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The Dance of Death and the first printed skeleton

The earliest printed image of a human skeleton is this cartoonish image from a German block book from the 1450s. [i] It is one of a series of skeletons in the popular genre known as the danse macabre or dance of death. Art historian extraordinaire Jack Hartnell first told me about this book.  It is now …

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The Turducken of Maastricht

When I gave a talk on fossils last year at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, my Dutch friends told me to be sure to include a mention of the Maastricht mosasaur, the most famous fossil Maastricht mosasaurus. Wikimedia in the Netherlands, even though I was actually talking about much more recent fossils such as mammoths.  …

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The Head of a Roman

For the past few weeks, many news outlets have reported that the skull of Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, ca. 23-79 CE), the Roman naturalist and statesman who died at Pompeii, has been identified.  The latest story, in the New York Times, expresses some skepticism but admits the skull could have been Pliny’s. To …

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The Teeth of Theutobochus

In January 1613, workers at an estate in the Dauphiné, in southeastern France, unearthed a number of large bones.  They included two mandibles with some teeth, a couple of vertebrae, what seemed to be a sternum, a shoulder blade, the heel and instep of a foot, the top of a humerus, and (the prize) a …

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An Anatomy Cabinet

Utrecht, Netherlands, July 2019 Among the many delights for a historian of medicine like me at the University Museum in Utrecht is a reconstructed anatomy cabinet from the late eighteenth century.  It contains objects from the collection of Jan Bleuland (1756-1838), professor of medicine and "rector magnificus" of the University.  Domenico Bertoloni Meli discussed Bleuland …

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The Possibility of Giants

Various large bones, discovered across Europe from around 1500 onward, raised the possibility among Renaissance naturalists and intellectuals that very large humans – some five or even ten meters tall – once existed in the past.  The idea of giant ancestors already was prominent among scholars: the hugely popular works of Annius of Viterbo, particularly …

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The Skeleton Trade

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol of mortality before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object –scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius.  Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the …

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