Frozen Mammoths by John Stuart Blackie

Frozen Mammoths – by John Stuart Blackie

Mammoth, Mammoth! mighty old Mammoth!
Strike with your hatchet and cut a good slice;
The bones you will find, and the hide of the mammoth,
Packed in stiff cakes of Siberian ice.

1869. Excerpt from A Song of Geology, by John Stuart Blackie.

Listen to the poem below:

Frozen Mammoths by John Stuart Blackie.
Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).
A digital piece made to emulate a linocut. This piece is enttirely black and white. About 2/3 of the way up, the background is white, and the bottom 2/3 have a black background, with a sharp line between them. The black portion is below the ice, and the white portion is exposed to the air. Between the two sections is a dead and frozen mammoth, floating in a way so it is almost standing bipedally. Its trunk and tusks are above the ice, but the rest of the head and body are sunk below. Its rear right foot is skeletonized. The effect is eerie, since the mammoth looks like it could still be alive and struggling until you pan down and see that foot. The bottom right of the piece has Ida Kalsta's watermark.
Guest art by Ida Kalsta (https://www.idakalsta.com/paleoart).

Though the entire poem, A Song of Geology, is a delight, we opted to go with a single stanza instead of the multi-page ballad addressing the entire history of the Earth. The full poem was originally published in Blackie’s book, Musa Burschicosa: A Book of Songs for Students and University Men.


The natural history of this poem

John Stuart Blackie’s muse for this verse is the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), an extinct relative of modern elephants that lived from 40,000 to 4,000 years ago. John focusses on one of the most unique palaeontological circumstances around mammoths, that many have been found frozen in ice. Frozen mammoths are found in Siberia, as John’s poems mentions, but also in other parts of northern Russia as well as Alaska. These mammoths are found in the permafrost, a layer of frozen ground beneath the surface that stays frozen all year long and can be thousands of years old. The permafrost these mammoths are found in was once the ground they walked on, usually peat-filled swamps where these massive animals became stuck in thick mud and died, then were buried and frozen.

Frozen mammoths are important scientifically as they preserve things that fossils usually don’t. For example, frozen mammoths have been found with much of their skin, muscle, and thick, cold-resistant fur. This allows us to know almost exactly how mammoths looked in life. Much of the mammoth’s diet is well-known as frozen specimens preserve organs and their last meals sometimes. Finally, frozen mammoths can also contain DNA, allowing scientists to learn much about mammoth genetics, how they’re related to other elephant species, and potentially someday revive mammoths through cloning.

John Stuart Blackie

A sepia coloured albumen silver portrait of John Stuart Blackie. He is wearing a suit but with a wool blanket wrapped around his chest like a sash and waist like a wrap skirt or kilt. He has a short top hat and is looking sternly to the right, with his left hand on his hip, as though he is scolding a student. He is a white man with a large nose, no beard, heavy eyelids, and frizzy white hair that goes bast his ears but is shorter than his shoulders.
Albumen silver portrait. Professor John Stuart Blackie – Emeritus Prof. of Greek, Edinburgh Univ.

An eccentric scholar, John Stuart Blackie was known in his time for his enthusiastic personality and strange way of dressing. He was a professor of several languages at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, and he loved to travel. A well-educated Scottish Nationalist, he always gave his opinions with gusto and enthusiasm.

In keeping with 19th Century scholarly tradition, John’s education was not exclusive to languages. As we’ve seen with other early scientists and scholars, the Victorians did not separate the arts and sciences as we do today, and so any scholar of the arts could have also had a firm understanding of scientific topics like geology. John’s full poem, A song of geology, consists of 26 verses covering the entire history of the Earth. The Mammoth verse demonstrates that John kept up with geological news of the era; when the poem was published in 1969 mammoths were all the rage.

John would have been aware that frozen woolly mammoths existed; the first fully documented specimen was found in Siberia in 1799. Before that date, mammoths had been found semi-frequently by Siberian hunters but simply not reported to scientific institutions. Starting in 1860 (9 years before A Song of Geology was published), the Russian government began offering rewards of up to ₽1000 for frozen mammoth finds. Frozen mammoths are sensational finds, since they preserve animals that no longer exist, and require persevering through difficult field work. John Stuart Blackie would likely have heard of Siberian expeditions, either through scientific publications or lectures, and was likely inspired by them to write his verse.


Further Reading

Poem source:

  • Musa Burschicosa: A Book of Songs for Students and University Men

Natural History

More on John Stuart Blackie: