Link – Griffins were not Dinosaurs

I don’t normally post links or reblog, but this was so good (and my latest effort so held up by external factors I won’t bore anyone with) that I had to post it. I’ve always been sceptical about claims that Dragon mythology is based on Dinosaur fossils, and this post by Mark Witton roundly debunks one of these – that the Griffin of Ancient Greece was inspired by real Protoceratops fossils. This is reminiscent of similar attempts to explain away folklore using modern science, like the specious link between the disease porphyria and vampirism. Science can explain big chunks of folklore, like the ‘old hag’ or ‘night mare’ (indeed vampires too) being explicable by means of sleep paralysis. But people in the past, indeed people now, are more than capable of inventing things from whole cloth, and we still need to apply critical thought to convenient explanations like the Dinosaur/Griffin.


‘Arrant humbug’

Your argument is invalid, sir!

As Keith from Bad Archaeology has very kindly linked to this blog in his latest post on dowsing (well worth a look by the way), I thought I’d post some period material gleaned in my recent trawling of the Scientific American archive that shows that whilst dowsing may be ancient, scepticism of it as a technique is by no means recent. The first is from 1856, and somewhat circumspect (though you can read between the lines):

‘Foreign Scientific Notes.

THE DIVINING ROD-The London Mining Journal states that the Rev. A Suckling, recently delivered a lecture at the St. Helliers, Jersey, on the history, antiquity, and correct principles of the ‘dowsing’ rod, for the discovery of minerals, metals, and springs of water below the surface of the earth. Mr. Suckling stated that he was convinced there existed a certain, though inexplicable, affinity between the effects of operations with the divining rod and what, in our present modern designation, is termed “mesmerism;” that he refers them to one and the same source. It was then attempted to be shown that mesmerism was known to the ancient Egyptians, and that many anecdotes and passages of Scripture show that it was well understood among the entire population of Asia. To this principle is ascribed the application of Naaman, captain of the host of Syria, to obtain a cure f or his leprosy, and the interview of Saul with the Witch of Endor. In the course of the lecture it was stated that many of the wells in the island had been discovered by himself and others, endowed with the peculiar power which was said to appertain only to certain persons.'[1]

Just a year on however, and thinly-veiled eyebrow-raising is replaced by outright scepticism in this scathing comment;

‘The􀁫Divining Rod a Deception.

The editor of the Saint Croix Union, published at Stillwater, Minn., says :- “The divining rod is an arrant humbug, and those using it, pretending that there is in the rod a mysterious and unaccountable virtue, are also humbugs. We know what we say, and intend it, too. Not only will a twig of a sweet apple tree point downwards in our hands, but a bifurcated twig of almost any tree will. We can take a twig of a willow, or an oak, or hickory, or anything, and hold it in our hands aud make it turn forty ways for Sunday. It isn’t a stream of water beneath us that does it, either, for we can make it point to a heap of ashes, or rock as hard as a nether millstone. It makes no difference. We don’t deny that water has been frequently found exactly beneath the spot indicated by the divining rod ; this has happened in our case more than once, but it is just as true also that, in numberless other cases that have come under our observation, men have dug long-dug deep-and spent stacks of money by digging where these aforesaid mysterious rods have pointed, and found no water.'[2]

Although they haven’t quite put their fingers on the mechanism behind dowsing, others soon would, and by 1890s SciAm was recognising it in the oujia board;

G. A. S. says: I will be very glad to have you 􀁪enlighten me as to the cause which makes the little table move and answer questions when using the game called “Ouija, or talking board.”[3]

A. The hands. Hands off, no go.

You can almost hear the author saying ‘Next!’…



[1] Foreign Scientific Notes, Scientific American 11, 202-202 (8 March 1856) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican03081856-202

[2] The Divining Rod a Deception, Scientific American 12, 344-344 (4 July 1857) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican07041857-344a

[3] Notes and Queries, Scientific American 66, 74-75 (30 January 1892) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican01301892-74a


The Daily Dino Fail

Whilst catching up on some of the great dino-gossip on the Dinosaur Mailing List, I came across this little gem of a Daily Mail article that I’d missed through my usual online channels:

‘T-Rex of the Deep: Fossil of 135million-year-old predator dinosaur related to vicious meat-eater discovered completely INTACT’

The first ‘WTF?’ moment came with the title. This was not a T. Rex specimen, nor any type of tyrannosaurid. It’s part of a rather large suborder of dinosaur (see here for a simple cladogram) – the therapoda. There are countless dinosaur species that it’s far closer to, though I suppose by media standards it’s not an UNtrue statement to make.

But then there’s the ‘of the deep’ bit, which makes no sense whatever. This is very similar to the title of an episode of ‘Monsters Resurrected’ about mosasaurs (probably by coincidence, as it turns out). Yet the description, photos, and all other reports on the find in question, make clear that it was a land-based (theropod) dinosaur. What gives? All will become clear – well, nearly all. Time for some BS Palaeontology!

As contributors to the Dinosaur Mailing List pointed out, aside from the wonderful photo of the real fossil in question, the other two images are clearly nothing to do with the find. Thanks to the attribution that the Mail are obliged to provide, it didn’t take too long to find the very library pictures that they’d arbitrarily chosen to pad out this story:

They are taken from a February 2011 find in Antarctica of an archaeocetes – a primitive whale. Which explains why one caption in the dodgy article states:

‘Unearthed: Scientists uncovering the remains of the dinosaur thought to be a relative of the modern-day whale.’

Now, if we look at the Mail comments section, we find that a fourth image was taken down after a comment from a UK reader;

Its extremely unlikely that the ‘computer generated image’ is what the paleontologists who found Otto think he looked like. Did you invent this? Among several differences is the fact that the image is of a sea dwelling creature with a flipper-like tail, and crucially very small rear flippers laterally. The skeleton however clearly has very large rear legs with claws – hence the description ‘Beast-footed’ and suggestion that it is in the same family as the T-Rex. Since I doubt you would show a picture of the wrong skeleton (although this is plausible), I suggest the second image is falsely captioned.
– Alex, Yorkshire, UK, 12/10/2011 19:04

Which rather well describes this artist’s impression from the same story, to be found in the same archive:

Not only falsely captioned Alex, but nothing at all to do with the story at hand.
Quite how the author managed this triumph of fail is beyond me. It’s almost as though they received the press release, went looking for more in the way of ‘Time Team’ style images, found these from another story entirely, and then somehow convinced themselves that they were indeed one and the same. Maybe an overworked writer. Maybe a case of too many cooks. Or maybe a work experience lad given a little too much responsibility. Who knows. But it’s pretty poor and confusing journalism. In the interests of fairness, the blooper about ‘hair and traces of skin’ (dinosaurs not being hairy and skin only surviving as impressions in rock) seems to have been in the main press release and may the result of bad translation from the original German.

Makes you wonder how many other of their articles are this badly cobbled together. This excellent site suggests that the answer is ‘lots’.