History is lies-Ask the Piltdown man


Philip Howard

New York Times March 1974


Dawson's map of Maresfield forge

Charles Dawson's map of the Maresfield Forge which was published in Ernest Straker's Wealden Iron.

The Piltdown forgery is the most outrageous piece of scientific skulduggery that has so far been exposed. However, the perpetrator or perpetrators of that classic piece of monkey business have never been publicly and formally identified.

The obvious suspect is Charles Dawson, the solicitor, amateur geologist and antiquarian who claimed to have discovered fragments of the skull of Eoanthropus dawsoni in spoil from a road-side gravel pit. If Dawson, described in his life-time with more truth than was realized as "the Wizard of Sussex," was an innocent fool who was duped by some other forger, he was singularly and consistently eccentric in his serendipity.

His other scientific "discoveries" included: a petrified toad encapsulated in a flint; the remains of something that he claimed was a cross between a goldfish and a carp; and the tooth of a unique creature, half mammal, half reptile, promptly named by the gullible Plagiaulex dawsoni in honour of its fabricator -- sorry, discoverer. Last year "Roman" bricks inscribed HON AUG ANDRIA (purporting to be a rare reference to the Emperor Honorius) "found" by Dawson at Pevensey were proved by the new dating method of thermoluminescence to have been fired not in the fourth but the late nineteenth century.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that Dawson's chief scientific talents were deception and hoaxing, Distraction and Long Derision. The missing link in the evidence so far has been any direct connexion positively identifying Dawson's hand in a forgery. That missing link has now been supplied by a map made and signed by Dawson in 1912, the very year of Piltdown Man, which can be demonstrated to have been a gross and deliberate forgery. It was published to illustrate an article in The Sussex Archaeological Collections of 1912 where it was described as "copy of a map of the Maresfield Forge in 1724, made by C. Dawson F.S.A. " In 1931 Dawson's map was reprinted in facsimile in Ernest Straker's classic Wealden Iron, the bible of those interested in the Sussex iron industry.

Lieutenant-Colonel P.B.S. Andrews, a local historian who lives in the Manor House, Maresfield Park (the ground described in the map and the next village to Piltdown itself) has assembled a formidable case to prove that the map is a hoax. For the first time Dawson has been caught red-handed.

Colonel Andrews says: "Dawson's map is clearly an outrageous fraud, not possibly copied from any genuine original map of 1724, and containing many anachronisms dating right down to the closing years of the nineteenth century as well as a vast deal of other fantastic rubbish."

There was a famous, authentic map of Sussex drawn to one-inch scale in 1724 by a man called Budgen. By comparing Dawson's map with Budgen's and other late maps of Maresfield, Colonel Andrew's has drawn up an indictment of 15 counts , in which he shows places where Dawson travestied, tampered with and fictionalized the historical geography of Marsefield. There is for example, his use of anachronistic scripts such as the small, neat nineteenth century capitals unknown to eighteenth century cartography and his artful introduction of such pseudo-archaisms as "Hondred."

Dawson inserts a road (now the A22) running north to Nutley unrecorded by Budgen in 1724 and the early Ordnance Survey maps; the road was in fact not made until circa 1830. He puts in a mill-pond that was not sunk in the marsh until after 1880, and marks it with the precise shape and anachronistic convention of the Ordnance Survey map of 1900. Budgen named a place where six ways met "Six Wents" and so did all the contemporary parish records; one of the ways was closed around 1900, Dawson shows six ways, but renames the place "Five Wents". He misplaces the furnace on the highest local hill-top absurdly because there would have been no water there for it.

In numerous other small but significant ways Dawson is convicted of having fabricated a bogus early eighteenth century map. He was either an imbeicilely careless and erratic copyist or a forger; and Dawson was not careless or erratic.

There was a motive for the imposture in addition to Dawson's natural proclivity to scientific fraud and practical jokes. In 1912 the Sussex Archaeological Society, in a fit of the intestine jealousy that afflicts such bodies, was boycotting Dawson and his antiquarian works. Colonel Andrews suggests that Dawson took his revenge by tricking them into publishing a fraudulent historical map, containing as many deliberate and ridiculous errors as could be crammed into it: "But he played fair by his own standards; the date 1724 was a strident warning to the editor of the day to recall Budgen' s well-known genuine map of Sussex of that date and compare them. He could confidently assume that the editor would not trouble to do so."

Colonel Andrews, relentless private eye on the ancient trail of the impostor, has constructed a psychological explanation for Dawson's behaviour. In 1883, Dawson was 19 and a keen young amateur geologist, already becoming noticed for his undoubted flair, promise and conceit. In that year he bought a cast-iron "Roman" statuette from an enterprising road-mender at Beauport Park. Ten years later the Roman experts at the British Museum identified Dawson's treasure as a pretty little modern reproduction in cast-iron of a well-known bronze statue in Rome.

Dawson's vanity could not accept their verdict. He continued to assert the authenticity of his statuette, writing, in his inimitable and egomaniac style: "Under the circumstances and in the absence of further evidence (scilicet, further than the unanimous opinion of experts that the statuette was a fake ), the author is disposed to claim that this little statuette is Roman, or Anglo-Roman (a curiously anachronistic hybrid), and the earliest known example of cast-iron, in Europe at least.

Colonel Andrews suggests that the blow to Dawson's colossal self-esteem was traumatic: " I think that from the moment his statuette and antiquarian judgment were discredited Dawson resolved to become the master faker, able to fool the wisest expert in any subject with rubbish far less plausible than the Beauport Park statuette."

The experts were eminently hoodwinkable. Dawson covered his tracks brilliantly, only leaving the treacherous little map to betray him 60 years after he forged it.


Philip Howard

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