Mayor writes an incredibly easy to read, well-researched, and very convincing thesis in this book. I was already passively interested in this subject, but now that I’ve read this, I’m very much interested in learning about how other ancient and indigenous cultures interpreted the fossils and other prehistoric evidence.
Greeks and Romans were excavating fossil remains of prehistoric creatures long before archaeology and paleontology as sciences ever existed. However, modern archaeology has discarded or ignored many of these ancient findings because they were framed in an unscientific way–through myths and legends. The fossils of mega-fauna that these people were finding were interpreted as the bones of legendary heros and monsters from an age before the then-present day. And while this may seem like an absurd conclusion to scientists, the ancient’s conclusion was actually quite accurate. At the core, the bones that were uncovered were understood to be those from various creatures that had existed much earlier in time, and had gone extinct before the current race of humans ever existed on Earth.
It can be easy to discard these observations as being shaped by beliefs. But even when that is the case, there must be substantial credit given, as these beliefs helped people to pay attention to the natural world around them and not simply ignore the giant fossils they came across. Rather, they dug them up and displayed them as relics in temples and museums, or gave them ceremonial reburials, treating them as ancient ancestors (or curiosities in the case of “monsters”). Regardless of the context they were displayed in, they were understood to have important significance in the history of human beings. Archaeologists have only recently started paying this much attention to bones and remains of non-humans in sites–for years they ignored these finds or simply wrote them off as waste, rather than recognizing them as important paleontological finds.
I was also excited to read this in hopes it would break down some of the preconceived views that some archaeologists sometimes have of cultures, and it did so perfectly, without bad mouthing the discipline altogether. Rather, Mayor encourages more cross-discipline workings, where archaeologists, paleontologists, and historians and mythographers work to analyze all aspects of a site being excavated or studied. Rather than archaeologists just discarding “useless” fossils and bones and discounting myths, legends, and cultural beliefs, a more varied team could provide more analysis of all aspects of site, and give a better understanding of the science, the history, AND the culture of the site in question, through multiple lenses of focus.
While I had been hoping this focused more on the griffin thesis (this is the first chapter, which is used more as a jumping off thesis for the rest of the book), it’s still an excellent read for anyone interested in such a niche subject, and I’d very highly recommend it.