14a. Detail of Archaeopteryx plate, 1863


The first fossil of Archaeopteryx lithographica was found in the limestone quarries of Solnhofen in 1861. It was described and named by the German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer, but the fossil was owned by a local physician, Karl Haberlein, who was determined to sell it to the highest bidder. That happened to be the British Museum, whose trustees were persuaded by Richard Owen to part with the considerable sum of 700 pounds to purchase the specimen.

Owen published his own description of Archaeopteryx in 1863, accompanying his memoir with a life-size double folding lithograph. It shows the details of the specimen in extraordinary detail. The London specimen, as it is now called, lacks a head, but it contains exquisite impressions of feathers, and appears to even the casual observer to be quite bird-like. Yet it could equally well be called a dinosaur, a Compsognathus with feathers, with its long bony tail and with three fingers with claws on each wing. To Owen, however, who was an anti-evolutionist and very much opposed to the idea of missing links, Archaeopteryx was unequivocally a bird--a peculiar and distinctive bird, but a bird nevertheless.


Owen, Richard. "On the Archeopteryx of von Meyer, with a decription of the Fossil Remains of a Long-tailed species, from the Lithographic Stone of Solenhofen," in: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 153 (1863), pp. 33-47. This work was on display in the original exhibition as item 14.

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