Ancient Pterosaur Depictions
Many ancient historians tell of winged serpents, or pterosaurs, inhabiting the swamplands and deserts near Egypt. There is even an Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for the winged serpent that appears prominently in the Book of the Dead and elsewhere. (Note the glyph to the bottom of the Egyptian limestone pendant pictured to the lower left.) The world famous gold throne of King Tut (below right) has winged serpents forming the arm rests. Known as Wadjet, the winged serpent of Egypt, was revered as the protector of the Pharaohs and controller of the Nile waters. In fact, winged snakes are depicted on many of the coffins from ancient Egypt. Numerous depictions portray the Wadjet cobra goddess (or Uraeus), albeit with feathered wings, unlike the leathery wings of a pterosaur. (See the papyrus below left where a “covering saraph” protects the god Osiris.) But an Egyptian-style scarab seal (shown below center) sporting bat-like wings was excavated at Achziv in northern Israel. The seal is dated from 1292 – 1075 BC and is housed in the British Museum. (Giveon, Raphael, Scarabs From Recent Excavations in Israel, 1988, p. 37.)
Below to the left is displayed an Egyptian Wadjet with feet, as shown in the Book of the Dead (Keel, Othmar, Jahwe-Visionen und Siegelkunst, 1977, p. 77.) An Egyptian-style scarab seal found at Tel Gerisa in Israel (lower center and right) seems to depict a large pterosaur hunting an ibex (Giveon, Raphael, Scarabs From Recent Excavations in Israel, 1988, p. 70-71.) Not only is the leaf shaped tail vane of the pterosaur apparent, but it has a fascinating widened tip on the end of the beak, much like the Ornithocheirus. The long, snakelike head has a clear headcrest on it, much like pterodactyloid pterosaurs. The two wings exhibit the unique corrugated features (as seen in the Solnhofen Rhamphorhynchus fossil). The level of detail is similar to that of the ibex. The seal dates from 1300-1150 BC and is now in the Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology. Similarly, an Egyptian statue residing in a Berlin museum depicts a flying serpent with legs sporting claws, three wing claws, a protopatagium (a portion of the wing above the arm known from pterosaur fossil impressions), and a tail vane. That pterosaur is shown hunting a falcon and also appeared to have the dental structure of a Scaphognathus. (Goertzen, John, “The Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris: A ‘Living Fossil’ Until the 17th Century,” 1998 ICC Paper.)
The Mayan worship of a feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl has been traced all the way back to the first century BC. The widespread belief in the winged serpent, (also present in the Aztec culture), has led some scholars to speculate if it might have been based upon a real animal in the ancient Americas. “An ancient Mayan relief sculpture of a peculiar bird with reptilian characteristics has been discovered in Totonacapan, in northeastern section of Veracruz, Mexico. José Diaz-Bolio, a Mexican archaeologist-journalist responsible for the discovery, says there is evidence that the serpent-bird sculpture, located in the ruins of Tajín, is not merely the product of Mayan flights of fancy, but a realistic representation of an animal that lived during the period of the ancient Mayans – 1,000 to 5,000 years ago. If indeed such serpent-birds were contemporary with the ancient Mayan culture, the relief sculpture represents a startling evolutionary oddity. Animals with such characteristics are believed to have disappeared 130 million years ago.” (Anonymous, “Serpent-Bird of the Mayans,” Science Digest, vol. 64, Nov., 1968, p. 1.) To the left is a National Geographic picture of just such a flying reptilian form. The details of what seems to be a pterodactyloid pterosaur are very realistically shown by the Maya artist, including the headcrest, the large eye, the leathery wing and the claws. Perhaps a Mayan hunter is carrying a dead creature home or maybe the reptile’s hide was made into a ceremonial jacket.
Pots with a fascinating pterosaur-like depiction have been found in Moundville, Alabama (see left). The “winged serpent” design seems to exhibit scales, ribbed wings, and a long tail. In some cases there is even the hint of teeth in the beak. Moundville is a Mississippian, Meso-American site that dates to around the 1300s. A similar pottery theme from this time frame exists all the way down in Central America. The native American Coclé culture of Panama was discovered by A. Hyatt Verrill. He noticed the oddly pterosaur-like representations on Coclé pottery and suggested it was so realistic that these native Americans must have been influenced by fossil discoveries. He describes the depiction (see right) as having “beak-like jaws armed with sharp teeth, wings with two curved claws, short, pointed tail, reptilian head crest or appendages, and strong hind feet with five-clawed toes on each.” The Coclé civilization dates from AD 1330-1520. But Verrill theorizes that this artwork was based on “accurate descriptions, or even drawings or carvings, of fossilized pterodactyls.” (Verrill, A. Hyatt, Strange Prehistoric Animals and their Stories, 1948, pp. 132-133.)
The ancient Chinese dragon depictions mostly involved four-legged reptiles, probably stylized representations of dinosaurs still known in the ancient far East. But the Hongshan people also carved winged baby dragons. Such a jade piece is shown to the left (part of the Genesis Park collection). This “baby dragon” resembles an immature pterosaur, perhaps extracted out of its egg. Its body is still curled and the wings don’t appear to be fully developed. While the upturned beak, tail, head crest and large eyes are realistically depicted, the legs are not shown.
A common motif in Medieval art is the slaying of the dragon by St. Michael (taken from Revelation 12:7-9). Below to the left is a painting by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, an Italian Renaissance artist who worked in the late 1400s. This piece shows a number of pterosaurian features, including the webbed foot, four toes, bat-like wings, long snake-like neck, and hair. In the center, note the winged Michael spearing the dragon from the Church of St. Marco in Venice. Beside it is an interpretation of the flying Michael and the angels overcoming Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon (to the right). This is from the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript dated from about 1448 AD. It depicts a winged reptilian form with enormous membrane wings.
But an even more common scene than the depictions of Michael and the dragon are the numerous renditions of St. George slaying the dragon, based on the legend of the saint saving a young lady from the fearsome great reptile. In a work by Paolo Uccello from the 15th century (bottom left) you can see four claws on the feet, claws on the wings, and a stylized headcrest. Below in the center is another rendition of the legend by Rogier van der Weyden. This painting dates about 1435 and clearly shows four claws on the feet, shiny scales all over the body, a reptilian ear, and a beak full of teeth. While the wings look a bit odd, it could be that the reports received by the artist were from an observer who had seen a pterosaur on all fours with wings folded upward. This four-legged, flying dragon motif is very common in Medieval art. While the tiny wings appear ridiculous, it seems reasonable that the artist would draw stubby, erect wings because the eye witness had essentially seen only a portion of the total wingspan. Only about a third to a half of a pterosaur’s wings would be sticking out above the body as it walked quadrepedally.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA contains an intriguing depiction of St. George’s dragon from 1470 by the Italian artist Carlo Crivelli (above right). This gold and tempera on poplar wood panel was painted for the parish church at Porto San Giorgio on the Adriatic. Crivelli employed a winged dragon interpretation of the popular legend. The dragon bears a remarkable likeness to a pterosaur with the proper four anterior toes and the lateral fifth toe, ribbed wings, headcrest, and teeth. Some pterosaurs, like Jeholopterus (known as the “vampire pterosaur”), have fangs much like the dragon in this picture. Certain researchers have concluded that the pterosaur Jeholopterus would actually fly up to large dinosaurs, latch onto their skin, and drink their blood. Perhaps the most intimidating dragon portrayal of the St. George legend is the work found in the Højby Church in Zealand, Denmark (shown to the right). The church is recognized for its fine 15th century Gothic wall paintings. The impressive dragon fresco presents a truly fiercesome reptile, large enough to swallow the knight whole! Along with stylized elements like horns and ears, we see an impressive headcrest, strong legs like a Dimorphodon, and a prominent tail.
European reports of flying serpents living in Egypt persist through the 1600s. The Italian naturalist Prosper Alpin wrote a fascinating natural history of Egypt in the 1580s. He described their crest (a small a bone or a piece of keratin atop the head), their tail being “thick as a finger,” their length being “as long as a palm branch,” and their leaf-shaped tail. (Alpin, P., Histoire Naturelle de l’Egypte, tr. by R. de Fenoyl, 1979, pp. 407-409.) All is precisely like modern fossil reconstructions. A French wooden dragon image (left) also displays remarkable features of a pterosaur. There are two wings that clearly have ribbed membranes rather than feathers. There appears to be a small head crest above and behind the eyes, strong hind legs, a distinctive tail vane and a bump on the wing that hints at claws. This large wooden image was commissioned in 1677 to commemorate the slaying of the monster La Grand’Goule in the village of Poiters sometime around the 6th century AD. A decaying dragon is shown on p. 817 of Dr. Francisco Hernández’ landmark book Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus (published in 1651). It seems to be an original engraved work of Johannes Faber and presents a realistic-looking pterosaur. This dragon was said to have been a gift from King Louis XIII to Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Barberini excited the interest of members of the Lincean Academy (an Italian science academy) with this “Little Dragon” specimen, the Dracunculus. Lyncean anatomist Faber made detailed drawings of it that survive still today.
Below on the left are two fascinating depictions of a flying serpent from the ceiling of the San Miniato al Monte church in Florence, Italy, built in the 11th century. Notice the beak, four claws on the foot, headcrest, coiled tail and bat-like wings on the blue one. These are all distinctive characteristics of pterosaurs. The tail makes it look like a Rhamphorhynchus. Note as well the reptilian forked tongue. These drawings stand beside carefully drawn dogs, eagles, lions, doves, etc.
Above to the right is a drawing from a 17th century German tract about the dangers of witches and witchcraft. Witches were accused of causing houses to spontaneously combust. The dragons depicted flying in the background, with characteristic headcrests and tails, were apparently associated with witches. (Guazzo, Francesco Maria, Compendium Maleficarum, 1628, p. 23.) Many accounts from that time period describe creatures that sound suspiciously like pterodactyls. An official government report from 1793 states: “In the end of November and beginning of December last, many of the country people observed dragons appearing in the north and flying rapidly towards the east; from which they concluded, and their conjectures were right, that…boisterous weather would follow.” (“Flying Dragons at Aberdeen,” A Statistical Account of Scotland, 1793, p. 467.)
A dragon was said to live in the wetlands near Rome in December of 1691. This creature inhabited a cave and supposedly terrorized the local population. The dragon was killed and mounted and a sketch (left) of the skeleton survived in the possession of Ingegniero Cornelio Meyer. A most remarkable thing about this animal is the clear head crest and the dual piece of skin from the crest. Five digits are clearly visible for each foot, of the proper length and with the first shorter and offset from the rest as is appropriate for the pterosaur Scaphognathus. There is a hint of a wing claw on the far wing where it curves forward. The membraned wings are in front of the legs, on the vertebrae, matching the fossils that we find. The femur is properly shown as a single bone. The tibia and fibula, the twin lower leg bones, are visible too. Although some have suggested that it could be a fossil or a faked composite, it is much too accurate to be a fabrication. The survival of the skin suggests that it is not a fossil since it includes accurate wing features, a head crest, and the reptilian ears (Goertzen, John, “The Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris: A ‘Living Fossil’ Until the 17th Century,” 1998 ICC Paper.). Yet another Medieval pterosaur-like dragon depiction (right) is presented in Conrad Gesner’s 1589 work, Book of Snakes.
In 1704, Hoellischer Morpheus: Saducismus Triumphatus (below far right) was published, the theme of this work was the grotesque (including subjects like the occult and black arts). No doubt because the Bible referred to Satan as “that old dragon,” the dragons are among the creatures most often encountered in such works. Within this volume are drawings which depict flying dragons containing actual morphological features of certain species of pterosaurs. For example, on the frontispiece of the work is a clear depiction of a long tailed pterosaur represented with two feet, wings, and a snake-like tail ending in a tail vane.
Medieval portrayals of the the temptation of Eve (like the one to the immediate right) sometimes show the Satanic tempter as a winged serpent. This dragon-like drawing is from “The Temptation” in Speculum Humanæ Salvationis, dated at 1324 AD (photo credit – Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris). This follows the line of thought expressed by the famous commentator Matthew Henry (from his Commentary Upon the Whole Bible, 1708-10): “Perhaps it was a flying serpent, which seemed to come from on high as a messenger from the upper world, one of the seraphim; for the fiery serpents were flying, Isa. xiv. 29. Many a dangerous temptation comes to us in gay fine colours that are but skin-deep, and seems to come from above; for Satan can seem an angel of light.” Above to the left is a fresco from the Saint Nicholas Anapafsa Monastery, which was built in the 1500s on a rock pinnacle at Meteora, Greece. Again, notice the dragon presented as a pterosaur-like creature coming to be named with the others.
At the Cliff Dwellings Museum in Manitou Springs, Colorado, there is an unusual carved wooden artifact. It is an Anasazi Indian prayer stick (see right), that is roughly a foot long, with a crested head, eyes on the side, and a beaked mouth. This carving displays a head strikingly like a pterodactyl. It matches quite closely the Egyptian “Was Scepter,” (far left) a common motif in Egyptian art and a hieroglyphic sign for power. The “Was Scepter” has been identified by some Egyptologists as a dog’s head with a pointed ear. Others claim it is a plumed serpent. Still others speculate that it is a mythical animal. But the narrow neck, large eye, and backward pointing crest are quite like pterodactyloid pterosaurs. The was scepter to the left was excavated at Faras in Nubia (Egyptian Late Period) and is currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum in NY City. Compare it to ancient Egyptian dog art and a crested pterosaur. While we have the fossilized bones, we do not know exactly what skin or cartilage may have extended from the pterosaur’s headcrest.
To the left is a portrayal from a Saxon shield mount which reveals a pterosaur-like creature at rest. The wings that are folded back along its scaled sides, a long beak full of teeth, head crest, and an unmistakable tail vane all make the depiction compelling. The flying reptile widfloga (or far-ranging flyer) was known to the Saxons and this shield-boss came from their Sutton Hoo burial site. It is displayed at the British Museum (click to enlarge). Yet another compelling Medieval winged dragon depiction is at the Château Azay-le-Rideau in central France, an edifice that was built in the early 1500s. Exhibited there is a fascinating tapestry depicting what looks like a pterosaur fighting a lion (click to enlarge). It seems that the flying dragon’s front feet might even be correctly incorporated into the wing. The amazing detail of this work also shows the headcrest, toothy jaw, long tail, and even the anus.
Another pterosaur-like depiction from the Middle Ages is shown in Athanasius Kircher’s 1678 book Mundus Subterraneus. This drawing is is so compelling that Peter Wellnhofer (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs, 1991, p. 20.) suggests it might have been based on fossil finds. But it is more likely based on even more ancient reports. In Kircher’s book, the character Winkelried was supposed to have killed the dragon in Switzerland during the earliest days of his particular settlement. While the erect wings (rather than tucked down on the body like a bird) are distinctively pterosaur-like, the fore-limbs are not correctly incorporated into the wing. Kircher also includes a picture of a dragon (on right) that resembles the rhamphorynchoid pterosaurs. The similarity to the Faber dragon depiction (above) suggests that it might have been based on the same Barberini specimen.
Outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome there are a number of winged dragon depictions. The one shown to the left is particularly like a pterosaur. Note the headcrest, bat-like wings with three claws, and four claws on each foot. These were popularized by Pope Gregory XIII in the late 1500s when he adopted the winged serpent or dragon as his symbol or coat of arms. According to the Greek mythology a heroic figure named Jason, son of Aeson, captured a golden fleece that was guarded by a hissing dragon. This legend of Jason charming the Dragon is memorialized in a beautiful painting (see right) by the multi-talented European artist Salvator Rosa in the 1663-1664 timeframe. It is a good likeness of a pterosaur, drawn long before the flying reptiles were discovered by an Italian naturalist in the 1780s. From where did Rosa get this inspiration?
The wyvern, the two-legged flying dragon of Medieval lore, continued to be a popular emblem for coat of arms, crests, and even ornamental decorations on buildings well into the 18th century. The candlesticks to the left, part of the Genesis Park collection, came from an English estate sale. Notice the small bat-like wings, teeth in beak, upper body hair, spade-like tail, and long necks. These look quite like Rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs, even exhibiting the correct number of toes.
Some who see the ancient artwork on these pages are very critical of the quality of the dinosaurian representations. But how accurately could they redraw animals from memory with basic tools? Try this exercise. Carefully look at a particular dinosaur in a book. Close the book and then try to draw it from memory. How close does your drawing resemble the original? Now choose an unfamiliar kind of dinosaur and try explaining it in detail to a friend. Without letting him see the picture, have your friend attempt to draw it. Now how close did that picture come to the original? This exercise helps us understand how difficult it was for ancient artists to accurately draw dragons from memory or first-hand reports.