Ancient Pterosaur Depictions
The world famous gold throne of King Tut (right) has winged serpents forming the arm rests. Known as Wadjet, the winged serpent of Egypt, protected the Pharaohs and controlled the waters of the Nile. In fact, winged snakes are depicted on many of the coffins from ancient Egypt. To the lower right is a picture of a winged serpent like a “covering saraph” protecting the god Osiris. There is even a hieroglyphic symbol for the winged serpent that appears in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. (Note the hieroglyphic in the picture on this limestone pendant to the left.)
“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, November, 1968, p. 1.)
Pots with a fascinating pterosaur-like depiction have been found in Moundville, Alabama (see left). This is a Meso-American site dated around the 1300’s. A similar pottery theme from this timeframe 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 such drawings were 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.)
An Egyptian seal (right) depicts a large pterosaur hunting a gazelle (Giveon, R., “Scarabs From Recent Excavations in Israel,” Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 83, 1988, p. 70.) The leaf shaped tail vane of the pterosaur is unmistakable. The long reptilian head has the double crest of a Scaphognathus above it. The two wings even exhibit the unique corrugated features seen in the Solnhofen Rhamphorhynchus fossil and the claws of a pterosaur. The level of detail is similar to that for the gazelle. The seal dates from 1300-1150 B.C. and is now in the Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology. Similarly, an Egyptian statue residing in a Berlin museum depicts legs with toes and claws, three wing claws; a prototagium (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.)
A common motif in Medieval art is the slaying of the dragon by St. Michael. In a work by Paolo Uccello from the 15th century (on left) you can see four claws on the feet, claws on the wings, and a clear headcrest. Next is an interpretation of Michael and the angels overcoming Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon (right). This is from the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript dated from about 1448 AD. Lastly, there is the winged Michael spearing the dragon from the Church of St. Marco in Venice (lower left).
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA contains an intriguing depiction of St. George and the dragon from 1470 by the Italian artist Carlo Crivelli. 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 Jeholopterus actually drank the blood of dinosaurs.
European reports of flying serpent living in Egypt persist through the 1600′s. The Italian naturalist Prosper Alpin wrote a fascinating natural history of Egypt in the 1580′s. He describes their crest, a small piece of skin on 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 image, dating from the 16th century, also displays remarkable features of a pterosaur. There are two wings that clearly appear to have ribbed membranes rather than feathers. There appears to be a small head crest above and slightly in front of the eyes, the distinctive tail vane, and a hint of the twin skin flap above and behind the bony crest that is quite like the Egyptian seal. In his 1651 book Thesaurus, Johannes Faber presented a dragon engraving that seems to show a decaying pterosaur (picture to the right from The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg – click to enlarge).
Below 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. Note as well the reptilian forked tongue.
The next drawing is from a 17th century German tract about the dangers of witches and witchcraft. Witches are accused of causing houses to spontaneously combust. The pterosaurs 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 lived in a cave and supposedly terrorized the local population. A sketch of the skeleton has survived in the possession of Ingegniero Cornelio Meyer (left). The most remarkable thing about the animal is the clear head crest and the dual piece of skin from the crest. Five digits were clearly visible for each foot, of the proper length and with the first shorter and offset from the rest as is proper for the 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. 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 ears (Goertzen, John, “The Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris: A ‘Living Fossil’ Until the 17th Century,” 1998 ICC Paper.). Yet another pterosaur-like dragon depiction is presented in Conrad Gesner’s 1589 work, Book of Snakes.
In 1704, Hœllischer Morpheus:Saducismus Triumphatus 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,” dragons are among the creatures often encountered in such works. Within this volume are drawings which depict flying dragons containing actual morphological features of certain species of pterosaurs. 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.
At a museum in Manitou Springs, Colorado, there is an unusual carved artifact. It is an Indian prayer stick (see below left), roughly a foot long, with a crested head, eyes on both sides, and beaked mouth. The beautiful artistic work stands out as strikingly like a pterodactyl! This portrayal from a Saxon shield mount reveals a pterosaur-like creature at rest. The wings are folded back along its scale-like sides, a long beak full of teeth, crest, and an unmistakable tail vane all make the depiction compelling. The wings are folded back along its scale-like sides, a long beak full of teeth, 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 the Sutton Hoo burial site. It is displayed at the British Museum (click to enlarge).
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. G. E. Smith’s 1919 book The Evolution of the Dragon explains that ancient notions only included a snake-like body, leathery wings like a bat, and two legs. The front legs were not added till the 16th century. Kircher also includes a picture of a dragon (on right) that resembles the rhamphorynchoid pterosaurs.
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.
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 (1615-1673). It is remarkable in its likeness to a pterosaurian. From where did Rosa get this inspiration?
Some who see this ancient artwork are very critical of the quality of the representations. But how accurately could they redraw from memory with primitive 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.