A dinosaur at Angkor

Steggie – note how he’s a fair bit paler than the carving at the bottom

More precisely, a stegosaur at Ta Prohm. A stegosaur, as I’ve no doubt you already knew but perhaps it had slipped your mind, is a herbivorous dinosaur that lived some 155 million years ago in North America, says Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s slightly wrong – they lived in Europe and Asia too – but the basic point is, they died off a long time ago.

In which case, what’s this doing on a doorway at Ta Prohm? (Link to Wikipedia again). TP was built in the general Angkor complex in the late 11th/early 12th centuries, and is no place for a dinosaur.

This question was recently discussed on Alison Carter’s blog. She says it’s not a steggie, and as an archaeologist she should know. I’d say, at an guess, that 99.9% of experts agree on that. What they don’t agree on is what it actually is. Some say it’s a buffalo (water buffalo that is), on account of the horns, if that’s what they are. Others say it’s probably a wild boar, or maybe a chameleon, or a rhino, or possibly something else. Alison’s money’s on a pangolin, which is a kind of scaly ant-eater. The failure of experts to agree on what it is, as opposed to is not, is a bit embarrassing for us scientific rationalists, I must admit.

A large, or largish, number of non-experts think they know the right answer. Almost to a man (and woman), these are biblical fundamentalists out to prove the wrongness of evolution and the foolishness of geologists who claim that the Earth is more than ten thousand years old. It looks like a steggie because it is a steggie. This gives a good idea of the on-line chatter among the incognoscenti:

If Stegosaurus lived in Cambodia only 1000 years ago when the Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm temples were built, why are there no Stegosaurus bones found in Asia, whether in archeological sites or in the fossil record?

Good point. Nothing between 150 million BC and 1186 AD, nada. Where were they hiding out?

Since they quarried rock to build their temples the only sensible answer is that they did indeed unearth a good stegosaurus skeleton.
Perhaps it was carved on the temple for “interest”, just like things are placed in museums for us to wonder about.

Except then they’d have to reconstruct Steggie from the skeleton, and that’s not easy – and complete fossil skeletons are very rare in any case.

a poor rendition of a chameleon when many more of the other carvings are accurate…and superbly executed.

A poor rendition of a chameleon I’d agree with, but superbly executed? I mean, are we talking Michelangelo’s Pieta here, or maybe a Khmer Buddha with a mystic smile? Well, it’s ok.

of course its a frigging stegosaurus. use your eyes. what else is it, seriously?

And so on. Reading this stuff could seriously send you in search of a nice cup of tea.

Some of the more biblically-inclined are actually more thoughtful and quite honest. I liked this one, and regret I can’t identify the author. He gives instructions for finding the carving, and a little background information that’s otherwise hard to come by. He says it was cleaned by Claude Jacques, a respected historian and the author of Ancient Angkor, an illustrated guidebook to the temples. This explains why the steggie is lighter in colour than the other carvings in the group.

The fact that it’s lighter has led skeptics to suggest that Steggie is a forgery, not an outright one but that an original carving of something else – a buffalo, say, or a rhino, or even a pangolin – has been improved by the addition of those plates on top of it.

If a forgery, who and when and why? Unanswerable questions. I gather that Jacques’ book (1999) was the one that brought Steggie world-wide fame, along with an earlier edition in about 1997. Claude Jacques certainly wouldn’t alter a carving at Ta Prohm (I doubt he’d clean one up for a photo, either, but let that pass), so any alteration had to date from before then. The 1990s were a wild and wonderful period in Cambodia, and anything could have happened and not been noticed for years. (Try improving a carving today and you’ll get arrested instanter … probably).

Steggie at the Smithsonian website

And if not a forgery, then what? This brings us back to where we began. But while the evidence for Steggie not being a stegosaur seems pretty overwhelming, the evidence for him being anything else is just as undefinitive. Very frustrating.

A real stegosaur, looking not all that much like Steggie – note the size of the head, the spikes on the tail and how it’s held, and where are the horns on the head?