Tales from Te Papa: Iguanodon tooth

In 1825, Gideon Mantell described fossil teeth and bones from a quarry near Cuckfield in Sussex, England. He named these remains ‘Iguanodon’ meaning ‘having teeth like those of an Iguana’ (a lizard), but he correctly determined that they were quite unlike the teeth of any known lizard or mammal.

He is credited with being the first person to recognise the prior existence of a group of animals that were neither mammal nor lizard and that were subsequently named ‘dinosaurs’ in 1842 (by Richard Owen).

Dr Hamish Campbell writes about Gideon Mantell below:

Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) lived in Lewes near Brighton where he practised as a doctor. He enjoyed a reputation as an outstandingly successful obstetrician; very few mothers or babies lost their lives due to childbirth when he was involved. He was highly intelligent, well-educated and a skilled artisan. However, to the detriment of his marriage (1816-1839) to Mary Anne, he developed an abiding interest in natural history and, in particular, paleontology.

The Country of the Iguanodon, 1837 by John Martin (1789–1854), watercolour. Gift of Mrs Mantell-Harding, 1961. Image © Te Papa.

The Country of the Iguanodon, 1837 by John Martin (1789–1854), watercolour. Gift of Mrs Mantell-Harding, 1961. Image © Te Papa.

On his death, his sons inherited his estate but it was the younger Walter Mantell who ultimately acquired many of his father’s fossil collections, including the famous ‘Iguanodon tooth’ that resides here at Te Papa.

Walter first came to New Zealand in 1839 with the New Zealand Company. He was to spend much of his adult life here and played a significant role in the early colonial development of New Zealand, including the establishment of the Colonial Museum, the original fore-runner to Te Papa. Many descendents of Walter Mantell reside in New Zealand to this day.

9 Responses

  1. Colin Mantell

    Am I the Great Great Great Grandson of Gideon Mantell.?
    I live in NZ with a Maori/European background. On the Maori side of my family tree my Great Granfather who has a traceable Maori name was also known as Jack Mantell. He lived in Moeraki a settlement 60km north of Dunedin and a place where Walter Mantell spent some time during his negotiations with the local tribe, Ngai Tahu over the allocation of land and reserves from the Kemp Block. This was during the late 1840s.
    Perhaps I will need genetic mapping to solve.
    Colin Mantell. (Colin@mantells.co.nz)

  2. Adele

    I am planning a trip home to London 2014, will be at West Norwood Cemetery to see a few very interesting graves including Gideon Mantell, his son, Walter is buried at Karori. Wellington.NZ. I wont a book.. MOA it had mention of Mantell as well.. wonderful book.

  3. adele

    Would love to see this fossil from Cuckfield, had a visitor out from England last year who told me about it, he went to see where the son was buried in Wellington. I mentioned on a Sussex website about Gideon, hope it got a fair hearing and many good learn more..will visit Cuckfield on my next trip to my homeland..

  4. Debby Matthews

    Can you contact me off the blog by e-mail. It doesn’t show how to add a photo of the house where GM was born to the blog.

    • pamelalovis

      hi Debby
      just caught up with your comments on our blog – it’s great to hear that you live in the house where Gideon Mantell was born! The iguanodon tooth is one of my favourite things in the Te Papa collection.

      I will email you now and if you can send me through a photo of the house we can post it on the blog.

      Many thanks

  5. janekeig

    Hi Debby

    I’m happy to assist in any way possible and please link to our website. Can you post a photo of the house where Gideon was born?


    Jane Keig

  6. Debby Matthews

    I live in the house where Gideon Mantell was born in Lewes on 3 Feb 1790. A few of us a hoping to mark the 220th anniversary of his birth next year with some walks and talks based on his discoveries and observations around the locality. In his home town he is not as well known as he ought to be so we are hoping to develop a more lasting memorial to his life and works in the town – not forgetting of course, his wife Mary Anne Woodhouse who actually found the first Iguanadon tooth fossil and also created some of his illustrations. Although she tired of his obsessions her early support is often overlooked. It would be nice to make some links with the NZ collections.


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