Monster of Troy – extant or extinct Varanus?

Monster of Troy comparison

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.



9 thoughts on “Monster of Troy – extant or extinct Varanus?

  1. The MOT looks more like a mammal skull than a lizard skull. Lizard skulls are all struts and stuff. Mammal skulls are much more smooth and continuous. The only odd thing is/are the procumbent teeth.

    A little googling finds this about the figure:

    “THE KETOS TROIAS (Trojan Cetus) was a giant sea-monster sent by Poseidon to plague the land of Troy as punishment for King Laomedon’s refusal to pay him for the building of the city’s walls. An oracle declared that the only way to be rid of the beast was to offer the king’s daughter as sacrifice. Laomedon did so, chaining Hesione to the rocks, where she was rescued by Herakles who despatched the beast with a fish-hook or volley of arrows.”


    The name Cetus suggests a whale of course, and indeed the figure looks a whole lot more like a (toothed) whale skull than either a lizard or a giraffe. Mayor had to have been drunk to settle on “giraffe” over all other choices.

    Plus, the picture of the beast as a skull rather than a living critter suggests that the rendering depicts a vanquished (dead) beast.

    Alternatively, it could also be a crocodile skull.

    My 2¢.


    1. What could reasonably be interpreted on the MOT as a sclerotic ring, enclosed bony naris, lower temporal fenestra, and homodont dentition are all reptilian characters, not mammalian. Not only does this look nothing like a whale skull, but it doesn’t look like any other depictions of Ketos either, which always show a living animal and not a skull.


      1. It does all boil down to what “can be reasonably interpreted” doesn’t it?

        After all, we are trying to interpret what an old greek pottery artist was trying to paint.
        Was he (I’ll just assume it was a “he”, the person’s sex is irrelevant) painting a totally imaginary animal (a dead one, as it appears to be a skull), drawing completely from imagination or was he drawing to some degree from something he had seen in life or had described to him by someone else?

        And what are we looking at in his painting? Those very circular black spots. Including the one between the upper and lower teeth.
        Are they fenestrae & naris?
        Are they holes from the arrows volleyed at it?
        Are they ‘art’?
        “Reasonable interpretations” all.
        And the candidate critter that one thinks that it might be depends quite a bit on which “reasonable interpretation” one chooses.

        Ketos/Cetus illustrations from ancient times seem to be all over the place within the general sea monster family of critters. Elongated, toothy. Or as in Wikipedia: “a great fish, a whale, shark, or sea monster.”

        So what type of skull might an ancient Greek artist have drawn inspiration from? Assuming that that is what he did.
        – a scrappy fossil? Or do you suspect that he had a beautifully complete skull (with sclerotic ring!) that was neatly extracted from its matrix to reveal its features? That could fit in the palm of his hand?
        – a crocodilian skull? They are much bigger, and certainly seem more sea-monstery. Nile croc skulls might have made the rounds in the ancient Mediterranean. Or fossil croc skulls may have been viewable as well. (I’m not very familiar with potential fossil finds in that area).
        – an odontocete skull or a dead beached one? Pilot whales, sperm whales, orcas, and monodontids all have homodont, procumbent dentition. And again, maybe fossil whales? The orbits in these skulls are not obvious in the usual place and he just put them where they “should” be.
        – or maybe an amalgamation of multiple critters?

        Does the figure bear “a striking resemblance to varanid skulls”? If you ignore the procumbent dentition and the complete postorbital bar and the solid braincase. (I interpret those black circles differently than you do, obviously). Shouldn’t the teeth be recurved?

        I’m leaning a bit more to the crocodile interpretation, with that lateral naris as a case of bad perspective. And the procumbent teeth from who knows what.

        But I’m also coming around to the thought that the artist’s work was simply “myth-inspired artwork” as the first commenter (James) said.

        But maybe we can agree on one thing: with no diastema, that Greek artist certainly wasn’t painting a giraffe skull.


    1. I’m still favoring either a fossil varanid or a living one as the most parsimonious explanation. The procumbent appearance of the teeth could be due to post-mortem tooth slippage. The crocodilian interpretation has more flaws, namely that crocodilians don’t have sclerotic rings and have dorsally located bony nares. It would not make sense for the artist to portray the nares when the rest of illustration is consistently in lateral view. Whales lack the enclosed orbit and other fenestrae entirely, and saying the artist imagined them requires an extra assumption. Again there are fossils of a large varanid, V. marathonensis, known from a locality discovered by the Ancient Greeks. The MOT artist easily could’ve had access to these fossils. Access to a living species of varanid would’ve been less likely considering there are no extant Greek monitors. However it’s still not impossible that it was based on a specimen imported from Africa or the Middle East.


      1. Assuming that your scale bar is accurate the “large varanid, V. marathonensis” has a skull that would fit in your hand. Is that big enough to qualify as a “monster”?

        Our back-and-forth on the features prompted me to read Mayor’s paper in full.

        Two things stand out:
        1. Those circular black “holes” that I see as ‘art’, and that you see as naris & fenestrae are actually stones being hurled at the beast by one of the two human characters on the vase. There is a pile of rocks in front of the head. That has been the interpretation of the art historians apparently. The skull is not depicted as fenestrated.

        (Mayor is a prof of Classics and History, with an interest in fossils in the Classical period; she is not a biologist or palaeontologist. She did consult with seven vertebrate palaeontologists. Among them were Dale Russell and Eric Buffetaut).

        2. The summary does not accurately ‘summarize’ the full text.

        “The features … match the basic skull anatomy of a large mammal of the Tertiary age, such as the Samotherium, a giant giraffe.”

        “They noted the … procumbent … teeth, and the missing premaxilla” [hence the lower jaw is longer than the upper].
        “The overall aspect of the cranium is mammalian…”
        “Russell thought that the ‘expanded braincase projecting behind the cranial-mandibular articulation’ resembled the fossil of an ancestral camel, giraffe, or horse.”
        “The palaeontologists also noticed that the artist added some striking features from the skulls of non-mammalian species to the giant mammalian skull.”
        Russell: “‘The figure is a chimera, produced by combining real components from at least two unrelated animals.’” … “carefully drawn sclerotic plates, … characteristic of avian and reptilian skulls.” … “The shape, number, and orientation of the teeth reminded some palaeontologists of the skulls of toothed whales, crocodiles, or reptiles.”
        “The Monster of Troy vase is ‘traditional’ in the way the artist combined features from unrelated creatures to create a monster. Hybrid monsters constructed from parts of various species is a conventional motif in early Greek art”.

        So the summary says “giraffe” but the text says “chimera”.
        Oh well.

        I have to agree with the chimera idea.

        Mayor also talks about the time that the vase was created as a time of heightened interest in fossils in that area:
        “Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of a Miocene cetacean fossil stored in the ruins of Troy proves that these fossils attracted attention in the Troad as early as the Bronze Age. Another large fossil bone was recently recovered from the seventh-century BC Heraion on Samos, an island whose rich Miocene bone beds were famous marvels in antiquity (Mayor 2000, 54–60, 178–80, 183). These archaeological finds confirm numerous literary descriptions of remarkable remains observed and collected in the region of Troy in antiquity. For example, Thebes sent a delegation to Troy to recover the giant bones of Hector, according to Pausanias, who also described a gigantic skeleton that suddenly washed out of the sea cliffs near Sigeum.”

        So it is quite conceivable that the artist may have been inspired by some fossil of something but he didn’t accurately depict it on the vase. Artist’s license goes way back it seems.

        So thanks for the interesting post. Sent me off on an interesting tangent.


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