Prof. Anita Guerrini will deliver the lecture When we were giants: Fossils and the material origins of early modern nationalism.
Fossil bones had long been sources of wonder and speculation in the pre-modern world. In antiquity, they were thought to be the remains of gods and fantastic creatures. Early modern intellectuals, building on ancient texts and artifacts in good humanist fashion but also adding new observations and discoveries, employed fossil remains in their efforts to rewrite national histories, thus crossing knowledge domains of natural philosophy, natural history, and human history.
In France, the supposed remains of the Gaulish king Teutobochus, found in the Dauphiné in 1613, occasioned a five-year pamphlet war and two centuries of debate. The “Antwerp giant” who supposedly founded the city was debunked and then rehabilitated in the second half of the sixteenth century. Various bones in Sicily were ascribed to historical figures, and bones found at Stonehenge were said to belong to ancient Britons. All of these bones were very large, from two to five times the size of the average human adult; therefore their attribution to humans implied that giants had once existed. Thus the historical narratives built around these bones at once encompassed a notion of superhuman origins for a favored nation, and a pervasive belief in human decline that extended into the eighteenth century.
Modern historians and archaeologists have considered these bones mainly in terms of what modern science has determined them to be: the remains of mammoths, mastodons, and other extinct animals. My concern is instead with how early modern antiquarians and natural philosophers, each claiming specific expertise, struggled to interpret them within the shifting boundaries of early modern knowledge. While early modern savants considered fossil bones as historical artifacts, fossil evidence also figured in debates among physicians and natural philosophers about human and animal anatomy. As geology became a distinct discipline in the eighteenth century, these debates crossed over into new explorations into time and extinction, once more rewriting natural and human history.