Maidstone and the Iguanodon
In 1822, Gideon Mantell, a Sussex doctor passionately interested in the study of fossils, discovered the Iguanodon species based only on specimens of fossilised teeth.
In 1834, however, he was alerted to a find of a much larger fossil. Found in a quarry near Queen’s Road, Maidstone, it was obviously the remains of a very large animal. The quarry’s owner, William Benstead, was also fascinated by fossils and excavated the fossil himself, recording his work with notes and sketches. Benstead’s find was widely reported, and he wrote to Mantell inviting him to view the fossil. Mantell recognised it as an Iguanodon, and the world’s first articulated bird-hip dinosaur specimen, and purchased it for £25.
Mantell’s attempts to reconstruct the skeleton and life of the Iguanodon mark the beginning of palaeontology – the scientific study of dinosaurs.
Iguanodons were large, bulky herbivores that existed during the early Cretaceous period, and were known to have a large, tall but narrow skull with toothless beaks.
The name Iguanodon means iguana-tooth, noting the similarity of the dinosaur’s jaw and teeth to that of the iguana. The Iguanodon was about 5 metres tall and about 11 metres long, weighing up to four or five tons with powerful back legs and a massive tail to help it balance. Other distinctive features include large thumb spikes, used for self-defence, and long prehensile fingers, perfect for foraging food.
An internationally significant find, the Maidstone Iguanodon fossils proved crucial to paleontological understanding of the species’ skeleton, size and how the bones of an Iguanodon fitted together.
The Maidstone fossil is currently displayed at the Natural History Museum in London, but Benstead’s notebook with his reconstructions of the Iguanodon, and a cast of the fossil, are highlights of Maidstone Museum’s palaeontology collection.
The image below shows the fossil as recorded by Benstead.