Fossils index

References to fossils by Pliny the Elder


Pliny the Elder lived from 23-79 AD.He was a Roman author and natural philosopher who wrote Naturalis Historia or Natural History. This was an encyclopaedia of 37 books which covered the natural world. There are several references to fossils. The numbers below refer to the book (Roman number) and paragraph (Arabic number).

Ammonites

Natural History XXXVII, 167:

Hammonis cornu inter sacratissimas Aethiopiae, aureo colore cornus effigiem reddens, promittitur praedivina somnia repraesentare.

"The Horn of Ammon, which is among the most sacred stones of Ethiopia, has a golden yellow colour and is shaped like a ram's horn. The stone is guaranteed to ensure without fail dreams that will come true."

Ammonites have different colours, usually some shade of grey. Some are made of pyrites, which has a yellow tinge. In fact, another name for pyrites is Fool's Gold.

Echinoids

Natural History XXIX, 52-54:

Praeterea est ovorum genus in magna fama Galliarum, omissum Graecis. Angues enim numerose convoluti salivis faucium corporumque spumis artifici conplexu glomerant; urinum appellatur. Druidae sibilis id dicunt in sublime iactari sagoque oportere intercipi, ne tellurem attingat; profugere raptorem equo, serpentes enim insequi, donec arceantur amnis alicuius interventu; experimentum eius esse, si contra aquas fluitet vel auro vinctum;

Atque, ut est Magorum sollertia occultandis fraudibus sagax, certa luna capiendum censent, tamquam congruere operationem eam serpentium humani sit arbitrii. Vidi equidem id ovum mali orbiculati modici magnitudine, crusta cartilagineis velut acetabulis bracchiorum polypi crebris insigne.

Druidis ad victorias litium ac regum aditus mire laudatur.

"Also, there is another kind of egg, held in high renown by Gauls, but omitted by the Greek writers. For many snakes twining together use saliva from their throats and foam round their bodies to make a skillful ball. This is called urinum. The Druids say that the snakes' hissing throws the eggs in the air. The egg must be caught in a cloak, so it does not touch the ground. The robber must ride away quickly, as the serpents will follow him until he crosses a river. A genuine egg will float against the current of a stream, even if set in gold.

"But magicians tend to be devious and cunning to hide their frauds. They pretend that these eggs can only be taken on a certain day of the moon; as though humans could make snakes behave this way at the right time! I myself have seen one of these eggs: it was round, about as large as a medium apple; the shell was cartilage, and with many cup-marks like those on the arms of the octopus.

"Druids prize it highly for success in law-suits, and access to princes. "

I have left urinum untranslated. Ovum urinum means a wind egg. It seems doubtful if this is really describing a fossil. Pliny says that the shell is cartilagineis, which seems to mean cartilage or gristle. You cannot describe a stone fossil like this! This passage is also in Book XXIX, on the medicinal uses of animal products, while the other fossil references are in Book XXXVII, on gemstones and semi-precious stones.

Insects in amber

Natural History XXXVII, 46:

Liquidum id primo destillare argumento sunt quaedam intus tralucentia, ut formicae culicesque et lacertae, quae adhaesisse musteo non est dubium et inclusa durescente eodem remansisse.

"That amber originates as a liquid exudation is shown by the presence of certain objects, such as ants, gnats and lizards, that are visible inside it. These must certainly have stuck to the fresh sap and have remained trapped inside it as it hardened."

Quite right! (Lizards?)

Shark teeth

Natural History XXXVII, 59:

Glossopetra, linguae similis humanae, in terra non nasci dicitur, sed deficiente luna caelo decidere, selenomantiae necessaria. Quod ne credamus, promissi quoque vanitas facit; ventos enim ea comprimi narrant.

"We are told that Glossopetra, which is like the human tongue, does not form in the ground, but falls from the sky during the waning of the moon, and is indispensible for selenomancy. Our scepticism about this is reinforced by another claim, that it stops gales."

Glossopetra was the Latin word for fossil shark teeth. It means 'tongue stone'. Pliny explains this by saying that it looks like the human tongue (which is arguable!) Selenomancy means telling fortunes using the moon.