"We stopped at a low saddle between the hills. Before I could remove the keys from the ignition, Mark sang out excitedly.... Several feet away, near the very apex of the saddle, was a stunning skull and partial skeleton of a Protoceratops, a big fellow whose beak and crooked fingers pointed west to our small outcrop, like a griffin pointing the way to a guarded treasure.... We continued to pounce on precious specimens with remarkable consistency.... Mark would sing out, 'Skull!' and, almost on cue I would find one too. The surface of the gentle slopes and shallow gullies was splattered with white patches of fossils, as if someone had emptied a paint can in a random fashion over the ground."
--American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Michael Novacek describing the discovery of Protoceratops fossils on a 1993 expedition to the Gobi Desert with fellow paleontologist Mark Norell.
Guarding Gobi Gold
More than two thousand years ago, hardy gold miners sought their fortunes in the vast Gobi Desert of central Asia. These miners were Scythians--members of a horse-riding people who controlled much of central Asia and the northern Middle East between about 800 BC to AD 200. Relying on travelers' tales, Greek authors reported that in the scorching heat of the Gobi, the miners battled not only the blazing sun, but also the mighty griffin: a fierce half-eagle, half-lion hybrid that guarded fantastic treasures of gold.
In many parts of the world, dinosaur fossils are incredibly rare and hard to find--but not in certain parts of the Gobi Desert. For thousands of years, Protoceratops fossils, like the one pictured here, could regularly be seen eroding out of hillsides. In recent years many have been collected, making them somewhat less common.
The Gobi Desert
According to legends, griffins made their nests near gold mines in the Gobi Desert.
Millions of years before humans arrived in the Gobi, some parts of the desert were home to strange animals that seemed to combine body parts of eagles and lions. But these animals weren't griffins--they were dinosaurs. Certain areas in the Gobi are littered with dinosaur bones, including those of the four-legged, beaked Protoceratops. Ancient gold miners working in the desert may have seen these fossils--and perhaps based their descriptions of griffins on them.
At A Glance: Protoceratops
In 2000, classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor argued that the many similarities between Protoceratops dinosaur fossils and griffins indicate that the fossils may have influenced descriptions of the mythic creature.
- Protoceratops lived from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago.
- A beak, just like a griffin.
- Four legs, just like a griffin.
- The thin, bony frill of Protoceratops fossils often breaks off, leaving behind small stumps, which may have been interpreted as griffin ears.
- The elongated shoulder blades of Protoceratops may explain why griffins are commonly said to have wings.
Borrowed Body Parts
Many different dinosaur fossils found in the Gobi may have contributed to various griffin descriptions. Among these are the enormous claws of Therizinosaurus and Deinocheirus which are similar to the griffin claws seen in some depictions.
The ancient Greeks are widely credited for their achievements in math, philosophy and art--but not for finding fossils. Yet we know the Greeks found the preserved bones of unfamiliar animals and tried to interpret them. An image on a ceramic mixing bowl, dating to around 550 BC, depicts a battle between the hero Hercules and the legendary Monster of Troy, shown only as a white, toothy skull emerging from a black cliff face. Adrienne Mayor suggests the monster is actually based on a fossil skull of the ancient giraffe relative Samotherium found eroding out of a hillside.
Death of a Dinosaur
On an expedition in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History found a Protoceratops specimen poking out of a hillside.
"Now the place where the griffins live and the gold is found is a grim and terrible desert. Waiting for a moonless night, the treasure-seekers come with shovels and sacks and dig. If they manage to elude the griffins, the men reap a double reward, for they escape with their lives and bring home a cargo of gold--rich profit for the dangers they face."
--Greek author Aelian, c. AD 200
At A Glance: Griffin
Griffins are said to live in nests in the mountains.
- Head, torso and talons of an eagle--or sometimes other beaked birds, like peacocks.
- Body of a lion--sometimes with a serpent's tail.
- Tawny coat of a lion, or spotted fur, or colorful feathers.
- Most griffin descriptions include wings, but not all.
- Four legs.
The Wide World of Griffins
Griffin-like creatures appear in the stories of many cultures in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. But griffins do not always mean the same thing in every place. In some cases, the griffin became a symbol of greed. In others, it was majestic and noble, like eagles and lions.
Ancient Art, Modern Media
Dazzling griffin illustrations date back at least as far as 3300 BC. Some images were enormously popular in the artwork of many cultures and especially on European coats-of-arms in the Middle Ages. Today, children see griffins in popular movies and in books like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Artists in the ancient world often associated griffins with Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution.
Drinking cups, or rhytons, were often molded in the shape of an animal's head.
Powerful mythic creatures are often used as logos for schools, companies, or even sports teams. Woodcarver Joe Leonard made this griffin statue while working on a similar one for a Pennsylvania high school whose mascot is a griffin.