The Dragon at the bus-stop

During the 1980s, when we are were living part of the year in Southern France, Alfred de Grazia and I would often drive by, on our way from Marseille to the Luberon Mountains, a bus stop called Rocher du Dragon, the "Dragon's Rock," in the Northwestern part of the beautiful old city of Aix-en-Provence.

Some research into the local folklore uncovered the existence of a dragon who, according to legend, used to sit there, at an undetermined time, atop a heap of bones which were the remains of men and beasts which it had devoured. The dragon had been slain by Saint Andrew himself. A chapel to the saint's honor had been erected on top of the heap, and every year, for centuries, on the third day of the Rogations, which would be the day preceding the Ascension of Christ, the population of Aix-en-Provence would go there in a solemn procession, carrying a large dragon made of paper and wooden planks, in the mouth of which pieces of bread were thrown, in the hope of staying its appetite. It was left on the top of the hill of bones. The tradition of this procession continued until some time before the French Revolution, after which it was abandoned. 

Actually, there was more to the story than mere legend, and it would turn out to be of importance in the history of geology. For the hill to be found there was indeed recognizably constituted of a heap of bones...

This fact inevitably attracted the attention of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), a Royal Counsellor at the Parliament of Aix-en-Provence, one of the most insatiably curious minds of his time. He was passionately interested in finds of fossil bones anyway. Peiresc was nicknamed "the Prince of the Curious," which hardly does him justice. He entertained a vast scientific correspondence, amounting to some ten thousand known letters, with some 500 correspondents all over Europe and in the Orient, many of whom he had met personally during his extensive travels, including Galileo, with whom he had studied at Padua, Peter-Paul Rubens,  with whom he exchanged coins, Kepler, the mathematician Marin Mersenne, and even one Herryard, "jeweler to the Grand Moghul at Lahore..."   Having had himself built a "lunette de Hollande" on the model of Galileo's, he discovered all by himself in 1610 the Great Nebula of Orion. With his friend Gassendi, he mapped the Moon and noticed for the first time the Moon's librations. He successfully remeasured the East-West extension of the Mediterranean Basin, finding it to be some 1,000 kilometers shorter than previously thought. He even introduced angora cats to Europe...

He collected bones from the Dragon's "heap" in his home city, and  declared them to be "some human and equine bones, all petrified and mixed together." He obligingly sent many specimens of them "to all places in Europe, so that they would end up in the hands of the curious."  

He kept a great number of them in his mansion in Aix, the Hotel de Calas, together with his library of 5,402 books and the 17,000 item numismatic collection which he had assembled, and the Egyptian papyri scrolls which he was fond of acquiring.  

In 1634, he wrote to his fellow scientists d'Arcos and Ménétrier, who shared his interest for fossil bones, that "a horn or a tooth all straight" had been pulled from the heap at the Dragon's Rock, and that it was believed to the "the horn of a unicorn."  Although the myth of the unicorn was still going strong, Peiresc was of the opinion that these piece (an another similar one, discovered near Strasbourg) rather belonged "to some marine monster" or "terrestrial animal."

The Dragon's Rock in his hometown was not the only heap of bones Pereisc was interested in. He was a pioneer in the study of fossils  He followed closely, and participated, in the controversies about "giants' bones" being discovered, or having long been known to exist in various places in Europe and the Orient. He solved a "cause célèbre" going back to Saint Augustine about giants' teeth found in Utica, on the coast of Tunis, by identifying them as belonging to elephants; he had the opportunity to find out for himself, thanks to an elephant which was being exhibited at the time, at fairs in Northern Italy and Southern France.

I was curious enough, or rather mad enough, to introduce my hand in its mouth and to catch and to feel one of his molar teeth, to better recognize the shape...  

He corresponded with Claude Menestrier over the micro-fossils of Monte Mario in Rome – which Menestrier observed with the help of a new instrument which he calls “multiplying glasses” – probably the first case of the use of a microscope in the Earth's sciences - with Jacques de la Perrière on fossil shells found in Poitou, was intrigued about marine shells found inland in the earth of Champagne – and had a particular interest in the “fossil woods” of Acquasparta. He also studied volcanism and, with Gassendi, the "origin of stones," which included some hunches on the growing of crystals...

As for the Dragon's Rock, in 1760, for reasons unknown, according to the historian of Aix, Ambroise Roux Alphéran, the whole hill of bones was deliberately destroyed, by means of "petards," meaning,  

explosives. It seems that the chapel had already been demolished much earlier. 

A "savant naturaliste," Jean-Etienne Guettard (1715-1786), a pupil of Jussieu and Réaumur, was sent to study the remnants of the rock, in order to determine whether the notorious bones were of human or of animal origin - thus inaugurating palaeontological research in Provence. Newspapers of the time had mentioned "human bones mixed with marine bodies," masses of "pebbles" with cavities, together with "ordinary snails," and, especially, six human heads, pointy teeth, and fish teeth. Gettard soon established that these were animal fossils. "Nothing can be more wrong than what one has been given to read... these are debris of bodies which have been broken up and which must have been tossed and rolled by the waves of the sea." He judged them to be "skeletons of fish rather than skeletons of humans" and as for the human skulls, he believed them to be some kind of nautili...

The study of the Dragon's rock, or of its remains, was taken up again 20 years later, in 1780, by Robert de Paul de Lamanon (1752-1787),  who came to a conclusion different from Guettard's. For him, the so-called "human skulls" were not nautili, but petrified tortoises, mixed with the bones of terrestrial ruminants and marine shells. This mixture seemed so unbelievable to him that he came to suggest that there had existed in the past great lakes "distributed all over Earth's surface, who deposited on it the fossils we now find buried underneath [...] through their reunion and run-offs, these lakes came to form the Ocean." 

The descriptions made of the Dragon's rock, and its situation, leave no doubt as to where it belongs stratigraphically: the Upper Continental Miocene, topping the marine molasse onto which the city of Aix is largely  built. The Dragon's Rock (constituted of rough red sandstone) is again cited by Louis Collot in his thesis (1880) according to which he found in it " Helixes, jaws and hollow bones of ruminants, among which M. Gaudry has identified Tragocerus Amaltheus;  teeth of carnivores, all this, much fragmented." No doubt, one century earlier, Robert de Paul de Lamanon had come remarkably close...

Whatever was left of the rock has been built over, and so it comes that today, you will not find any hill, nor bones, nor dragon near to that bus stop, but a busy French lycée... But thanks to Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, some of the left-overs of the Dragon's meals are to be found in the Museum of Natural History at Aix-en-Provence, and in the hands of the heirs to all the "curious," all over Europe, to which he sent them... 

Anne-Marie de Grazia

Peiresc, the humanist genius of Provence

Peiresc, Fabri de par Claude Mellan, Ermitage

Having come across Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc on the path to the Dragon at the bus stop, it would be a pity not to use the occasion to get better acquainted with this amazing personage, in the same time taking a quick survey of sciences in the early XVII century.

Go to: Peiresc, humanist genius of Provence

Read also: Alfred de Grazia: Fossil deposits

In: The Lately Tortured Earth, Chap. 26

In coarse quartzose sandstones of stream channels of Antarctica's Transantarctic Mountains, fossil bones of the definitive reptilian genus, Lystrosaurus, were found. Deemed typical of Lower Triassic forms, it has been uncovered also in South Africa, India and China. In the sandstone, mudstone and white quartz pebbles are intruded along with the bone fragments. Logs and coal are at the same depth. Volcanic material is above and below. Remains of between 40 and 50 specimens are among the more than 400 specimens of other species in the same deposit. Numerous fossil relations have been shown between South America and Southern Africa, though not yet the Lystrosaurus. The China parallel introduces properly the Pangean connection. 

Pangean world distributions of many species of flora and fauna, both fossil and living, can be traced. Living species that have no way of traversing present-day barriers are discovered to exist on both sides of the barriers, as the tigers of Africa, India and Siberia. Extinct species of one area are alive in another area, impassibly separated by modern geography, as the elephants and camels of North America, probably miscegenable with those of Africa. Specimens of the same extinct species are found in areas separated by modern geography.

A collapsed time schedule for the creation of the ocean basins demands a reconstruction of how aquatic species developed. Pangea was a world of small waters. Small and shallow lakes and swamps are conducive to the generation of individual variations within species and the prolongation of their careers. Whales and sharks travel great distances, but do not need to do so; they can flourish in a Tethyan sea; so with every other aquatic species. The great deeps are a last resort.

The eels from everywhere descend to breed from their rivers into the salt ocean and there find the Sargasso Sea, the great belt of weed-bearing waters on both sides of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. They die there and their young swim for thousands of miles and years of time to find the rivers of Europe and America. The American eels have 104 to 111 vertebrae, the European 114 or 115, and n'er the twain shall meet.

Igor Akimushkin conjectures that eels originated or dwelt in the intercontinental fissure when it opened up an asserted 130 million years ago, not far from their fresh waters. Then they expanded their mobility to follow the drifting continents... 

Read more in Alfred de Grazia's "Lately Tortured Earth"