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)