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Dinosaurs in Mythology

Dinosaurs and Dragons, Oh My!
Stanford Fossil Historian Links Dinosaur Bones to Mythological Creatures

Many paleontologists today believe there are connections between the mythological dragons that ancient peoples believed in and the human discovery of dinosaur fossils.

Adrienne Mayor, a Stanford visiting scholar who researches both folklore and fossils supports that theory and has written two books which explore those connections.

When The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children’s museum in the U.S., needed an expert to help them link creatures of the imagination to real dinosaur fossils for a new exhibit, they called on Mayor for her unique expertise.

The new exhibit, "Dragons Unearthed," features a 66-million-year-old, first-of-its-kind, dragon-like dinosaur, called Dracorex. There’s no denying that Dracorex’s long muzzle and spiky horns conjure up visions of a magical beast, but the museum needed an expert to confirm that it wasn’t a coincidence that Dracorex looked more like a dragon than a dinosaur.

With her extensive studies of ancient cultures’ conceptions of fossils as evidence of dragons, Mayor’s expertise proved to be exactly what museum curators needed. Mayor was asked to share her thoughts on Dracorex, named Dracorex hogwartsia in honor of children’s author J.K. Rowling.

“The shape of the dinosaur’s skull, with its long muzzle, bizarre knobs and horns, surprised the scientists,” she said. “But the skull looks strangely familiar to anyone who has studied dragons! Dracorex has a remarkable resemblance to the dragons of ancient China and medieval Europe.”

Mayor, a scholar of Classics and History of Science, has spent years looking at the link between paleontological findings and the dragon myths that populated many ancient and medieval religions and cultures and survive even today. Mayor’s latest publication, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, correlates Native American myths with the fossils they are known or presumed to have observed.

Mayor combined her keen interest in paleontology with an abundance of long-forgotten literary, artistic and paleontological evidence to support her thesis that at least some of the fantastic mythological monsters were based on paleontological realities.

According to Mayor, Sioux Indians who found a skull like that of Dracorex might have identified it as “Unktehi,” the mythical horned water monster of the South Dakota badlands, where the fossil was unearthed. She continued, “Dracorex helps us understand how fossils of mysterious, extinct animals may have inspired ancient people around the world to believe that dragons and other fabulous creatures once lived. Like modern paleontologists, fossil hunters in antiquity tried to imagine the appearance and behavior of the creatures whose bones they found.”

Adrienne Mayor is an independent scholar who investigates scientific realities embedded in myth and classical antiquity. Her research looks at ancient "folk science" precursors, alternatives, and parallels to modern scientific methods. Mayor's books The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times and Fossil Legends of the First Americans opened a new field within geomythology. She is active in classical folklore, and is an independent scholar in Stanford’s Classics Department and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program.

Dragons Unearthed, which opened at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis on September 18th, 2008, highlights information that helps to explain how fossils of mysterious, extinct animals may have inspired ancient people around the world to believe that dragons and other fabulous creatures once lived. Many paleontologists today believe there might be a link between the mythological creatures ancient peoples believed to be dragons and the discovery of dinosaur fossils.

Dragons Unearthed is a family-friendly, art-based exhibit centered that explores the mythology behind dragons using true dinosaur facts.

For more information about Dragons Unearthed at The Children’s Museum, please call (317) 334-3322 or visit www.ChildrensMuseum.org