Lo, the Mighty Serpopard–er, Sauropod

Narmer's SerpopardsSo did you know the ancient Egyptians dug dinosaurs? The creatures you see at left with long intertwining necks are shown on a five-thousand-year-old sculpture unearthed near the Nile, called the Narmer palette. On it, a predynastic Egyptian king massacres his enemies and even tames the mythic beasts with lassoes.

Click the image for a close-up view of the action.

Archeologists call these creatures serpopards, meaning snake-leopards, although most depictions are non-spotted and rather more lion-headed than leopard-like. Their tails are usually long, and their feet have claws, not hooves.

Dino SealThey have turned up on a variety of artifacts in Egypt and in Mesopotamia as well, at Uruk, a city contemporaneous to the predynastic times in Egypt, just before the pharaohs came to power. At right is the imprint of a Sumerian seal from those times. Now those are some re-e-e-ealy long tails.

Dino DucklingsTake a look at this sauropod dinosaur daddy taking his brood out for a stroll, depicted by me on the cover of my Dinosaur Tales short story, Hatching Alamosaurus. Doesn’t he look quite a bit like the Mesopotamian serpopards? I think it’s no coincidence.

Some will say it’s just that, a coincidence, the result of an ancient sculptor’s fanciful combining of different animal forms, a not-uncommon trick in those times (consider the Sphinx, the prototypical chimeric beast). Some others will say the serpopard is just a crude approximation of a giraffe, and not a dinosaur or chimera at all.

Four DogsWe can put the latter counter-hypothesis to rest easily. Take a look at this sculpture, known as the four-dog palette. On one side it’s got a serpopard, down there at the bottom, right. On the other side it’s got two giraffes, sculpted accurately with hooves, horns, and long legs. But the serpopard has no horns, shorter legs, and multiple toes, and that’s typical of sauropod dinosaurs.

SerpopardsAnd to clinch my argument, take a look at this palette, called the two-dog palette, which has some incredibly snaky-necked serpopards. On its back side, below, is another serpopard and some other creatures as well. Click it for a closer view. Note the well-crafted giraffe at the bottom, and several wild dogs, lions, ibex, bull, and antelope above that, as well as a griffin (another likely dinosaur depiction) and above that, the serpopard. So there is a consistency to the depiction of the creature, and it was clearly distinguished from the giraffe.

Two Dogs BackSo what could it be? Where did the idea ever come from? Let me offer a suggestion. Outcroppings of Mesozoic rocks occur widely around North Africa and the Middle East. In them, scientists have recently found the bones of huge sauropod dinosaurs. So, if a complete, or nearly complete sauropod skeleton was uncovered by ancient Egyptians, then the legend of the serpopard may have been based upon fact.

I believe it. How about you?

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes Peyton McKean mystery stories and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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