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'Missing link' hoax keeps archaeologists guessing for 40 years

By Sussex Courier  |  Posted: November 16, 2012

practical joke: Charles Dawson (inset lower left) and Arthur Smith Woodward (top right) in the gravel pit at Piltdown Photo: Michael Harker's collection

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THIS month marks the centenary of what was first thought to be one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century but eventually uncovered as a hoax of monumental proportions – the Piltdown Man.

Charles Dawson, solicitor, gifted amateur archaeologist, highly respected clerk to Uckfield magistrates and the Urban District Council and member of the Sussex Archaeologist Society, claimed to have found fragments of the supposed Dawn Man's skull, the missing link between apes and humans, in 1912.

The story was broken by the Manchester Guardian in November that year, and the skull was generally accepted as authentic until the mid-1950s.

Dawson was articled to Langhams, a London law firm, and came to Uckfield when they opened an office in the town. He later became one of the partners and eventually took over the practice. George Hart, who had been articled to Dawson, later joined him as a partner.

At the time of his discovery, Dawson was living in Aylesford Terrace in Framfield Road. On December 12, 1912, he told a meeting of the Geological Society: "I was walking along a farm road close to Piltdown Common, when I noticed that the road had been mended with some peculiar brown flints not usual to the district.

"On inquiry, I was astonished to learn they were dug from a gravel pit on the farm, and shortly afterwards I visited the place, where two labourers were at work digging the gravel.

"Upon one of my subsequent visits, one of the men handed me a small portion of an unusually thick human parietal bone. It was not until the autumn of 1911, on a visit to the spot, that I picked up another and larger piece."

Dawson said that eventually he retrieved a great deal of the skull and most of one side of a lower jaw.

The discovery in Germany, in 1907, of what was called Heidelberg Man may have given Dawson the germ of an idea of a similar and more spectacular find in his own country.

In February 1912, he wrote to his friend, Dr (later Sir) Arthur Smith Woodward, of the British Museum, reporting his discovery of "a portion of human skull which will rival H. Heidelbergiensis".

In May, Dawson visited Smith Woodward at the Museum and unwrapped a small package containing three fragments of thick cranium and explained the fragments were part of the shattered "cokernut" described by the workmen. Smith Woodward joined Dawson in further excavations at the site which yielded more fragments, including a jawbone which was found by Dawson: "I struck part of the lower stratum of the gravel with my pick and out flew a portion of the lower jaw".

Yet almost from the beginning doubts were raised about the authenticity of the skull.

Harry Morris, a competent amateur archaeologist, believed flints Dawson claimed to have found near the skull had been chemically stained.

His suspicions were shared by a paleontologist, AS Kennard, who regarded Piltdown Man as a hoax. Mr Alfred Oke wrote in a Sussex newspaper: "Mr Dawson is a coroner and therefore should understand the laws of evidence, but no Sussex jury would have been satisfied the reconstructed skull consisted of bones belonging to the same being."

Others, too, had their doubts, among them Major RA Marriott, governor of Lewes Prison. In 1953, Capt Guy St Barbe told the British Museum's Keeper of Geology that one day in 1913 he had entered Dawson's office unexpectedly and found him engaged in staining some bones in a brownish solution. Both men believed that Dawson had been "salting the mine".

After the Second World War, the hoax was exposed by Dr Joseph Weiner and by John Evangelist Walsh. In his book "Unravelling Piltdown", Mr Walsh implicated Samuel Woodhead, professor of chemistry at Uckfield Agricultural College and public analyst for East Sussex, in the deception.

He wrote: "In 1908, Woodhead had known for more than a dozen years and had used his chemical knowledge on at least two occasions.

"He found the chemist to be trusting and pliable, so he had no qualms about taking him to the Barkham Manor pit."

Dr Weiner, who gave a full account of his researches in his book, The Piltdown Forgery, wrote : "Our verdicts as to the authorship (of the hoax) must rest on suspicion and not proof. Can we withhold from Dawson the one alternative possibility, remote though it seems, that he might have been implicated in a 'joke', perhaps not even his own, which went too far ?"

The nearby Lamb Inn was afterwards renamed The Piltdown Man.

It is now the Lamb Inn once more.

Which, in some ways, is a pity.

For, as The Piltdown Man, both sides of its sign depicted the famous skull – winking.

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