Roman scholar meets dinosaur.
May 23, 2006 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Is there any (circumstantial) evidence that ancient people performed 'archeology' or 'paleontology'?

Even in ancient times, someone somewhere must have stumbled on the buried remains of dinosaurs or other extinct animals, or even ancient human ancestors.

Is there reason to believe any 'ancient' (Romans, Chinese, etc) or medieval people ever came into contact with any such remains, and tried to make sense of them? Or are there any myths or stories that could have been based on such 'excavations'?
posted by Harry to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I saw a show on the discovery channel (?) that suggested the ancient Greeks dug up dinosaur skeletons and incorporated them into their mythology... (giant bones! they must belong to the hero so-and-so who supposedly died here! and these ones must be from the cyclops!)

ah, there's a book about this!
posted by clarahamster at 3:08 PM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

One category that artifacts found on an archaeological site are put under is "curated", i.e. something from an older culture that was found and collected by a more recent culture. In the American southwest, you'll often find paleolithic projectile points and other lithics (stone tools) from that era at sites that date to historical and protohistorical periods.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:21 PM on May 23, 2006

Given the way the Gobi desert has turned out to be a wonderful place to find dinosaur skeletons, I've often wondered if Chinese dragon legends are based on travellers who saw such skeletons as they passed through. I don't know if anyone's particularly confirmed that, but it's especially interesting that Chinese dragons tend to be long and sinuous, as if mentally reconstructed from really long spines, which is exactly what's been found already exposed by the weather out in the Gobi.

(Isn't it interesting that the dragon is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, along with the rat, the dog, the bull, the horse, the cock, the boar, the snake etc., but not the cat? The dragon is the only one of the 12 that doesn't really exist.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:33 PM on May 23, 2006

On the other hand, keep in mind that "ancient" and "medieval" peoples had entirely different ideas about the world and its history and their place in it. Archeology and paleontology as such didn't really make any sense conceptually within their world view.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:35 PM on May 23, 2006

Read somewhere that seas shells on medieval mountainsides were taken as but-of-course evidence of Noah's flood.

Beware interpretation....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:14 PM on May 23, 2006

I remember reading somewhere that the ancient Mesopotamians (at one point) had a museum containing artifacts they'd dug up which had belonged to even more ancient Mesopotamians. (Helpful, I know.) This page has a list of quote-unquote early archaeologists, which includes Nebuchadrezzar (he of the Hanging Gardens, supposedly) and a Babylonian king.

The monks at Glastonbury Abbey dug up "King Arthur" (possibly, if my memory is correct, at the urging of King Henry). And one assumes that there was a fair amount of looting of Ye Olde Holy Sites during the middle ages by people who wanted a saint's finger of their very own (or a holy corpse to take back to England/France/wherever and stick in their church). However, I would assume that such matters tended to be on a smaller scale and, also, less "Discover the ways of our ancestors!" and more "Let's dig up the mortal remains of Mary Magdalene for our own religious purposes!" (In this vein there is also Constantine and Helena's discovery of a fragment of the true cross, for which purpose a lot of dirt was moved around and ancient buildings were uncovered.) I am not sure if you would qualify this sort of behavior as archaeology.
posted by posadnitsa at 5:22 PM on May 23, 2006


The reason the cat is not in the Chinese zodiac is because when the Jade Emperor proposed a race to decide who would be in the Zodiac, the Rat proposes to the Cat that both of them ride on the back of the Ox to get across a large river. Upon getting to the other side, the rat pushed the cat into the water and beat tail to the end, winning first prize. This is also the reason cats hate rodents.

dou xie, Dai laoshi!
posted by rabbitsnake at 5:51 PM on May 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the ancient Greeks seemed to do this, as clarahamster said. Supposedly mastodon and mammoth skulls were thought to be the heads of cyclopses, because they had a big nasal hole where the eye would be and were lacking tusks. People in the far north find up mammoth tusks and skeletons all the time, apparently they used to (and probably still do somewhere) think that mammoths lived underground and died when the came in to contact with air.

Awesome question, too.
posted by borkingchikapa at 5:53 PM on May 23, 2006

The Templars are rumored to have dug up the Temple mount (hence the name) in Jeruselum and found lots of religous relects there. Selling them is where they are supposed to have got all their money from.
posted by afu at 6:21 PM on May 23, 2006

The way I heard it, the Jade Emperor invited all the animals to a feast, but the Rat told the Cat it would happen on a different day, so the Cat missed the feast.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:23 PM on May 23, 2006

Apparently the early Anglo-Saxons settling the British Isles explained the abandoned Roman settlements (which were made out of stone, unlike Anglo-Saxon buildings) as the work of giants.
posted by nomis at 6:38 PM on May 23, 2006

I believe the Chinese term for fossils is "dragon bones". A random google gives
There are references to "dragon" bones found in Wucheng, Sichuan, China (written by Chang Qu) over 2,000 years ago; these were probably dinosaur fossils.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:13 PM on May 23, 2006

... And there's also this famous paleolithic example.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:14 PM on May 23, 2006

Response by poster: Nice one, Sonny Jim. Starrystone looks like more fun than fossilized coral.

I like the idea of dragons being dinosaurs, and the notion of 'dragon bones' being found seems like a pretty good clue that they were.
posted by Harry at 12:51 AM on May 24, 2006

As you walk in the main Cathedral at Wawel Castle, there are some huge "dragon bones" hanging above the door... can't remember if they are mammoth or dinosaur, but they were put there in the late Middle Ages, IIRC.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:19 AM on May 24, 2006

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