The prolific forging career of Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson (1864-1916)

Charles Dawson (1864-1916)

Best remembered today as the ‘discoverer’ of Eoanthropus dawsoni (‘Piltdown Man’), Charles Dawson (1864-1916) was a respected lawyer based in Sussex. It has been known since the early 1950s that Eoanthropus was a crude forgery – something that a few anthropologists had suspected since its original discovery and there has been a great deal of discussion about who was the hoaxer. That Charles Dawson was guilty has been the most popular view, but names as eminent as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Teilhard de Chardin and Arthur Smith Woodward have been proposed at different times by various writers. Following the publication of Miles Russell’s Piltdown Man in 2003, though, the weight of evidence has shifted the blame almost conclusively to Dawson.

This has happened not because of the discovery of new documentation implicating him in the fraudulent modification of bones or of seeding the site of their discovery but because Miles Russell has carefully examined Dawson’s antiquarian interests. He has been able to demonstrate a consistent pattern of dubious claims for supposedly important, even unique, discoveries spread across Dawson’s career as a prominent member of the Sussex Antiquarian Society. More than this, he has shown how each new find outdid earlier achievements and how Dawson sought increasingly prestigious accolades for his work. He was evidently hugely ambitious but at the same time acutely aware that he was not part of the social networks of late Victorian and Edwardian intelligentsia. There is little doubt that he hoped that the discovery of Eoanthropus would earn him election to The Royal Society and a knighthood, which it did not.

Dawson’s early “discoveries”

Dawon’s earliest discoveries were of fossils, three of which – Salaginella dawsoni, Iguanodon dawsoni and Plagiaulax dawsoni were named in his honour. While first two are genuine new species, the third was claimed as the earliest Cretaceous mammal, belonging to the order Mulituberculata, when presented to the public by Arthur Smith Woodward in 1891. Two further examples were found in 1911, again by a team led by Dawson, but none have been found subsequently. All three examples have been artificially shaped and were shown in the 1960s to have been forged.

In 1893, Dawson turned to archaeological matters, investigating a cave at Lavant (West Sessex, UK). A wide range of material was recovered, with no real method of recording, including Neolithic struck flints, Romano-British ceramics and later objects. Dawson claimed to have found a flint mine, re-used in later times, but the caves do not resemble such mines. He publicised the discovery widely in the press, including newspapers and archaeological magazines, but never wrote an account of the excavation. Miles Russell, who is himself an authority on Neolithic flint mines, dismisses the discoveries as entirely fraudulent, opting for an origin for the caves as early modern chalk extraction sites.

Suspicion hangs over an iron statuette from Beauport Park (East Sussex, UK), which Dawson presented at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1893 as conclusive proof of iron casting in Roman Britain. The object was said to have been found by a labourer named William Merritt in 1877 during the digging out of a cinder heap for road metalling, although Dawson did not reveal this until 1907. The Society of Antiquaries was hostile and dismissed the find as a modern iron copy of a tourist souvenir, albeit based on a Roman original. Dawson was nevertheless elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1895 partly on the basis of this discovery of the ‘earliest cast iron from Europe’. It is now certain that the piece is modern; what is unclear is whether Dawson was deliberately misleading his audience or if he was also mislead about the object.

The Pevensey stamped bricks

One of the bricks supposedly found at Pevensey

One of the bricks supposedly found at Pevensey

In 1907, Dawson announced that he had discovered several stamped bricks at the Saxon Shore Fort at Pevensey. The purported products of the Classis Britannica, the fleet that protected late Roman Britain, their inscriptions, HON AVG ANDRIA were unique in naming the emperor Honorius (384-423, Emperor 395-423) and confirming the name of the fort as And[e]ri[d]a (the correct name of the fort is now thought to have been *Anderitum). They thus constituted the latest datable inscriptions of the Roman occupation of Britain and were hailed as an important contribution to understanding the final years of Roman rule.

The tiles were accepted as genuine by most archaeologists for many years, although a few expressed scepticism as the inscriptions were too good to be true and had no known parallels. Moreover, they were associated with Charles Dawson and were thus regarded with suspicion by those who believed him to be the forger of Eoanthropus; on the other hand, those who thought Daswon had been the dupe at Piltdown held them up as evidence of Dawson’s good faith. When finally submitted to thermoluminescent dating in the 1970s, they were shown conclusively to be less than a hundred years old. They were therefore forgeries and became the second of Dawson’s major finds to be rejected by scientific techniques.

Eoanthropus dawsoni

Excavation under way at Piltdown

Excavation under way at Piltdown (Charles Dawson is to the left)

The discovery of apparently ancient hominid remains in a gravel pit at Barkham Manor near Piltdown would have been Charles Dawson’s greatest achievement, had it been genuine. Much of the calvarium, maxilla and mandible of a large-brained but ape-like creature were thought to provide proof of the hypothesis that an enlarged brain was the first of the features that separate the human lineage from the other hominid apes to develop. A missing upper canine that would have provided the ultimate confirmation of the hypothesis was found subsequently. These remains came apparently from gravel and were associated with eoliths, crudely-shaped flints supposed to be evidence for Pliocene hominids in Europe. More discoveries followed in later years, including the remains of two further examples of Eoanthropus at Sheffield Park and Barcombe Mills (both East Sussex, UK),apparently in an attempt to silence critics.

There can be little doubt now that Dawson was a serial hoaxer, who perpetrated frauds on the scientific community purely for personal fame and advancement. His techniques for achieving this were in many ways typical of Bad Archaeologists – especially his propensity for speaking about his amazing discoveries directly to the press before (or instead of) publishing in academic journals – but in others, he was so desperate to be taken seriously by the intellectual establishment that he also published in serious
academic journals.