“A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.”
J.R.R. Tolkien “The Monsters and the Critics” (1936)
For centuries, humans seem to have been dreaming about dragons, those monstrous, mysterious, powerful serpents. From Babylon’s mušḫuššu, (‘reddish/fierce snake’) to the Python slain by Apollo, there is a recurrent theme of some struggle between humans and large reptilian monsters. In Egypt, for example, there was Apep, symbol of chaos, with a head like flint and a groan like thunder and lightning. Although Beowulf is most famous for its hero’s conflict with the humanoid Grendel, it is his final fight with the ‘fire-drake’ that kills him. In Poland, the citizens of Krakow were legendarily terrorized by Smok Wawelski until a shepherd boy tricked it into eating a sheepskin filled with sulphur and tar. The Russian zmei might have multiple heads or turn into a handsome youth. In New Zealand, Māori pay respect to taniwha, water-creatures, supernatural beings that are powerful guardians but fearful enemies.
In China, dragons have been depicted on objects as early as the Neolithic era. Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese dragons are considered benevolent and just. They are symbols of good luck and prosperity, and are generally linked to weather, clouds and water (over 40 Chinese rivers have the word ‘dragon’ in their name). Chang Qu, a 4th-century Chinese historian, in his The Chronicles of Huayang, mentioned the discovery of ‘dragon bones’ in Sichuan.
About thirteen centuries after Chang Qu reported his discovery, an English scholar named Robert Plot found something similar. This devoted natural scientist rummaged around the countryside and found what he thought was the femur bone of giant human being, such as those mentioned in the bible. He described and illustrated the bone in The Natural History of Oxford-shire (1677).
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that we started to learn that Chang Qu’s dragon and Robert Plot’s giant belonged to the same order of beast. In the 1820s William Buckley described the fossil of a giant reptile that he called Megalosaur (great lizard). In 1822 Mary Ann Mantell found a fossilized tooth that her husband Gideon Mantell concluded belonged to some big lizard called an Iguanadon (ignuana tooth). But it wasn’t until 1841 that the taxon ‘Dinosauria’ –terrible lizard–was formally named by paleontologist Sir William Owen.
In the 178 years since the word was coined, about 700 species of dinosaur have been named. They can be as small as the microraptor ( less than a kilogram), or as big as the Argentinosaurus (77 tonnes). Some had feathers, others had duckbills and crests that created loud booms or sails that changed color or shape in displays of dominance or courtship. Apart from that, there were winged lizards (pterosaurs), monster fish and all kinds of other weird creatures.
It was primarily to offer abeisance to these prehistoric dragons that we set out for The Bernadino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum. Although the museum was established in 1812 (even before Buckley introduced the Megalosaurus), it is now known chiefly for its excellent collection of fossils and skeletons of the terrible lizard. John and I arrived at mid-day, when it was still closed, but we spent a good fifteen minutes admiring the building, built in the 1930s and decorated with stone owls, bas reliefs of condors and llamas. Outside of the entrance we were also amused by a display of two sabre-tooth tiger skeletons having a scrap. Near the door were two huge logs of petrified wood. The surface of one looked like melted wax, as if the log was frozen in the ice of time.
While we were waiting for the museum to open (at 2pm, as we learned from the sign on the gate), we wandered around Parque Centenario next door. This was a leafy area, quite pleasant except for the stench emanating from the artificial lake. It was the odor of rotting vegetation and sewage and was so strong we wondered how the people could stand to sit next to it in such numbers, apparently unconcerned. Our leisurely stroll became a quick march until we could find an exit. Practically running out of the park, we slipped into the nearest restaurant, ordered some merluzzo y papas (fish and chips) and headed back to the museum ready for a journey through the geological eras.
First up was a corridor of dark fish tanks, mainly displaying Amazonian creatures: piranha, a lung fish and a dark species with long, whisker-like feelers that they used to navigate the glass tanks. Beyond that was a hall of fossilized shellfish, which we ignored completely.
In a hall of plastic chairs and tables we took a moment to admire a huge model of a basking shark that was hanging from the ceiling and which held a strange fascination for John. Behind us was a tank containing a pickled giant squid, but this was so repulsive I could only glance at it for a second. This room also contained the jaws of some ancient shark, each tooth of which was about the size of the blade of a (very sharp) garden trowel.
And so, into the Temple of Dragons: a room full of all sorts of pre-historic lizard ghosts. We were attracted first off by the marine creatures, the mosasaurs. Reading a sign, John let out a cry, saying, “This one has a Maori name!”
Thinking I had misheard, I marched over to inspect the sign. Sure enough, the ghastly grinning thing that looked as if it was going to eat me was named ‘taniwhasaurus’ and it was a type of mosasaur (a carnivorous marine lizard) that inhabited New Zealand, Antarctica and Japan. A fossil of Taniwhasaurus antarcticus looked like some alien tablet of dread import as described in an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Feeling betrayed that no one had ever told me there was such a thing as a taniwhasaurus, I looked it up later and found it was named that by one of those Scottish Victorians who bustled about the world like tartan whirlwinds: Sir James Hector. I actually have a fondness for him because he gave his name to the world’s smallest dolphin. One day my brother Shaun and I were swimming in the Pacific Ocean and three Hector’s dolphins swam right up to Shaun and started circling him with interest, occasionally poking their little snouts above the surface to get a better look. Me, they ignored completely, the worst snubbing of my life.
Apart from the marine-o-saurs, there were plenty of the usual toothy, grabby dinosaurs too, including the skull of a T-Rex. John particularly liked the little raptors, which were posed as if they were skipping and jumping. I favored the goofy duck-billed varieties. Against the wall were two indentations in big blocks—fossilized footprints where one of these giants had stomped down on some soft ground.
Reluctantly, having lingered for several minutes in this hallowed hall, we passed through into more modern history and viewed the remains of some of the great American mammals of the Cainozoic. Particularly spectacular was the Megatherium, the giant sloth. Someone had constructed a model that showed its goofy prehensile lips and long ant-eater-style tongue. There was also a bear, a sabre-tooth tiger and a beautiful mammoth.
But the thing that really struck awe into me was the glyptodon, the giant armadillo with a spiky-club tail. There was something alien, terrible and beautiful about it. I was particularly fascinated with the mathematic elegance and symmetry of its ‘armor’, made up of bony little segments called ‘scutes’.
It doesn’t take long for us to get museum feet, and we’d seen plenty to stimulate our imaginations so we decided to head out. Before we could do so, though, there was another hall that drew us in. This one was devoted to geology and held a vast collection of rocks and minerals including geodes, a giant crystal, three meteorites, ‘desert roses’ (crystallized gypsum), glossy fluorite in all colors and a big chunk of asphalt in the raw. Tearing ourselves away from this cave of treasures, we emerged out in the sunlight again.
But even here, we were not free from the spell that had been cast. The trees around the museum were as interesting as any of the exhibits. One of them was a ceiba, with a big swollen trunk. Another was covered with strange red flowers. Another looked like a strangler fig wrapping its roots around a stoic palm. All of the branches rang with the chirps and cries of some bird we hadn’t heard before. John began whistling in imitation of them and they started talking to him and flocking to nearer branches to look at him. These were ovenbirds, Argentina’s national bird, the rufous hornero. The more I looked at the trees and the ground, the more I saw of them. Then I noticed something strange on the branch over our heads–it was a wild honeycomb crawling with bees.