Dinomania: the story of our obsession with dinosaurs

Tom Holland in The Guardian:

D04121df-ff90-4154-8dab-42b1d916dd46-1020x526Dinosaurs, though, have never just been for children. From the time when they were first classified, back in the days of the Napoleonic wars, up to the present, they have served as the focus for fittingly weighty themes: industrialisation, national rivalries, and survival and extinction. Their fascination reaches deep indeed.

There is certainly nothing new about the instinct to marvel at giant fossils, nor to dream of putting flesh back on their bones. At the height of the Roman empire, during the reign of Tiberius, a devastating earthquake – “the worst in human memory”, according to Pliny the Elder – exposed a series of colossal skeletons. The locals, convinced that these were the remains of ancient heroes, were reluctant to desecrate their graves; but knowing of the emperor’s interest in such matters, they reverently sent him a single, massive tooth. Tiberius, eager to see with his own eyes just how large the man from which it came would have stood, commissioned a mathematician to calculate the hero’s proportions, and then to build him a scale model. The tooth – which we are informed was over a foot long – was not, of course, human, but most likely from a mastodon. Elsewhere, though, in lands where rocks bore the fossils of dinosaurs, ancient peoples were perfectly capable of recognising them as the remains of non-human creatures. In China, they were identified as dragon bones, while in North America, as the historian Adrienne Mayor has convincingly demonstrated, tales told by the Plains Indians of the Thunder Bird were inspired at least in part by the spectacle of pterosaur fossils. There seems never to have been a time nor a culture in which mysterious bones did not captivate those who beheld them.

Even in early 19th-century Britain, where dinosaurs were first dated correctly and classified, flights of imagination were at least as important to the project of conceptualising them as painstaking anatomical study. The rocks of England were not, as those of Alberta would prove to be, rich in articulated skeletons. When, in 1824, an assortment of fossilised bones and teeth discovered in the depths of various Oxfordshire quarries were assembled in one place, it was not immediately apparent from what kind of animal they had come. William Buckland, a clergyman who was also a professor of geology at Oxford University, identified them as having belonged to a massive lizard, which produced the decorous Greek translation Megalosaurus. Meanwhile, at much the same time, other no less revelatory finds were being made along the length of the south coast. In Sussex, a local doctor uncovered the fragmentary remains of what appeared to have been two more species of colossal, extinct land-reptiles: Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, as they were named. Simultaneously, in Lyme Regis, a professional fossil hunter named Mary Anning was busy demonstrating that the seas and skies of prehistoric England had been no less the haunt of remarkable monsters than had been its swamps. Many, when they inspected the long-necked plesiosaurs, the shark-like ichthyosaurs and the bat-like pterosaurs discovered by Anning, found that only the language of epic was adequate to the primordial vistas that opened up before their gaze. The family likeness of Anning’s monsters, so her biographer declared rhapsodically, was “to the evil spirits who beset Aeneas or Satan in an old illustrated Virgil or Paradise Lost”.

Read the rest here.