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The great American incognitum


American painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was also a palaeontologist, and his painting Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806) depicts the first palaeontological dig in American history. Alexis Drahos investigates.

Geoscientist 20.05 May 2010

From the second half of the 18th Century, particularly following the publication of Georges Cuvier’s influential works, fossil elephants came to occupy a privileged position in vertebrate palaeontology – endowed with the sort of prestige accorded today to dinosaurs. The discovery of “mammoth” bones in Siberia, and of similar skeletons later in the United States, posed insistent questions about their origin, extinction, and place in nature. With this painting Charles Willson Peale bore witness to a new passion among his compatriots for fossil remains of vanished worlds – one which has continued unabated until the present day.

In its quest for new knowledge of the deep past, the United States of America, then a new nation, made major contributions to improving the academy’s acquaintance with fossil vertebrates of all kinds and not the least with that group of extinct quadrupeds, the mastodons elephants, slightly smaller than European woolly mammoths at just over two metres tall, but without hair - and known mainly (though not exclusively) from North America.

Mastodons first appeared almost 40 million years ago, and their most recent species – the American mastodon Mammut americanum – appeared just under three million years ago, becoming extinct with the European mammoths 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But people had been discovering their fossils long before scientists took an interest in them. Long before the true significance of these huge prehistoric mammals was realised, folk wisdom had developed its own explanations. For example, in April 1700, about 60 mammoth tusks brought to light by le duc Eberhardt-Louis had been sent to a pharmacy, to be sold as “unicorn” horn. Nevertheless, a few years later, President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), convinced as early as 1780 of the presence of “mammoths” in America, promoted several scientific expeditions, and a series of excavations was undertaken to search for remains of giant all-American quadrupeds.

Peale took part eagerly. Fascinated by natural history and a fervent collector, Peale was clearly a busy man. As well as being a famous portrait painter, as a scientist and collector he opened the first true American museum, in Philadelphia in 1786. This institution exhibited many of the miscellaneous fossil objects unearthed by its founder-curator, as well as the more usual portraits and stuffed animals.

The origin of this particular painting dates back to spring 1801, when the artist first heard that huge bones, still articulated and apparently belonging to an unknown giant beast, had been unearthed not far from Newburgh, in New York State. Peale went there straight away, buying the bones from the landowner and also purchasing the right to make further excavations. He employed a small army of workers; first to divert a nearby stream and to erect a dam with the aim of loosening the ground in which the finds lay, to reduce the risk of breakage. To avoid flooding, workers built two pieces of apparatus – a crane and a water pump, depicted in the painting.

Peale self-portrait This enormous contrivance is seen being operated as a treadmill by two men like hamsters in a wheel. In use in Europe from the Middle Ages, such windlasses, moved by the force of one or a few workers and driving a bucket-chain, had been imported from China to Europe and became a common sight from the 14th Century to the mid 19th. As a sign of its importance, the windlass occupies the centre of the composition. The presence of children gives the scene a playful character, while the colour palette, based on shaded tones of yellow and brown, lend the scene an air of mystery and obscurity as the remains of the prehistoric animal (not yet revealed) are awaited, expectantly.

The eventual extraction of this skeleton took on a significance surpassing the purely scientific. In 1749, the French naturalist Georges Buffon had asserted in his Natural History that the European extinct species had been bulkier and more developed than those of the United States. So, confirming the past presence of mammoth-like creatures on American soil had become almost a patriotic duty - asserting the fact that the New World was at least the equal of the Old, right down to its prehistoric bones.

Proud of the interest created by his enterprise, Peale invites witnesses to marvel at this sight of a young science serving a young nation. The artist even borrows the pose of the Belvedere Apollo, one of the most admired sculptures of antiquity; and with this reference to the Greek god of light and the knowledge, identifies himself as an Enlightenment man, a man of science, casting light on the distant past.

According to palaeontologist John Ostrom (1928-2005), Peale’s dig was the first organised excavation ever conducted in search of prehistoric mammals in North America. It successfully unearthed an almost entire skeleton, which became universally known as The Great American Incognitum. Peale’s Museum eventually failed; the incognitum, which had become such a symbol of American national pride, had to be ignominiously sold to European collectors to pay off the museum’s creditors. For a hundred years the incognitum’s fate was truly unknown, until turning up in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany, in the 1950s. It can be seen there to this day.

Further reading

Paul Semonin explores the story of the Incognitum in his book American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity (New York, 2000). You can read an article by him, Peale’s Mastodon – the skeleton in our closet, at See also Semonin’s website

*Dr Alexis Drahos is an art historian with a special interest in Earth science’s influence on 19th Century painting. He lives in Paris.