I first read A Fortunate Life, Albert Facey’s autobiography, about 20 years ago. I read it for the second time in the fortnight just past. It’s an astonishing tale for several reasons, not least of which is the hardships he experienced when young. For this post, there is one part of his story particularly I am focusing on.

It happened while Mr Facey was a soldier, camped in Egypt. He was telling an elderly Egyptian man of his wonder at the pyramids, and particularly how the huge stones were moved to such heights. The Egyptian man said that his father had told him that they were built as protection for women, children and food against raiders: nothing about stars or aliens or cosmic energy.

As for how the stones were moved, the man told Albert Facey, ‘This is what my father told me,’ he said, ‘you can take it for what it is worth. Many years ago, when the pyramids were being built, in this place and in many surrounding countries there were large lizards. They were dinosaurs. They had four legs and were very big, with a long thick tail, long neck and large body. When standing on the ground the full-size ones were from ten to twelve feet high and weighed about six to eight tons. They were very strong and could carry huge loads strapped onto their back. They lived on many things – all kinds of vegetables and fruit – and could go long periods without food or water. They were an African animal, very quiet and easily tamed and trained. My forefathers used them to cart the stones you see in the pyramids…The dinosaurs would crawl up the pyramids with a large stone on their back. They were very intelligent and quiet – much like horses to handle.’

Mr Facey asked the old man what had happened to the lizards. According to his correspondent, they died out because of a disease that killed their young.

Several aspects of the Egyptian man’s explanation are intriguing. Firstly, the man himself used the word dinosaurs. Obviously if dinosaurs died out millions of years ago, this couldn’t be true. Then again, the word “dinosaur” only became a part of the English language in 1841 (I think it was). Before this, texts talked of dragons. Some were the size of a large dog (there’s a picture of a Babylonian god Marduk with a knee-high lizard beside him – it looks like a scaly miniature pony, hyped up on caffeine and wearing a couple of birthday hats), others the size of a horse – see the statues of St George. There are also engravings on the ancient walls of Babylon of creatures long necks, opposite lions. But like dragons, size isn’t a criterion for inclusion in the dinosaur category. Many other kinds of animal had supersized ancestors; included kangaroos and wombats. (see the Discovery Channel production Paleoworld.)

Paleontologists tell us that crocodiles haven’t changed in 50 million years (again, if memory serves). Could they be classified as dinosaurs or dragons? They aren’t extinct. Both dragons and dinosaurs, then, are lizards; reptiles: and reptiles never stop growing throughout their lives. (although some paleontologists believe that dinosaurs were warm-blooded – again, refer to the Paleoworld production, specifically the section titled “Killer Birds”.)

If your mind is already made up and you find it easier to dismiss such hiccoughs in history, feel free: you might be right to do so. But these arcane parts of world history fascinate me. Blame Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot said it was the little facts, the parts that didn’t fit in with the current theory, that were the key to finding the truth.

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