The world’s greatest scientific hoax
Piltdown. Even today the name sends a shiver through the scientific community, for this was the most dramatic and daring fraud ever perpetrated upon the world academia and the fall out from it continues to affect us to this day.
Between 1908 and 1912, the discovery of human skull fragments, an ape-like jaw and crudely worked flints close to the quiet Sussex village of Piltdown, was hailed by the world’s press as the most sensational archaeological find ever: the ‘missing link’ that conclusively proved Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Manchester Guardian ran the first headline: “THE EARLIEST MAN?: REMARKABLE DISCOVERY IN SUSSEX. A SKULL MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD" it screamed, adding that the find was “the most important of our time”. The news spread quickly, anthropologists, geologists, and archaeologists all voicing their eagerness to examine the find.
Few archaeological discoveries have the capacity to be front-page news twice over; but ‘Piltdown Man’ (or Eoanthropus dawsoni to give him his proper scientific name) is a rare exception. Forty-one years after he first became famous, the “Earliest Englishman” was again hot news. It was late November, 1953, and the world was about to discover that Piltdown Man had been a hoax. Not just any hoax mind, the London Star declared it to be “THE BIGGEST SCIENTIFIC HOAX OF THE CENTURY”. There never had been a ‘missing link’ preserved in the gravels of Piltdown; the whole discovery had been part of an elaborate and complex archaeological forgery. The “Earliest Englishman” was nothing more than a cheap fraud.
The pages that follow summarise a forensic anaylsis of the collectuions, career and life of Charles Dawson, finder of Piltdown and premier British antiquarian of the late 19th and early 20th century conducted by the author between 2000 and 2003. The results of this project were disseminated in the 2003 book, PILTDOWN MAN: THE SECRET LIFE OF CHARLES DAWSON, published by Tempus (ISBN 0752425722). What follows is a summary of the more important discoveries and conclusions derived from this work. For a more detailed analysis of the full catalogue of finds, suspects and full charges brought against Dawson, I would strongly recommend that you purchase, borrow or just plain read said book.
For over 50 years people have speculated on the identity and motive of the Piltdown hoaxer. Many names have been put forward, often on little more than guesswork or supposition. As time moves on, so the list of suspects increases. Conspiracy and counter conspiracy theories abound, as any examination of the current literature will confirm. Half a century on and it seems that anyone alive in the British Isles or Northern France in the early years of the 20th century could have generated the fraud, even, as one author recently noted “the Piltdown milkman”.
One name that continues to surface in any discussion of the hoax however, is that of its finder, Charles Dawson. Dawson was a solicitor by profession but in his spare time he was a keen local antiquarian, his discoveries earning him the title “the Wizard of Sussex”. Those who defend Dawson against the charge of hoax often cite his impressive archaeological credentials noting also that, as a well-respected solicitor, he did much to benefit his local community. Hard to believe that such a man could be the same one sometimes accused of perpetrating the most infamous scientific fraud in history.
Most of the discussions, theories and ‘solutions’ to the Piltdown hoax however rely on the premise that the discovery was a one off - a single, if elaborate hoax, designed to fool the scientific community, embarrass certain key figures of the establishment or to verify (or discredit) fledgling models of human evolution. Under such circumstances one of any number of people may plausibly be held responsible. Of course this all presupposes that the Piltdown hoax had no immediate ancestry; that it burst, fully formed, on to the scientific stage and that its author had not previously been engaged in any form of deceit or academic deception. What if this were not the case? What if the origins of the Piltdown fraud could be traced as clearly as one traces lines of descent on a family tree?
Unlike his brothers, Charles Dawson pursued a modest early career. He never went to university, opting instead to follow his father into the legal profession. From his earliest days he possessed a keen interest in the natural world, collecting a variety of unusual fossils, the majority of which he donated to the British Museum. Amongst these were teeth from a previously unknown species of mammal, later named Plagiaulax dawsoni in his honour, three new species of dinosaur, one later named Iguanodon dawsoni, and a new form of fossil plant, Salaginella dawsoni. The British Museum conferred upon him the title of Honorary Collector and in 1885, in recognition of his many discoveries, he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, an amazing achievement for a man who was then only 21.
In 1889 Dawson's connection with the antiquities of Hastings was strengthened when he co-founded the Hastings and St Leonards Museum Association, one of the first voluntary museum friends groups established in Britain. Dawson soon found himself as a member of the Museum Committee, in charge of the acquisition of artefacts and historical documents, His interest in archaeology developed and his uncanny knack of making spectacular discoveries continued whilst the museum itself proved to be the ideal display case for his own expanding antiquarian collection, which was soon to occupy a section all of its own.
In 1893 Dawson investigated a curious flint mine full of prehistoric, Roman and Medieval artefacts at Lavant, near Chichester and probed in inner depths of two tunnels beneath Hastings Castle. In the same year he presented the British Museum with a Roman statuette from Beauport Park which was made, uniquely for the period, of cast iron. Other discoveries followed, including a strange form of hafted Neolithic stone axe and a well preserved ancient timber boat. In recognition of his many discoveries, Dawson was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries London in 1895. At the age of 31, and without a university degree to his name, he was now Charles Dawson F.G.S., F.S.A.
At this point in his career he began to write extensively on all aspects of Sussex history and archaeology, especially its ironwork, pottery and glass. He studied ancient quarries and dene holes, reanalysed the Bayeux Tapestry and in 1909 produced the definite study of Hastings Castle. He found evidence for the final phases on Roman military occupation of Britain at Pevensey Castle in the form of a number of tiles stamped with the name of the emperor Honorius (AD 395 – 423). Investigating the strange and unorthodox aspects of the natural world, Dawson found a toad petrified inside a flint nodule, discovered a large supply of natural gas at Heathfield in East Sussex, reported on a sea-serpent in the English Channel, observed a new species of modern human and found a strange cross between the goldfish and the carp. It was even reported that in the latter years of his life, Dawson was experimenting with phosphorescent bullets as a deterrent to Zeppelin attacks on London.
Charles Dawson's greatest claim to fame was of course the discovery, sometime before 1912, of Piltdown man. This new species of human was, in recognition of its finder (who had single-handedly elevated the world standing of British palaeontology), given the name Eoanthropus dawsoni, literally “Dawson's man of the dawn“.
A summary account of Dawson’s discoveries
(for a detailed catalogue of finds, suspects and full charges brought against Dawson see PILTDOWN MAN: THE SECRET LIFE OF CHARLES DAWSON, by Miles Russell - published by Tempus (ISBN 0752425722) in 2003)
The Lavant Caves
Blackmore’s Stone Axe
The Bexhill Boat
The Beauport Park statuette
The Uckfield Horseshoe
The Lewes Prick Spur
The ‘Arabic’ Anvil
The Bulverhythe Hammer
The St. Leonards Bronze hoard
The Chinese vase
The Pevensey bricks
Toad in the Hole
Late in November 1891, a young assistant curator at the British Museum (Natural History) presented a paper concerning an exciting new fossil discovery before the Zoological Society of London. The assistant curator was Arthur Smith Woodward and the fossil find a single tooth which seemed to provide the first evidence of a “European Cretaceous Mammal”: an important missing link in the history of life on earth. The find had been made, Woodward reported “by Mr Charles Dawson of Uckfield in a quarry near Hastings”. Woodward observed that the size of the tooth, when combined with the shape of the crown, suggested that it had derived from a wholly new species of mammal. This new species could, Woodward stated bear the name of Plagiaulax dawsoni, “in honour of its discoverer”.
The tooth that Dawson had presented to Woodward was larger than any known example of the genus Plagiaulax. It was also far more abraded than was common, Woodward observed the extraordinary amount of wear to which the crown had been subjected, having lost all its enamel. Any doubts concerning the antiquity of the abrasion, were however dispelled by Woodward who noted that when he had first received it, the fossil had been firmly embedded within its soil matrix.
Assigning a new species on the basis of a single tooth was a hazardous endeavour, though Woodward covered himself by acknowledging the need to acquire further material to confirm the hypothesis. This did not happen for another twenty years when, in 1911, Charles Dawson found more examples of Plagiaulax dawsoni. Sadly, these were to be the last, as no more examples of the species have ever come to light. Lack of additional remains has, understandably, created some uncertainty with the scientific community cornering the validity of the species. In fact, careful examination of the first tooth of Plagiaulax dawsoni showed that its distinctive “side-to-side abrasion” is wholly artificial. Such damage, which effectively eroded the crown much of the enamel, could only have occurred through a programme of extensive and prolonged post-mortem rubbing. In short, Plagiaulax dawsoni is a fake.
Interestingly, the process and nature of the artificial scouring enacted upon the plagiaulacoid teeth mirrors the damage later observed upon the teeth of Eoanthropus dawsoni (Piltdown man) where microscopic examination suggested the application of an abrasive. Similarly, the evidence that Woodward cites to reinforce the antiquity of the first plagiaulacoid molar, namely the firmness to which it adhered to the soil, was also echoed at Piltdown, especially in the case of the animal teeth and bone.
A number of possibilities as to the authorship of the fraud present themselves, the most obvious of which is Charles Dawson. It was Dawson who found the first tooth, and presented it to the British Museum. It was Dawson who received full academic recognition for the discovery, having the species named after him, and it was Dawson who, following Woodward’s hope of someday gathering “further evidence” to support the identification of Plagiaulax dawsoni, produced two more teeth in 1911.
Other potential authors of the fraud include Arthur Smith Woodward, who was assistant curator of the British Museum (Natural History) when the first tooth was ‘discovered’. Woodward made the first identification of the species, assigning it a name, and was the first to publish the results in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Woodward was also, of course, more famously later involved in the recording and eventual publication of the Piltdown discoveries; so suspicion of his involvement in an earlier hoax may not, on the face of it, appear unreasonable.
Woodward was not, however, involved in any way with the initial finding of Plagiaulax dawsoni, he was merely the conduit through which the find was passed. If one was of a particularly suspicious mind, one could suggest that, even if he was not himself the forger, Woodward was in someway in league with the culprit, perhaps hoping that the discovery could somehow help boost his career. If this is true, however, it is not clear how a single mammal tooth from a quarry in Hastings could in any way have aided Woodward, who was by this time already extremely successful in his chosen vocation.
The finger of suspicion could be pointed towards another, unknown individual, aiming to fool Dawson, perhaps intending to discredit or humiliate him. Against this hypothesis we can argue the length of time between the 1891 and 1911 ‘discoveries’, for who would instigate a hoax against Dawson, and then wait twenty years for the second instalment, without ever fully revealing the punchline? Who would plant the pieces in a large quarry in the hope that Dawson would find them and pass the pieces directly to Woodward? To do this successfully, a forger would have to know precisely where Dawson was working and hope to plant the specimens well in advance, without invoking any form of suspicion.
Given all these considerations, Dawson would appear to be the most likely perpetrator of the Plagiaulax hoax. In 1891 Dawson was already an enthusiastic collector of fossils, so a pre-abraded plagiaulacoid tooth could easily have derived from his own extensive private collection.
The existence of a network of subterranean tunnels at Lavant had for many years been suspected due. Confirmation of the presence of underground workings, came in around 1890 when an unnamed shepherd lost two hurdles he had been carrying through an opening in the roof of the buried feature. Realising the potential significance of the find, the landowner, the 6th Duke of Richmond, forced a brick and mortar stairway into the caves and commissioned two members of the Sussex Archaeological Society, Charles Dawson and John Lewis, to conduct a further investigation.
Having gained access to the Caves, Dawson and Lewis set about examining the subterranean workings. Dawson busied himself with the investigation of floor debris, whilst Lewis began recording the nature and extent of all tunnels. A total of five irregular interconnecting tunnels and three domed chambers were partially cleared during the 1893 season. The maximum height of the galleries were between 4 and 5 feet (1.2 and 1.5m).
The lower layer of chalk rubble in the caves contained the bulk of the cultural and datable artefacts. These were formally presented to the landowner, the Duke of Richmond on after the exploration. It is fair to say that the assemblage was diverse, containing pieces of Roman mosaic, bronze ware and pottery, sixteenth century metalwork, a possible Georgian halfpenny, human teeth, some prehistoric worked flints, a miner’s chalk lamp, a red deer antler and objects of amber, lead and silver.
The first and most obvious problem surrounding the finds assemblage is the lack of coherency. In fact the overall feeling is of “the sweepings of rubbish thrown out of some antiquarian’s collection”. The prehistoric artefacts recovered, the flint, antler and worked chalk, have at times been used to propose that the site was in origin a Neolithic flint mine. Looking at the Lavant Caves, however, it is clear that they do not fall into the category of flint mine: the most serious concern being that they do not cut through any major seam of subterranean flint. The shape and scale of the galleries also do not conform to the standard type of Neolithic shaft, which usually possesses cramped tunnels and restricted areas of extraction.
If the Caves are not prehistoric then perhaps the artefacts suggest a period of later use? The Roman finds are neither uniform nor convincing. If the Cave had been a place of Roman activity, it is surprising that the people who left “these numerous bronze ornaments” left nothing substantial. The Cave could of course have possessed some religious significance, though the clear absence of coins would require some explanation. The post Medieval artefacts pointed to a yet later period of utilisation.
The poor levels on site recording at Lavant and the absence of a definitive publication, when combined with the diverse and disparate nature of the artefact assemblage (not to mention Dawson’s apparent reticence in discussing it) has led some to suggest the possibility of fraud. That the Cave itself existed, there can be no doubt, but there remains a significant question mark over the finds that Dawson and Lewis claimed to have made.
The worked flints are certainly Neolithic or Early Bronze Age in date, and would be compatible with the Cave being a prehistoric flint mine. Unfortunately, the form of the Cave is in direct contrast to every known example of a Neolithic flint mine, and the fact that no subterranean seams of flint were detected during the cutting of the shaft, would seem to argue conclusively that this was not its primary function. We must ask, therefore, if the Cave is not prehistoric, then how did the worked flint arrive inside? The flint could have been residual: ancient finds accidentally incorporated within the fill of a much later shaft. It could have fallen through fissures in the roof of the Cave. It could have been brought in deliberately by an unscrupulous member of the 1893 excavation team, hoping to push back the date of the site by a couple of millennia.
Given the small size of the artefacts recovered, any piece could easily have been smuggled in and planted. The question here is whether such material would have been brought in to fool the site director Charles Dawson, site recorder John Lewis, or one of their largely anonymous workforce. But, one has to ask, why would anyone actually want to do this? What would be the point of fabricating the artefactual evidence of the Lavant Caves? Who would hope to benefit from such a convoluted deception?
A convincing case can be built up against the chief archaeological investigators, Charles Dawson and John Lewis. Both would have benefited from an impressive site, well stocked with artefacts. Both would have had easy and unfettered access to the Caves. Neither would be under suspicion on behalf of the landowner or from any visiting Archaeological Society’s or members of the general public. From their point of view, a ‘few worked flints’, a simple ‘chalk cup’ and a piece of deer antler would help to establish a Neolithic date for the Lavant site. Other, later artefacts would have provided additional finer detail, demonstrating that the flint-mine possessed greater currency than those normally investigated, having been reused in the Roman period and again in the sixteenth century. The chronological depth certainly made the Lavant Caves appear interesting, more so than a mere post Medieval chalk quarry which is what, in reality, the Caves appear to have been.
Of all the suspects in the case, Dawson would appear to have gained the most from any potential sabotage. His reticence in publishing the details of his work at Lavant could thus be easily explained. The site was an ‘important’ discovery which was much heralded in the pages of the local press and amongst national archaeological societies such as the Royal Society of Antiquaries. All this helped establish Dawson as an antiquarian of some repute, but it would not have been a site that he would have wanted to dwell on for long. Publication would have required interpretation, perhaps drawing attention to any inconsistencies in the original data set.
On the 10th October 1894, the Sussex Archaeological Society made a formal visit to Hastings Castle, where they were greeted by Charles Dawson and John Lewis. Both men had recently overseen the clearance and recording of an extensive tunnel underneath the castle, and Dawson was understandably keen to disseminate the results. The existence of tunnels beneath Hastings Castle had long been known, tours having formed a major part of any visit to the medieval fortifications, but their full extent and nature had, until Dawson and Lewis, never been ascertained.
Analysing the results of their explorations within the subterranean tunnels, Dawson and Lewis were critical of earlier interpretations that stressed a dungeon or prison interpretation, but one aspect of the dungeon theory appeared inexplicable to them, this being two areas of rock face discoloration on the southern wall of the main gallery in the north eastern tunnel. This discoloration or staining “resembled two shadows of human bodies on the wall, falling side by side between the so-called staple holes”. The sketch which accompanied the article published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1896 shows the peculiar human-like markings in some detail, suggesting that they were indeed caused by the placement of bodies against the side wall of the underground chamber. Dawson himself compiled this sketch as the report clearly notes that “this discoloration…was certainly plainly visible when Mr. Dawson first saw the cavern, in 1872, especially when a light was held in a particular position near the wall”. By the time of the 1894 work, however, the images had faded, Dawson and Lewis commenting that “strange to say, in our many recent visits to the dungeons, we have never yet again observed this phenomenon, and it now appears entirely lost”.
Although the 1894 exploration of the tunnels had not added a huge amount of detail to the history of Hastings Castle, the task of clearance had evidently not been easy, involving much hard work. The record produced was, however, totally new; John Lewis’ inked drawings adding significant detail to aid the understanding of the feature. Dawson’s own photographs of the subterranean workings have furthermore greatly aided tunnel interpretation, although the absence of a detailed finds report is of course regrettable. In short, there would appear to be nothing inherently untoward or devious about the work undertaken; in fact, given the time and conditions they were explored, the work appears exemplary.
One aspect of the survey which does, however, cause concern is the so-called ‘shadow-markings’ discovered on the walls of the main gallery. Dawson provided an informative (if not wholly objective) sketch of the stains, showing their clear human shape. Lewis comments that the images had been “plainly visible” in 1872, when Dawson, then aged 8, was taken on a guided tour of the tunnels by the then custodian. The problem is that that the shadow-markings themselves had completely vanished by the time that Lewis explored the tunnels in 1896. Presumably, therefore, Dawson’s drawing must have been compiled from memory.
This brings us to an interesting conundrum, for the published article plays down the significance of the shadow-markings, even going so far as to imply that they may have been crude forgeries (generated by “applying oily substances to the wall”), whilst the illustration which accompanies it conclusively favours their existence. We could infer some form of foul play: perhaps the markings were generated by Dawson and Lewis to support the prison hypothesis. This would seem plausible were it not for the fact that the published report so vigorously attacks any suggestion that the tunnels had been used for such a purpose.
The drawing could be viewed as a hoax perpetrated by Dawson upon the antiquarian community. Alternatively, and perhaps more favourably, the sketch may be viewed as the end product of Dawson’s highly subjective memory. Perhaps Dawson actually ‘remembered’ more detail than was initially present; a man who wanted others to see the outline of two poor unfortunates, manacled to the wall of the subterranean tunnel, when the reality was far more prosaic. Such an explanation could explain Lewis’ scepticism, and the final inconclusive nature of this part of the published report.
In 1893, the newly founded Committee of the Hastings Museum Association began to acquire collections from various local antiquarian collectors. One such collection comprised an extensive quantity of prehistoric worked flint assembled by one Stephen Blackmore, resident of Frost Hill Cottage, East Dean near Eastbourne. Charles Dawson, who inspected the material, judged it to be “one of the finest collections of Neolithic flint implements in private hands in England”.
Whilst discussing the nature of the collection and terms for which the Hastings Museum would be allowed to purchase elements for their Loan Collection, Dawson recorded that his eye was taken by a drawing of a haft “bearing an implement in situ”. As evidence of how prehistoric flint tools were originally hafted was extremely rare, certainly in the latter years of the 19th century Dawson was intrigued and asked Blackmore about the history of the drawing. Dawson later transcribed Blackmore’s comments surrounding the discovery of the piece in an article published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. The non availability of the artefact itself, the haft had apparently “crumbled at the touch”, was unfortunate, but luckily Blackmore was, according to Dawson, able to make a detailed sketch of the discovery, from which Dawson’s published illustration was taken.
It is important to note that the figure accompanying Dawson’s article was therefore not the original drawing by Blackmore, rather an interpretation of that first (unpublished) illustration. How close to the original drawing, or indeed for that matter the original find, Dawson’s version was, we shall unfortunately never know. The same note of caution may also be added with regard to the other flint implements appearing in the figure accompanying Dawson’s article, most of which do not appear to have any parallel with the known Neolithic tool types recorded from southern Britain.
Since the reporting of Blackmore’s axe, a number of better preserved hafted axe heads have come to light from waterlogged prehistoric contexts across northern Europe and from these it is possible to more closely examine the evidence from Mitchdean. In addition, the increase in experimental techniques in archaeological research, means that there have been a number of modern attempts to use prehistoric tools in a variety of alternative fittings. Given all this new information it is worth noting that it is doubtful whether Dawson’s reconstruction would have been of much practical use.
The evidence supplied by Dawson to account for Blackmore’s hafted stone axe is not at all convincing. Given the circumstances of the artefact’s discovery and eventual reporting though (an interpretation of a memory of an artefact found ‘some years ago’), then this is perhaps not surprising. An objective account of what was really found on the cliffs at Mitchdean is unlikely ever to be forthcoming, and the version that we possess (provided by Dawson) could easily have been distorted, garbled or inflated at any stage in its recounting. It is worth reiterating however that we only possess Dawson’s account of both the artefact and the events surrounding its discovery. That Stephen Blackmore existed, there is no doubt, but the items credited to him by Dawson have never been seen since Dawson described them. Given the total absence of information in this particular case, all we can do is observe that the hafted axe itself, as well as its reconstruction by Dawson and style of preservation at the time of recovery, are all highly suspicious.
The second article by Dawson to grace the pages of the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1894 concerned the discovery and interpretation of an ancient boat. This vessel had, according to Dawson, first been discovered thirty years ago, embedded in the blue Wealden clay on the sea shore, west of Bexhill. The boat had been exposed in the 1860s, during a violent storm, by a coastguard walking the stretch of the shore. Dawson observed that the vessel had been periodically revealed and submerged until the winter of 1887, when a massive displacement of sand exposed it entirely. At that point the vessel was noticed by a Mr Jessie Young, a boat builder, of Bexhill. Having extracted the vessel, Young appears to have lost all interest in the project, leaving it to quietly decay outside his workshop…the wood had already begun to shrink rapidly, and an attempt to preserve some of the least decayed portions by soaking in a strong solution of alum yielded no satisfactory results” (Dawson 1894b, 161-2). Dawson recognised the object and, understanding its potential significance, made a note of its details and restored it as much as was possible.
Dawson’s illustration is undeniably impressive, though it appears to indicate a very well preserved vessel, with none of the evident decay that Dawson himself ascribed to it. That no record of the broken was made is to be regretted, for now it is impossible to provide an objective statement as to the validity of the finished reconstruction. Dawson, however, was convinced he had understood the complexities of the boat, which to him, appeared to “furnish an interesting link in the history of boat building”.
Dawson remained guarded as to the date and purpose of the boat. Its basic form, he conceded, appeared to indicate “a link between the coracle and ‘burnt out’ boat” of popular ancient British tradition, with “the more modern type depicted in the Bayeux tapestry”. Its importance then was increased as a transitional form, or ‘missing-link’ in the whole history of British and northern European boat building traditions.
The evidence supplied by Dawson for the Bexhill Boat is, as with that surrounding Blackmore’s hafted stone axe, not at all convincing. A lack of any statement regarding the state of preservation of the boat prior to any attempt at reconstruction at once destroys the validity of Dawson’s arguments, leaving the reader unsure as to whether Dawson is inferring the survival of specific features or accurately recording their presence. The long delay in Dawson’s assessment of the vessel and his reporting of it in the pages of the Sussex Archaeological Collections would have further clouded the matter as, by 1894, there was probably little of the boat left to inspect. As we are not in possession of any alternative witness statement as to the nature, survival and basic form of the boat, between its finding in 1887 and its publication in 1894, it is possible that the story could once again have become distorted, inflated or irrevocably garbled.
Early in 1893, Augustus Wollaston Franks, Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum and President of the Society of Antiquaries, was presented with an unusual artefact: a small and rather corroded iron statuette. The statuette was clearly Roman in style, and appeared to represent a miniature copy of a horseman from the Quirinal in Rome. The owner of the piece, Charles Dawson, confirmed to Franks that the object had found beneath a slag heap from the Roman ironworking site of Beauport Park in East Sussex by a workman digging for material to surface a local road. Dawson’s evident excitement concerning the statuette was that, in his view, it was made of cast iron and not the more usual wrought (or hammered) form.
In the late years of the 19th century, it was believed that highly carbonised or cast iron had not been produced in Europe before the end of the 14th century, and had certainly not appeared in the British Isles until at least the end of the 15th. Molten iron can only mean that the Roman ironworkers in East Sussex had been able to liquefy iron for use in moulds. If Dawson’s statuette had indeed been cast, then the whole history of iron working in Europe would be turned on its head.
When Dawson’s statuette was exhibited at a London meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in 1893, it was described as being made of wrought iron. The questions and comments that followed the presentation were not overly enthusiastic. A.H. Smith was of the opinion that the figure was in reality a modern replica, possibly manufactured as a souvenir of Rome. A.S. Murray, Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, noted that the “fine modelling” evident in Dawson’s statuette, combined with the observation that it appeared to be a reproduction of a genuine Roman piece, were strong arguments against its authenticity. Sir John Evans noted the great similarities between Dawson’s iron figure and the ‘modern’ replica belonging to Smith, adding that “suspicion might be aroused as to their belonging to the same category”.
Part of the doubt expressed over the origin of the piece may have derived from the observation that workmen removing the Roman slag heaps of Sussex were frequently paid for any archaeological finds that they made. Payment could easily have induced certain labourers to create more interesting discoveries. Such ‘finds’ would certainly have increased the meagre salary of the slag heap labourers, though the fabrication of metal artefacts must surely have been a drain on both the time and resources of the average workman.
In the early 1950s, Robert Downes, then having just completed a study of the English Iron Industry at Birmingham University, investigated the Beauport Park statuette more closely. In his conclusions, Downes noted “the amount of sulphur present was significant and might indicate that the statuette was produced from a furnace using coke as fuel. If this were the case, the statuette could not have been made before the 18th century and not in Sussex at any date”. Whatever Dawson’s figurine was, it did not appear to be either Roman or indeed a product of the Wealden iron industry.
That the Beauport Park statuette is not a genuine Roman object appears clear enough, but there is sufficient doubt concerning its provenance (not to say the exact nature of its discovery) to cloud whether can be classed as a deliberate fraud designed to fool the scientific community or a minor piece of deception generated to increase the pay of a particular labourer. If suspicion falls upon the labourer, then one must ask where he first obtained the piece? Surely the effort required in generating such a fraud would have vastly outweighed any financial gain derived from the sale of the piece?
Also, if, as Dawson claimed, the statuette had been found in 1877 together with some coins of Hadrian, why did the labourer in question wait six years before selling it to Dawson? Dawson supposedly bought the statuette in 1883, aged only 19, but then neglected to report it for a further ten years until finally presenting it to Augustus Wollaston Franks in 1893. Why did Dawson wait so long before reporting his discovery? Perhaps his legal duties took up all of his time or perhaps his fossil discoveries interested him more. Perhaps he was unaware of the true significance of the Beauport Park find (though why then had he bought it in the first place?). Perhaps the time delay was crucial if the iron figurine was to be accepted as being authentic.
A time lapse of ten years since Dawson’s retrieval of the artefact and sixteen years since its first discovery, could also prove useful in order to cloud the specific details of both provenance and recovery. Sixteen years after the event, it would be likely that few involved in the discovery would be able to precisely recall how and when it first came to light. Furthermore the labourer would have been a difficult man to track down years after the event whilst the slag heap from which the statuette was supposed to have come would, by the late 1890s, have been totally obliterated, making re-examination impossible.
If we accept that Dawson was aware that the cast iron figurine was fraudulent, then many of the curious aspects of the whole Beauport Park case simply disappear. The inconsistencies in Dawson’s story related at several times between 1893 and 1903 may further be explained by a change in strategy following the lukewarm reception at the Society of Antiquaries meeting, for now Dawson had to verify the provenance if the find was to be taken seriously.
Dawson was, of course, the one character in the story who benefited most from the discovery of the Beauport iron figurine. He had attracted the attention of Augustus Wollaston Franks and Charles Hercules Read, who, apart from their positions in the British Museum, were respectively the President and Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. He even had his prized exhibit presented before the Antiquaries, quite an honour for an amateur antiquarian. Although the artefact was not totally accepted by all members of the Society, it was one of a number of exiting discoveries that, two years later, helped Dawson to be elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Dawson was also able to use the iron figurine in many of his later displays, most notably the 1903 Lewes exhibition, and publications where it was exulted as the earliest example of cast iron in Europe.
In 1903 Dawson supplied an apparently unique horseshoe for the Lewes exhibition on Sussex ironwork. The object was illustrated and briefly discussed by Dawson in his article accompanying to the exhibition, entitled “Sussex Iron work and pottery”, which was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1903. Here, the artefact was described as being an intermediary stage between the slipper or hippo sandal, a temporary shoe often tied directly onto the hoof of an unshod horse, and the more usual nailed variety.
The sketches provided by Dawson for the publication are somewhat lacking in detail, making an objective assessment of the piece difficult. The exact context of discovery is furthermore never established, though Dawson observes that it had originally been found by person or persons unnamed “associated with the piles of an ancient bridge”.
Dawson presented the find to Sir Wollaston Franks of the British Museum for identification at some date before 1896, and reported that the scholar was disposed “to regard it as a development of the type of the “Roman shoe” or “hippo-sandal”. Robert Downes, who examined the evidence for the Uckfield horseshoe in the mid 1950s, was extremely sceptical, noting that “even in the existing state of knowledge, such a ‘missing link’ must have appeared superfluous…An alleged horseshoe which was nailed at the front and tied on at the back would combine mutually contradictory principles in it as it flapped about”.
The artefact itself has unfortunately since been confined to oblivion. Holland’s article notes that, in 1896, the shoe was in the British Museum, presumably a temporary affair whilst it awaited identification. Its last appearance was as part of Dawson’s 1903 exhibition at Lewes after which it finally disappeared from view.
As with a number of Dawson’s finds, the lack of context as regards the nature of discovery, makes interpretation difficult. We do not know, for instance, who exactly found the shoe, where they found it and how, if at all, it related to the timbers of the “ancient bridge”. It is possible that Dawson himself was the original discoverer, the findspot being not far from his Uckfield office, or that someone who knew him, brought the artefact to his attention. It is also possible that he purchased the horseshoe from a dealer in antiquities, for a number of objects in his collection were derived from just such a source. It is also possible that it is a hoax.
As Downes observed in 1956, there is no real need for an intermediary stage between the tied on Roman hippo-sandal and the more conventional nailed shoe. The possibility of there being a half nailed, half-tied horseshoe does, on the face of it, appear ludicrous. Alternatively the ‘horseshoe’ may perhaps have been used for an entirely different purpose; perhaps it was not Roman at all (certainly no more have come to light in the years following 1903); perhaps it was a one-off, made by someone for a specific purpose that is now lost to us. In short, it is not possible to prove that the Uckfield horseshoe is fraudulent; merely that it is unusual and that it was found under circumstances that were not fully been recorded by Dawson or anyone else.
In June 1908, Charles Dawson brought three iron objects to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in London. Two of the three were described by Dawson as “prick spurs” from Hastings Castle whilst the third was simply categorised as “an iron object from Lewes Castle”. Dawson never supplied any additional information as to the exact circumstances under which these pieces were recovered, though we may presume that the Hastings Castle artefacts were derived from one of the many investigations conducted there by Dawson and Lewis prior to 1900. The object from Lewes Castle is less easy to provenance, though given the date of the London exhibition it is possible that it had been found in the back garden of Castle Lodge, the Lewes town house that Dawson and his family had moved into during the spring of 1907.
The key point of interest surrounding the Lewes Castle object is its identification and interpretation. When Dawson exhibited the piece at the meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, it is clear that only the accompanying objects from Hastings Castle had by then been securely been identified as spurs, being “of the same form as those worn by Norman knights as figured in the Bayeux Tapestry”. When the object from Lewes was displayed by Hastings Museum in 1909, it too appears to have been identified as “a prick spur”.
The Lewes Castle ‘prick spur’ is made of wrought iron and possesses a rather lethal looking sharpened point where it contacted the horse. Robert Downes, as part of his investigation into the iron work of Charles Dawson, forwarded the piece to Rupert Bruce-Mitford, then keeper of the Department of Romano British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, in September 1954. Bruce-Mitford wrote back that “the object is certainly not a prick spur and is nothing we can recognise”. Looking at the piece again, Downes observed that, if it were in fact a spur “it would have gored rather badly any poor horse to which it was applied”
The ‘Lewes Castle Prick Spur’ does not conform to any known example of Medieval spur identified yet in Britain. This observation does not however, automatically imply that the piece is fraudulent, merely unique. It could just as easily be a genuine, albeit unusual, piece of Medieval equestrian kit as it could a hoax designed to fool the archaeological establishment. The real problem with regard to the interpretation of the ‘spur’, as with a number of Dawson’s artefacts, is provenance: where and how exactly did Dawson come to acquire the piece? If we could securely answer this we would be nearer to understanding its meaning.
It is possible that the artefact was found at Castle Lodge during renovations and excavations conducted informally by Dawson in the late spring and summer of 1907. Such a discovery then would have provided him with ample time to present the piece before the Society of Antiquaries (London) in 1908, but possibly not enough time to adequately conduct research. By the time an exhibition is organised in Hastings the following year (1909), Dawson has investigated the artefact more closely and is able to confidently assert that it is a form of Medieval prick spur.
Given that we know nothing concerning the context of Dawson’s discovery however, it is just as possible that the piece is a modern forgery, created by Dawson. Alternatively the iron find could have been purchased by Dawson from a local collector of antiquities (who supplied a dubious provenance) or passed to him by a friend or local workman. Given the total absence of data concerning the artefact, anything is possible.
A small blacksmith’s anvil, stamped with the date “1515”, appears in the Dawson loan of Hastings Museum. The object, which was never commented directly upon by Charles Dawson, did however feature in a number of local exhibitions though its provenance, circumstances and date of discovery all remain unknown. The form taken by the inscription raises potential problems, for the date is presented using Arabic numbers, rather than the then more usual Roman numerals.
What we know today as ‘Arabic numerals’ were in all probability developed in India, possibly as early as the 6th century AD, being transmitted to the West through the Arabic worlds of North Africa and Spain. This new number system (using combinations of the symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9), was far more efficient than the long established Latin / Roman system which was calculated using a combination of only seven basic symbols, each with its own specific numerical value (I for 1, V for 5, X for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500 and M for 1,000). Use of Arabic numerals greatly eased all forms of calculation and computation, not least of all because, unlike the Roman system, the Arabic possessed a point zero. It is not known exactly when these numerals were first introduced to Europe, although the oldest dated European manuscript containing such a system is probably the Codex Vigilanus, copied in Spain around AD 976. In Britain, the first recorded use of the Arabic numbers is from a series of 13th century statues preserved at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.
The date ‘1515’, (and not ‘MDXV’) would therefore not have been wholly out of place in early 16th century Britain, but its application to a small iron anvil (rather than say a more monumental inscription or statue) is admittedly rather curious. Perhaps the ironmonger originally in possession of the anvil was rather forward thinking, or had travelled further afield to the Arabic world, where conversion to the radical new way of counting had occurred.
A further possible explanation for the appearance of the date ‘1515’ upon a small common anvil occurs. When Dawson set out his display of Sussex iron as part of the 1901-3 exhibition at Lewes, there included within it a cast iron anvil “loaned my Mr E. Newman of East Street, Chichester”. This particular artefact was itself not especially interesting, other than it had bore the moulded inscription of ‘1616’ as date of manufacture. This, suggested Robert Downes, likely been Dawson’s inspiration for the fraud of the ‘Arabic anvil’ for “to inscribe 1515 on a small common anvil is to go 101 years better”.
What use Dawson actually made of the anvil, other than as part of his extensive loans collection stored in Hastings Museum, is not entirely clear; the date and circumstances of its discovery never being satisfactorily resolved. The anvil itself is fairly nondescript, it being just as possibly a product of the 16th century, as it is of the 17th, 18th or 19th. The inscription causes some concern with regard to its style and supposed date, but, given that we know nothing about where the object was supposedly found, when or by whom, we cannot securely state that this was the product of fraudulent activity on the part of Charles Dawson.
In 1905, George Clinch, writing in the Early Man section of the Victoria County History of Sussex (volume 1), recorded a number of “curious objects of deer-horn” preserved in the Dawson Loan Collection of the Brassey Institute in Hastings. One piece, “pierced in the middle by a nearly square hole” was described and photographed in particular detail, Clinch noting that it was said to have been found “in the submarine forest at Bulverhythe, halfway between St Leonards and Bexhill”.
Charles Dawson had, for the purposes of the Institute accessions register, identified the artefact as a hammer, though, as Clinch observed, as a hammer “it does not seem to be particularly fitted”. This would seem clear enough for, though the central squared hole could easily have been where the item was hafted, the absence of a clear flattened head, or signs of obvious impact, would seem to rule out Dawson’s interpretation as a hammer or instrument of percussion.
As the object was both unstratified and unassociated with any other datable material other than the submerged forest, a landscape of oak, alder and hazel tree stumps drowned when the sea levels rose towards the end of the Mesolithic some 6,000 years ago, Clinch was unable to assign the object to any time period. As a consequence the curious item appeared under the heading of “miscellaneous antiquities”, though assumption was that it was probably either of Neolithic or Bronze Age date.
Both Clinch and Dawson appear to have favoured a prehistoric date for the artefact, based upon the fact that the item was made from red deer and had been found within the remains of the Mesolithic submerged forest (though the details of association were not totally clear). Neither, however, considered the central ‘hafting’ hole which seemed to represent an insoluble puzzle, but which on close inspection actually holds the key as to its date.
Two aspects of the cut require attention here. The first is that the hole is both rectangular and straight edged, suggesting that the bone was already quite old, almost fossilised and not freshly discarded, when worked. The second is that “the almost perfectly rectangular shape suggests it was made with a sharp instrument, such as a steel chisel”. In fact the cut marks made by such a steel implement are still clearly visible in the corners of the squared central hole. No prehistoric implement of flint, stone, copper alloy, bronze or iron could have created such a sharp and clear cut within the fragment of antler. The object, however it was originally intended to be used, was clearly not prehistoric. The antler itself may be ancient, but the rectangular hole could not have been made before the 18th century AD.
All this brings us to the question of whether the Bulverhythe Hammer can strictly be classed as a forgery. It is clearly neither a hammer, nor is it prehistoric, but was it ever designed to fool the scientific community into believing it was a genuine archaeological artefact?
If we take Dawson at his word, then the object was retrieved, presumably at low tide, from amidst the fossilised tree stumps of a submerged forest. Dawson himself supplies no extra detail as the circumstances of discovery, nor of whether the object was lying on the surface when discovered or embedded within sediments. What is clear, however, is that the condition of the piece suggests that it had not been exposed to a marine environment for any length of time; the edges of the cut hole are too sharp and there is no evidence of salt-water damage or tidal battering. Perhaps the artefact had only recently been discarded and washed up, in the way that quantities of disused material dumped from sea going vessels regularly appears Sussex coast today. Perhaps it had been freshly dislocated from a secure and sealed environment, such as a pit, posthole or ditch cut or eroded out of the cliffs. Perhaps it was new when Dawson found it.
Despite being able to assert that the central hole in the antler piece could only have been produced after the advent of the industrial revolution, it has, to date, been impossible to find a parallel for the artefact within a post medieval context. This in itself should not necessarily pose a problem, many objects recovered from any given period may be classed as unique, being the product of a bored mind or created to fulfil a specific requirement and manufactured from materials that were readily available.
One point is, however, worth noting here. The squared cut into the antler almost exactly matches the type of cut mark recorded from the elephant femur recovered in 1914 in association with the discoveries from Piltdown 1. At the time of its initial discovery the femur was considered to represent a genuine piece of Palaeolithic workmanship. Only later, in 1949, did a close analysis of the piece by Kenneth Oakley reveal that the worked facets could not have been made by a flint knife. The Bulverhythe hammer, though unproven as a forgery, contains many elements (including its uncertain derivation, unique appearance and clear signs of modern shaping) that were to be repeated later at Piltdown.
Recorded alongside the ‘Bulverhythe Hammer’ in the pages the Victoria County History of Sussex, were a number of Bronze Age axes or palstaves. No specific details as to the circumstances of their discovery or coherency as a single group are provided by George Clinch, author of the Victoria County History chapter on ‘Early Man’, other than to note that they were derived from St. Leonards on Sea and “are now in the possession of Mr Charles Dawson F.S.A.”.
Palstaves represent one of the most common and recognisable artefacts of the British Later Bronze Age (conventionally 1400 – 600 BC). The term ‘palstave’ itself is usually applied by modern archaeologists to a form of bronze axe head with a flared, curving edge and distinct shoulders. Palstaves were gradually superseded in the Bronze Age by socketed axes, a hollow axe head which allowed the direct insertion of the haft.
Two objects from the tentatively identified ‘St Leonards on Sea ‘hoard’ were illustrated in the Victoria County History: a corroded bronze palstave, slightly chipped along its cutting edge, and an unusual “bronze socketed object” in slightly better condition. Clinch describes the socketed object as “evidently only a part of a larger implement and ending in a reversed shield”. Unfortunately neither artefact is discussed in any detail, though the caption that accompanies the socketed object, notes a slightly more specific provenance than the palstaves, namely “the marina” at St. Leonards on Sea. This, together with the differing states of artefact preservation, may cast some doubt as to whether the two pieces were originally found at the same time or whether they formed part of the same group or hoard.
Dawson himself first mentions the bronze material in his 1909 book the History of Hastings Castle, when outlining the extent of prehistoric activity in the immediate area of the town. He does not mention the strange ‘socketed object’, earlier illustrated in the VCH, as being part of the hoard, only the palstaves (complete and fragmentary) and a “runner” or piece of casting debris. Leslie Grinsell, in his 1930s study of “Sussex in the Bronze Age”, noted the strange socketed object, interpreting it as a “bronze mount (for standard?)”, a similar example “with part of wooden shaft remaining” having been discovered in Tower Street, London in 1883.
The full extent, nature and original context of the St. Leonards on Sea ‘hoard’ is unknown (if not unknowable) as indeed are the exact associations of the pieces credited to it. Dawson refers only the palstaves and the “runner”, probably a small anvil. The chisel and ‘socketed object’ or standard mount do not appear, contrary to later reports, to have originally formed part of this hoard, otherwise Dawson would certainly have mentioned them in his History of Hastings Castle, published some four years after the Victoria County History. The differential surface form of the standard mount, when compared to the more heavily corroded palstaves, would also appear to argue that the mount was not originally part of the hoard, as, perhaps, would the way in which Clinch separately referred to them within the pages of the VCH.
If one were of a particularly suspicious mind, one could perhaps argue that the standard mount came into the hands of Dawson, either as direct purchase or as a donation, in the form of an unprovenanced artefact, Dawson later supplying a location to add a degree of authenticity. St. Leonards on Sea would provide a useful provenance for such an object, for, not only did Dawson possess close associations with the place, but also because a hoard of Bronze Age materials (notably palstaves) had already been located there. Given that the original discovery of the hoard had been made some 40 years earlier, and given also that Dawson is decidedly non-specific as to where in ‘Marina’ the material had been located, it is possible he realised that, even had someone wished to check the validity of his statements, this would not be possible. Perhaps he even made up the details of the hoard, for we have only his word that it ever existed. He could easily have compiled or conflated a whole variety of Bronze Age artefacts from other sources.
This is of course all speculation. Although it would not appear likely that the standard mount and palstaves were ever archaeologically connected, there is no clear evidence here of intent to deceive, defraud or lie. All the recorded artefacts appear genuine and independent verification as to the authenticity of the curious socketed standard mount has been made from unassociated discoveries in London and Bakewell. Unusual it may be, but the object itself does not appear to be specifically fraudulent.
In or around 1886, Charles Dawson presented the British Museum with a rather curious find; a Chinese bronze bowl which he claimed to have found at Dover, in Kent. Sadly the precise circumstances of the discovery were never elucidated, though both the artefact and its unusual context were both mirrored by a slightly earlier presentation (in 1885) of a Chinese hu or bronze ritual vessel which was given to the Museum by Henry Willett. Willett claimed to have discovered his vessel “in the Dane John (donjon) at Canterbury”. Unfortunately there are no recorded archaeological investigations within the Medieval ‘Dane John’ of Canterbury in the later decades of the 19th century, so how the bronze was first found, and how Willett came into possession of the artefact, are unlikely to be satisfactorily explained.
Doubts surrounding the authenticity of Willett’s bronze arise when the various time periods are considered, for the vessel dates from the 4th or 3rd century BC, whilst the influx of Chinese vessels into the Northern European market only occurred after the 17th century AD “when trade with China had brought not only porcelain but textiles and curios of every kind to the west”. The date of Willett’s hu would therefore appear to be at odds with its alleged context, making it somewhat unlikely (though not altogether impossible) that the artefact was found within a medieval feature inside Kentish town.
Dawson’s bowl measures 33 cm in diameter being decorated in the style of the Former (Western) Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to AD 25. A circular panel in the centre of the dish contains two fish set either side of an inscription which may be translated as “May you have sons and grandsons” . Robert Downes, a metallurgist by training, and William Watson, then assistant keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, examined the bowl in the mid 1950s. Both men were intrigued by the bowl’s surface patination, comprising “a dull olive green…with a rich incrustation…resembling malachite in places” . Watson observed that such patination “certainly looks strange” for a vessel of its supposed date, noting in addition that “the metal has been beaten, which is not the technique usually found in Han dynasty metal vessels” . In conclusion, Watson stated that “I do not, however, think that it is a fake, though it may be a copy of some age made in China”.
It is apparent from the way in which Dawson’s bowl had been manufactured, as well as the nature of surface patination, that it is more likely to have been created within the last few hundred years, rather than the two thousand it first appeared. This is not unusual for the art of copying or mimicking early forms of metal and ceramic artefacts, textiles and texts for economic gain has a long and established history in China, certain ‘archaic’ bronze forms having been forged at least from the 11th century AD. The great period of Chinese frauds was, however, between the 16th and early 17th century when there was an huge increase in the manufacture of such artefacts. Dawson’s piece probably fits within such a category.
Although not a clear ‘forgery’, in the sense of having been created specifically to dupe the scientific community, one must ask what a post 16th century Chinese bronze is doing in late 19th Century Dover. The suggestion that it was brought to Kent by an antiquarian collector, seems plausible enough, but the question of Dawson’s complicity to deceive remains. Did he know that this was a relatively modern import, even if he was unaware that it was a 16th or 17th century copy of an ancient piece? Did his enthusiasm to present the piece to the British Museum, outweigh his duty to fully investigate the true nature and provenance of the artefact? Did he attempt to pass it off to the British Museum as a genuine discovery, perhaps in emulation of Henry Willett? Was he alternatively duped by a dealer in antiquities who claimed to have received it from a reliable source somewhere in Dover? This latter suggestion could explain the somewhat vague circumstances of its discovery and context and would, if taken at face value, further imply that Dawson was the innocent victim of an unscrupulous salesperson or dealer in antiquities, rather than the actual instigator of a cynical hoax.
On Thursday, 11th April 1907, Charles Dawson addressed a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in London with a brand new, exciting Roman discovery: pieces of brick and tile stamped with a Latin text. These bricks not only had a bearing on the date of the Roman fortress at Pevensey, but also for the whole chronology of Roman Britain for they appeared to indicate nothing less than the last official building project authorised by the Roman state within the province of Britannia.
The brick stamp read “HON AVG ANDRIA”, translated as “Honorius Augustus Anderida”. Flavius Honorius Augustus was emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire between AD 395 and 423. Crucially, for Roman Britain, it was Honorius who finally severed all official links with the province, following a series of rebellions there between AD 406 and 409. The discovery of tiles with his name on from a Roman fortress in Britain would therefore suggest a final piece of officially sanctioned garrison strengthening prior to the first revolt against his rule in AD 406. No other inscription recovered from Britain had been made so late in the island’s Roman history and certainly no other official text made such a strong link with the last legitimate Roman emperor to rule over the province. This piece marked nothing less than the transition from Roman Britain to Saxon England.
Although the HON AVG part of the inscription was easy enough to translate, the term ANDRIA was more tricky, though Dawson confidently asserted that it suggested Anderida, Anderesium or Andredes-ceaster “names already identified with the Castra of Pevensey”. The tile therefore provided, in three short abbreviated words, an approximate date, an imperial sponsor and a name for the fort. There was no doubt about it: the bricks that Dawson had found at Pevensey were a major find, probably the most important ever found from within Roman Britain.
The brick bearing the most complete inscription, Dawson noted had been found “beneath the arch” of the northern postern gate of the Roman wall “in the year 1902”. No one at the time seemed all that concerned that it had taken Dawson some five years to formally report the find, despite its clear importance. In retrospect, non disclosure appears all the more puzzling considering that Pevensey had, shortly after Dawson made his find, been the target of some considerable archaeological excavation, directed by Louis Salzman and co-ordinated by the Sussex Archaeological Society. These discrepancies were unfortunately never explained.
The brick from the northern postern had, Dawson believed “fallen down with other pieces from the roof of the arch, where similarly burnt bricks are to be seen”. Close examination of the remaining in situ pieces did not, however, reveal any further examples either of the same fabric or bearing any similar form of inscribed stamp. In a footnote to the published article, however, Dawson noted that “I have also found portions of red brick from the eastern part of the wall bearing the mutilated outline of the same stamp”. Sadly these pieces were never mentioned again and their exact location within the eastern wall of the fortress has never been ascertained.
A third discovery, albeit fragmentary, of the same form of stamped tile came to light within the finds assemblage recovered during the course of the 1906 excavations at Pevensey. Unfortunately the chief director, Louis Salzman did not give any indication as to where within his excavations, which were conducted to the immediate south of the postern gate, the tile had originally been located. The only record of the piece was that relating to its inscription which read:
…ON AVG …NDR…
At the time of the discovery of the fragmentary tile in 1906, Salzman’s team was unaware that Dawson had a more complete version of the same stamp in his possession. Without the full version, Salzman did not venture an interpretation and the nature of the text appears to have stumped all who examined it; that is, however, until a comparison with the better preserved example in Dawson’s care was made, and a full translation became possible.
The significance of the Honorius tiles was not lost upon the archaeological community and the pieces were referred to in all of the major discussions concerning Roman Britain. Doubts concerning the provenance and authenticity of the Pevensey bricks, however, began to surface throughout the late 1960s. The biggest worries surrounded the spidery nature of the lettering, a style most unusual for official military Roman stamps, whilst the fabric of the bricks, did not appear to match with any of those still preserved within the walls of the Roman fort. These doubts were expressed by John Mainwaring Baines, curator of Hastings Museum, to David Peacock of Southampton University early in the 1970s. Intrigued, Peacock decided to subject the bricks to a new form of scientific dating, namely thermoluminescence.
Thermoluminescence (or TL) is a method of dating archaeological materials, such as bricks, ceramics, hearths, kilns and all forms of heat-processed material. At its core is the principle that minerals, when artificially heated, emit a flash of light, the intensity of which is proportional to the amount of radiation the sample has been exposed to as well as the length of time since the sample itself was last significantly heated. For thermoluminescence dating, the so called mineral “clock-resetting event” which will provide an estimate of when the ceramic brick or tile in question was originally fired, is heating to a temperature above 400oC. When the results of the TL dating of the Pevensey tiles were returned, the dates were startling. Dr S.J. Fleming of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford confidently calculated that the bricks possessed a firing date of no earlier than between 1900-1940 AD. Retests and recalibrations were conducted but the results remained stubbornly unchanging: the tiles were no older than the date at which they were first uncovered. They were forgeries.
There is no doubt that the Pevensey bricks were created in the early years of the 20th century in order, not only to confirm the name for the Roman fort at Pevensey, but also to supply a date for the final phase of reconstruction there, placing it in the twilight years of Roman rule in Britain. The question is though, who in the field of antiquarian research, so desperately required such evidence that they were prepared to fabricate it and what would such forgery have achieved? The two foremost suspects in this case have to be those who claimed the have ‘discovered’ the finds in the first place, namely Louis Salzman and Charles Dawson.
Salzman, as one of the main directors of excavations at Pevensey, is a clear and obvious suspect. The first fragmentary stamped brick was, of course, found in one of his trenches, whilst the actual circumstances of its discovery are kept annoyingly vague. This may seem somewhat bizarre, for given the general absence of inscribed material recorded from Pevensey, the artefact was clearly of major significance. Surely Salzman would have been keen to tie the discovery down to a particular area of the fort interior, say a pit, hearth or other archaeological feature, or, if not, to note that it had been turned up unstratified within topsoil? Unfortunately he does not, the published discussion of the concentrating solely upon the problems of translation and not provenance.
There is no doubt, however, that the Honorius tile was the major find of the 1906-7 excavations. It was just the sort of thing that Salzman must he have hoped to discover, something that provided a date for at least one of the major building phases at Pevensey and which tied the site into a major historical event: the abandonment of Britain by the Roman state. We may therefore be excused for immediately pointing the finger of suspicion towards Salzman and accusing him, or at least one of his team, of generating the artefact in order to add a spectacular element to what was, in all honesty, a rather unexceptional list of discoveries.
For this explanation to work, however, we have to ask why Salzman did not make more of the brick in his excavation report? Given its importance, the piece does not receive the attention that we would perhaps expect, being buried deep in the text, close to the very end of the report and sandwiched between a discussion of the coins, pottery and “miscellaneous relics”. Furthermore, if Salzman had manufactured the find, why did he plant only a very broken example within his excavation trench, allowing Dawson to claim the better, more complete prize? Also, if he did create the stamped brick intending it to be found at Pevensey, why did he plant the first example, as found by Dawson, some five years before his own excavation took place? It is conceivable that Salzman, having planned the hoax, required independent verification of the stamp. Therefore in order to corroborate the find, he ensured there was a second discovery, made at a different date by someone wholly unconnected to the main excavation team. If this was the case, Salzman must have been deeply aggrieved that Dawson, having found the brick in the northern postern, made no immediate mention of his find. With no public disclosure from Dawson, Salzman would have to go ahead with his investigation of Pevensey, hoping that the recovery of a second, more corrupted version of the stamp, would at last force the Uckfield solicitor to bring his find out into the open.
As chief hoaxer, Salzman does not appear to have made very much of his brick. In fact his thunder was totally stolen by Dawson, who published his own article on the importance of the stamp in the pages of the internationally renowned Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for 1907, at least a year before Salzman’s article was to appear in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. Perhaps this explains Salzman’s cursory treatment of the artefact in his report where he notes, in hindsight almost grudgingly, that the translation of his find was only made possible through a “comparison with a perfect example from the same stamp, in the possession of Mr. Charles Dawson”.
What then of the other potential forger, Charles Dawson? Dawson, of course, supplies us with far more detail as to the whereabouts and context of his discoveries. His first example of the stamped brick, he tells us, was found within the area of the collapsed northern postern gate where it had apparently fallen “with other pieces form the roof of the arch”. Dawson’s claim that additional examples of brick “bearing the mutilated outline of the same stamp” are clearly visible in the eastern circuit of the Roman wall, though why it took him a full five years to report the discovery, given its clear importance, is never fully explained (and indeed never queried by members of the Society of Antiquaries to whom Dawson first presented the artefact).
As innocents duped by the hoax of another, it could be argued that both Dawson and Salzman were the intended targets. In such a scenario, however, the forger would not only have to have been an extremely patient individual, waiting some five years between Dawson’s 1902 discovery and that made by Salzman in 1907, but also very determined, embedding further examples of the brick within the solid matrix of the eastern circuit of the Roman wall. If this was the case, it is not entirely clear what the motive for the forgery was, as no one was discredited and no one’s career appears to have been damaged by the sudden revelation of a hoax.
Let us rethink the nature of the discovery. The Honorius tile was a find that was clearly exceptional. For such a well-preserved piece to be discovered purely by chance on the ground surface would not be impossible, but it could elicit a certain degree of surprise. If such a piece were to be discovered by Charles Dawson, already known within local circles as the “Wizard of Sussex” on account of his amazing archaeological and geological discoveries, surprise may turn to scepticism. If, however, independent verification of this ‘discovery’ was made by another, then any suspicion surrounding the reliability of the artefact would likely to dissipate. Dawson is therefore in possession of the complete tile, but does not report it until the incomplete fragments of the second are found during the course of an archaeological excavation. The director of that excavation, who has no links to Dawson, circulates reports of the discovery but is unable to interpret it fully until Dawson brings forward his tile which he claims to have discovered half a decade before. Dawson is now in an excellent position to make a formal presentation of both bricks, his complete example and the fragmentary remains of the one found by Salzman, to the Society of Antiquaries in London.
It is Dawson then, who given the facts of the case, makes the more convincing candidate forger. It is he who claims to have found the well-preserved tile in 1902. It is he who, when Salzman’s excavations reveal a similar fragmentary stamped brick, unveils the first and resolves the inscription. It is he who further substantiates the discovering by claiming to have seen further examples preserved within the eastern wall of Pevensey. It is he who makes most of the discoveries, receiving the praise of a learned and well respected society. It is he, therefore, who gains most from the whole affair.
Charles Dawson was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London in the autumn of 1895 following the remarkable range of archaeological discoveries, surveys, reports and pieces of fieldwork conducted that he had conducted since 1892. After this, Dawson began to expand his publication record, which to date had been rather poor (two short articles in the Sussex Archaeological Collections for 1894 and a few scattered references within other people’s work). Over the next few years Dawson’s research and subsequent output was prodigious, especially when one considers that archaeology and history represented no more than a hobby, a distraction from his ‘bread and butter’ job in the legal profession.
In 1898 Charles Dawson published a lengthy article entitled “Ancient and Modern ‘Dene Holes’ and their Makers” in the Geological Magazine. The term ‘dene holes’ was one which, in the late 19th century, was used to cover a multitude of subterranean passages, tunnels and caverns found in the chalk of southern England. Few were well understood or dated and many were confused with Neolithic flint mines, Medieval quarries and a host of natural fissures or sinkholes. Dawson observed that, though a variety of suggestions concerning their origin had been made, there appeared little consensus as to function or purpose.
In 1903, Charles Dawson organised and co-ordinated a major exhibition in Lewes focusing upon the iron and pottery of Sussex. To accompany this he wrote a detailed article simply entitled “Sussex Ironwork and Pottery” which was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections for that year, together with a lengthy catalogue listing all objects displayed. A summary of Dawson’s views on Sussex pottery was later published in Antiquary; entitled “Sussex Pottery: a new classification”. A second article by Dawson appeared in Antiquary two years later entitled “Old Sussex Glass: its Origin and Decline”, it purported to continue Dawson’s research “into the ancient industries of Sussex” whilst simultaneously hoping that additional material on the subject may be forthcoming.
In 1907 Dawson published an article entitled “The Bayeux Tapestry in the Hands of the Restorers” in the Antiquary which critically assessed the nature and contribution of successive ‘restorations’, whilst in 1911 he wrote extensively on the so-called “Red Hills”, the curious mounds of red earth in Essex, again in the pages of Antiquary.
Dawson’s magnum opus, the History of HastingsCastle: the Castlery, Rape and Battle of Hastings, to which is added a History of the Collegiate Church within the Castle, and its Prebends was finally published in two volumes in 1910. The History represents a major academic endeavour, every piece of data concerning the fortress and its surroundings having been assembled, collated and exhaustively compiled.
There have been many accusations of literary theft made against Dawson for the diverse series of articles written by him between 1898 and 1911, but is there really evidence that he was indeed an accomplished plagiarist? Certainly claims of ‘naïve referencing’ could be made for a great deal of Dawson’s work, especially publications where he loosely attributes his source or quotes whole chunks of another’s text without accurately citing the derivation of materials used. In publishing, it is fair to say you will be accused of plagiarism if it can be demonstrated that you have taken or copied another persons writings (whether published or not), thoughts, ideas or inventions and presented them as your own. Plagiarising may further be defined as the failure to properly reference or attribute pieces of work or quotations appearing in your work which have been directly taken from an article, book or unpublished manuscript that is not your own.
When we examine Dawson’s articles on “Sussex Ironwork and Pottery”, “Dene Holes” and the “Red Hills of Essex”, we can see that they do all contain a large amount of other peoples work, but it must be noted that these elements are referenced (albeit sometimes rather vaguely). All the direct, and somewhat lengthy quotes, in these articles are sourced and all appear within inverted commas, something which helps distance them from Dawson’s own perspective. The accusations made against Dawson’s article on the Bayeux Tapestry are, furthermore, totally unfounded, amounting to little more than hearsay and speculation. There may indeed be an original article (or group of articles) in French which cover the tapestry’s restoration in detail (Dawson was fluent in that language), but to date no evidence has been supplied for this.
In hindsight then, the articles noted as having been plagiarised, are in reality more acts of compilation than original theses. As such, Dawson should perhaps be more accurately credited as ‘editor’ of them than simply (and rather inaccurately) as the ‘author’. A poor style of referencing does undermine some of Dawson’s arguments concerning the Sussex Iron industry, especially when attempting to attribute specific ideas to their source, but it must be said that for the accusation of plagiarism to stick, it would have to be shown that Dawson avoided referencing other authors and regularly passed significant chunks of their work off as his own and this is something that he specifically does not do.
The History of Hastings Castle represents Dawson’s greatest act of compilation, for here he has amassed an incredible wealth of primary data, secondary references and miscellanea, most inaccessible to the ordinary interested reader, and republished them with comments and overall thoughts and conclusions. Downes is correct in stating that a large quantity of the History Parts II, III and IV was taken directly Herbert’s unpublished manuscript, but allowing the records to tell their own story is of course something which Dawson carefully and expressly cites as an aim of the History (Dawson 1909a, v). Perhaps again, if Dawson had been credited as editor or compiler, rather than author, then the issue of plagiarism would never have arisen. As it is, the most serious accusation that may be brought against the solicitor in the case of his major publications is that, as Miles observed, he was “not afraid of taking a short cut or two”. The History of Hastings Castle may have been hastily compiled, but it is not the devious piece of literary theft that some have claimed.
One of the strangest of Charles Dawson’s natural discoveries was that of the so-called ‘Toad in a hole’ presented before the Brighton and Hove Natural History and Philosophical Society on April 18th 1901. The artefact itself comprised an apparently mummified toad preserved within a hollow nodule of flint. The “curiously light” lemon-shaped flint had, according to Dawson, been broken apart by two Lewes workmen, Joseph Isted and Thomas Nye, in the summer of 1898. Quite how the artefact arrived in Dawson’s hands is never established, though this could again be explained by contact Dawson kept “with all workmen in his district who might make accidental discoveries”. At the time of the presentation, the Lewes ‘Toad in a Hole’ caused quite a stir amongst the scientific community and caught the popular imagination, lengthy reports appearing in a number of papers including the Illustrated London News. Eventually the artefact was passed on to Brighton’s Booth Museum of Natural History, through the agency of Dawson’s antiquarian colleague Henry Willett.
The ‘Toad in a Hole’ puzzled Joseph Weiner who observed that “the toad when young must have got into the nodule through a small hole and found enough insects to enable it to grow until it became too large to get out again”. True, this was an unusual discovery, though it was something that was not entirely without precedent. In 1811, the Derbyshire geologist White Watson reported that Dr Jack Treagus of Manchester University had, in 1795, broken a block of limestone calculated to weigh “a ton and a half in weight” only to discover a toad “alive in the centre”. In 1825, intrigued by the possibility that amphibians could survive for long periods within inhospitable environments, the naturalist Dr William Buckland conducted, what is by today’s standards, a not altogether ethical experiment by taking twenty four toads, placing them in sealed cells and burying them in solid and porous Limestone for just over a year. When the toads were exhumed, on the 10th of December 1826, Buckland noted, with some surprise, that only those fortunate enough to have been sealed within porous limestone had survived the experience.
Though other cases of frogs and toads entombed in solid rock have from time to time been reported, the only firm example which today “proves that there is a basis for reports of the phenomenon” is Dawson’s example in the Booth Museum. Since its presentation to the museum, in 1901, the supposedly mummified toad has shrunk considerably indicating that it was probably not very old at the time it was discovered.
The Toad in a Hole is certainly a curious discovery, but that in itself does not constitute firm evidence for a fraud. That there are precedents for frogs and toads preserved within hollow rocks, is clear enough, though much of the evidence to date unfortunately appears to be little more than hearsay. The Lewes Toad would therefore, if genuine, constitute a rather important discovery in the history of this particular natural phenomenon.
Dawson does not claim to have actually found the Toad in a Hole, nor inspected it in situ and he certainly does not appear to have discussed the discovery in detail with the Lewes workmen Joseph Isted and Thomas Nye. His role in the affair was merely to exhibit the find and make a report to the Brighton and Hove Natural History and Philosophical Society. That it took Dawson some three years between the discovery (in 1898) and the exhibition (in 1901) is, furthermore, not an unequivocal admission of guilt, for we do not know how long Isted and Nye held on to the piece before handing it over. We do not even know the mechanics of how it was eventually passed on to Charles Dawson. As for the toad itself, the British Museum reported that it was clearly “not very old” at the time Isted and Nye first freed it, something which may cast doubt as to its authenticity. Dawson does not, however, claim that the amphibian was ancient or in any way fossilised, so its age at exhumation should not cause any consternation.
If the Toad in a Hole was a fraud, and it is important to note that there is no clear evidence that this is the case, then any number of perpetrators may be ‘put in the frame’. Isted and Nye, if they had wished to supplement their meagre pay as workmen, could perhaps have generated an interesting find, secure in the knowledge that Dawson or someone like him, would readily stump up the cash necessary to purchase it. Perhaps someone in a local antiquarian or geological circles wished to provide the evidence necessary to confirm a hypothesis concerning amphibian survival in solid rock. Perhaps someone was playing a practical joke. Perhaps Dawson was indeed enacting a scientific hoax. Certainly the solicitor from Uckfield received all the credit for making the discovery public and, although he never formally published his conclusions, his name was attached to the find in both the local and national press. Beyond that, all is speculation.
Five years after his reporting of the Toad in a Hole, Charles Dawson encountered a second mystery of nature, this time a monster from the deep. Writing to Arthur Woodward on October 7th 1907, Dawson related that, whilst travelling on board the steamer S.S. Manche, on what was otherwise a fairly a routine journey from Newhaven to Dieppe, Dawson spotted something strange through his binoculars, “some two miles ahead of the ship”. The object shifted course, providing “a more extended and less complicated view”. The creature revealed appeared as a “conventional sea-serpent” complete with body loops “fully 8 feet out of the water”.
Fortunately Dawson had his camera, and was able to take “several shots” of the beast as it came about. Sadly the developed film showed no sea serpent or “detail of the sea beyond a few yards”. Undeterred by his lack of evidence, Dawson told his friend Arthur Woodward that he had discussed the sighting with a number of his fellow passengers, exchanging cards with several in the hope of bringing forth witness statements if required. There is no evidence that either Dawson or Woodward ever followed up these witnesses to collect formal statements. Furthermore there is no evidence that Woodward ever questioned his friend over why it had taken him so long to report the sighting. Dawson wrote to Woodward on the 7th October 1907, but the sea serpent was allegedly sighted on Good Friday 1906, a whole eighteen months before Dawson finally put pen to paper.
The case of the English Channel Sea Serpent is a particularly strange one. Dawson makes no public acknowledgement of his sighting, other than in the context of a private letter to his friend Woodward and this a full year and a half after the event. Unfortunately, Woodward’s response to the whole affair is lost to us. Was he intrigued by the details supplied by Dawson or, as an expert on marine palaeontology, did he laugh the incident off as the misidentification of something else in the water? Even if Woodward had been interested enough to attempt to follow up potential witness statements, the lengthy gap between sighting and reporting, it may well have proved difficult to locate Dawson’s travelling companions, let alone extract a convincing report from them.
Perhaps, given the nature of the evidence, a lack of confidence on Dawson’s part may well not be surprising for, even today, those who claim to have witnessed unnatural events or mysterious creatures often find themselves outcasts from polite society. Dawson may have felt that his ‘sea serpent’ was, without the evidence of his camera, something that would not be taken seriously by either the media or the wider scientific community. Perhaps he was not sure himself about what he and his fellow passengers had actually seen that day. Perhaps he made the whole story up.
What is interesting here is the form taken by Dawson’s creature. His description of “very rounded arched loops” fits perfectly with the late 19th and early 20th century view of what a lake serpent, such as that often ascribed to Loch Ness in Scotland, ought to look like. Up until the late 1960s, the Loch Ness Monster (or ‘Nessie’) was often described or drawn as a collection of coils and humps emerging from the surface of the Loch. From the 1970s, however, the general form of ‘Nessie, and indeed of all sightings relating to her, have changed. This is due in no small part to the work of Dr Robert Rines at the Loch between 1971 and 75. Rines claimed to have photographed a great beast with a long neck, wide body and diamond-shape flippers, like a Plesiosaur (a marine reptile that inhabited freshwater and marine environments in the Triassic and Cretaceous periods). Since the publication of Rines’ rather startling photographs of ‘Nessie’, people have only seen Plesiosaurs.
Dawson’s observations of the alleged serpent were clearly ‘of their time’ and, given the general lack of sightings through the 20th century, it does seem somewhat unlikely that anything quite as large as the creature that Dawson claimed to have seen, could really be out in the English Channel. It has been shown that, when it comes to unexplained phenomena, people often see what they want to see. That is not to doubt that in the case the World’s oceans, that there is not something large and wholly unknown still lurking in the depths (in fact given how little of the sea bed has been adequately mapped, it would be surprising if there was not), but a large number of ‘monster sightings’ at somewhere like Loch Ness can be attributed to the human mind telling the eyes what really ought to be there: a Plesiosaur rather than, say, a piece of wood, an otter, a rock or a piece of Loch debris.
This still begs the question: “did Dawson really see something in the waters of the Channel? Was he genuinely convinced that the S.S. Manche had had a close encounter with a large aquatic beast or was he playing a bizarre trick on his colleague Arthur Woodward? Surely, if he were attempting to fool Woodward, there would appear to have been little to gain from such a deceit? Perhaps it is the context of the alleged sighting that is important here, for in the early years of the 20th century Dawson’s interests appear to have been shifting away from matters historical and archaeological, and more towards those of the natural world. Part of this shift in interest may have been due to his election in 1895 to the Society of Antiquaries, in much the same way that his passion for geology seems to have declined following his election to the Geological Society in 1885. Having achieved such goals, Dawson may have felt that to continue in such fields would be akin to merely ‘treading water’ whilst diversifying would prove an altogether more challenging experience. Perhaps the increasingly poor reception that his work was receiving from other antiquarians helped convince him that his research should be directed elsewhere.
On the morning of Tuesday 15th February 1912, Arthur Woodward, Keeper of Geology of the British Museum (Natural History), opened the morning mail from his office desk little realising that one of the letters in his hand would change the course of his life forever. The letter, from his friend and colleague, the Uckfield solicitor and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson, was in part a reply to a query from Woodward about expenses incurred during a recent fieldtrip to a Hastings quarry. In his earlier correspondence, Woodward had also asked Dawson whether he had heard anything about the new novel that Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was writing. Doyle, then a resident of Crowborough, a small town to the north east of Uckfield, was familiar to Woodward and Dawson, having corresponded with both men over the nature of potential fossil remains in the Sussex Weald.
Halfway through this otherwise pedestrian letter, Dawson dropped in an observation that must have instantly grabbed Woodward’s attention: “I have come across a very old Pleistocene bed overlying the Hastings bed which I think is going to be interesting. It has a lot of iron-stained flints in it, so I suppose it is the oldest known flint gravel in the Weald. I portion [sic] of a human skull which will rival H. Heidelbergensis in solidity” The phrasing appeared somewhat garbled, but in essence Dawson appeared to be saying that he had found part of early human skull contained in situ within an ancient deposit of gravel.
If the skull fragments that Dawson claimed to have in his possession were of an early human, then this would prove to be an explosive discovery. Up to 1912, it is fair to say that British palaeontology had been skulking around in the doldrums. French and German scientists had, throughout the 19th century, produced a range of well preserved Palaeolithic deposits including skeletal remains such as Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) and a wealth of worked flint assemblages. In comparison, very little had been recovered from Britain, despite the best efforts of many capable palaeontologists, geologists and antiquarian researchers. To make matters worse, what meagre remains of the period had been recorded from British contexts provided some French palaeontologists with a rather derogatory term for their British counterparts: “chasseurs de cailloux” or “pebble hunters”.
On the 26th of March 1912, Dawson was able to forward two of his gravel bed discoveries to Woodward together with the tooth of a hippopotamus. His appetite whetted by Dawson’s description of the human remains, their context and possible association with ancient mammalian remains, Woodward counselled Dawson to secrecy until the provenance and exact circumstances of discovery could be ascertained.
Whatever the exact date that the first piece of skull was found, it is clear, from Dawson’s own account that there was a gap of “several years” before the larger piece preserving the “left supra-orbital border” was finally located in 1911. What Arthur Woodward does not appear to have picked up on, either on receipt of Dawson’s in 1912 (where he first informed him of the finding of the skull) or at any subsequent time, was the lengthy time gap between Dawson’s first discovery and his reporting of the find. If the first skull fragment had indeed been made “several years” before the second (and possibly as early as 1899), Woodward ought to have questioned why Dawson had not mentioned it to him before.
Arthur Woodward’s analysis of the first skull fragments from Piltdown that Dawson presented to him on 24th May 1912, left him in no doubt as to the potential significance of the find. Woodward was later to recall that, in the discussion that followed the preliminary examination, he and Dawson decided to commence work in the gravel pit almost immediately in the hope of retrieving more remains. Dawson swiftly obtained permission for work from the landowner at Piltdown and the tenant farmer, both of whom he knew quite well.
Fieldwork at Barkham Manor, Piltdown continued sporadically throughout June, July and August of 1912, and, in the absence of specific dates, any of the finds generated could conceivably have been recovered at any point within this broad time bracket. Unfortunately neither Woodward nor Dawson appears to have kept a notebook in order to chronicle the events as they unfolded. Dawson’s summary account for the pages of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society notes the discovery of unspecified numbers of human cranial fragments from the spoil heaps, the "right half of a human mandible” and a “small portion of the occipital bone” from the “undisturbed gravel”, teeth of elephant, mastodon, beaver, horseand hippopotamus, as well as a red deer antler, a deer metatarsal and a number of worked flints. Apart from the bone assemblages, a number of worked flints were also retrieved. The discovery of ‘knapped’ flint at Piltdown would prove a significant boost to the excavations, demonstrating the presence of early prehistoric activity. It was even possible that the flint tools themselves could have been generated by the ape-like human that the team was in the process of investigating.
1914 proved to be the last official season of archaeological investigation at the Barkham Manor gravel pit. No additional human remains were forthcoming, but then, in late June, came a sensational discovery that would rival anything that had been found before: a worked artefact made from elephant bone. This object appeared to demonstrate that Eoanthropus dawsoni had created tools for himself and had therefore been a thinking, rational being. Quite how this mysterious object had originally been used, neither Dawson nor Woodward could elaborate. The terminal ends of the artefact provided “no marks of grinding or rubbing”, which could provide any clues. “Its shape is unique”, the team rather lamely stated “and an instrument with a point would be serviceable for many purposes.
By 1915, Eoanthropus dawsoni had become a world wide celebrity. No less than three books, each one placing Piltdown Man centre stage, appeared in print: The Antiquity of Man by Arthur Keith, Ancient Hunters by William Sollas and Diversions of a Naturalist by Ray Lankester. A fourth book, The Earliest Englishman, authored by none other than Arthur Smith Woodward, was well into the planning stage, some chapters apparently having been completed (e.g. Walsh 1996,50-1), before the project was shelved (it finally appeared in 1948, four years after Woodward’s death). 1915 was also the year that the an oil painting depicting the ‘main protagonists’ of the Piltdown discovery and subsequent debate, and entitled “A Discussion of the Piltdown Skull”, was unveiled at the Royal Academy in London.
The “Discussion”, painted by John Cooke, was an artistic interpretation of a meeting held on the 11th August 1913 at the Royal College of Surgeons. To the left of centre is a reconstruction of the Piltdown skull, lying on the table with comparative human and chimpanzee remains surrounding it. Arthur Keith, conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, sits before the skull in a laboratory coat, callipers in hand. Behind his right shoulder stands Grafton Elliot Smith, Professor of anatomy at Manchester University, to his right hover Arthur Swayne Underwood (seated), professor of dental surgery at King’s College, London and (standing) Frank Orwell Barlow, technical assistant in the Geology Department of the British Museum (Natural History). Sat to Keith’s immediate left, craning to get a better view, are William Plane Pycraft, osteologist in the Department of Zoology at the British Museum (Natural History) and Edwin Ray Lankester, formerly Director of the British Museum (Natural History) and Keeper of Zoology. Standing behind Pycraft and Lankester, to the left of Keith, are Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, then Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History). Woodward and Dawson appear united and calm; the elder statesmen of the Piltdown story. This takes further significance when one considers that, on the back wall of the studio, there is a framed portrait of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary science. Dawson is standing in such a way that his features directly impinge upon the portrait, as if, by discovering Piltdown Man, he is being acknowledged by Darwin as his heir and successor.
The 1916 season at Barkham Manor was, in the absence of Dawson who was by then gravely ill, somewhat disappointing. The overall strategy for the renewed programme of excavation is not entirely clear, Woodward noting only that the work was conducted “round the margin of the area previously explored”. Presumably old spoil heaps were re-examined and new ones generated. Areas close to where earlier spectacular finds, such as the elephant femur of 1914, were extended in the hope of recovering additional remains. Despite the singular failure of the 1916 programme of investigation, and the sad death of Charles Dawson in August of that year, Woodward continued to excavate at Piltdown for many years, even moving to Sussex following his retirement from the British Museum (Natural History) in 1924. Rather sadly, no additional remains of Eoanthropus were ever found.
The termination of work at Barkham Manor led Woodward to propose the creation of a more permanent monument to the first discovery of Eoanthropus skull at Piltdown. A sandstone monolith, paid for by public subscription and inscribed with a dedication to “Mr Charles Dawson FSA” was duly erected at the site on 23rd July 1938, being unveiled by Woodward and Arthur Keith. Woodward died at his home at Hill Place, Haywards Heath in Sussex in September 2nd, 1944. The day before, despite his advancing illness, he had dictated the closing sentences of his book The Earliest Englishman, to his wife Maude. The first pieces of the book, dealing with the discovery of Piltdown Man, had actually been written in or around 1916, but the pressures of work at the British Museum (Natural History) meant that Woodward had never found time to complete the text. With the closure of all excavation at Barkham Manor, where he had searched in vain for more traces of the elusive Eoanthropus, Woodward at last returned to the unfinished manuscript. In 1948, four years after his death, the book was finally published.
By this time, increasing numbers of fossil discoveries around the world had made many scientists unsure of where to place Dawson’s ‘Man of the Dawn’ in the tree of human evolution. The features that most clearly defined Eoanthropus, namely its ape-like jaw and teeth (all with unusual patterns of wear) attached to a human forehead, were patently not present elsewhere. All the evidence accumulated since 1916 indicated that a human jaw, supporting human-like teeth, was a remarkably early feature in the development of Homo, whereas forehead and brain seemed to have changed more gradually. In short, Piltdown was an embarrassment.
The death of Arthur Smith Woodward in 1944 meant that the fossil remains of Eoanthropus dawsoni held by the British Museum (Natural History), were no longer untouchable. Woodward had been convinced of the authenticity of Piltdown Man, but others felt less sure. In the decades since the first fossil remains had been unearthed at Barkham Manor, a range of analytical procedures and dating techniques, all unthought of in the early years of the 20th century, had been developed. Given the controversy that still raged around Eoanthropus, the British Museum (Natural History) authorised the first in what was to prove a veritable battery of scientific tests to be conducted upon Dawson’s ‘Man of the Dawn’.
The fluorine dating test was the first to be conducted. Fluorine is present in all ground waters, usually in extremely small quantities. As it is absorbed by both bone and dentine, the fluorine content of any skeletal remains buried in permeable ground such as gravel, should theoretically increase with time. Any bone added to a natural deposit of permeable ground (in the form of a grave or other deliberate interment), will naturally possess considerably less fluorine than any bone material set down when the deposit was originally formed. At Piltdown, all the bone samples analysed showed a greater range of fluorine than would be expected from a single, contemporary assemblage.
If Piltdown Man had lived and died no earlier “than the last interglacial”, then he could be no older, Oakley believed, than “100,000 years”. This estimate was nothing like the antiquity that Piltdown was previously thought to have been. Eoanthropus dawsoni now looked less like a distant ancestor of the human race and more like a curious genetic ‘throw-back’.
In July 1953, following a conference in London on “Research on Fossil Hominidae in Africa”, Joseph Weiner, a Reader in physical anthropology at Oxford University, returned home, a private discussion that he had had concerning the Piltdown remains, having left his mind racing. The skull and jaw recovered from Barkham Manor, Weiner began to realise, presented a number of unusual and largely unresolved problems. Weiner communicated his ideas to his professor at Oxford, Wilfred Edward Le Gros Clark. Convinced that something was amiss, Le Gros Clark telephoned Kenneth Oakley to ask, as sensitively as possible, whether the Piltdown mandible could conceivably have been fraudulent. As Weiner was later to recall, Oakley called back the same day to report that “he was utterly convinced that artificial abrasion had been applied” to the teeth. The tests on Eoanthropus dawsoni that followed pursued four main areas of investigation: the abrasion on the teeth; a retesting of the fluorine content; measurement of organic content; and the surface staining. By late October 1953 the results of the analysis proved inarguable: Piltdown Man was indeed a hoax. Eoanthropus dawsoni was not only dead; he had never lived.
When the initial radiocarbon testing of he Piltdown bone was undertaken between 1953 and 1955, the cranial fragments from Barkham Manor were dated to 620+100 (GrN-2203), which may be calibrated at 95.4% probability to having an origin somewhere between 1210 and 1480 AD. The ape-like mandible was also assessed at this time, producing a date of 500+100 (GrN-2204), which may be calibrated at 95.4% probability to between 1290 and 1640 AD. These results suggested that the Piltdown skull was probably less than 800 years old; and that the mandible is younger, although still “possibly several centuries old”. In the late 1980s, a second sample from the Barkham Manor jaw was processed. The new radiocarbon determination for the mandible was given at 90+120 (OxA-1395), which may be calibrated at 95.4% probability to between 1630 and 1960 AD. The new determination would, the investigation team noted, “accommodate a postulated 19th century date” for the piece as well as the original suggestion that it may derived from a museum collection.
Issues of complicity in the Piltdown forgery are far more complex than any of the other discoveries so far catalogued. This is due, in no small part, to the plethora of theories, counter theories, suggestions and accusations that have surrounded the Piltdown story since the hoax was first publicly exposed in 1953. Attempting to wade through and assess each and every accusation can be a laborious and thoroughly unrewarding task. Many people have indeed been accused of generating the fraud that was Eoanthropus dawsoni, often on the flimsiest of evidence.
In all the various scenarios propounded however, it is clear that Charles Dawson cannot have been innocent. From the start to the finish of the affair, he is implicated at every single stage of the hoax. He was, without exception, the only person present at each and every discovery at both Barkham Manor and the subsequent sites; indeed some of the ‘finds’ were made whilst he was working by himself. He is the only common factor in all of the elements of the story. He, together with Arthur Smith Woodward, are the only people to have significantly benefited, in academic terms at least, from the discovery of Eoanthropus, though it must be said that as Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History), Woodward’s academic standing was, in 1912, already quite high. Which ever way you look at the evidence, Dawson is there.
If we accept that Dawson cannot in any way be disassociated with the fraud, then we encounter more prosaic problems concerning his involvement, the first of which is a question of basic resources. Did Dawson possess easy access to the raw materials necessary to generate the Hoax in the first place? Some have doubted that a “mere country solicitor” would have had neither the time to perpetrate the fraud, nor the opportunity to acquire certain key ingredients. Time does not appear to have been a problem, for the quantity of publications, exhibitions, displays, excavations, surveys and lectures that we know Dawson organised, belays the suggestion that he had little time off from work to feed his antiquarian habit. Quite how his schedule at Dawson and Hart operated is unclear, though it may have been that Dawson’s partner there, George Hart, later to become ‘Official Solicitor of England’, shouldered most of the burden. Perhaps Dawson was simply a workaholic who never had time for normal ‘everyday’ activities.
As the prime mover behind the Piltdown hoax, Dawson would have found many of the basic building blocks necessary to accomplish the forgery readily to hand in Sussex. Dawson was a co-founder, in 1889, of the Hastings and St Leonards Museum Association and also a member of the Museum Committee, in charge of the acquisition of antiquarian artefacts (such as Blackmore’s flint collection) and historical documents. The museum itself regularly proved to be the ideal display case for Dawson's own collection of antiquarian curiosities, which eventually occupied a section all of its own. Whilst performing his legal role, as partner in Dawson and Hart, Dawson found himself acting as solicitor to a number of prominent Sussex antiquarian collectors, and was able to catalogue a variety of materials bequeathed or otherwise donated to Hastings Museum throughout the 1890s and early 1900s. One such assemblage was the Brassey Collection, comprising a diverse set of materials brought back to England by Lord and Lady Brassey “after several round the world voyages on their steam yacht”. Interestingly enough, the Brassey’s yacht, The Sunbeam visited Malta, Crete and Sarawak, North Borneo sites which “happen to be the chemically identified provenances of the associated Piltdown animal fossils, and the orangutan jawbone”.
By the 1890s, Dawson was even conducting his own excavations in and around Hastings Castle, an early phase of which was reported to have produced a “great haul“ of artefacts. In addition to all this, we know that Dawson was purchasing materials from local dealers (such as the Hastings Mace bought from a pawnbroker’s “somewhere in Kent”). We should also not forget that Dawson claimed to be in contact with all the workmen in his area “who might make accidental discoveries”, such contacts allegedly helping him to collect the ‘Toad in the Hole’ from Brighton. A man such as Dawson would, had he the mind to, certainly be in a excellent position to accumulate the necessary specimens for any number of frauds, forgeries and deceptions.
Easier to acquire from Dawson’s perspective would have been flint tools, or ‘palaeoliths’ supposedly recovered from Barkham Manor. Despite claims to the contrary, only four or five ‘palaeoliths’ were ever produced by Dawson in evidence for the workmanship of Eoanthropus. Any fieldworker worth his salt could gather such material up from the ploughed fields of southern England, and, in the early years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many private antiquarian lithic assemblages were known to exist. Dawson himself had no mean collection of worked flint, including serrated blades, spears and polished axes and flints from Denmark, flakes from Birling Gap near Eastbourne and various arrowheads from North America.
Having accepted that Dawson certainly possessed the means to generate the Piltdown hoax, did he similarly posses the opportunity to execute it? Was he a sufficiently competent chemist; did he possess the knowledge or facilities required to successfully fabricate the data; was it possible that he was in the right place at the right time to plant the forged artefacts in order to allay suspicion and convince other members of the excavation team that the discoveries were genuine? The skills of the Piltdown forger have been elevated by some writers to near mythical status.
Those who seek to defend Dawson on the basis of his poor scientific knowledge or limited intellectual prowess, do him a great disservice. Dawson was a man who lectured, presented papers, organised exhibitions and published articles on subjects as diverse as palaeontology, archaeology, ethnography, anthropology, chemistry, mineralogy, anatomy, history (both human and natural), heraldry, photography, lithics, ceramics, metallurgy, entomology, biology, aerodynamics and physics. He was a true scholar; a jack of all trades and master of most. As a forger he had the knack of being able to identify just what material the various ‘experts in the field’ required in order to support their theories. He could identify the transitional phase or ‘missing link’ in most subject areas and ‘discover’ what academics had long thought really ought to be there. In short, he gave people what they wanted.
If Dawson was indeed the mastermind behind Piltdown, then the vagueness with which he relates the initial phases and dates of the skull’s discovery by two unnamed workmen, as well as the inexplicable gap of “several years” between the first piece of cranium and the ”left supra-orbital border” in 1911, become understandable, for the skull was never in the ground in the first place. It also helps explain the glaring inconsistencies in Dawson’s various stories relating to the discovery.
It has become apparent, through a detailed analysis of Charles Dawson’s antiquarian collection, that all is not as it seems. Of his recorded discoveries, a small selection of which have been presented here, at least 38 are clear and obvious fakes. Amongst these are the teeth of Plagiaulax dawsoni (filed down in the same way that the teeth of Piltdown man would be some twenty years later), the ‘shadow figures’ on the walls of the Hastings Castle tunnel, Blackmore’s hafted stone axe, the Bexhill boat, the Pevensey bricks (made in the same year that Dawson claimed to have found them), the contents of the Lavant Caves, the Beauport Park ‘Roman’ statuette, the Bulverhythe Hammer (shaped in the same way as the later Piltdown elephant bone implement), the Chinese bronze vase, the Brighton ‘Toad in the Hole’, the English Channel sea serpent, the Uckfield Horseshoe and the Lewes Prick Spur. Of his antiquarian publications, most demonstrate evidence of plagiarism or at least naïve referencing. At Piltdown itself, of the faked cranium, mandible and teeth, canine, nasal bones, animal bone assemblage, flint tools, elephant bone tool, the only clear suspect is none other than Charles Dawson himself.
Dawson’s whole antiquarian career appears to have been one built upon deceit, sleight of hand, fraud and academic deception, the ultimate gain being international recognition (and not financial reward). In March 1909, months before the discovery of Piltdown man, Dawson had written to his old friend Arthur Woodward complaining that he was “waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along”. A little while later, perhaps inspired by a documented meeting with local author Arthur Conan Doyle, then in the final stages of his novel The Lost World, Dawson appears to have conceived his greatest hoax; one that could earn him a Fellowship of the Royal Society and in all probability a knighthood. Piltdown Man generated academic interest like no other discovery. Using the skills honed over the previous decades (such as the filing of Plagiaulax teeth and the whittling of the Bulverhythe antler), Charles Dawson gave British palaeontology what it had craved for so long: a missing link from the home counties.
Charles Dawson F.G.S., F.S.A. never received his knighthood, though many others associated with the Piltdown ‘find’ were to, and was never elected to the Royal Society. He died in 1916 before receiving any such great honours. As he died, so did Piltdown Man; no further discoveries ever being made at the site, although the excavations themselves continued under Arthur Woodward’s direction for a further 21 years. I firmly believe that Dawson had the means, motive and clear opportunity to fake Piltdown Man. He had no need for an accomplice and I think that we can safely dispense with any theory concerning a grand conspiracy within the scientific establishment.
Piltdown was not a ‘one-off’ hoax, more the culmination of a life’s work.
A full analysis of the life and finds of Charles Dawson may be found in Miles Russell’s recent book, PILTDOWN MAN: THE SECRET LIFE OF CHARLES DAWSON, published by Tempus (ISBN 0752425722)