Abstract

Based on continued archive and literature research, the fantastic tale of the acquisition of what was to become the type specimen of Mosasaurus hoffmanni Mantell, 1829 –the first mosasaurid specimen to be named– told by the geologist B. Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741–1819) in his book Histoire naturelle de la Montagne Saint-Pierre de Maestricht issued in ten parts between 1798 and 1803, is retold and demystified. Significantly, Faujas ‘forgot’ to mention the real reason for his stay at Maastricht, namely his appointment as one of the four commissioners charged with inventory and confiscation of objects of science and art in the conquered countries. Faujas arrived at Maastricht about two months after the fortress had been taken by French troops on 4 November 1794, while the mosasaur skull was confiscated four days later; so that he never was a direct witness of the story he told. The decree issued by the Convention Nationale announcing the fossil’s destination to be the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) in Paris was enacted on 12 November 1794. It appears that the representative of the people A.-L. de Frécine (1751–1804) was involved in the confiscation and withdrawal of the Grand animal de Maestricht from its legal owner, the clergyman Th. J. Godding (1722–1797). In a reclamation request (written c. 1815), his single heiress, R. Godding, stated that six soldiers appeared with a carriage to collect the ‘petrified crocodile’ by force of arms at Godding’s country house, acting under orders of Frécine.

The definite proof of Faujas’s unreliability is given by his co-commissioner, the botanist A. Thouin (1747–1824). In Thouin’s memoirs, Faujas is depicted as a great liar and storyteller, fond of embellishing stories. Obviously, Faujas falsified the truth to disguise the fact that looting from a private person had occurred, which was unlawful, even in wartime. Faujas also used to make propaganda for the French army, which is typical of the spirit of those revolutionary years. Besides, he was rather inaccurate, his book containing a lot of mistakes that were easy to check. Finally, it seems that J. L. Hoffmann (1710–1782), a famous local fossil collector presented by Faujas as the legal owner of this particular skull specimen, never actually owned it.

Here we summarise our previous findings and include a few additional ones, which lead to the conclusion that it must have been patriotism as well as his great fancy for story telling that induced Faujas to falsify the facts. In 2009, the famous war trophy temporarily returned to Maastricht, on loan from the MNHN to the Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht, within the framework of an exhibit during the international Darwin Year, entitled, Darwin, Cuvier et le Grand Animal de Maestricht. Of course, the mosasaur owes its great scientific value to G. Cuvier (1769–1832), who stated that, “above all, the precise determination of the famous animal from Maestricht seems to us as important for the theory of zoological laws, as for the history of the globe”. However, by embellishing the story, Faujas added a substantial supplementary cultural value to the fossil.

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