Dragons, Dinosaurs, and Monsters: Your Worst Nightmare

Imagine you are just a normal guy or gal, minding your own business, living in Europe back in the Middle Ages. Unless you were very fortunate, your life was most likely focused on staying alive, procuring enough food and shelter, avoiding the plague, and other mundane concerns. But suppose, just suppose, you lived in an area where the soil, when excavated, had a lot of natural tar accumulated—and when you began digging in that area, you happened to stumble upon a very bizarre set of large bones. Look, here are some that look like a very long heavy backbone with a tail-like appendage with some other weird bones stuck to it that look like wing bones. What could you make of the large, strange creature that had died and left those remains behind? The stuff of nightmares.

We will never know how people came up with the idea of a scary creature such as a dragon—something resembling a large reptile but sprouting wings, and sometimes horns, and sometimes even breathing fire on top of everything else. But what we do know is that in certain areas of the Earth, where tar deposits naturally occur, prehistoric animals have gotten trapped, died, and left behind fossilized bones. Over geologic time, some of these might have all mixed together, so that early crocodiles and proto-ostriches, say, or many other critters could have formed a major fossilized mashup. It is thus not too difficult to imagine yourself as that normal guy or gal who uncovered those fossilized bones many centuries ago, without any inkling of our prehistoric record, and just concluded that monstrous animals such as dragons stalked the Earth. After all, here were the bones to prove it, right?

Furthermore, it does not take too great a leap to understand that had you been fortunate enough to uncover a dinosaur bone, centuries before our current knowledge of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, you might conclude that some pretty bizarre monsters and creatures existed, even if you had never laid eyes on them yourself. So dragons, dinosaurs, myth, monsters, reality… we begin to see a pattern here.

One of the cures for a headache from the text of Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), was taking the brains of a vulture, squishing that up with oil and cedar resin, and introducing the concoction into your nostrils. Thank goodness we no longer have to rely on this antidote! Our understanding of science, and corrections of misunderstanding too, have accumulated gradually over time through repeated observations and research. We cannot even imagine what new discoveries await us in the future.

You can see original illustrations of dragons and monsters in 400-year-old rare books, some older, and learn more about Pliny the Elder, in our new, permanent exhibition, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, located on Level 3 of the Museum. 

Posted by Director of the Research Library and Curator of Extraordinary Ideas Margi Dykens on February 22, 2017

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