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Émile Fradin (1904-2010)

Émile Fradin (1904-2010), holding a copy of the then recently published book that caused his notoriety

An unusual discovery

In 1924, Émile Fradin (1906-2010), a seventeen-year-old farmer’s son from le Glozel, an obscure hamlet in the Département de l’Allier (France) stumbled upon one of the most contentious archaeological discoveries ever made. A cow in the herd he was minding fell part of the way into a hole in a field a short distance from the farm. On extricating the beast from the hole, Fradin and his family discovered a brick-lined pit. They excavated a roughly oval feature (referred to in the literature as the fosse ovale), in which some of the bricks appeared to have a strange glaze. They also found a human skull and a series of puzzling artefacts, including carved bones, carved pebbles, pots and clay tablets with mysterious symbols on them.

Knowledge of the finds grows

Puzzled by the finds, the local teacher lent Émile books on archaeology, in which he found drawings of prehistoric objects that resembled those from his father’s field. Eventually, the site came to the attention of Dr Antonin Morlet (1882-1965), a keen amateur archaeologist, who began more extensive excavations across the field, eventually deciding that Émile had found a Neolithic site of unusual – even unique – character.

Morlet was quick to publish his discoveries, bringing them to the attention of the French academic community. There was instant outrage at the nature of the finds, which resembled no known Neolithic remains from France (or anywhere, for that matter) and which appeared to some to be crude modern forgeries, made by somebody with little or no archaeological knowledge. The finger of suspicion was pointed at the young Émile, who maintained throughout his long life that he had no part in their manufacture, that they were found in the field (which acquired the new name of le Champ des Morts, The Field of the Dead) and that the site was the prehistoric occupation site Dr Morlet claimed it to be.

Attempts to solve the mystery

Glozel in 2002

The landscape at Glozel in 2002

Two investigative commissions were formed to examine the site, which they declared to be fraudulent. A police raid on the Fradin’s farm was said – incorrectly and maliciously – to have produced half-finished “finds”, destined to salt the field. Émile responded with a counter-attack for defamation of character and the whole situation degenerated into an indescribable mess. The Fradins set up a small museum beside their farmhouse to display the more than two thousand objects from le Champ des Morts, which helped bring in extra money to the family. The academic world decided that the site was not worth wasting time on and that it was a crude fraud perpetrated by Émile Fradin; to this day, few people in the archaeological establishment are prepared even to discuss the site.

There the whole Affaire Glozel might have rested, had Hugh McKerrell and colleagues not decided to test ceramics from the site with the newly-developed thermoluminescent dating technique in the early 1970s. To the scientists’ surprise, the objects tested did not produce dates in the 1920s, but they did not produce Neolithic dates, either. Instead, they seemed to date from the Late Iron Age and Gallo-Roman periods (roughly 200 BCE to 400 CE). The reaction of the establishment was to suspect the dates (thermoluminescence was still new at the time) and to continue to ignore the site. However, over the next few years, a series of Colloques was held by the newly-formed Les Amis de Glozel (Friends of Glozel), which served as a talking-shop for archaeologists, scientists and amateurs who were interested in re-opening discussion of the finds. A battery of new tests were carried out and old, unpublished data collated.

A bizarre ceramic with "letters" and face from Glozel

A bizarre ceramic with “letters” and face from Glozel

Suggestions were raised that, in addition to the Iron Age and Gallo-Roman occupation, held to be responsible for the ceramics and inscribed tablets, there was unusual medieval activity associated with the initial discovery of the oval feature, which was almost certainly a twelfth- or thirteenth-century glass kiln, and early post-medieval activity involving human burial. In this scenario, the carved bones were of medieval date and the symbols on them copied from the Gallo-Roman tablets.

Present orthodox opinion

Unsurprisingly, the academic establishment has not responded to the new data. A trial excavation carried out on the site in 1983 failed to produce any archaeological material and, although no official report was ever produced, a summary made available in the 1990s dismissed the site. Looking at the bizarre and almost unparalleled artefacts from Glozel, it is difficult not to agree with this assessment. The engraved objects look like childish twentieth-century attempts to produce Palaeolithic-style objects; the inscriptions on the tablets look like jumbles of random symbols taken from examples of different ancient scripts; the pots are so poorly made and under-fired that it is difficult to see how they can have been produced by competent potters; the early post-medieval human remains are just collections of bones from the skull and femora, not burials at all; no recognisably Iron Age or Gallo-Roman artefacts (pottery, coins, brooches etc.) have ever been found at the site; the inscribed pebbles are without convincing parallel.

And yet the thermoluminescent dates are troubling. Taken on their own, they could be viewed as suggesting that something strange was going on at le Glozel at the close of the first millennium BCE. Perhaps, as Alice Gerard has suggested in Bones of Contention (2005), they were hurriedly-made ritual objects for use in an obscure and local cult; perhaps the medieval material represents a survival of that cult or its imaginative revival; perhaps the site is real after all. Certainly, Émile Fradin maintained his innocence until his death at the advanced age of 103 and refused to accept even the late dates provided by thermoluminescence, insisting that ‘his’ site was a real Neolithic settlement.

11 Responses to L’Affaire Glozel

  • gor llewin says:

    as rene cutforth remarks in the fascinating bbc ”chronicle” documentary, made about 1974 and featuring a still older interview with ms garrod, if one ”incontestable” fact [such as the ther-lum tests] stands in contradiction to all the others, its interpretation must be reconsidered.
    can it be co-incidence that there are authentic, important archaeological sites not far from glozel? or that similar items have been recovered in such locations? is it inconceivable that someone, either in the distant past or more recently, imported otherwise genuine artifacts from another site altogether?

  • Fluff says:

    You, as an archaeologist, better than anybody else, should know perfectly well, the bitchslapping and the meanness that sometimes permeates interactions among archaeologists and, even more so, amteurs and the “unelightened”.
    They are human after all. And their egos tend to be huge, accepting nothing but their own opinion.
    Conspiracy? No
    Cover up to save face? Oh surely.

    Archaeologists can defend their opinion just as religiously as anybody else, especially when it´s wrong.

    Which is sad, since this sounds like a very interesting site.
    Local, strange cultures are not unheard of. Just take Munchshofener group burrials for example.
    Humans are strange and it seems have always been.

    The thing that would first come to my mind in the medieval time period, to which the TL datings point, would be pest and the end of the world as Europeans knew it. (<- careful exaggerations might be found here)
    People have been known to do alot stranger things in times of distress.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Glozel is a very interesting site. I spent a long time dithering about whether or not to write anything about it and I still think that I haven’t got the balance right.

      Émile Fradin was clearly an honourable and honest man. I cannot see him as a forger (although I can see him as a dupe). If Glozel is a hoax, then the principle of cui bono? would indicate that he was the beneficiary, which I find inconceivable.

      However, the carving on the bones looks recent. Perhaps you are right to suggest a medieval date.

      What is clear is that the archaeological establishment behaved abominably over the discovery and there is no excuse for that.

  • gor llewin says:

    dear keith, i think you have written a very fair introduction to this case. perhaps the dilemma is that it is the sort of ”find” which if proved genuine would open up new perspectives and even overturn conventional wisdom. when one considers the sheer weight of the french state one can only have sympathy for mr fradin. have you seen the ”chronicle” documentary ? what do you make of the interview with prof d. garrod?

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      I saw the Chronicle documentary when it was first aired and I was a teenager; it was (almost) my introduction to the bizarre world of Glozel (the introduction, I realised some time later, was a highly inaccurate short summary in Look and Learn that presented it as a cut-and-dried fake by a cunning farmer). I must watch it again, as I don’t recall the interview with Dorothy Garrod.

      As I’ve said before, M Fradin comes across as an honourable and guile-less man, who believed passionately in the reality of his discoveries. He was also clearly misled into believing the site to be something it patently is not by the well-meaning but wrong Dr Morlet.

      My feeling is that there is something real and genuinely archaeological in the Glozel site. The problem is that it’s so highly idiosyncratic that it becomes impossible to find decent parallels for any of the material. I doubt very much that the mystery will ever be solved, but if I wanted to put money on it, I’d opt for a late medieval or early post-medieval with’s cache.

  • georges says:
  • A bizarre jumble like someone looked at old scripts and carved them on the objects randomly?
    With dating that suggests multiple periods, none of them neolithic or contemporary but quite possibly medieval?

    If I were a medieval person who didn’t know much about the past but saw some cool weird writing in a field I’d want to copy it. And because I’d not understand the language, and being a medieval person I’d most likely be illiterate anyway, it would look exactly like a bizarre jumble of random letters.

    As for Emile Jardin, what 17 year old farm boy in the 1920s had the time, or the resources, to produce literally that much stuff?

    Moving around stuff, yes.
    Misinterpreting what it means, yes.
    Making the whole thing up? Definitely not.

  • JK says:

    This is certainly interesting and it’s a shame archaeologists haven’t looked properly into it. Not having any great knowledge on that field, but being a near-graduated history student, I could posit the following scenario:

    The pottery and the tablets were made and used during the Celto-Roman period for the purposes of some bizarre local cult (these were quite common in Antiquity, see e.g. Glycon and many “mysteries” in Greece). The “writing” could be similar to that seen in cruder Germanic copies of Roman coins – either thought as decoration, or thought to hold magic properties.

    Then, the things were hidden and the cult forgotten/its followers dispersed during the upheavals of the Migrations. Then, some wannabe witch/necromancer found the stuff sometime after the Black Plague, and made some more stuff from remains he/she stole from a graveyard. Most probably illiterate, he/she has probably thought the scribblings in the tablets and figures are magical symbols, and has carved similar symbols on the bones in an attempt to produce an effect, and so to discover the power of the symbols. This is at least plausible, since the use of human remains, especially of condemned criminals, was a feature in mediaeval occultism.

    All of the above, of course, is just conjecture based on the stuff I read here. This might be way off, but these are my initial impressions about the matter.

    As for archaelogists ignoring the find, it could come from simple laziness or fear of making a fool of oneself. The strange nature of the find would require much research and labour to even prove it is a genuine thing, let alone to fit it into the accepted scheme of things. Then, if the find WAS proved to be a hoax after all that trouble, one could easily lose his face before his colleagues. Nobody wants to risk maybe years of hard work only to be ridiculed. Then, there’s the unfortunate herd mentality that easily develops even in the academia. If some perceived academic authority says thing X is so, many scholars tend to just repeat that without bothering to think it through (see e.g. how quoted the impenetrable and inane scribblings of postmodernists like Foucault are in the societal sciences). Regrettable, but very human.

  • JK says:

    I think I should add a clarification here: I certainly don’t have any grudge against genuine science, and acknowledge that most of it is done with proper ethics and methodology. Nor do I hold onto any laughable conspiracy theories or pseudo-scientific theories. The last paragraph in my earlier comment is just personal observation from my years spent in the university (esp. the herd mentality thing).

  • aesopysus says:

    I’ve always been fascinated with the possibility of some bloke, making “weird whatevers” to pass the time or in jest, only for future academics to be puzzled by it all.

  • Judith Martin says:

    We have had quite a to-do here in North America about rocks that apparently have been etched with Mayan/Aztec (you name it) scenes of medical procedures that look far too modern for an artifact that is supposed to have only been made hundreds if not thousands of years ago. A man in a small town was presumably turning these out to order. — A comparison would be interesting to alleged Viking writings found carved into rock faces in North America as well. I’m just grasping at straws here.

Agree or disagree? Please comment!