Editorial Notes

Glyn Daniels

Antiquity 1956

[1] The exposure of the Piltdown fraud has been welcomed by two very different groups of people. Human palaeontologists are glad to be rid of objects that were inconsistent with each other and with a large range of securely established facts; and those who, from envy, hatred, malice, uncharitableness, or just plain ignorance, rejoice to see 'experts' discomfited, have presumably derived much consolation. The discomfiture must be admitted, but who were the 'experts'? The last thing we would wish would be to increase the discomfiture of those, if any, who are still amongst us; but it is only just to point out that none of them were archaeologists. The only one of those concerned with the original discoveries who could possibly be so called was Dawson himself, and his claims were very thin.

The bones and teeth were supposed to have been found in a shallow deposit of gravel and to be contemporary with or older than it; they were therefore the concern of those anatomists who specialize in human palaeontology, and the gravel was the concern of geologists. Archaeology so far did not come into the picture at all, and it was quite proper that the first account should have been given at a meeting of the Geological Society. (The present writer was present at it and remembers it well). Archaeologists deal with the works of man, not with his body, and as excavators it is their business to learn how to distinguish disturbed from undisturbed soil. The question of whether the Piltdown gravel had been disturbed seems never to have been asked; even if it had, it would have been difficult to answer because at that time in England the technique of excavation was still, in spite of General Pitt-River's work, very crude. Nevertheless, though the question was not asked, it should have been; soil-study was involved, and to that extent there was an archaeological aspect of the alleged discoveries.

But the Piltdown forger was careful to avoid as far as possible burying objects at the site. All the larger objects were picked up on the tip-heaps. Only one piece of skull was found in situ, and it was no larger than a thumb-nail and could easily have been pushed into the vertical face of the excavation. The slab of elephant-bone was tucked into the soil under the hedge, where it was said to have been 'presumably thrown by the workmen' (or words to that effect). A minute sliver of identical bone was found in the basal seam of clay, 'indicating the original horizon of the worked slab' (or words to that effect). The famous jawbone itself was in a small hump of basal gravel which the workmen had missed by reason of the floor of the pit being flooded. These facts suggest that the forger was astute enough to realize that any considerable disturbance of the soil might he detected, and to avoid it for that reason.

[2] This matter of soil-disturbance is of outstanding importance, as every excavator knows. It may occur in any site, whether stratified or not; in barrows and other earthworks burrowing animals, particularly rabbits, are prime sources of trouble, and so are the ancient occupants of a site who frequently dug pits and post-holes. But–and this is the important point–the qualified excavator is fully aware of these hazards; he is on the watch for them unceasingly all the time he is at work, and he can detect them when they occur. Usually it is not fraud that he is anxious about, but the danger of attributing to an older deposit objects which are in fact intrusive from a younger (upper) layer. Where fraud is concerned there are now ways of estimating the age of bones by treatment of the things themselves, but it is seldom possible to do this with archaeological objects. When these are in any way unusual, they can often only be dated by their associations. It is an archaeologist's business to do that, and it can only be done on the spot, not afterwards in a museum or elsewhere.

It is therefore hardly correct to say, as did a recent reviewer (Times Literary Supplement, 11 November, 1955, p. 675) that 'the diggings of archaeologists and the conclusions thus formed about the course of evolution have been peculiarly vulnerable to an expert who for any reason wishes to plant a fin '. It is precisely in the 'digging ' that fraudulent insertion can most easily be detected, as at Glozel, by the normal methods. That has always been so, and on all properly conducted excavations it has always been a rule that all important finds are to be left undisturbed in the soil until they have been seen and recorded by the supervisor, who then removes them himself Naturally he looks for signs of disturbance, which he seldom fails to detect. The passage just quoted also seems to imply that, on other sites besides Piltdown, erroneous conclusions have been drawn from objects which have been planted' as alleged, by 'experts'. One would like to be told where they are? In any case, the 'course of evolution' has been quite firmly established in broad outline by many discoveries made both before and after the Piltdown affair, by which they are in no way invalidated.