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Gideon Mantell's historic find in Cuckfield

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

One day in 1822 Dr. Gideon Mantell (3 February 1790 – 10 November 1852) was visiting a patient in Cuckfield.

Mantell realised how little was known about prehistory and was determined to find out more, and in doing so to win fame. In the quarry, now Whiteman’s Green playing field, sandstone was being excavated for road making. Mansell bribed the quarry man to give him all the fossils they found; a rival fossil hunter had taken some from his quarry too.

Gideon and Mary Mantell

Mrs Mantell found a stone embedded with a worn tooth. Mantell eventually matched the teeth with the tropical lizard iguana, in the skull collection of the Royal College of surgeons, and realised that they had once belonged to a great reptile, which he named 'iguanodon', meaning iguana tooth.

The size of an iguanadon

Although the word dinosaur–meaning ‘fearfully great lizard’, was not coined until 1841, Dr Mantell in 1825 had become the first man both to discover and describe a species of what we now know as dinosaurs. Mantell went on to discover at Cuckfield three more of the dinosaur genera during his lifetime: hylaeosaurus, pelorosaurus and regnosaurus.

Iguanodons probably lasted 60 to 70,000,000 years during the Cretaceous period. They were giant herbivorous dinosaurs varying in size from 15 to 30 feet from head to tail and standing 15 feet from the ground. A long flat tail helped them to swim across full waters and rivers or take refuge when pursued. They moved with a hopping gait or short gallop on strong hind legs and had short front arms like kangaroos. Their ‘hands’ had four fingers and a spikey thumb which was sometimes used as a weapon. Mantell misinterpreted this thumb-spike, believing it to be a nasal horn.

Mantell recorded in his diary a friends remark that he would ‘ride on the back of his iguanodon into the temple of immortality’. He was delighted– he wanted fame and in 1826 he wrote in one of his occasional poetic outpourings

… and anxious vigils have I kept

In a fruitless search for fame

And have toiled when the world has slept

To gather a deathless name

In 1833 he moved to Brighton to be closer to William IV’s court, aiming to extend his practice into sophisticated society. He lived in 20, the Steyne, a fashionable part of Brighton near the pavilion and mixed with the Faraday family.

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