Specimen of the Week 345: The Pikermi Casts
By Tannis Davidson, on 1 June 2018
Back in January, this blog featured four specimens nicknamed ‘the fancy casts’ which were chosen by UCL Museum Studies students as a research project for their Collections Curatorship course. The casts are of extinct species of horse and sabre-toothed cat which lived in the Miocene – Pliocene epochs around 23-3 million years ago. These four casts are unique in the Grant Museum because they are beautifully detailed, hand-painted and mounted upon bespoke ceramic bases.
I’m pleased to report that the students discovered that the fancy casts are indeed rather special. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of Kayleigh Anstiss, Anna Fowler, Pamela Maldonado Rivera, Rachael Rogers and Hollie Withers, these casts are no longer such a mystery. Here they are again, this week’s newly titled Specimens of the Week are…
**The Pikermi Casts**
Pikermi to Munich
Prior to the students’ research, the fossil specimen of one of the casts (Amphimachairodus giganteus LDUCZ-Z3295) had been identified by palaeontologist Dr. Eric Buffetaut as on display at the Bavarian State Collections of Palaeontology and Geology (BSPG) Munich, collected in Pikermi, Greece. Pikermi was one of the most significant sites for vertebrate palaeontology in the 19th century as the discoveries at the site helped shaped the understanding the European Miocene to Pleistocene periods and gave important insight into the flora and faunal variety present at that time.
As a starting point, the students contacted museums and collections worldwide which had known or suspected links with excavations at Pikermi or held material from this site to determine if they had any casts or original fossils which would inform the investigation of the Grant Museum casts (species of the three other casts were also excavated at Pikermi).
The fossil sabre-toothed cat skull on display in Munich was originally described and figured by Roth & Wagner (1854) as Machaerodus leoninus . This species had been known by a number of names such as Machairodus cultridens (as the labels on the Grant Museum cast indicated) but following subsequent comparative studies and systematic revisions, most current authors designate this species as A. giganteus  .
PhD researcher Ioannis Giaourtsakis from Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, who has extensively studied the Pikermi site fossils, was able to confirm that besides the Machaerodus skull, the BSPG also has the fossil palate specimen which matches Grant Museum cast LDUCZ-Z3258 (now designated Cremohipparion mediterraneum).
It is thought that the Hipparion lower jaw and leg fossils (corresponding to the other two Grant Museum Pikermi casts Z3242 and Z2733) were once a part of the BSPG collection but were lost as a result of bombing during the night of 24/25th April 1944 which destroyed the former museum building in the Alte Akademie as well as an estimated 80% of the paleontological collections, including specimen registries and other archival documentation .
Presently, no other reproductions like these two Grant Museum Pikermi casts are known. This makes these casts (pictured below) the only surviving records of the destroyed original specimens and a valuable resource of possibly unknown Pikermi material:
While many institutions have Pikermi fossils and casts, none have casts made in the style of the ones at the Grant Museum. However, two museums do have casts (less elaborate versions) of the same specimens as two of the Grant Museum’s Pikermi casts. The Natural History Museum Vienna has a cast of the Munich Machaerodus skull and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard has a cast of the Munich Hipparion mediterraneum palate:
Interestingly, Jessica D. Cundliff from the MCZ at Harvard confirmed that their H. mediterraneum cast was received directly ‘From Prof. Zittel in Munich’ as inscribed on its base:
Karl Alfred von Zittel (1839-1904) was a German palaeontologist who, by 1880, was professor of geology and palaeontology at the University of Munich and director of the state collection of fossils in Munich. Over the next 20 years, he worked prodigiously to expand the Munich collections obtaining fossils from around the world, such as the ‘rare collections from Pikermi’ .
His influential four volume Handbuch der Palaeontologie (1880-1893), served as counterpart and companion to the vast collections amassed in the museum, making Munich the centre of 19th century palaeontology and von Zittel its most distinguished advocate. Casts of specimens from Munich are found worldwide, testimony to von Zittel’s commitment to sharing palaeontological discoveries and advancing the discipline.
It seems highly probable that the Grant Museum casts originated from Munich, at the time of von Zittel, like the Harvard cast and possibly the Vienna cast. The fine quality of the casting is evidence that they were based on direct casting moulds. Without firm dates of manufacture or museum entry, it is estimated that the casts were most likely produced circa 1860-1900 . It is hoped that continued investigation, collaboration and shared resources, all the Pikermi casts (Grant Museum, Harvard and Vienna) may lead to further clarifications.
Value and significance
During the course of this project, having contacted museums all over the world, no further examples of casts like the Grant Museum Pikermi casts could be found. Nearly all of the curators and museum keepers that were contacted thought that these casts were unique. Is it possible that they were made under the care of von Zittel himself, a special commission meant for display in a private collection?
This project has revealed much about the context of the Pikermi casts through the collaborative efforts of many researchers and museum professionals. Many potential research areas and promising leads have been identified for future investigation among the contributors to this project. Through the sharing of resources and information about the Pikermi casts, it is hoped that more can be discovered about their history and significance. I’d like to think von Zittel would be pleased.
Tannis Davidson is the Curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology
Thank you to Kayleigh Anstiss, Anna Fowler, Pamela Maldonado Rivera, Rachael Rogers and Hollie Withers for their excellent research of the Pikermi casts and for providing images of the Grant Museum Pikermi casts.
Many thanks to Eric Buffetaut, Jessica D. Cundliff, Ursula Göhlich and Ioannis Giaourtsakis for generously providing specimen images and vital information about the Pikermi site, fossils and casts. Thank you Iaonnis for also supplying current taxonomies for the Grant Museum specimens.
Thank you to the following curators and academics for their advice and suggestions: Prof. G.D. Koufos, Dr. Nick Fraser, Dr. Neil Clark, Dr. Gertrud Rößner, Melissa Mead, Pennilyn Higgins, Robert Mickey, Michele Morgan, Hilary Ketchum and Paolo Viscardi.
 Roth, J. and Wagner, A. 1854. ‘Die fossilen Knochenüberreste von Pikermi in Griechenland. Gemeinschaftlich bestimmt und beschrieben nach den Materialien, welche durch die von dem Erstgenannten im Winter 1852-53 dortselbst vorgenommenen Ausgrabungen erlangt wurden ’, Abhandlungen der Mathemat.-Physikalischen Classe der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften . Munich, verlag Der K. Akademie. 7: 371-464. [online]: https://ia902700.us.archive.org/35/items/abhandlungenderk07wiss/abhandlungenderk07wiss.pdf
 Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1904. ‘Karl Afred von Zittel’. Science, New Series, Vol. 19, No. 474 (Jan. 29, 1904), pp. 186-188. [online]: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1630122