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Did whale bones cause an identity crisis in Antwerp?

Author
Roy Meals, MD

Posted February 27, 2019


Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, started as a river port during Roman times and grew to become the world’s diamond center.

Local legend tells of a giant who would extract tolls from boatmen navigating the river. He cut off the hands of those resisting his tax. A Roman legionnaire ended this nonsense by slaying the ogre and flinging his huge hand into the river. Hantwerpen was the spelling of the city for centuries and means throwing the hand.

Some huge bones, unearthed years later, substantiated the legend. The local museum displayed these remains as belonging to the giant until somebody realized that the bones were a fossilized rib and shoulder blade from a two-million-year-old wright whale. Scholarly research ensued and turned up aanwerpsoil deposited in a river delta—as the more likely source of the city’s name. Did this create a municipal identity crisis? Momentarily, perhaps.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 19-03-Antwerp-sculpture-throw-hand.jpg

Undaunted by the bare-bone facts, the locals have commemorated the brave legionnaire’s fictional heroism with a bronze sculpture, which is the main plaza’s centerpiece. (A stream of water courses from the amputated hand.) Also, hands remain on the city’s coat of arms, sweet shops sell hand-shaped cookies and chocolates, and the hallmark for locally produced gold and silverware is, naturally, a hand.

The notorious whale bones, now accurately labeled, are still on display at the local Museum aan de Stroon.

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This blog is republished with permission from http://www.aboutbone.com, a weekly blog for curious people.