HUNTER OF ANCIENTS: W. J. SOLLAS
This ghastly story is of one dead man accusing another dead man of having been the hoaxer. It convinced a number of historians.
As they took their seats, members of the Society of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology meeting at Reading, England, in 1978 had much to chat about-those in the know whispering urgently to the ignorant about that report in the journal about-but the tape recording had started its round.
The voice that crackled over the loudspeaker was from the dead. Professor J. A. Douglas, holder of the Chair of Geology at Oxford University from 1937 to 1950, began by saying that Dawson remains a strong suspect, but that the solicitor would have needed a collaborator who knew more than he about anatomy, paleontology, and anthropology, someone who had access to fossils, who knew the staining properties of certain chemicals.
As I am no longer able to see, to write, or to read, 1 was determined to make a tape record of my ideas, hence the following note. A grudge against one of the principals. Obviously Smith Woodward would suffer and did suffer most. Did they ever try to find out if Smith Woodward had any partricular enemies who might do such a thing. No. They did not And if
they had done, they would, I am sure, have come face to face with my predecessor at Oxford, namely Professor Sollas. (Quoted in Halstead, November 2, 1978)
W. J. Sollas was a former student of T. H. Huxley, a professor of geology at Oxford after previous appointments at Bristol and Dublin, the recipient of many awards, among them the Royal Society's gold medal, author of books on mineralogy, crystallography, invertebrate and vertebrate fossils, and an excavator of the Paviland Cave in South Wales (and  correct in identifying the Red Lady as Cro-Magnon and the Galley Hill skeleton as recent). Although he agreed with Smith that human beings early achieved intellectual powers, that theory was not as important to him as it was to Smith. He shared with most of the other Piltdown researchers the theory that the earliest hominids would have manifested features of both human being and ape. He had seen them in the Neanderthal specimens and would see them again in the Piltdown specimen. In 1915, the second edition of his Ancient Hunters appeared, Eoanthropus dawsoni put forward as a rival to Heidelberg as the oldest known European. He praised Woodward for having guessed at just the kind of canine Teilhard found: in the tooth's agreeing "in a remarkable manner with the tooth inserted in the restoration," it vindicated the Woodward-Barlow method. Nobody has wrung out a hypothesis that Sollas was the Piltdown hoaxer because he wanted to support a theory. Several have given him another motive.
Douglas had worked with Sollas for 30 years. In the Piltdown case, there are few accounts by people closely associated with the suspects, knowing their daily activities and their ways of thinking. Professor Douglas was such a person. Regarding Sollas's opportunity to perpetrate the hoax, those who accuse him, the foremost among them L. B. Halstead of the Reading University Department of Geology, list these points (I offer my own quick replies to each):
1. In 1910, 26-year-old Douglas sent Sollas some fossils from Bolivia, among them a mastodon lower jaw.
No Bolivian fossils were exhumed from the pit.
2. Sollas borrowed ape teeth from the university's Department of Human Anatomy collection.
These objects were available elsewhere to others.
3. Douglas once opened a package addressed to Sollas and found in it potassium bichromate, used in photography. Sollas was not the department's photographer. The photographer himself, C. J. Bayzand, had not ordered the crystals.
Potassium bichromate was available at any druggist's. "The truth of the matter is," wrote K. P. Oakley in a 1980 letter to Nature, "that after the passage of some 70 years, there is nothing to be gained by speculating on the purpose for which Sollas ordered the packet of bichromate crystals."
4. A query by L. B. Halstead: "Does it not strike one that Sollas, who was one of the leading anthropologists of the day, is conspicuous by his absence from the picture in Burlington House with Smith Woodward  and his colleagues examining the Piltdown skull?"
J. S. Weiner, like K. P. Oakley, also wrote to Nature (January 4, 1979) dismissing each of these data, and affirming his conviction that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. Ian Langham, of the University of Sydney, joined in attacking Halstead, writing (Nature, January 18, 1979) that we would have to know when the alleged incidents of the borrowing of ape teeth and receipt of potassium bichromate took place. If they took place after 1912, they are irrelevant. (If they took place before 1912, they might be equally irrelevant.) When Halstead returned to the fray, in the expected rebuttal of these rebuttals (Halstead, February 22, 1979), he implicated Grafton Elliot Smith, Teilhard de Chardin, M. A. C. Hinton, and, or so his statement implies, Arthur Smith Woodward: "Everything that Smith Woodward wanted, turned up and, moreover, in the order in which he wanted it."
As with almost all of the other suspects, getting caught would have injured Sollas's career; success would have injured his profession. He must have had a strong motive to engage in such a fraud. Professor Douglas's voice intoned the motive: a grudge against Smith Woodward. Sollas so disliked Woodward that he refused to lend Woodward an assistant to help him with ichthyosaur fossils. Halstead tells us why Sollas was so mean:
Sollas was Britain's leading expert on fossil man, who had just given his Presidential Address to the Geological Society on fossil man and had recently published Ancient Hunters (1911). Here was a man who had pioneered over many years the technique of serial sectioning which enabled palaeontologists to examine the internal structure of fossils that otherwise would never have been accessible for study, a technique which Smith Woodward contemptuously dismissed as a "mere toy." And here was Smith Woodward with pretensions, but no expertise, announcing his ambition to discover the earliest man and, moreover, in Britain. Was this not as close to an invitation as one could imagine?
It started as a joke that then "got out of hand." But it didn't end with the pit.
As one traces out the portrait of each of the suspects in the Piltdown tapestry, filaments that seemed at first unimportant grow dramatically. Tracing the portrait of W. J. Sollas leads to a horse's head. The incident is supposed to prove that Sollas hated Woodward so much that even the success of the Piltdown hoax was insufficient to sate that passion. Sollas developed another stinger. Here's the plot of this playlet:
 In September 1911, two freshmen of the Sherborne School, A. S. Cortesi and P. C. Grove, found a piece of bone about five inches long, similar to the anterior rib of the Mongolian wild horse, in a dry valley in Dorset. An outline-drawing of the head and forequarters of a horse illustrated the smooth convex face of the bone. The artifact commanded interest because it had been found in a Pleistocene deposit of debris from a quarry and because only one comparable object had ever been found in England, at the Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags. The Geological Society heard the first public announcement of this find at its March 11, 1914, meeting. A. S. Kennard, in the ensuing discussion, emphasized the rarity of the specimen. Other people thought it certainly of some Paleolithic industry. Smith Woodward described it.
There the matter rested for years. Sollas does not mention the find in his second edition of Ancient Hunters (1915), but in the third edition (1924) he does, and in a way designed to pique Smith Woodward. After discussing Cro-Magnon mural art engravings of horses of Magdalene and Aurignacian industries, tools and other productions of prehistoric cultures, Sollas provides, in his Figure 299, drawings of five implements from caves, the last one a rib-bone on which is a sketch of a horse with a crew-cut, from Robin Hood Cave. A footnote to this is first friendly and then insultingly specific:
There is a singular absence of any attempt at art in all the Palaeolithic stations of England. The horse figured here is, I am assured, a forgery introduced into the cave by a mischievous person; the horse described by Dr. Smith Woodward is forgery perpetrated by some schoolboys.
This dart traveled for a couple of years before it struck a bull's eye-Arthur Smith Woodward. In the January 16, 1926, issue of Nature, Woodward quotes the last clause of Sollas's footnote, refers to the Geological Society's having accepted the artifact as genuine back in 1914, and reports that he communicated with Arnaldo Cortesi, one of the two schoolboys (the other had died in the war). Cortesi reminded Woodward that he had been only 15 at the time, and asserted that he had not taken part in any trick.
Sollas did not let two years go by to answer Woodward on this forgery within the larger tapestry of the Piltdown forgery. In a letter written on February 13, 1926, Sollas said that "it is with great regret" that he found himself obliged to repeat that the Sherborne bone-drawing was a clumsy forgery, a practical joke by schoolboys who had at the school an  illustration of the Creswell Crag horse they used as a model. Sollas's assistant, Mr. Bayzand, analyzed the two artifacts, the one from Creswell Crag and the one said to have come from a quarry deposit near the school, and concluded that the latter was a mere copy of the former. The letter by Sollas was followed by one from C. J. Bayzand, who adds that he had been at the Sherborne School arranging its museum collections when he learned of the find, a trick played on the school's science master, R. Elliot Steel. Bayzand took responsibility for having informed Sollas of the trick and thus for Sollas's footnote in the third edition of Ancient Hunters. That was enough to arouse R. Elliot Steel. As soon as he read the letters by Sollas and Bayzand, he submitted his story. It was, he recalled, in September 1911 that A. Cortesi found the bone; back at school, the boy was about to throw it into the fire when E. A. Ross Jefferson, an older student, stopped him and brought the bone to Steel. The boys felt that the bone had to be authentic since Cortesi could not draw "for nuts." A note from E. A. Ross Jefferson followed Steel's letter, to the effect that when Cortesi was about to throw the bone into the fire, Jefferson told him not to be "such an ass; as 1 had been reading about the Palaeolithic Period, and saw at once that it was a real find." Steel showed the bone to Woodward, who showed it to the Geological Society. "The idea of the bone not being genuine," wrote Jefferson, "was a rumour started by that arch-humourist, Mr. X." The thing we can be sure of in this story is that Jefferson's Mr. X is not Essex's Mr. X-unless that arch-humorist Teilhard de Chardin had decided on one of his days off to pay a visit to Dorset.
Sherborne horse's head. Drawing of head and forequarters of a horse on a fragment of rib; from a dry valley north of Sherborne (Dorset). From QJGS 70, April 1914).
Half a century after this exchange of pleasantries, which itself took place more than a decade after the initial event, Professor Douglas reanimated the issue in his taped memoirs, and Halstead picked it up as an example of Sollas's lifelong hatred of Woodward. Sollas's reputation as an honest man hangs on the slim thread of whether he had deliberately  a picture of a horse's head on a horse's rib and planted it in a cave to be found by two schoolboys, the whole elaborate business to show the world what a fool Woodward was.
R. A. H. Farrar, of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, reported in Nature (January 25, 1979) that Oakley had demonstrated back in 1957 that the bone itself was a semi-fossilized Pleistocene production and that the engraving may have been authentic, quite beyond the power of adolescent ingenuity. In his retaliation, Halstead ignored Farrar, insisting that "the incident of the Sherborne Horse's head, if nothing else, was a successful and deliberate demonstration by Sollas of Woodward's incompetence." In the exchange on this issue, the question about the authenticity of the Sherborne horse's head overshadowed the more important question: whether Sollas faked it to avenge himself on his presumptuous colleague.
In Ancient Hunters Sollas came out for Piltdown Man as an authentic hominid, insisting that coincidence could not explain how an ape jaw and a human cranium fell together. Such an explanation is "unworthy of serious consideration." He devoted twelve pages to Eoanthropus, an increase of three over the 1915 edition's section. The combination of human skull and ape jaw at Piltdown is like that of the Heidelberg find: ape jaw and human teeth. He called the femur, illustrated, a remarkable implement, sui generis, 'fashioned in all probability by Eoanthropus himself" He took sides with those who defended Eoanthropus, such as Osborn and Pycraft, and against the skeptics, such as Miller.
Weiner asked why, if Sollas wanted to do Woodward dirt, he should "have so firmly supported the new Eoanthropus dawsoni in the first place." And, one may add, why so long afterward? On the surface, by defending Smith Woodward's production, Sollas seems to have been defending Smith Woodward. But in the Piltdown saga, things are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes, they are the opposite of what they appear to be.
On the surface, Sollas seems again and again to praise Smith Woodward. Woodward's account was "full and admirable"; his reconstruction of the skull "accompanied with great success"; his method unexpectedly and "triumphantly" vindicated by the discovery of the canine tooth. In the preface to the third edition, Sollas includes Woodward in a list of the friends to whom he was indebted (along with Professor Grafton Elliot Smith).
A naive explanation of all this is that Sollas meant just what he said and accepted contributions attesting the authenticity of Eoanthropus from  source they came, even from fish-men and from bird-men, that he felt no animosity toward Woodward or Pycraft.
We know now, thanks to the exposé, that Woodward's account was not "full and admirable," but often vague and incomplete; that his reconstruction was accompanied with considerable debate; and that the canine tooth was not a vindication of his method. A student of the case may then assume that, since we know these things, Sollas knew them too, and in saying the opposite of what he knew was practicing the ancient and devious art of irony. Traipsing down that path, we'll come to the conclusion that the more he praised Woodward overtly, the more he was damning Woodward covertly.
Stephen Jay Gould thinks that Sollas was completely innocent, but recognizes that Sollas's "obsequiously glowing praise of Woodward "Could be read as subtle sarcasm" (Gould, 1980). Gould's comment illuminates what one critic did with Sollas on Pycraft. Sollas had said that Pycraft's rebuttal of Miller was "masterly." Halstead reads "masterly" as subtle sarcasm. "This is a telling phrase," wrote Halstead, "since Pycraft was the Museum's bird expert and was known to have had less knowledge and understanding of human and ape anatomy than even Smith Woodward." Thus, if he had supported Piltdown Man and praised Woodward even more than he did, we could be even more certain that he had faked the former and hated the latter.
On the side of those who think Sollas innocent are Weiner, Oakley, Scientific American (1979), and Sherwood Washburn, who expressed his belief "that what Sollas wrote is a far better guide to what he thought than the recently disclosed suspicions." On the other side are Douglas, Halstead, Bowden, Curtis Fuller, and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: "The hoax, which took in most of the experts, was apparently planned by William Sollas, Professor of Geology at Oxford (1897-1937), through his dislike of Sir Arthur Smith Woodward." James K. Page, Jr, in the Smithsonian (also 1979, the year for pummeling Sollas) wrote, "Thus, it seems that Dawson, the solicitor, may have been talked into trying to make a fool of Smith Woodward by his bitter rival, Sollas, who supplied Dawson with the material for the hoax." The most recent accuser of Sollas is Donald Johanson, the discoverer of the famous australopithecine Lucy, who agrees with the alleged motive: Sollas simply "detested Woodward." Johanson is not only the most recent of those accusing Sollas, but, 1 suspect, also the last.