Vase shows that ancients dug fossils, too

Art scholars have generally interpreted the monster (yellow face at right) as a sea serpent emerging from a black cave, but Mayor and a group of paleontologists think the creature might actually be the fossil skull of an extinct giraffe eroding out of a hillside. Mayor’s analysis of the vase painting appears in the February Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

John Boardman/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fossilized remains of large giraffes, camels, and horses are common throughout the Aegean Sea and in western Turkey. The ancient Greeks thought some of the large fossils they dug out were the bones of gods and monsters.

The skull of one of the prehistoric mammals may have been the model for the vase painting and the legend that it illustrates. The artist added a lizardlike eye socket and tongue to make the monster more fearsome. The disguise didn’t fool Mayor. “It’s so obvious once you know what you’re looking for,” she says.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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