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Headless chicken

By Ilja Nieuwland

Ever wondered about the picture above? It is a lithographical engraving from 1866 depicting Archaeopteryx – without the head. Initially, I thought that I saw a head there, but apparently there isn’t. You see, this was drawn only five years after the London Archaeopteryx was discovered – which (at least initially) lacked a skull. The drawing originally appeared in Louis Figuier’s The Earth before the Deluge in 1866; this one is from a Dutch translation (thrown together with a work by Oscar Fraas) by E.M. Beima, a curator from the Dutch natural history museum at Leiden. The whole illustration looks like this:


It portrays life in the ‘oolithic’ or upper Jurassic; there’s the standard ‘dragon-from-hell’ pterodactyl slushing it out in the mud on the foreground, another in the air, some ferns and enough ‘primeval ooze’.

Leaving Archaeopteryx’ head out is quite an exceptional measure for drawings from around this time, and makes one question whether the artist omitted it because he expected to be able to fill it in later. A clue may be found in Figuier’s text (translated into Dutch by Beima, and again into English by me):

“The bird had hardly flown from Germany, or the papers sang this song: the bird from Solnhofen is a work of art, a Rhamphorhynchus skeleton that has been fancifully fashioned with feathers, by a lithographic methods or otherwise – and English science has let itself be deceived by German cunning. That severe accusation has not received an English reply. It is not even certain whether the bird really exists, or that he should be considered a mere fable. In the figure ‘Landcap during the Upper Oolithic period’, the animal floats high in the air over a jurassic forest containing acacias and ferns […]”.

In 1866, therefore, Figuier couldn’t yet be certain; and Beima’s translation, one year later, also remained unconvinced. Leaving out details in the image could therefore be seen as a security measure: should the animal prove to be a hoax, it could always be said that the image merely reflected contemporary speculation. Of course, this whole episode reminds one of the Hoyle/Wickramasinghe ‘Archaeopteryx hoax’ episode of 1984, and the animal’s easy confusion with pterosaur remains once more became obvious when John Ostrom discovered an Archaeopteryx in the drawers of Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem – which had been identified by Hermann von Meyer as Pterodactylus crassipes.

The remark about the missing head of Figuier’s Archaeopteryx was taken from Brian Switek’s contribution, “Thomas Henry Huxley and the Reptile to Bird Transition” in the new Geological Society London volume on dinosaur research history (Geological Society London, Special Publications, v. 343, pp. 251-263).


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