Friday, March 22, 2013

The teeth of giants

In 1645, the twenty-seventh year of the Thirty Years War, Swedish armies inflicted a devastating blow to the Imperial forces in Bohemia and swept into Austria with the aim of capturing of Vienna. The Imperial capitol, was not prepared to give up easily. The Swedes soon found themselves digging in for a long siege, negotiating with allies for support, and building fortifications around the occupied countryside. Upriver from Vienna, in the Krems district, while digging trenches, a group of Swedish soldiers discovered the bones of a giant.

The discovery took place on St. Martin's Day, November 11. The soldiers had been ordered to build a series of defensive fortifications around an old tower at a place called Laimstetten. The winter was not making their job any easier. Rain and groundwater filed the trenches. The engineers in charge ordered the men to dig a series of deep drainage ditches down the hillside. It was in one of those ditches, at a depth of three or four klatters (eighteen to twenty-four feet), in a layer of yellowish soil that smelled of decay, that they ran into a cache of enormous bones.

The most impressive bones are described as being a skull as large as a medium-sized table, arms as thick as an average man, a shoulder-blade with a socket large enough to hold a 24 pound cannonball, and teeth weighing up to five pounds. Someone in charge ordered the diggers to save the bones so that they could be sent to learned men in Sweden and Poland for study. Two more giants were uncovered in the trench but, with a war to be fought, they were left there and nothing more was said about them.      

Here, the account of the discovery does the soldiers a great injustice. Many of the bones, including the skull, fell to pieces as they were brought out. Naturally, the workers got the blame for mishandling the bones. In fact, it would have been difficult to save most of them. Ancient bones, that have not petrified, are very fragile things. Collagen rots and acidic water carries away many of the minerals. As the bones dry out, deprived of the surrounding soil that maintained their shape for so long, the bones can literally turn to dust, just like in the movies. Only the densest parts of bones survive very long out of the ground without careful preparation. Skulls, which look so solid, are not among the best survivors. Sinuses honeycomb the face which, in many animals, is really nothing more than a series of thin plates. As it was, only the shoulder-blade with its amazing socket, a leg bone, and some teeth were in good enough condition to be sent away for study.

The sources tell us that rest of the bones, including at least one good tooth, were taken to the nearby Kremsmünster Jesuit abbey. Another tooth was sent to Habsburg Emperor in Vienna for his collections. Two others eventually made it to churches in Germany. This presents us with a little mystery. For the Lutheran Swedes, the abbey should have been viewed as an outpost of the enemy. Worse, it was a Jesuit monastery. In the Protestant world at that time, Jesuits were regarded as ninjas of the Pope: amoral spies and saboteurs capable of any evil in the service of their master. Did the Swedes invite a group of probable spies into their military defenses, as a courtesy, because they thought the Jesuits might be interested in something they dug up? Did the Swedish commander pick out one of the better fossils and send it to the Habsburg Emperor, the leader of the enemy alliance, out of a sense of good sportsmanship? The earliest account of the discovery, was written by Matthew Merian six years after the fact, and makes it sound as if that's exactly what happened. What's more likely, is that the Jesuits collected the bones after the Swedes were gone. By then, they would have been exposed to the elements for eight months and the teeth would have been the best prizes left among the remains. It's also likely that it was the Jesuits who sent the a tooth to the Emperor and not the besieging Swedes who did so. Sadly, there are no records to confirm this at the abbey, now owned by the Benedictines.

Matthew Merian, Theatrum Europaeum, 1651. "Truthful size and image of a tooth, from that broken body which was dug up at Krems in lower Austria in the year 1645 weighing eight and a half medical ounces or one half pound." Source.

Merian's description of the discovery and the bones is short--about 350 words--but he was a first-rate engraver and produced a detailed image of the tooth at the abbey. Merian made no attempt to explain the giant bones and teeth, however the implied explanation is that they are the remains of a giant human. Any modern zoologist or paleontologist will be able to identify the tooth at a glance; it comes from some kind of elephant. At a second glance, they will tell you that it is the tooth of a mammoth. Merian could not have made the mammoth identification, the word would not be introduced into Western Europe until forty years after his death and even then it would only apply to the ivory. If any ivory was recovered with the Laimstetten bones, Merian never heard about it. Even identifying the bones as elephantine would have been difficult for him. In his day, only a handful of elephants--assuming you have very large hands--had made it north of the Alps. Even written anatomical descriptions of elephants would not be available until after his death.

Petrus Lambecius (Peter Lambeck), Commentariorum de augustissima Bibliotheca Caesarese Vindobonensi, 1674. "Tooth of twenty three ounces, found in the year 1644 at Krems." Source.

In 1664, Emperor Leopold I hired Peter Lambeck to be his royal  librarian and court historiographer. In this role, one of Lambeck's primary duties was to organize and catalog the Emperor's various collections. The Krems tooth appears in the first volume in a chapter dedicated to giants' teeth, a bucket of three hundred year old grain, and a two-headed chicken. The grain and the chicken were both normal sized. Lambeck barely mentions the actual teeth in the collection writing, instead, an extended meditation on the nature of giant teeth. Were they the teeth of true giants, tricks of nature (i.e., stones shaped like bones), or were they the teeth of some other animal, like a whale, elephant, or Carpathian dragon? In his use of extended block quotes from St. Augustine, Athanasius Kircher, and others, Lambeck would have been a natural born blogger. As to the Krems tooth, Lambeck gives a one sentence description of the discovery, misstating the year as 1644, and provides an illustration.

Happelius (Eberhard Werner Happel), Größte Denkwürdigkeiten der Welt oder so genannte Relationes Curiosae, 1689. "Giant Tooth." Source.

The next mention of the Krems giant comes in the popular journal Relationes Curiosae by the novelist and historian Eberhard Werner Happel. Happel's description is nothing more than a paraphrasing of Merian's description. What's new is his illustration. Despite the low quality of the illustration, it is clear that this is a completely different tooth than either the Krems abbey tooth in Merian or the or the Imperial Museum tooth in Lambeck.

Writing in the next century, Hans Sloane figured that Happel's tooth was the tooth dug up at Laimstetten in 1645 and that Lambeck's tooth was a different tooth dug up the year before. Lambeck says the tooth was found "under fortifications near Krems." He doesn't say who was digging the fortifications. If you assume that it was the Austrians who were preparing fortifications, Sloan's theory makes sense. I have two problems with Sloane's theory. First, in 1644, the Swedish army was nowhere near Austria; the main theater of the war was in Northern Germany. It strikes me as extremely unlikely that the Austrians would have expended much energy building fortifications four hundred miles away from the fighting. Second, I question how Happel obtained his image of the tooth. Happel spent his entire life in Northern Germany. Even if he did travel to Vienna, he would not have found the Imperial collections open to the public. I think I know where he found the drawing.

Petrus Lambecius (Peter Lambeck), Commentariorum de augustissima Bibliotheca Caesarese Vindobonensi, 1674. "Monsterous teeth of the Ancient Giant, Og King of Basan." Source.

Four years after the publication of the first volume of Lambeck's catalog, another giant tooth passed through the Imperial Museum. The tooth had been sent from Constantinople by a seller who hoped the Emperor would pay twelve thousand ducats for it. The seller claimed that the tooth had been found in a tomb in Jerusalem under an inscription in Chaldaic which read: "Here lies the giant Og." In the old Testament, Og of Basan ruled a kingdom east of the River Jordan. He and his people were destroyed by Moses and the Hebrews. According to some traditions, Og was the last of the true giants. Despite these extravagant claims for the tooth, the Emperor decided to keep his ducats and sent it back to Constantinople, but not before Lambeck made an engraving of it. The tooth of Og was included as an appendix in the sixth volume of Lambeck's catalog.

The illustrations of Og's tooth in Lambeck and the Krems tooth in Happel bear a strong resemblance to each other. Both show a well weathered elephant's tooth with no roots. Happel's illustration faces the opposite direction than Lambeck's, which was a common occurrence when hand engraved illustrations were copied.

After Happel, Merian's story was repeated from time to time, but no more illustrations of the teeth were made. By the end of the century, several anatomies of elephants had been published in Europe making it possible to identify the teeth.  In the new century, although it was possible to identify specific teeth as elephantine, the belief in ancient giants still persisted in some circles. As late as 1764, Claude-Nicolas LeCat could get a hearing by the French Academy for his paper on giants, essentially arguing that so many prestigious authors of the past could not be wrong.

In 1703, Georg Henning Behrens made a charming argument against the teeth coming from giants. Behrens did not deny the reality of giants, he simply thought the teeth were too big. Behrens reasoned that Og was the biggest man in the Bible. In Deuteronomy, it is written that his bed was nine cubits long--thirteen or eighteen feet, depending on your cubit. Since beds are always longer than their owners, let's say he was eight cubits tall (a normal man is four and a very large man might be five). If we assume both Og and the Krems giant had the same basic proportions than a normal man, we find the Krems Abbey tooth is three hundred, ninety-six times the size of a very large man, which is clearly ridiculous.

The Kremsmünster Abbey tooth identified by Othenio Abel in 1912. Source.

In 1905, the Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel traveled to Kremsmünster abbey to help Fr. Leonhard Angerer organize their fossil collections. Abel had gathered many of the items in the collection, including a complete cave bear skeleton, which he mounted. Abel had a special interest in mammoths, having hypothesized that pygmy mammoths were the source of the cyclops legend. Abel had read about the 1645 discovery and decided to try to identify the tooth in question. By then the abbey had accumulated a few more giants' teeth. In 1770, a merchant named Meyer in Krems found six mammoth teeth while digging a cellar and donated them to the abbey. By comparing the Merian drawing with the teeth in the Abbey collection Abel found one very good candidate for the Laimstetten tooth, but Fr. Angerer had doubts. The tooth that Abel identified weighed 628 grams. Some bits probably fell off over the years, but not enough to make a big difference. Merian gives two wildly different weights for the tooth. In the text he says it weighed five German pounds, about 2800 grams. On the illustration he says it weighed 8.5 medical ounces, 256 or 297.5 grams, depending on which system he was using. Neither measure is even close to Abel's tooth. The best we can say about the tooth that's currently on display at the Abbey is that maybe it is the right one.

The anonymous Swedish soldiers and Herr Meyer have not been the only ones to find ancient bones in the Krems district. Many mammoths have been dug up along that stretch of the Danube over the years along with thousands of human artifacts. Hunting camps have been identified and, in 2005, the grave of two human babies, probably twins, was discovered. The two had been sprinkled with red ocher and covered with a mammoth scapula. So far, no new human giants have been found.


Ole Phat Stu said...

I have visited the Czeck Sedlec Ossuary church. There are no excessively large bones there beyond what you would expect from a Gaussian distribution of size.

joel_hanes said...

By Cuvier, it's good to see you again blogging mammoth tales!