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.