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.