Two great hoaxes: Piltdown Skull and Bluestone Quarry?

10 05 2010

Some see a bluestone quarry — others don’t.
Some see a Missing Link — others see a hoax.


There was a piece on the telly the other day about the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912. One thing struck me in the commentary — namely the “fertile ground” which existed in Britain at the time, providing perfect conditions for the hoax to take root, to flourish and eventually (in spite of the reservations of some experts) to become part of mainstream thinking. This is what one web site says about the hoax:

“Perhaps the most famous hoax was Piltdown man. In 1912, at a time when Darwin’s evolutionary theory was new, and people were looking for missing links between humans and apes, someone planted two fake skulls which came to be known as Piltdown Man.
The part medieval man, part Orang-utang fossil was found, in the very English village of Piltdown in Sussex. Piltdown man’s scientific name, Eoanthropus dawsoni, reflected its finder’s name Dawson. To get a flavour of those times, the British Empire was still riding high, and Germany had their Heidelberg man fossil, Britain was desperate for a more important ‘ missing link’ between man and monkey.”

The key to this is national pride, and a desire in Britain to demonstrate that whatever important discoveries there were in Germany, Britain had even better ones, showing the world what wonderful ancient civilizations we had here, and what brilliant archaeologists we had to uncover them and to expound new theories of evolution to the world…… OK, petty, nationalistic, xenophobic and even absurd, but that was the world around the time of the First World War. Germany had Neanderthal Man, and now Britain had the “Missing Link” — even more important.

So what about HH Thomas and the bluestones? Well, I have suspected for some time that Thomas might have been guilty of simplification and selective citation of his samples and his rock identifications, in order to flag up the Carn Meini area as the source of the bluestones. I have also expressed my amazement in earlier posts that he “got away with murder” in that NOBODY seems to have seriously examined his evidence or questioned his wacky idea that the stones had been hauled by tribesmen all the way from Presely to Stonehenge in a totally unique feat of Stone Age long-distance transport. And why did people not scrutinize his theory more closely? Why, because there had been great discoveries about megalithic structures in Germany, and because British archaeologists were desperate to show that in these islands we had even more advanced prehistoric civilisations and even cleverer engineers and technicians.

Sounds absurd? I don’t think so — and a number of other authors have suggested that Thomas’s idea was carefully put together around the time of the First World War as part of a national “feel good” strategy, and that the whole nation (and not just the archaeologists) just loved the idea when he announced it, and were disinclined to examine it carefully.

So Thomas became famous, then the bluestones became famous, and the “bluestone transport story” entered the mythology of Britain. It is still trotted out ad infinitum, even though there is even less evidence for it now than there was in 1920. And anybody who dares to question it, or to undermine our cosy assumptions about the extraordinary skills of our Neolithic ancestors, is likely to get short shrift from the archaeology establishment. Look at what happened to poor Geoffrey Kellaway…….

So was the Carn Meini / bluestone quarry / human transport story all a hoax? I think it’s a distinct possibility. How much longer will it be before the whole mad idea about human transport is finally consigned to the scrapheap? Not long, I suspect, since the new geology being done by Rob Ixer and colleagues in the Stonehenge area is revealing so many new sources for the stones and fragments at Stonehenge that we are going to have to talk about 20 quarries all over western Britain, rather than one. And that would be to stretch things to a rather extraordinary degree……

All hoaxes have their day, and eventually bite the dust, leaving senior academics looking very foolish.

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

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