The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor

Book Review by Melvadius

This 361 page book arose from the authors interests in folk lore and as the acknowledgement states being an ‘independent researcher of classical legends about natural history’. It is split into six main chapters and contains two appendices, seven maps, 77 illustrations, 19 pages of end notes and 22 pages of works cited (bibliography).

This reprint of the 2000 edition contains a new thirteen page introduction by the author in which she cites some of the changes which have occurred since this book was originally published. Apparently numerous books and TV programmes which have made use of her findings. Coming as I did to this work with no prior expectations or knowledge of the topic to some extent this section may well have worked better as an ‘afterwards’.

The new introduction did highlight one of the recurring issues I found with the book; the end notes sometimes only cover a single topic in their associated paragraph(s) even when other topics may have also been discussed or at least mentioned. This is particularly noticeable early in the book when ancient author writings are first mentioned but no citations are given at this point which support the various contentions of the author.

I am not a great fan of biographies or travelogues so to find the first chapter ‘the gold guarding griffin: a paleontological legend’, open with a detailed description of the author’s trip from Athens to Mytilini on Samos was not a good start. The book did settle down fairly quickly and start discussing some of the possible evidence which first drew the authors attention to possible paleontological references in ancient writing.

The remaining chapters are entitled 'Earthquakes and elephants: prehistoric remains in Mediterranean lands', 'Ancient discoveries in bones'; 'Artistic and archaeological evidence for fossil discoveries'; 'Mythology, natural philosophy and fossils' and 'Centaur bones: paleontological fictions'.

Each of the main chapters contain a meld of personal reminiscence, discussion of possible ancient discoveries of fossil remains coupled with information arising from more modern fossil discoveries. The text contains numerous instances of appropriate references to a range of sites and topics covering both the ancient and modern world.

Appendix 1 provides a fairly comprehensive reference of ancient parts of the mainly Mediterranean world and the types of large paleontological specimens which are now known to be found there.

The 'Ancient Testimonia' in Appendix 2, although extensive, does not appear to be a complete list of the ancient sources quoted elsewhere in the book nor are the dates listed against each author consistently applied. Some dates refer to the general period in which the author was alive, others provide specific dates of birth and/ or death, while in the case of Pliny the Elder the cited AD 77, rather than his death during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, appears to relate to the date when he ceased working on his Natural History.

I finished reading this book feeling that I had been bludgeoned with a vast outpouring of everything that the author could find to include in it. She very obviously has spent a long time researching this topic and there are extensive end notes available for anyone wishing to research further on probably most if not all of the points raised.

The recurring problem I found with doing so however is the fact that the end notes provides blocks of information and often address several but not necessarily all topics touched on in the relevant paragraph(s). In at least one instance in the third chapter a single end note ranged across several loosely associated topics discussed over three paragraphs. This method of providing citations does not make for easy referencing by the reader; especially when points may not be covered in detail until the third or fourth time they are mentioned.

As can be seen from the book jacket; following its’ original publication this work by Mayor was apparently critically well received with numerous review quotes including Robin Lane Fox citing it as ‘earthshakingly important’. Possibly in some specialist classicist or paleontological quarters it would be. As neither a classicist nor a palaeontologist myself I am not as convinced by these glowing accolades. As a more general reader I was more often left feeling frustrated as another new ‘fact’ or idea was introduced but not immediately referenced.

Personally I suspect that I would have been happier reading the basic theories presented in the First Fossil Hunters in a short monograph with some clearly cited single topic references. Despite my reservations Mayor does seem to make reasonable cases supporting her theories that fossil remains may have been known to ancient writers and thereby been incorporated in ancient myths and legends.

I am sure that if they can overlook my reservations and go with the flow of it many readers will find this book an interesting read and possibly even enthralling. Unfortunately I was not one of them.

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