For today’s Cabinet of Curiosities we’re heading to the Natural History Museum in London. There are many, many objects there which I could quite happily add to the Cabinet, but I have chosen two small, unprepossessing brown fossils. Both are still half-embedded in light-coloured stone (‘matrix’); one is slightly curved, the other has defined grooves. They are both pretty obviously, even to the untrained observer, teeth.
What makes these teeth special is the fact that they were among the very first fossils to be identified as belonging to a previously-unknown race of large, land-dwelling reptiles: the creatures we now know as dinosaurs.
The iguanodon teeth found by Mary-Ann and/or Gideon Mantell.
Now in the Natural History Museum, London. (Photo: Charlotte
My curiosity as an adult was piqued when I moved to Crystal Palace in south-east London. Walking in the local park one freezing-cold January day 12 years ago, I came across a small lake with an island at its centre, and on the island were various statues of prehistoric creatures, looming out of the wintry gloom. I was at once fascinated. Many of the models were clearly meant to be dinosaurs, but they looked nothing like the reconstructions I had been brought up with, even less like the newer depictions of the feathered, bird-like lizards we’re all starting to get our heads around.
How had they come to be there? Why did they look as they did? Above all, who were the people, what were the stories, which lay behind them?
The dinosaurs by the lake were created as part of the overall complex – some might say early ‘theme park’ – of the south London Crystal Palace. They were sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse in the early 1850s, but their scientific accuracy (for they were extremely accurate, reflecting cutting-edge discoveries, no matter how odd they look to us now) was overseen by Professor Richard Owen. Today, Owen is largely unknown to the public imagination, but he was one of the leading scientific figures of his day. When he is remembered, it is chiefly for three things: for coining the term ‘dinosaur’, for disagreeing with Darwin (although for more complex reasons than is often assumed: he was no purely religious sceptic) and as the first head of the Natural History Museum. So he is one thread which takes us to South Kensington.
The statue of Richard Owen in the Natural
History Museum (photo: Charlotte Wightwick)
But there is another thing which links the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to the iguanodon teeth. Owen, despite his undoubted expertise, was not the first choice for the job of superintending the creation of the Crystal Palace models.
Instead that honour went to an obscure GP, originally from Sussex, now living in near-poverty in Pimlico. Gideon Mantell had been fascinated by geology and fossil-collecting from childhood. Like Owen, he too had studied medicine in the capital as a young man but, failing to find a position there, returned to Lewes to take up a job as a GP, where he continued to work on his passion in his spare time.
In the early 1820s Gideon, (or more likely his wife Mary-Ann; there are conflicting accounts) found two small brown fossils.
Gideon realised that the teeth were something unusual and believed they were those of a large, unknown herbivorous reptile. He determined that the teeth most closely resembled those of a modern iguana and as such decided to call his new lizard ‘Iguanodon’ (literally ‘iguana-toothed’). Mantell spent several years trying to persuade the scientific community that he had discovered something new. Initially, he was met with widespread scepticism but his tenacity eventually paid off. Gideon went on to discover several more species of dinosaur and was recognised as one of the leading experts in this new and exciting field.
But Mantell’s life work came with a price. His obsession with fossils led to the disintegration of his marriage and financial ruin; a carriage accident followed by years of acrimonious dispute with a certain Professor Richard Owen took their toll on his health. As such he was too ill to oversee the creation of the Crystal Palace models. He died shortly before they – including his very own Iguanodon – were completed.
Portraits of Gideon and Mary-Ann Mantell reflected in the case
of another of Gideon’s discoveries (the ‘Mantellisaurus’) at the
Natural History Museum London. (Photo: Charlotte Wightwick)
These iguanodon teeth are anything but insignificant, however. They are the objects which originally sparked our collective fascination with the dinosaurs and symbols of a world which had been lost and now could be uncovered by science. As importantly for me, they stand also for two complex and difficult men, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen, who made it possible for me, and you, and all of us to wonder, in museums and in parks, about that long-lost world.