Sunday, 19 March 2017

Piltdown Man, Charles Dawson and Harry Price

Miles Russell Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World’s Greatest Arcaheological Hoax (2003)

An absorbing study that concentrates on Charles Dawson, the man who found the so-called Piltdown Man ‘missing link’ in a gravel pit near the hamlet of Piltdown in West Sussex.  Having read this book most readers will have little doubt that Dawson was solely responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax, despite the fact that many others have been accused over the years, most ridiculously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (although according to this book his novel The Lost World, published in 1912, may have played a part in inspiring the deception).  Russell lays out his case carefully and methodically, cannily preparing the ground with a lengthy and detailed examination of Dawson’s ‘antiquarian’ collections, parts of which he exhibited in the years before Piltdown.  Almost every piece examined is found to be a fake, of dubious provenance, or a (deliberate?) misinterpretation – tellingly some of these pieces were claimed by Dawson to provide a ‘missing link’ between species or advances in technology.

There are many connections with Hastings (about thirty miles from Piltdown) - Dawson lived in St Leonards as a boy and many of his remarkable ‘finds’ were supposedly dug up in the surrounding area.  He wrote a detailed history of Hastings Castle and worked on a dig that cleared and mapped the ‘secret’ tunnels under the castle.  Yet again, all was not what it seemed: Dawson claimed that as an eight-year-old boy he had seen strange shadowy marks on the walls of one of these tunnels when he had been shown round by the proprietor.  

Much later in life he recalled that the marks strongly resembled the shapes of two men standing against the tunnel walls in close proximity to metal staples to which they could have been manacled (he made a drawing), thus his conclusion was that these tunnels had to be ‘dungeons’, a name which has stuck to this day (rather than the cellars and storage areas which they most likely were).   Dawson was fond of dungeons and had one constructed at his Lewes house, Castle Lodge, which he acquired in 1904 from the Sussex Archaeological Society (he was a member) in highly dubious circumstances, resulting in his being virtually ostracised (remarkably, the massively publicised Piltdown discoveries were not mentioned in the society’s journal). 

It does seem surprising these days how readily Piltdown Man was accepted by the scientific community – there were some naysayers at the time, but they received little support.  Russell explains how Dawson had motive and means – one witness claims to have discovered him one day in his solicitor’s office experimenting with discolouring bones (!).  Palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward would appear to have been a ‘useful idiot’ (rather than part of the hoax) for Dawson in the authentication of the remains.  There is also the hoaxer’s standard modus operandi: he conveniently produced what the scientists of that time were eagerly hoping to find.  Nationalism also entered into events, as previous finds of early man had been on the continent.  Finally England could claim its own spectacular discovery – it’s significant that Woodward’s book was called The Earliest Englishman (not published until 1948 – the hoax was only uncovered in 1953).

For me, an intriguing aspect of the story is Dawson’s possible links with Harry Price (see previous posts), who began his quest for recognition and publicity through a series of apparently important archaeological finds within a short distance of his house in Pulborough.  According to Richard Morris in Harry Price The Psychic Detective (2006):

‘It is absolutely conceivable that Dawson and Price worked together.  They had plenty of opportunities to meet each other, as both were active in the Sussex Archaeological Society and were members of the Royal Societies Club, that most prestigious social club of scientists and industrialists.  Furthermore Price and Dawson would have shared patrons and supporters. (p.32)

Unfortunately, Morris does not produce any evidence, such as correspondence, for their friendship or cooperation.

Dawson and Price both craved academic credibility: Dawson was the more impressive in that, despite having never attended university and holding down a job as a solicitor in Uckfield (the firm is still there), he possessed a lively and inquiring mind and could lecture on a wide variety of subjects well beyond archaeology; he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries.  Much of Price’s knowledge of archaeology was bluff or plagiarised.  Price enjoyed incredibly good fortune with his archaeological discoveries, many of which were found on the surface, so he didn’t even have to get his hands dirty.  An unusually well-preserved Roman statuette of Hercules was pulled out of the river bank at the end of his garden.  He was eventually caught out after a Roman silver ingot, ‘which I picked up in 1909 on the surface of a ploughed field on top of park Mount, Pulborough’ was proved to be a fake.   It bore a mark which indicated that it may well have dated from the period of Honorius at the very end of Roman occupation, making it even more significant.  Coincidentally, Roman bricks found by Dawson at Pevensey Castle and exhibited in 1907 also bore a mark of Honorius – they too were later proved to be fakes.

If anyone reading this is aware of closer links between Price and Dawson I would be interested to know.

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