The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. The fossils on their beds of stone display odd features for dinosaurs, most obviously the presence of feathers, and have caused, and continue to cause, controversy ever since their discovery and resurrection from the rocks: is archaeopteryx (and its ilk) a missing evolutionary link between extinct dinosaurs and modern birds?

This is a riveting narrative directed at the general reader. Chambers’ commentary makes it clear that even for a palaeontologist like himself there are a lot of questions still to be answered: research since the book was first published has already moved the discussion on, and will of course continue to do so, as science never stands still. It is also as much a study of the humans involved with archaeopteryx over its 150 years of exposure as with the beast itself and its place in the fossil record. From Richard Owen to Fred Hoyle, and from Thomas Huxley to John Ostrom, the students of archaeopteryx are no less fascinating than this creature from the Jurassic. Darwinians who accept its existence Chambers splits roughly into palaeontologists or BAD adherents (from ‘Birds ARE Dinosaurs’) and ornithologists or BAND supporters (‘Birds are NOT Dinosaurs’). Then there are those who believe the various existing specimens were faked: they consist mostly of Creationists and conspiracy theorists.

Meanwhile, a swift trawl through the web using the key words ‘grail’, ‘palaeontology’ and ‘archaeopteryx’ will reveal journalists’ frequent recourse to the relic as a metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable in this field. According to one commentator “the holy grail of species evolution” underlines the importance of archaeopteryx to palaeontology and biology; the remains of feathers represent “the Holy Grail that demonstrated … that birds are highly derived dinosaurs” according to another; and, declares a third, “part of the Holy Grail [is] how the development of the limb changed during evolution of birds from their theropod ancestor”. My hunch that Wolfram’s concept of the grail as a resurrection stone for the phoenix could be based on a medieval archaeopteryx fossil may well be shown to be false, or deemed inconclusive from lack of proof; yet in popular culture the archaeopteryx is, indeed, already the grail.

* Wolfram von Eschenbach Parzival (translated by Helen M Mustard and Charles E Passage) Vintage Books 1961
This review was first published on January 20th, 2013

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8 thoughts on “The Phoenix and the Fossil

    1. I thought so too, Gert — I do so like the polyvalent attributes of the phoenix, from its links to Phoenicia to its sacred medieval iconography, and its continuing popular cultural appeal, whether for fire insurance or children’s literature (both E Nesbit and J K Rowling, for example).

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