The mosasaur of Maastricht
October 31, 2007 4 Comments
When you next visit Maastricht’s extensive system of military defence, dating from the 18th century and commonly known as the casemates, don’t limit your experience to the underground passages and bombproof rooms, but take some time to freely wander in the area that is lying in the open air.
There you will discover a very special environment for plants and animals, with a microclimate of its own. If you take a stroll on the earthen ditch walls, reveted with bricks, you will often see some sheep grazing in the dry ditches below. The bricks on the walls are even more interesting, because they’re home to the wall lizard, which cannot be spotted anywhere else in the Netherlands.
I have always found lizards grisly little creatures, because they throw off part of their tail without any problem. My encyclopedia tells me that the infamous crocodiles that can jump out of a river to swallow you up, are rather closely related to lizards. The same holds for dinosaurs, which we’re happy never to bump into any more.
In Maastricht however you may still make the acquaintance of a large prehistorical lizard: the well known “mosasaur” (“Meuse lizard”) at the Museum of Natural History. The fossil skull of the gigantic beast was discovered by workmen in the marl of Mount St. Pieter, to the south of the city. This happened around 1770, at about the same time that other workmen were constructing the casemates.
The finding of the “Grand Animal”
It wasn’t the first that time people found fossil remains of the mosasaur in the marl near Maastricht, nor would it be the last. But the skull that the workmen dug up in a marl pit of Mount St. Pieter, at a distance of five hundred meters from an entrance, was so complete that they called for a physician, dr. Hoffmann, to take a look at it. The animal was later officially named after him and became known as mosasaurus hoffmanni.
A local canon by the name of Godding who owned the nearby land estate of Maeszicht, where the present day Lourdes grotto is located, claimed the beast for himself because it had been discovered on his ground. Godding exhibited the fossil skull in a cottage next to the Meuse river.
In those days, some amateur geologists, like a certain Mr Camper and his son, were already able to determine quite precisely the species of the animal. According to the father, the beast was a finfish, and the son later identified it even more accurately as being a type of monitor lizard.
When the French revolutionary armies besieged Maastricht in 1795, rumour had it that the French had a special interest in the skull of the beast. As a consequence, Father Godding concealed it somewhere in the city. The story goes that a man by the name of Freicine put up six hundred bottles of good wine for the person who would be able to smuggle the fossil into his hands. Allegedly, twelve grenadiers triumphantly showed up with the head the next day.
This is how the French garrison robbed Maastricht of the skull of the mosasaur in 1795. The fossil ended up in the Paris Museum of Natural History. Later on, museums in Leiden and Maastricht obtained a fine plaster cast of the skull.
But let’s dwell on the question of how father Godding (or Godin) could lose the skull to the French. It appears that although he did hide it away from them, he acted only in a half hearted way. It looked as if, in fact, he was willing to get rid of the skull. Why should he act like this? The key to this secret is perhaps related to the fact that canon Godding was a member of a local freemason club called ‘De Groote Sociëteit’.
It’s obvious that there were enlightened people in Maastricht, like Camper and his son, who recognised that the chalk of Mount St. Pieter was a remnant of a former sea. Otherwise, they could never have come up with the hypothesis that the skull might have belonged to a finfish. Although the theory of evolution wasn’t in vogue yet, some people did reckon with the possibility that species could become extinct, as a result for example of a worldwide disaster.
Canon Godding stood before a spiritual conflict. As a member of the Church, he was supposed to propagate Catholic standpoints, but as a member of the enlightened freemason movement, he had to be progressive. Rome was at a loss at what to do with the beast: if the world had been created six thousand years ago within one week, how could the animal have ended up in the mountain? In de Groote Sociëteit, people would discuss this sort of problems, and probably somebody suggested that the fossil should be examined in Paris.
The Maastrichtian stage
In Paris there was a sandy-haired geologist, whose real name was Kuefer, but who gave himself the more French sounding name Georges Cuvier. A famous legend relates that one of his students once hid behind the skull of a billygoat and woke him up at night with the words: “I’m the devil and I’m going to devour you!”, whereupon Cuvier answered: “I venture to doubt that, for I see by your horns that you belong to the herbivorous family”.
Cuvier identified the beast of Maastricht as a gigantic lizard. As it turned out, his theory according to which the mosasaur developed from carnivorous lizards is nowadays generally accepted.
In the warm maritime environment that was prevailing on earth at the time of the mosasaur, lizards’ paws evolved gradually into fin paws. The mosasaur moved through the water by squirming like an eel. It continously changed teeth, in order to bite better, and fed on sharks just as we eat herrings.
To be precise: the mosasaur belonged to the class of reptiles, in the order of snakes and lizards, and to the family of mosasauridae. Its next of kin in our present world is the monitor lizard. However, this lizard is very small compared to its famous great-uncle. Although the komodo monitor may grow up to three meters long, this is only one third of the length of the mosasaur.
The thriving period of the Meuse lizards took place during the Upper Cretaceous, about seventy five million years ago. But all the dinosaurs became extinct in a relatively short time frame only ten million years later. The desastrous period in which this happened, is known in geology as the Maastrichtian stage.
How could the dinosaurs disappear from the face of the earth? There exist several theories about this question. According to Cuvier, who thought the species were unchangeable in principle, the dinosaurs died out during the Great Flood (Genesis, ch. 6-8). On account of this opinion, Cuvier can be ranked among the modern adherents of the catastrophe theory, together with some real evolutionists. However, evolutionists don’t consider the bible story of Noah, but rather the strike of a large meteorite in Mexico, which blew up so much dust that the sun rays couldn’t reach the earth for a long time. It is also possible that an exploding supernova exposed the earth to an overdose of cosmic radiation.
The most recent theories follow a different scenario. During the Cretaceous period, the continents, which were originally connected within Pangaea, began to drift apart. Rocky mountains appeared, the sea level decreased, and our present climate zones eventually came about. The dinosaurs couldn’t stand all these big changes, even though according to some scientists they were warm-blooded.
Incidentally, it is quite possible that the big transformations of the biosphere, aside from the great and small ice ages, have a periodical character as well, and are related to the motion of our solar system through the Milky Way. The earth is now four-and-a-half billion years old, so the next billions of years might still hold more in store for us.
Strolling in the mountain
I humbly realise that it was only 250,000 years ago that people settled down in our regions for the first time. This happened where the new Maastricht city district of Belvédère is now about to be built. Maastricht is very young compared to the age of the earth. To better understand this, let’s simply imagine for a moment that the Romans came strolling along only two hours instead of two thousand years ago. The Belvédère people arrived a good ten days ago. The mosasaur has been extinct for eight years, and the earth is five hundred years of age.
On the topic of strolling in Maastricht, there are many pleasant walks to make in the valley of the meandering Jeker river, in the casemates or on Mount St Pieter. A guide can take you to the mountain’s underground marl pits, and show you many inscriptions, charcoal drawings and sculptures. You may also enjoy a cup of coffee on the terrace of Châlet Bergrust or on St. Pieter’s Fort, and take a moment to admire the multitude of towers in the Meuse valley. A bit further up in the mountain, forest paths will lead you to the plateau above the Albert canal.
Another time, you may walk along the vineyards and cornfields, or through the sunken road towards the upper church of Mount St Pieter. Light a candle in the Lourdes grotto and pray for the preservation of our environment, and especially for the mountain that is still being excavated by the machines of the cement factory. And remember that here used to exist, in pre-prehistorical times, a sea which hosted not only the mosasaur, but also countless other animals whose fossil remains are preserved in the mountain.
By Hennie Reuvers
Dr Reuvers (1951) is a retired teacher of mathematics from Maastricht. He likes to solve math problems, but is also interested in history. He is married and the father of four children. Check his website at http://www.petericepudding.com
“Bèr”, a specimen of a new species of mosasaur, Prognathodon saturator. It was found in 1998 in a nearby quarry, and transferred to the Natural History Museum of Maastricht. Read everything about Bèr on the museum’s website. If you understand Dutch, here’s a very interesting video clip of the discovery of Ber’s fossil skull in Maastricht.
- Wikipedia: wall lizard, mosasaur, Cuvier, komodo dragon
- Winkler Prins Encyclopedia
- Natural History Museum Maastricht
- Ach Lieve Tijd, nr 9 page 212
- Historische Encyclopedie Maastricht: mosasaurus, Godding
- Steven M Stanley, Uitsterven; Wetenschappelijke Bibliotheek Natuur & Techniek, 1989
- Maashagedissen, Natuurhistorisch genootschap in Limburg, 1998
- The Mosasaur – Maastricht´s Prehistoric Mega-Lizard
- Meet the Mosasaurs
- Maastricht Journal: Dutch Want Back the Fossil Napoleon Took Away
- BBC fact file: Giant Mosasaurs
Mosasaur slide show