They might be giants

Richard Fortey

  • The First Fossil Hunters: Palaeontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor
    Princeton, 361 pp, £22.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 691 05863 6

In 1586, William Camden reported in Britannia, his travel guide to British curiosities, that the bones of giants had been discovered in Essex. The evidence took the form of limb bones the size of small tree trunks, and enormous teeth. The local people were familiar with legends of their oversized forebears, and the bones provided visible testimony to the history behind the legends.

As in Essex, so in classical Greece nearly two millennia earlier. Among the olive trees on the Aegean island of Samos, the plough could turn up huge bones; in other sites, limb bones were seen to emerge from eroded valley sides, or from sea cliffs. Surely, here was tangible proof of the Gigantomachy – the battle between the gods and the giants which ended with the defeated giants being buried under volcanoes. Bones of this kind can still be seen in local museums on the Greek islands. They are spectacular finds: femurs nearly the height of a man, skulls with tusks, scapulae which resemble gigantic shields, massive teeth carrying flat grinding surfaces like washboards.

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