Return to the Pit

Unraveling Piltdown 1996

John Evangelist Walsh

{199] On the second day of June 1912, a Saturday, a small party consisting of Charles Dawson, Arthur Woodward, and the young cleric Teilhard de Chardin arrived by automobile at Barkham Manor. They were armed with a variety of tools, including geological hammers and an assortment of brushes and sieves. On hand to greet them at the open pit with a supply of heavy-duty picks and shovels was the workman Venus Hargreaves. It was an exciting moment, the start of the Piltdown excavations though for one of the three the excitement had a special quality of anticipation unknown to the others.

For this day, Dawson had spent no less than three years in secret and meticulous preparation. Carefully he had studied all previous fossil frauds and hoaxes–there had been several–as well as the legitimate fossil discoveries, in particular that of Heidelberg Man. Every fake fragment of cranium and jaw, every animal fossil, every flint, had been completed. Every intended move, to its last fine detail, had been planned. What makes it possible now to follow those hidden moves, step by step, is the plain fact of known fraud: everything about the excavations was designed to deceive. With that conceded, and knowing much of what actually took place at the pit, it becomes a fairly simple matter to enter Dawson's mind. Patient analysis of the known circum[200]stances permits a reconstruction of his methods which stands as nearly certain, allowing here and there for slight differences in detail.

The party having gotten a late start–Woodward that morning had come down from London, not arriving until nearly midday–it was late afternoon before excavation procedures were settled and the digging begun. Working deliberately with his shovel, Hargreaves broke up the packed earth of the pit, heaping the dirt along the grassy margins to await sieving, or spreading it thin for a first, cursory inspection. At the same time the other three took turns either passing the loose soil through close-meshed screens or combing among the spoil heaps that soon ringed the pit.

In both operations every likely looking lump, large and small, had to be picked up, pinched in the fingers, peered at closely. A tap of a small hammer or pick now and then loosened some rock-hard accumulation of soil at rest on the ground or in a screen.

For this first day, Dawson's private plans were modest. They called for the discovery of only two small specimens, both of which at that moment reposed in his pocket (or pockets, since they would have been carried separate from each other). One was a part of the human cranium, from the occiput. The other was a fragment of a mammalian tooth, Stegodon. Both were meant to be found not in situ, but mixed in the detritus of different spoil heaps flattened on level ground some distance from the pit's edge. Probably Dawson's intention was to have e mammal tooth found first, by the sharp-eyed Teilhard, as a sort of preliminary. Then he would allow Woodward the thrill of discovering the cranial fragment, and the excavations would be off to a flying start.

But that hope, as it proved, went slightly wrong. Soon enough Dawson learned that the task of controlling the sequence and timing of the finds would prove rather a delicate one. His eager companions, despite their wide experience, often failed to recognize a planted specimen at their fingertips.

At first Teilhard overlooked the mammalian tooth lying where Dawson had surreptitiously placed it on the darkened soil of a spoil heap. At length, deciding he could wait no longer to plant the second piece, at a strategic moment Dawson positioned the skull fragment in another spoil heap, one awaiting inspection by Woodward. But Woodward, too, failed to pick out the diminutive bit of broken bone.

At last, as the day's work was nearing its end, Dawson reluctantly gave in and "found" the cranial fragment himself. (Permitting the bit of [201] bone to lie exposed for days, or even overnight, posed too great a chance of its being lost for good.) Now occurred that unusually joyous reaction from Woodward, the display of youthful enthusiasm reported by Teilhard: "all the fire" hidden under his customary reserve suddenly flared in an expression of delight. A few minutes later Teilhard, his attention perhaps sharpened by the excitement over the first discovery, announced his own find of the Stegodon molar.

Aside from the jaw and bone implement, the actual planting of the specimens would have been the least difficult part. Depending on the physical location of the other three at any one time in and around the pit, Dawson could merely place the pieces on the ground by hand, while seeming to be conducting his own search. If he felt an open maneuver at any point might be too risky, he could drop the piece down the inside of a trouser leg, adroit placement of a foot conveniently depositing the specimen wherever desired (for this he would have prepared a special arrangement of his trouser pockets). What he could not predict or manage was the ability of others to maintain concentration, to see what they were supposed to see.

Actually embedding these fragments, as if in undisturbed soil, would have involved far too great a gamble and in fact was not needed. An in situ condition called for much time and careful effort to simulate convincingly; and then there might still be some small detail to give it away to experienced eyes. Of all the finds at Piltdown, only the jaw, and to an extent the bone implement,

required the framework of an in situ discovery.

In that first season at Piltdown a total of five cranial pieces were found, aside from the jaw, on five different days, all in spoil-heaps. Only one of these was turned up by Woodward. The other four were spotted by Dawson himself, though it is certain that he would have preferred Woodward – or Teilhard when he was there – to be the discoverer of the larger share, and perhaps all. No doubt he made such an effort, only to find himself repeatedly frustrated when his target failed to discern the planted piece. Even the single fragment of skull that Woodward did find, on a weekend in July, came perilously near being overlooked. Picking the piece up from the spoil heap, as Woodward recalled, he thought at first it was only a bit of ironstone, like a thousand similar bits he had already handled. It was only, as he said, "after much inspection"–during which the anxious Dawson no doubt eyed him warily–and as he was about to discard it that he suddenly recognized his prize.

[202] The three other cranial pieces that were "found" by Dawson were not brought to light until late in August, during a three-day weekend, one piece each day. Certainly this clumsy, last-minute bunching of finds as the season drew to a close was not Dawson's preferred method, but resulted from his inability to get the three pieces found earlier by others. Of course for most of the summer he had only Woodward to work with, Teilhard being available that year on no more than three or four occasions before he left for France. Having planted a fragment meant for Woodward's probing eye, when it went unnoticed, Dawson had either to "find" it himself or quietly retrieve it for planting another day.

If Dawson and Woodward dug at Piltdown on every weekend in the summer of 1912, into September, they would have been busily engaged there on some sixteen weekends, a total of more than thirty days, perhaps two hundred hours of digging. Indications are, however, that they missed several weekends or were on hand for only a Saturday or a Sunday, and once Woodward was there alone for a day at midweek. This meant that there were a great many hours of tedious sifting, digging, and hauling in which nothing much happened. But while the hominid finds were few in this period, Dawson arranged for a satisfying number of mammalian discoveries to fill the time. Most were teeth from a half-dozen different animals, all yielded by spoil heaps. These items, along with the flints, both paleoliths and eoliths, were of value for dating purposes, but they also continually buoyed hopes for added hominid discoveries.

Here again, though, Dawson had considerable trouble in leading Woodward, and Teilhard when he was there, to spot his planted goods. Woodward, unaided, picked up only a single one of the total of eight animal teeth found, Teilhard none after that first day. Dawson himself had to "find" the other six. With the three paleoliths (worked flints) he had better luck, Woodward and Teilhard each managing to come up with one. The so-called eoliths were somewhat harder to recognize, and the result was that Dawson had to produce all nine.

The most severe challenge faced by the forger in that first season, of course, was the jawbone. This was much too large an object, too bulkily obvious, to allow it to be found lying on the surface in a spoil heap. Even to have reached a spoil heap it would supposedly have come out of the ground on Hargreaves' shovel, and in that case the workman himself, or someone nearby, could have been expected to notice it [203] rather quickly. The possibility of damage by a probing shovel had also to be avoided. For those reasons, and to achieve its maximum impact of authenticity, the supremely important jawbone had to be found in situ in the pit, or to appear as if it had.

Further, since it would be virtually impossible to simulate an in situ condition in the hard-packed earth of the pit bottom, Dawson himself must make the discovery. At the same time Woodward must be present to witness it, though being deprived of any chance to study the spot, or even to be concerned whether the jaw's earthy bed had previously lain untouched. It was a knotty problem, indeed, the fraud's real crux. Typically, Dawson's solution to it was an ingenious one, actually his boldest, and his rashest, decision of the entire campaign.

Since there must not be the least risk of anything going wrong, burial of the jaw could not be done much beforehand, by night or day. Leaving it at rest too long in the Barkham Manor gravels would be foolhardy. Dawson would have to insert it in the soil of the pit bottom on the same day it was "found," and only shortly before. He would have to perform the operation while the others were present and moving freely around the site. This was feasible since he could await the proper moment to act, when his companions were busy elsewhere and he himself was crouched down in the trench pretending to search. It need not be done on any particular day or weekend. No move need be made until all the conditions were favorable. As it was, Dawson bided his time only until the fourth weekend of June.

The last necessary element of the mechanism for the jaw's unearthing concerned how it was to be accomplished: just when, and in what exact manner, it would be freed from the enveloping soil. Here, it must be conceded, Dawson was at his best, for the method he chose, while fittingly dramatic and effective, also posed by far the greatest gamble. All would depend on precise timing, patience, and a steady hand. At last, on Saturday, June 23, while he was alone in the pit, with Woodward occupied nearby, he inserted the jaw fragment a few inches into the blackened soil. Moments passed, and then came his chance.

"I struck part of the lowest stratum of the gravel with my pick," Dawson later explained, "and out flew a portion of the lower jaw." Just at the moment he wielded the little geological pick–the evidence shows this clearly–Woodward had come up. At the critical instant he was actually peering in Dawson's direction, in fact was looking at the very spot [204] where the blow fell. The timing, force, and aim of the decisive stroke were all perfection, for when the jaw made its sudden appearance out of the earth, Woodward was utterly persuaded that he had seen the dark L-shaped bone being dislodged, as he ever afterward claimed, from "untouched remnants of the original gravel." Untouched the gravel of the pit floor certainly was, all but the few square inches in which for a matter of minutes the jawbone had nestled.

So well planned, so deftly executed was the crucial maneuver that Woodward instantly became the principal and most important witness to the jaw's discovery. With his own eyes, he proudly stated, he had seen it "fly out in front of the pick-shaped end of the hammer." Never did he think to ask why the experienced Dawson would have blindly delivered a blow hard enough to make the jaw actually jump into view–"fly out"–when he should have been gently probing the soil. In that particular circumstance there was no condition that called for a forceful blow, not to dislodge a visible or suspected artifact, certainly not to probe new ground.

About inspecting the gravel for signs of prior disturbance Woodward says nothing, and that is certainly because Dawson promptly obliterated the evidence. While Woodward's fascinated eyes followed the jawbone skittering along the pit bottom, Dawson in feigned excitement was no doubt trampling heavily on the earth all around the immediate area.

In addition to careful planning and masterful execution, there was one added factor Dawson knew he could count on to seal and ratify his trickery with the jaw. He knew that his longtime friend and coworker trusted him. He knew that Woodward would never think to question his claim, implied or spoken, that the pit bottom had been undisturbed. Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of Dawson, in a human way, is that in all he did as a forger he never hesitated to trade on the fact that his friends and colleagues liked and trusted him. After the exposure there were many who in recalling the affable, obliging solicitor, could not connect him with an act of betrayal.

The famous Heidelberg jaw, so crucial in the evolutionary picture, was discovered in Germany in the fall of 1907. The following spring it received its first public announcement, becoming the talk of scientific circles. In England newspapers and more serious journals gave it extended coverage, all of which was certainly read by Dawson. Heidel[205]berg's role as the igniting spark of Piltdown, suggested long ago, appears well established: it was a desire to repeat and surpass that huge success, his eye still on a coveted Royal Society fellowship, that propelled Dawson to action. From that fact is traced the first undoubted link with Piltdown, for it was in 1908, probably the fall, that Dawson made his opening move in the fraud when he told his friend, the chemist Samuel Woodhead, about finding a piece of the skull. Soon afterward the two spent a day together at Barkham Manor in a fruitless search for more. This early link with a competent witness was pointedly stressed by Dawson in all his published references to Piltdown.

The unsuspecting Woodhead became, in other words, the forger's initial victim, representing what was from the start an integral part of the daring scheme. Corroborating witnesses, men whose word, character, and competence would be seen as unassailable, were to be involved at every turn. In different ways and at different times Dawson targeted at least half a dozen of his friends and acquaintances, all men of high repute. With most he failed, even losing Woodhead eventually. But one, Teilhard de Chardin, more than made up for all the others. Here was an ordained priest, young, idealistic, naive, a keen fossil hunter who was also a qualified scientist-the perfect dupe.

When in 1913 it came time for the important canine to be discovered, no better medium for its delivery could be imagined than the priest. With Teilhard, in fact, if Dawson had had his way, there would have been a direct link with Piltdown, similar to that of Woodhead, even before the start of formal excavations. In April 1912–by then the two had known each other for three years–Dawson visited Teilhard at the seminary. With him he brought some pieces of what Teilhard in a letter of the time described as "a very thick" human skull, accompanied by three fossil animal teeth. These fragments were shown him, wrote Teilhard in a letter to his parents, "in order to stir me up to some similar expeditions, but 1 hardly have time for that anymore." Soon, though, the relentless Dawson had his way. Only five weeks later the priest was on hand at the pit, eager for the first day of digging.

Teilhard's unsuspecting involvement with the canine in 1913 affords a classic instance of Dawson's peculiar genius for well-designed chicanery. That the canine, as envisioned by Woodward in his reconstructed model, would become a center of controversy was of course a development that Dawson could not have foreseen. But no sooner did [206] it arise than he grasped the renewed opportunity to further strengthen Piltdown's claim. By early summer at the latest he had succeeded in fabricating the disputed tooth and was awaiting the opening of the season's work at the pit.

The only available candidate he had at this time for the role of the canine's finder was Woodward, young Teilhard having returned to France the previous year. But for some reason Dawson delayed the canine's unveiling for weeks, and then unexpectedly in July he heard directly from Teilhard. His superiors in France, it developed, were sending him back to England for a month's stay at the seminary. Unhesitatingly Dawson formed his plan. By mail he extended to Teilhard an invitation to stay as his guest at Castle Lodge on the weekend of his arrival, which Teilhard gladly accepted. None of this is conjecture: in a letter of 1954 to Weiner, Teilhard states, In 1913, my staying overnight in Lewes (and the trip to Piltdown) was prearranged." The italics are his.

Especially compelling in the context of the forgery is the incident of the canine, for by means of it Dawson's manipulations may be followed more closely than is possible with most of the other finds. Fleeting but revealing details, inadvertently preserved by the participants, allow for a satisfying reconstruction of how it was done.

The priest's schedule of duties at the seminary would have been Dawson's initial concern: did it permit his attendance at the pit on every weekend? The answer was a bit disappointing: Teilhard would be free only for the weekends of August 9-10 and 30-31. In between, he was to take part in an extended spiritual retreat at the seminary, the main reason for his return. Then on September 2 he would depart Hastings for the trip back to France. Dawson thus could be sure of his prey for only two weekends, four days, even less should any interference arise. On all four of those days at the pit he would be carrying the tooth with him, ready to act.

There was, however, a slight complication. For the weekend of the ninth Dawson had already arranged to implicate Woodward's wife, Maude, who would be drawn into the finding of the nose bones. This occasion could not be readily switched, for Maude Woodward's visits to Barkham Manor had been very few. Probably it had taken a good deal of cajolery on Dawson's part to persuade her to make even this one August visit. Whether he also set his trap for the innocent Teilhard on that [207] first weekend escapes detection. Very probably he did, not wanting to chance letting matters go too late, only to have the expected little drama misfire when Teilhard failed to spot the darkened tooth lying in the rubble.

Only one weekend remained, which might well be reduced to a single day if other business should occupy Teilhard on what would be his final Sunday in England. Dawson's last reliable opportunity would occur on Saturday, August 30. To help ensure Teilhard's presence that day, he told him it would he the season's concluding day of excavation (it wasn't, but departed Teilhard never knew that).

The digger Hargreaves did not show up at the pit for the weekend of the thirtieth, nor was there a replacement for him, certainly a deliberate move on Dawson's part. Without Hargreaves steadily filling buckets and pails with earth to be sieved, attention could be focused on a more relaxed and leisurely inspection of the spoil heaps already spread along the grass–and it was in a spoil heap that the canine was to be planted. Further, Dawson now adopted a new search technique, one that made good sense but of which there is no sign of earlier use. He had the spreading yards of spoil divided into small sections and visibly marked off, perhaps by borders of string–"mapped out in squares," as he said. With this grid system (even then a fairly standard procedure in archeological digs) the searcher's attention would be more powerfully concentrated on one square at a time, each square being canceled when inspection was completed. With the searcher crouched down on his hands and knees, "crawling," as Woodward described it, no inch of the spoil would be missed.

Fortunately the exact moment of the discovery was precisely recalled by Woodward soon after. Teilhard, he remembered, had been digging in the pit for some time, had then been relieved of shovel work and set to looking over the squared-off heaps. In his description Woodward continually writes "we," meaning himself and Dawson, but in this instance, putting the priest to work on the spoil heaps, the lead was surely taken by Dawson, of course in slyly casual fashion.

Some minutes passed in silence, all three men sweating profusely in the sun as they were preoccupied with their individual tasks. Suddenly Teilhard excitedly called out–"exclaimed," he said later–that he had found a tooth! The other two, however, were slow to react ('We were incredulous"). Dawson even called out dismissively that Teilhard had [208] probably been fooled by a bit of the ironstone that littered the area, and "which looked like teeth." When Teilhard insisted, the two at last climbed reluctantly out of the pit and walked toward their grinning companion.

"There could be no doubt about it," wrote Woodward, later recalling the moment. It was indeed the veritable canine. Greatly exhilarated, all three promptly dropped to their knees at different squares and began eagerly searching: they "spent the rest of the day until dusk crawling over the gravel in a vain quest for more."

Ten days later to his parents, Teilhard briefly recounts his "lucky" find, stressing how "very exciting" was the experience. Some of this original exhilaration still remained with him forty years later, it seems, helping to cloud his judgment over the idea of forgery. When Weiner wrote him in 1953 to explain about the exposure of the fraud, Teilhard responded strangely. The canine, he wrote, had been "so inconspicuous amidst the gravels" that to him it seemed "quite unlikely that the tooth could have been planted." Despite having just been officially informed that the tooth was in fact a fake, and therefore could have occurred at Piltdown only by planting, this world-famed scientist shows himself still deeply reluctant to admit that in his youth he could have been so badly fooled. His muddled and illogical reply to Weiner uncovers a proud spirit, one unaccustomed to deceit, and all too human. But very soon, in a cooler moment, his old strong suspicions about Dawson must have come flooding back.

Why Dawson would have deliberately gone on from his success with the jaw and the canine to undertake the really daring gamble of the bone implement is a question that requires but has never found an answer. However, that answer, wholly adequate, may be readily extracted from Woodward's own few scattered remarks. For Woodward the implement was "unlike anything hitherto known among the handiwork of prehistoric or primitive modern man," affording the best proof of Piltdown's antiquity. The mammalian remains from Piltdown, the animal teeth, he had come to feel after his first excitement cooled, were "insufficient to date Eoanthropus with exactness," leaving only the problematic witness of the gravel. For Dawson, that small slippage in Woodward's certitude gave its timely warning, and he moved rapidly to produce the implement. The gamble, a real one requiring skill, confidence, and another hurried search in paleontological literature, paid off [209] in wonderful fashion when Woodward accepted the result as "probably the only specimen of real importance" when it came to dating the Piltdown finds.

Concerning the implement's unearthing, a single circumstance is sufficient to indicate how it was all managed: the generally overlooked fact that it came from under a hedge. In his formal presentation of the implement to the Geological Society in December 1914, Woodward states that it was found "about a foot below the surface in dark vegetable soil, beneath the hedge which bounds the gravel pit." His personal account of the incident, written less than two years later, adds an important detail. The find was made "beneath part of the hedge which Mr. Kenward had allowed us to remove."

Since the more than foot long, yellow-brown implement was deliberately planted, and since Dawson could not have managed such a burial while the others were present, it is clear that it was put into the ground some time before the late June afternoon on which it was found. Burial could have been a day before, it could have been weeks. Most likely is a few days, placing the act between two weekends' digging.

Dawson's access to the pit by this time, of course, was free and unhampered. Spending almost every business day in his law office at Uckfield, an hour's walk or a little more from Barkham Manor, he must often have paid casual, apparently nonworking visits there. Even if he happened to be met at the pit by other visitors, or by a member of the resident Kenward family, the encounter would have had no particular significance and would have been quickly forgotten. It was on some such occasion, when he had the pit area to himself, that he planted his final fraudulent artifact.

The soil that yielded the bone, though lying under a hedge, had already been disturbed. A good portion of it, said Woodward in his official report, consisted of spoil from previous digging, and this, he thought, accounted for the presence of the implement: it had been "thrown there by the workmen with the other useless debris when they were digging" in the pit immediately adjacent. Aided by Woodward's at times astonishing naiveté–curious willingness to believe that the workmen, who had been promised money for anything unusual, would have flung the bone away–Dawson made good use of his opportunity. The large implement, broken almost in two, could be hidden in disturbed soil, greatly simplifying the burial and reducing any later risk of [210] detection. There was no need this time for a full-fledged in situ condition. The hedge itself would be proof that the slab of bone had lain there for a number of years, perhaps as much as a decade or more.

Getting the implement safely into the ground would also have been an easy matter, for it certainly was not put in from the surface, but from the side. The descending inner wall of the widened pit was less than two feet distant from the hedge. Dawson needed only to find the correct spot on the pit wall, a foot down from the top, and then burrow horizontally. The appearance of the wall's face after the insertion, any marks of disturbance, would pose no problem. Signs of interference would be taken as a normal result of the digging previously done. A final advantage of this horizontal burial, accomplished with Dawson concealed in the five-foot-deep pit, was the protection it afforded from accidentally prying eyes. Even if interrupted at his task he need offer no explanations.

Removal of the hedge at that particular spot can only have been Dawson's doing, and what reason he offered Woodward for the action would be interesting to know. In any case, Woodward by now was almost completely under Dawson's spell, so it would have taken little by way of explanation to satisfy him. Probably Dawson mentioned something about wanting to probe an extension of the deeper, flint-bearing gravel bed.

With the hedge gone, Hargreaves was assigned to break up the newly exposed surface. Nearby stood Woodward, watching. Several blows of the mattock had been delivered when suddenly "some small splinters of bone" flew up. Immediately Woodward halted the workman. Kneeling down he dug deep with his hands, felt something hard, and "pulled out a heavy blade of bone." For Dawson this was a lucky deviation from the plan, for he could not have anticipated Woodward's seeing the flying splinters or his prompt action with his bare hands. No doubt Hargreaves had been Dawson's intended victim, another innocent witness to be drawn into his net.

While washing the clinging dirt and clay off the bone, Woodward recalled, Dawson pointed out that one of its ends looked as if it had been broken straight across. Maybe the other piece was still in the ground? Bending down, he plunged his hands into the dirt and "soon pulled out the rest of the bone." The implement, of course, had not been broken in the ground but had been buried in two pieces, more of Dawson's [211] minute care. When whole, it would certainly have been too cumbersome to carry concealed on his person. It would also have been too troublesome for convenient burial, especially in conditions calling for haste and a minimum of effort.

With that, the series of "discoveries" made during three years in connection with Piltdown Man came to an end. The other supposed finds, those made at Sheffield Park (Piltdown Two) and Barcombe Mills, require no review. They were never in the ground anywhere. After being fabricated in Dawson's private workshop in the cellar of Castle Lodge, they went straight to the hands of Arthur Woodward.

Concerning the Barcombe Mills material, however, its purpose, the reason it existed at all, there is still something to be said. Reported to Woodward by Dawson as early as July 1913, its content precisely matched that of the later Piltdown Two: a molar and two cranial fragments, one of which retained a bit of the orbital ridge (the added fragment of the cheek in the Barcombe Mills cache is not germane). This resemblance requires an explanation, of course, which can only be that Dawson's original schedule called for him to produce a second Piltdown Man much earlier than actually happened, a full two years earlier. If the plan had not been altered, Barcombe Mills and not Sheffield Park would have been designated as Piltdown Two. What interfered with the original plan? judging by known fact, the answer is obvious: the sudden need to introduce into the developing picture a more dramatic element, the canine, found on August 30–or rather the opportunity to introduce it.

Piltdown Two was not, as has been regularly suggested, an afterthought, a protective response to the rising opposition of critics. From the start it was an integral part of Dawson's scheme, intended to add its weight of testimony within six months of the first announcement, a fact sharply attesting to his bold if distorted foresight. But when, unexpectedly, the dispute over the form of the canine, as reconstructed by Woodward, claimed the spotlight, matters quickly altered. Taking advantage of the new development, Dawson was able on the instant to change direction, setting Barcombe Mills aside temporarily in favor of the controversial tooth. As events proved, of course, he was exactly right in his choice. From the furor over the canine he gained far more in the way of public attention than would have resulted from Piltdown Two, as well as further corroboration.

[212] Afterward, Dawson continued to withhold Piltdown Two, awaiting a propitious moment for its introduction. Not until 1915 was it brought into play– and then in the improved version of Sheffield Park–when he decided that still another sensation was needed to add support. Here, however, while he did manage to put to rest the fight over linkage of cranium and jaw, he lost his hoped-for sensation. Woodward, hesitant and undecided about the new finds, hung back until 1917. By then all that anyone really cared about was the World War.

If Charles Dawson was innocent of all complicity in the Piltdown affair, then it is plain that everything he told about it from his own knowledge, barring oversights, must be true. His story about the diggers at the pit finding an intact skull, which they took to be a coconut, smashing it to fragments while saving a piece for him, must be true if he was blameless. But the coconut story is the very element in the tangled tale of Piltdown's beginnings that, in strict logic, cannot be true. Once the fact of forgery has been established, especially a forgery so far-reaching and demanding such great pains to prepare, any such haphazard beginning is ruled out.

The notion that the original forged cranium was planted intact in the pit, its discovery left to the whim of busy, unconcerned diggers, is nonsense. The forger in that case would have lost control of his project at the start, for he could never have been sure of the outcome. The diggers, coming upon the cranium in the earth, might recognize it as a skull, or might not. They might take it up whole, or might smash and ignore it. They might keep it to sell to some local antiquarian (on hand in every village), or one of the men might decide to take it home as a keepsake for his mantelpiece.

Further, if the men did find and proceed to smash a skull, deliberately or otherwise, the breakage pattern certainly would not be the particular one required by the forger. Here the actual risk would be very large, for no one could tell how much and what sort of damage might be inflicted by men merrily flailing away with heavy picks and spades. In the end, with the skull perhaps reduced to a pile of splinters, the men might well forget to tell the forger anything at all about their find.

Even less reasonable is the idea, first mentioned by Weiner, of a substitute cranium being planted in the pit, which was afterward discarded in favor of the prepared fragments. Against this approach all the same [213] objections apply as with the actual Eoanthropus skull, and there are a number of added disadvantages. Bits and pieces of the smashed substitute skull could remain in the soil to be inconveniently found later on. Also, if the men should take the substitute, whole, to some local expert, and publicity ensued, the forger would have effectively lost his all-important gravel bed. Unable to sow the same location twice, he would have to begin all over again at another site. But all such objections may be wrapped up in the one assertion that so ingenious and resourceful a planner as was Piltdown's creator would never have chanced incurring the least loss of control in the working out of his meticulous design.

The fuzzy nature in general of the coconut story can be readily demonstrated by a glance at a succinct version supplied by Arthur Woodward in his book, The Earliest Englishman. Within Woodward's brief text, which agrees with other tellings, can be found two blatant contradictions, either of which is enough to invalidate the original story. Dawson, writes Woodward, drawing on his many intimate talks with his friend, having come across the flint-bearing gravels at Barkham Manor,

. . . asked the labourers to look out for bones or teeth or anything strange, saying that he would call again to collect their finds and give them a suitable reward . . . . One day . . . the men dug up what they thought was a coconut, and they felt sure that this was the kind of thing which would please their curious and presumably generous friend . . . .

But as it was a little bulky to keep, they broke it with a shovel and threw away all but one piece which they put in a waistcoat pocket to show Mr. Dawson on the first opportunity. When he came round again the men produced their find and described to him the "coconut" from which they had broken it. . . .

Glaringly obvious is the inanity of the claim that the men kept only one piece of what they found as of possible interest to Dawson while throwing the greater part away. If there was a chance for financial reward (diggers in British soil were all quite aware of this possibility, even without Dawson's offer), why throw away any portion of the object before they had Dawson's reaction? Why keep only a single piece? The men had only to drop the whole thing on a shelf in a shed awaiting their man's next visit. Once dwelt on, the second contradiction is even more [214] blatant. The men, supposedly, broke up the skull because they thought it was only a worthless coconut. But did they really expect that a bit of coconut shell would be of interest to an antiquarian?

The coconut was merely another Dawson invention, meant to lend color and realism to the story of the smashed skull. But he used it only in conversation. Never did he put the word into print, no reference to a coconut occurring in his official or unofficial articles on Piltdown. Deliberately, he left that to others. (One of the important victims of the coconut story was Mabel Kenward, daughter of the Barkham Manor tenant. She lived into her nineties insisting on the reality of the smashed coconut, never conceding that the Piltdown skull wasn't genuine.)

Rigid, precise control of the operation at every stage, leaving as little as possible to chance, was the hallmark of the Piltdown fraud. Within those boundaries there was simply no room for the uncertainties of a planted whole cranium. No intact skull of any sort was recovered at any time from the pit. Of the hominid remains, only the five cranial fragments and the jaw ever touched the earth of Piltdown, and those fleetingly.

It was Dawson's habit of calculated daring that imposed on the Piltdown story the engaging idea that it began with an accidentally smashed skull. As he expected, that arresting picture subtly thwarted the initial tendency to doubt, shifting attention away from what is potentially the weakest part of any fraud, its start. Clearly he could have had no fear that anyone would try to investigate the claim, to trace and speak with the workmen–and no one did, the gathering of such information then not being deemed vital. If the attempt bad been made, at every turn there would have arisen endless frustration and confusion over names, dates, and who had worked where, when. Here was a neat repetition of a pivotal aspect of the Beauport statuette fraud, in which Dawson actually identified a workman by name, though not until twenty-eight years after the fact.

A deliberately murky record of dating and chronology, darkened further by the passage of time between discovery and announcement, was Dawson's shield. Those obscuring elements, so innocent on the surface, he built carefully into a good many of his impostures, with Piltdown Man most cunningly.


Back to the

Back to the

Back to