Top: The titular monster on the “Monster of Troy” vase, from Monge-Nájera (2020). Bottom: Skull material of Varanus marathonensis from Samos, from Conrad et al. (2012). Image reversed to match the orientation of the MOT.
A new paper has been published regarding the Ancient Greek “Monster of Troy” (MOT) vase and its status as the earliest depiction of a vertebrate fossil (Monge-Nájera, 2020). Originally the MOT was proposed by Mayor (2000) to represent a skull of the extinct giraffe Samotherium, an identification that Monge-Nájera considers unlikely. Instead he suggests that it is a monitor lizard skull from an extant species of Varanus. I agree with his conclusion that the features of the MOT most closely resemble Varanus and not Samotherium. I considered this to be a plausible explanation even before the publication of this paper.
However, Monge-Nájera has overlooked an important detail- the fossil record of Varanus in Greece. Of particular interest is the partial skull of a large monitor (AMNH FR 30630) from the late Miocene Mytilini Formation on the island of Samos. The Samos monitor was first named as Varanus amnhophilis (Conrad et al. 2012), but this species is now considered a synonym of the more widely-distributed Varanus marathonensis (Villa et al. 2018). The locality where this specimen was found, Samos Quarry 1, was known to the Ancient Greeks as Phloios. There they found bones that they interpreted as the remains of a battle between war elephants and Amazon warriors (Solounias & Mayor, 2004).
The fact that a monitor skull, which is the best match for the MOT’s morphology, has been found at a site recognized by the Ancient Greeks is too convenient for me to dismiss. I think that the MOT is not necessarily an extant Varanus species as Monge-Nájera contends, but more likely the extinct species V. marathonensis. If this is the case, Mayor’s point that this is the earliest artwork of a vertebrate fossil still stands.
- Conrad, J.L., Balcarcel, A.M., & Mehling, C.M. (2012). Earliest example of a giant monitor lizard (Varanus, Varanidae, Squamata). PLoS ONE, 7(8): e41767. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041767
- Mayor, A. (2000). The ‘Monster of Troy’ vase: the earliest artistic record of a vertebrate fossil discovery? Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 19(1), 57-63.
- Monge-Nájera, J. (2020). Evaluation of the hypothesis of the Monster of Troy vase as the earliest artistic record of a vertebrate fossil. Uniciencia, 34(1), 147-151.
- Solounias, N., & Mayor, A. (2004). Ancient references to the fossils from the land of Pythagoras. Earth Sciences History, 23(2), 283-296.
- Villa, A., Abella, J., Alba, D.M., Almécija, S., Bolet, A., Koufos, G.D., Knoll, F., Luján, A.H., Morales, J., Robles, J.M., Sánchez, I.M., & Delfino, M. (2018). Revision of Varanus marathonensis (Squamata, Varanidae) based on historical and new material: morphology, systematics, and paleobiogeography of the European monitor lizards. PLoS ONE, 13(12): e0207719. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207719