The Monster of Troy

An artwork argued by Mayor (2011) as the oldest piece of genuine palaeoart adorns a Corinthian vase painted between 560-540 BCE. This image shows an unusual, skull-like face resting on a cliff acting as the Monster of Troy, the creature which fought Heracles as it terrorised Hesione at the outskirts of Troy. Though skeletal in nature, the interactions of the face with other figures on the vase implicates it as a living creature, not the remains of a dead animal. The skull is argued to match the basic anatomy of Miocene mammals known from the eastern Mediterranean region. The giraffid Samotherium is considered a most likely identity (Mayor 2000, 2011), though the artist may have also incorporated elements of fossil ostriches, lizards, whales or crocodiles (Mayor 2000, 2011). If this hypothesis is correct, it would easily be the oldest known palaeoart, and by a huge margin - about 2000 years. Mayor's interpretation has been discussed favourably by a number of authors (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 2002; McMenamin 2007), though others consider it a matter of ongoing research (Oakley 2009) or pure conjecture (Kitchell 2014).

The Monster of Troy, as depicted on a Corynthian vase, 560-540 BCE. It definitely has a skull-like vibe, but is it the first piece of palaeoart? From Flickr user Lady Erin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The individualistic nature of the Monster of Troy complicates analysis of its origin, especially because it seems quite loosely drawn compared to other figures on the vase. How literally should we take its features? If we had other, perhaps more refined art of the same concept we might be able to pin down the accuracy of its rendition but, with only one example, we can't be sure if we're dealing with a crude drawing of a real skull or a more stylised, imaginative chimera.

If we take the face entirely literally, we find that some aspects compare well to mammals like Samotherium, particularly its size, the shape of the lower-jaw, the position of the jaw joint with respect to the orbit, and the low profile of the rostrum. However, it differs from Samotherium in a number of ways: a lack of horns; entirely procumbent dentition; long, sharp-looking teeth; a lack of a diastem; the (seeming) presence of a sclerotic ring; and the occurrence of a facial fossa (present in fossil horses and deer, but not Samotherium). The white colour is also not appropriate for Samotherium, fossils of these animals being of tan or brown hues. Some distinctions are potentially explainable within the Samotherium hypothesis: the shortened upper jaw could reflect a broken premaxilla - a common occurrence on large fossil mammal skulls - and the unusual detailing behind the eye could reflect details of the jaw joint and posterior skull anatomy. Others differences are less easily accounted for, leading to those suggestions that lizards, whales and other species might be referenced in the illustration too. This seems like special pleading to me, and a weakness in the idea that the artist was referencing specific fossil specimens. The only evidence for the Monster of Troy being a fossil is that it allegedly looks like one, and if we find differences between it and the fossils it's most likely to represent, they can't just be glossed over: they're counter-evidence to the hypothesis.

Samotherium boissieri.JPG
Samotherium boissieri skull - is this the 'real' Monster of Troy? By Wikimedia user Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Again, I wonder if we need to invoke fossils to explain this illustration. The basic anatomy might reflect some features of ungulate skulls, but it's so generalised that something like a living horse or camel would fit the bill as well as a fossil species. Indeed, some aspects - such as colour - are better matches for modern skulls. The fact it's perched on a cliff is perhaps the best reason to think it's a fossil, though other interpretations of the 'cliff' exist, such as it being the entrance to a cave (see Mayor 2000 for a brief summary of other interpretations).

All this considered, I'm not sure what to make of the Monster of Troy. I'm not convinced it's a compelling match to a specific fossil mammal skull nor that it even needs a fossil origin to explain it. Moreover, if it is a chimera, which even proponents of this idea concede it must be to some extent, then its significance to early palaeontology is diluted further as those other elements may not be of fossiliferous origin. If we had other illustrations of the same skull-like creature we might be able to make a clearer determination, but I don't know that there's enough evidence to determine if the Monster of Troy is anything to do with the history of palaeoart.

Here be Lindwurms

Moving on two thousand years to the 16th century, our next example is an artwork with a confirmed fossil basis. Our inquiries into artwork from this time onward are aided significantly by surviving texts from this interval. As we've already encountered, interpreting the origin of art is challenging without knowing the context of its creation, so the existence of well-documented artefacts and text allows for much more certainty in our pursuit of pre-science palaeoart. Much of the following stems from Abel's (1939) account of fossils and mythology.

The giant Lindwurm statue of Klagenfurt, Austria, built in 1590. It's said to be partly informed by woolly rhinoceros remains. The chap on the right, representing Hercules, was added in the 17th century. From Wikimedia user Johann Jaritz, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Though 16th century Europe heralded many major facets of our modern age, myth and fable were still major parts of culture, and giant fossils were still regarded as remains of fantastical animals. A vast, 6 tonne statue of a four-limbed, two-winged dragon known as the ‘Lindwurm’ is probably the oldest known incontrovertible piece of proto-palaeoart. Only part of the statue, which was erected in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1590, has a fossil basis however, its head being based on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) recovered from a gravel pit or mine near Klagenfurt in 1335. The Lindwurm has a prominent role in Klagenfurt lore as the town was said to be founded only after this creature was dispatched and the area became safe to live in. I'm not sure if the skull or the legend came first - the town was established in the 12th century, two centuries before the skull would be found - but we can be certain that Coelodonta fossils have longstanding historical significance in Klagenfurt, the skull residing in town council chambers for centuries before being put on public display, where it remains today. The statue was constructed by Ulrich Vogelsang, but it's evident that he only considered very basic elements of Coelodonta anatomy during the sculpting. Indeed, other than size, the Lindwurm head does not resemble Coelodonta at all, so it seems likely that the skull was more inspirational than referential. Still, at least we know the two objects were meant to represent the same entity, which is no mean feat in the pursuit of proto-palaeoart.

The giants and plesio-dragons of Mundus Subterraneus

Athanasius Kircher's 1678 German textbook Mundus Subterraneus - an early thesis on geography, biology, mineralogy and geology - contains several illustrations of animals which may have been informed by fossils. They include many types of giant human, which were said to be social, cave-dwelling species based on the bones of large animals found in caves - almost certainly remnants of Pleistocene mammals. Kircher also wrote about several types of dragon, many of which were of period-typical, worm-like form, but Abel (1939) noted one unusual dragon illustration that may have been influenced by a real giant reptile: a plesiosaur.

Is St. George fighting a plesiosaur-inspired dragon in this 1678 illustration from Mundus Subterraneus? Abel (1939, also the source of this image) thought so, noting the shift towards plesiosaur-like proportions and anatomy compared to more conventional European dragon depictions of the time.
The illustration is plesiosaur-like in many respects, with a barrel-like body, small head, long and slender neck, a true tail, and curiously small ‘paddle-like’ wings instead of broad, membranous wings typical of dragon depictions. It's not a perfect plesiosaur depiction by any means - it also has ears, a beak, and four legs - but Abel (1939) considered this reinvention of dragon form so dramatic that it could represent the arrival of a new source of inspiration for dragon anatomy, of which plesiosaurs are a possible contender. Marine reptiles, including plesiosaurs, were almost certainly uncovered during quarrying work in the historic Swabia region (now southern Germany) as rocks we now call the Posidonia Shale were exploited to build growing settlements. The Posidonia Shale is a site of exceptional preservation with abundant invertebrate fossils and rarer, but often complete and articulated, marine reptile skeletons. Posidonia quarrying dates back to at least the 16th century and, given that the quarrying was executed by hand, 17th century quarrymen would have seen fossils of many kinds, almost certainly including some well preserved plesiosaur remains. Had these discoveries caused a stir among local learned individuals, as well a giant reptile entombed in stone might have, it's not inconceivable to think they could have been identified as dragons, and ultimately influenced Mundus Subterraneus.

As with our discussion of cyclops art, these details are only circumstantial evidence and they do not prove beyond doubt that plesiosaurs were referenced in Kircher's dragon art. But I find this case a little more compelling because our records of the early modern period are better, so the correlation between historic events is tighter and the contrast to other dragon illustrations more obvious. Moreover, whereas ancient cyclops art doesn't really look like the fossils said to inspire it, I can see some obvious plesiosaur-like details in Kircher's illustration. It's difficult to be certain about the relevance of plesiosaurs fossils to the image but, for me, this is a possible, if unconfirmed, piece of proto-palaeoart.

The most awesome unicorn, ever

Our final example is surely one of the nuttiest attempts to restore ancient animal anatomy in all of history. Pleistocene mammoth and rhinoceros bones found in a cave near Quedlinberg, Germany, in 1663 were reassembled by an unknown artist into a skeletal reconstruction of a bipedal unicorn, christened unicornum verum ('true unicorn') or, sometimes, the Quedlinberg Monster. Doubtless this image is familiar to many readers already, but it's worth looking at again. Just how is that thing meant to work?

Reconstruction of the “unicornum verum” by Otto von Guericke (1678), and later used by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his “Protogaea” (1749) (image in public domain).
History of Geology
Page from the 1749 book Prototagea showing unicornum verum, a truly bizarre composite of fossil rhinoceros and mammoth bones. The illustration above is clearly a mammoth molar, hinting at the true identity of the 'unicorn' bones.
The artistic history behind unicornum verum is somewhat mysterious (Ariew 1998). The illustration became widely known through Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's posthumously published 1749 book Protogaea, a scholarly account of geology and natural history. Leibniz's book printed a copy of one example of the illustration, but did not state where the images originated. The most famous example - above - is often credited to German naturalist Otto von Geuricke, the scholar who described the remains, or Leibniz himself. However, Geuricke was probably not the artist, and Leibniz definitely wasn’t (he explicitly states this in his written work). Another version of the skeleton, published in 1704, is said to be based on a third depiction by Johann Mäyern, a Quedlinberg counsellor. Whoever rendered the images, they represent the oldest known illustrations of restored fossil skeletons (we might quibble if skeletal reconstructions are true palaeoart or not - whatever your view, they're close enough for our purposes here, I think). Though some bones are fairly 'generic' and difficult to identify, mammoth teeth and scapulae, as well as rhino vertebrae with long neural spines (reversed to be ribs) are discernible. I am not sure what the ring-shaped structure at the end of the spine is - I assume it's a vestigial pelvis. Apparently the bones informing the skeletal were broken as they were excavated (Ariew 1998), which might account for some peculiarities of their appearance.

Unicornum verum in the flesh. It's a little undersized: Leibniz gave the length of the horn at five ells (an ell being the length of a man's forearm (typically about 450 mm, or 18"), which is over 2 m.
Leibniz indicates that narwharls were a major influence on unicorn mythology of this time, which might explain why unicornum verum resembles a swimming animal to some degree. The reconstruction is so unusual that some scholars have wondered if it was a joke or hoax. Ariew (1998) suggests Leibniz - a polymath of notable contribution to mathematics, physics, philosophy and other fields - was an unlikely hoaxer based on his other work. Indeed, Protogaea is by all accounts a straight, scholarly thesis on natural history which demythologises fossils and calls out fantastic interpretations - trickery and pranks would contrast markedly with the tone of the book. Leibniz also says he visited the caves housing the bones in question, providing details of how one enters them, and vouched for the size, manner of collection and anatomical details of the bones found therein. If he was hoaxing, he played a very straight game, and it's perhaps more probable that he considered unicornum verum a genuine animal, and the illustrations a reasonable take on its anatomy.

By the end of the 18th century the seeds of true palaeontological science and palaeoart were being sowed, ready to develop fully in the 19th century. Leibniz's apparent conviction for unicornun verom and its illustration might seem charmingly naive given what would emerge just decades after Protogaea was published, one of the last examples of mythology inspiring scientific thought and early palaeoart before hard science took over. But his illustration of a restored skeleton, rather than a fanciful creature, as well as his associated documentation of the discovery and locality of the 'unicorn' bones, shows how approaches to fossils and their illustration was maturing. This bizarre restoration is a link between two different eras in our artistic interpretations of fossils, taking a near-scientific approach to a mythological concept.

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