Is there an academic conspiracy to suppress the finds from Glozel?

In the 1920s, the site of Glozel became the focus of an archaeological scandal. This scandal pitched the amateur against the professional in a struggle over evidence and professional reputation. The so-called archaeological “Dreyfus Affair” remains a contentious and controversial topic of discussion. Why is this the case?

Nexus magazine and Philip Coppens

There are two ways to study a disputed archaeological site: you can either examine all the available data and see which hypothesis is the more likely OR you can attempt to justify a personal prejudice. The story of Glozel, with its personal rivalries and vested interests (both real and imagined) is a classic example of the unquenchable conspiracy.

Nexus magazine

Nexus magazine

This page was originally written in response to a troubling article written by Phillip Coppens in an issue of Nexus magazine published in 2007. I am in two minds about bringing greater attention to a small publication that owes its existence to the credulity and righteousness of its readership. Despite Nexus’s laudable commitment to freedom of expression, there are more scientific credentials to Heat magazine. Perhaps this is too small a target. However, the aim of this site is to confront Bad Archaeology wherever it lies and the front cover called to me from the shelves in the London store Planet Organic.

Philip Coppens is the editor of Conspiracy Times and someone who has taken a clear interest in the Glozel case. As we shall see, his investigative powers are rendered impotent thanks to a stifling prejudice towards archaeologists of any professional or academic renown.

How does Coppens perpetuate the conspiracy of archaeologists at Glozel and elsewhere? He tells a story in which a noble amateur is trampled upon by an arrogant archaeological establishment. The familiar logical fallacy of appeal to authority (see glossary) is turned on its head by conspiracy theorists. What we have here is a series of appeals to non-authority. Can you spot the heroes and the villains in this story? The following are all direct quotes from the article:

…the script appeared to be comparable with the Phoenician alphabet, dated to c.1000 BC, or to the Iberian script, which was derived from it. But, of course, it was “known” that no Phoenician colony could have been located in Glozel.”

No wonder that French archaeological academics were dismissive of Dr Morlet’s report—after all, it was published by an amateur (a medical doctor) and a peasant boy (who perhaps could not even write properly).

Here our illiterate hero is cast against the intellectual elite. Things are “known” and cannot be refuted.

Unfortunately for French academic circles, Morlet was not one to lie down easily, and today his ghost continues to hang-if not watch-over Glozel.”

Morlet had begun to make powerful enemies.”

Rather than talk, Morlet dug, unearthing 3,000 objects over a period of two years, all of varied forms and shape&helip;

Our hero is not taking this lying down, he will show these snooty intellectuals what good honest work can do.

Though it was agreed they would not speak about the [Dorothy Garrod] incident (underlining the fact that some people have more privileges than others), Morlet did speak about it after the commission had published its unfavourable report.”

If others had found that the excavation had been tampered with, fingers would not have been pointed at Garrod but, instead, at Fradin—whom the archaeologists suspected of being the forger, burying artefacts in the ground only to have amateur archaeologists like Morlet, who did not know ‘better’, discover them.”

…several of her students echoed her [Garrod’s] ‘informed opinion’; the list included Glyn Daniel and Colin Renfrew, both fervent critics of the Glozel finds. We can only wonder whether the ‘finger incident’ is known to these pillars of archaeology.

It seems nothing can be done to shake the hold of the establishment. They must be protecting their careers rather than giving this revolutionary discovery the treatment it deserves.

It is standard practice, in which amateurs specifically are supposed to stand aside and let the ‘professionals’ deal with it—and take the credit for the discovery. Again, Morlet did not want to have any of it.

Eight years after the first discovery, the leading archaeologists continued to claim the Glozel artefacts were fraudulent, though all the evidence—including a lengthy legal cause—had shown that was absolutely not the case. But why bother with facts when there are pet theories and reputations to be defended?

The establishment will always hide true knowledge for fear of what might happen. If it will upset the establishment, we know there must be a conspiracy to crush it.

The behaviour of Dr Morlet is difficult to gauge. He clearly was the catalyst for bringing this site to the public domain. He was able to control the Fradins and dictate access and excavation at the site. There is no doubt that the experiences of Dr Morlet cast an unpleasant shadow over the French archaeological establishment. Despite the self-delusion and self-publicity of Morlet, did he really deserve to be treated with outright contempt?. This brush-off from the establishment has given ammunition to those who wish to see archaeologists as a conspiratorial and closed-minded bunch. He found allies in the press before taking his archaeological claims to any institute or academic organisation. This must have been infuriating. In the court of public opinion, this guy had unearthed something mysterious; after the initial exposure his claims proved difficult to refute.

The Garrod Incident

The events described by Coppens at the excavation of the International Commission – where Dorothy Garrod is alleged to have sabotaged the excavation by planting fakes in the trench – is contested by Garrod’s own recollections of the day (see below). Reading Coppens’ article you would assume that the archaeological establishment – in the form of a young female archaeologist – was desperate to affect a cover-up of a potentially revolutionary archaeological discovery. As it turns out (according to Garrod), there is great drama in the confrontation between her and Morlet, but not in the way that Coppens describes. Garrod and the International Commission, fearful that the trench was being salted with fakes overnight, sought to discover whether or not this was the case.

Their ingenious plan is retold by Garrod:

We now come to the most dramatic moment of the whole affair. We had decided that, as a precaution on leaving at night, we would powder the face of the section with plaster. A sack of plaster was produced and the whole surface was powdered with it so that if there were any interference in the night we should presumably discover it in the morning. At the same time, some of us realized that our device was not fool-proof because, since the sack of plaster remained it would have been easy after interfering with the site to put on a fresh coat. So, egged on by Peyrony, it was decided that we should make a kind of pattern in the plaster. Three of us went back after the others had left, and after all the journalists had gone, by poking in the plaster with a stick, we made a number of holes in a pattern, and I was detailed to put down on a piece of paper the order of holes in this pattern. We arrived early next morning: Peyrony, Hamal-Nandrin of Liège and myself were detailed to go down and see whether the pattern we had made in the plaster was undisturbed. We went off to our section as quickly as possible because we wanted to do our test before the crowd arrived. As we got near the site there were shouts and cries and we were aware of a large body of people behind us. Peyrony and Hamal-Nandrin made me go on—I suppose as the youngest I was the most nimble member of the Commission. I hurried to the site as fast as I could and was just checking the section with the paper marked with the pattern in my hand when I heard a furious voice raised behind me. It was Dr Morlet shouting out an extraordinary series of accusations. I became so embarrassed and confused that I hardly knew what was happening but the gist of it was ‘You made those holes yourself, you’re trying to salt this site and then suggest that it is I, Morlet, who have tampered with it.’
Garrod in Antiquity 42 (167), 175

The Nature of the Assemblage

From Glyn Daniel’s observation (and many others) the nature of the material from the Glozel site is extremely confusing. Genuinely old pieces of clay and flint are combined with (what look like) outright modern forgeries. This jumble of old and new makes for an extremely confusing picture. There are the usual things one might expect from a medieval glass kiln. As for everything else, who knows?

The evidence for the forgery of inscribed stone tablets is as follows:

  • That some inscriptions contain a jumble of modern Latin characters as well as assorted Phoenician characters.
  • That the forger seemed to flatter the interests of the experts. According to Vayson De Pradenne (see below), as more information was given to Fradin about the Phoenician alphabet and the typical assemblage of a Neolithic site, the finds came to resemble those described to him.
  • That E Bayle (head of Paris Police Lab), when undertaking forensic work on the finds during the 1920s, found some of the bricks were unbaked, that some had never been buried and that some contained modern impurities (like fresh plant material and dyed cotton).
  • That a police raid after the publication of the International Commission’s report found unfinished tools and Glozelian objects at the Fradin’s farm.

The TL confusion

The scientific evidence from both Thermoluminescence and Carbon-14 dating (see glossary) of the bone and pottery from the site dates the finds at Glozel variously to both the Gallo-Roman period (roughly 200 BCE to 400 CE) and (predominantly) the medieval period (in this case c 1100-1300 CE).

The work was carried out in the mid 1970s by an international team consisting of Hugh McKerrell, Vagn Mejdahl, Henri Francois and Gut Portal. They published their results in Antiquity (see below). Understandably, this caused a great deal of consternation amongst archaeologists who had long dismissed the majority of the finds at Glozel as modern forgeries. They remain something of a mystery.

The TL and C14 dates have to be explained in the following ways:

  1. Some or all of the results accurately reflect the age of those artefacts. These artefacts represent activity at the site. Therefore a Gallo-Roman pottery fragment was deposited in Gallo-Roman times.
  2. Some or all of the results accurately reflect the age of those artefacts. These artefacts were introduced to the site at later dates and so do not age the site, only the artefacts themselves.
  3. That some as yet unknown factor has skewed the results giving the artefacts a kind of fake age.

What becomes clear from the scientific dating is that neither of the predominant theories fitted the evidence. Ideas of modern forgery and Neolithic site could be dismissed – at least in terms of the artefacts tested. So where does that leave the investigator?

Two ways to look at Glozel

Colin Renfrew, after reviewing the surprising Thermoluminescence dates from McKerrell et al. still had three very well-founded concerns. Since they are shared by all people seeking rational explanation of Glozel, they are reproduced in full here:

  1. The finds as an assemblage, and the majority of the finds individually, are without significant parallels elsewhere, either in the same region or outside it.
  2. The assemblage of finds, which is firmly dated by TL, contains no single object typical of the very well documented cultures of that region and period.
  3. The assemblage shows serious chronological inconsistencies which, from the stylistic point of view, are difficult to reconcile with the authenticity of all the objects.

Renfrew in Antiquity 49 (207), 220

Who will be convinced by the evidence for a Neolithic or Phoenician connection at Glozel? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Should Glozel be a Neolithic site with Phoenician tablets, then the entire prehistory of France needs to be re-written. It would mean all other known archaeological sites of the period and in the same region will require re-assessment. How likely is it that they would survive such an enquiry?

What is the best way to examine Glozel?

One has to imagine the motivations for engaging in the Glozel debate. What does the French (or world-wide) archaeological establishment gain from a conspiracy regarding Glozel? The answer is very little. The reputation of dead or ageing archaeologists stands for little in the minds of today’s academic community, many of whom would gain a great deal from the fame and kudos brought about by such a revelation. In general, archaeologists have little to fear from new discoveries and theories. Indeed, scientific progress depends upon the refutation of theories which no longer fit the evidence.

The motivations of petty conspiracy theorists are clear enough. Exposure in the media results directly in personal gain (financial or otherwise) for the protagonist. Stories are sexed-up or manufactured to prolong the careers of those who, without the scandal, would have nothing to write about. Such is the appetite amongst the general public for hidden agendas and scandal that their work continues to prosper.

Glozel continues to cause much head-scratching in archaeological circles. Were it not for the scientific dating in the mid 1970s, many would have dismissed the site as one big hoax. A great number still hold this view but it must be modified to accommodate many more twists and turns that previously thought.

To go after Garrod is a red herring, as is to wallow in the conduct of the French archaeological establishment in the 1920s. Should anyone wish to re-excavate the site and re-analyse the finds then L’Affaire Glozel might be brought to a close. As for Coppens and Nexus, no mysteries are solved by conspiracy theorists: if they were, then what would they do next?

Further Reading

The entire saga can be followed in English through the pages of Antiquity, a well-established archaeological journal. Those of you on a library or academic network may be able to view the full documents by clicking on the [LINK].

The relevant articles for Glozel are:

Crawford, O G S 1927 L’Affaire Glozel. Antiquity
1 (2), 181-188.

Vayson de Pradenne, A 1930 The Glozel forgeries. Antiquity
4 (14), 210-222.

Garrod, D 1968 Recollections of Glozel. Antiquity
42 (167), 172-177.

McKerrell, H et al. 1974 Thermoluminescence and Glozel.
Antiquity 48 (192), 265-272.

Renfrew, C 1975 and other authors in Notes and News.
Antiquity 49 (207), 219-226

Glyn Daniel’s numerous Antiquity editorials connected with Glozel, especially around 1974/5, when the TL dates caused such uproar. These are catalogued in:

Daniel, G 1992 Writing for Antiquity. London: Thames & Hudson