Editor Mike Pitts
PILTDOWN - Time To Stop The Slurs
The truth about Piltdown, now one of the most famous hoaxes of all time, was revealed 50 years ago by a team of scientists led by Joseph Weiner. With three exclusive extracts, British Archaeology asks: why can no one agree on the culprit?
Who fooled scientists for 40 years? This is the question posed below by Chris Stringer. Oxford University anthropologist Joseph Weiner knew. However, conscious that Sussex solicitor Charles Dawson was dead while others close to him were alive, and feeling he had not been able to pursue every angle, Weiner reserved judgement. Conspiracy theorists moved in.
Two months before the 1955 launch of Weiner’s The Piltdown Forgery, still the key text on the subject, the Sussex Express & Herald exposed Dawson as a complex hoaxer. The four perceptive, well-informed articles contain seemingly incriminating evidence. Yet they are unknown. For the first time, with the co-operation of the still strong Lewes paper, we can publish edited extracts.
Dawson emerges as a dandy with an eye for high society, ceremony and tradition, enjoying respect and admiration. ‘The writer’, concluded the Express & Herald, ‘has set down the facts as he has found them. Readers are left to judge for themselves’. Perhaps, but the hint that Dawson was not just a hoaxer, but a social fraud too, is clear: ‘a man who, his close associates say, was morally incapable of trickery, and yet who, others who knew him well say, would stop at nothing in carrying through a hoax’. The writer, identified only as ‘CFEB’, had the measure of the ‘Sussex wizard’ 50 years ago.
Who was CFEB? Do his interview notes still exist? While writing his book, Weiner realised others were on the trail. In February 1954 he warned a Sussex contact not to help ‘one or two people’ he had heard were ‘anxious to rush into print on the Piltdown affair’. In September he was worried by ‘a free-lance journalist who is trying to make a “scoop” for the Sunday Times’.
It was the local paper that scooped, however: at least one of the stories – the fake dungeon – was a first (and until now otherwise unknown). A week later the People ran a small piece on the dungeon, giving the source (which the Express & Herald did not) as Mr R Niedermayer. Then on 6-7 January 1955, beating the Sunday Times’ serialisation from Weiner’s book by a few days, the Daily Mail published two features, again anonymous, with more local gossip, including reports of how ‘all day long strange old bones simmered’ in the Uckfield solicitor’s kitchen. This time no holds were barred: ‘How did Charles Dawson do it?’ asked the Mail.
Were these later articles written by the same man—or perhaps a London journalist followed leads established locally? If more had taken note of Dawson’s reputation in Sussex (where he inspired both awe and hate: see Impostor Dawson overleaf), and read Weiner’s book with greater care, well-regarded men would have been spared false accusation, and the real story of an intriguing Sussex character would have been told. Mike Pitts
The Piltdown skull mystery man
CFEB, Lewes, 1954Charles Dawson has been in his grave for 38 years. But he is not forgotten. Today his name is probably better known even than it was 40 years ago, when he claimed to have discovered at Piltdown a skull of the earliest prehistoric man – a ‘discovery’ which the British Museum denounced last November as a fake, although they would not commit themselves to the name of the perpetrator. Was Dawson the hoaxer, or was he the victim of a hoax?
BoyhoodThe pro-Dawsonites – there are many in the Uckfield district – say he was morally incapable of fraud, whereas the anti-Dawsonites claim that he forged finds to bring notoriety upon himself, and so satisfy his inferiority complex.
To arrive at a decision we must know something of Dawson’s character, and of his life, which spanned but 52 years. I made extensive enquires about Dawson, hunted out his former friends and foes, one-time colleagues in the law, and people with whom he just travelled in the train.
The son of a barrister, as a boy he lived with his parents in an exclusive residential quarter of St Leonards, with the elite and the wealthy. The six-storied Victorian houses were the homes of the best families. And the Dawsons were very highly respected.
At school Charles was considered an average scholar, fairly conscientious and studious, but always ready for a practical joke.
The LawyerHe was articled to the magistrates’ clerk at Hastings and Bexhill. Soon he was an up-and-coming young solicitor in partnership at Uckfield. In 1894, Dawson became clerk to Uckfield Magistrates and Uckfield Urban Council, and later secretary of Uckfield Gas Company and Uckfield Water Company, a trustee of the Eastbourne Building Society, solicitor to Uckfield Building Society, and steward of the Manors of Barkham, Netherall and Camois.
This small town lawyer has an established place in local society. He is an eligible bachelor and still in his early thirties. Through being steward, he attends Barkham Manor – where some eight years later he ‘finds’ the Piltdown Skull – and presides over the ancient Manorial Court.
Barkham Manor is tenanted by Mr Robert Kenward. Watching Dawson assemble the court are the Kenward children. ‘We used to run out of our nursery and peep through the banisters’, said Miss Mabel Kenward.
‘My father thought the world of Mr Dawson, who was of the highest integrity. He was genial, benign and kind, and I do not think he had the capabilities to fake the skull. He would have had to have been a scientist, biologist, chemist and dentist. He was morally incapable of doing such a thing.’
Leg-PullerNow we have a different light thrown upon Dawson’s character. About 1908, he was living at Castle Lodge, Lewes, and while grubbing about the garden, came across a long-forgotten wine cellar. Wattle fencing was put round it.
This is what happened next according to Dawson’s former articled pupil: ‘I helped Mr Dawson to treat a piece of long stone he found around Uckfield with cow manure. It gave the stone an ancient, mossy look, and he put it in the cellar at Lewes.
‘He fixed strips of old iron with bracelets to the walls, took away the wattle fencing and announced that he had discovered an old dungeon belonging to Lewes Castle, complete with stone bed for the prisoner.
‘It was a fake from start to finish, but papers were read about it at meetings, and Charles Dawson just chuckled. Yes, he was a great leg-puller.’
Was he a good solicitor? Yes, but his archaeological work usually came first. Said one of his friends: ‘His mind was never really on the law. It always seemed elsewhere, especially on court days, although he always remembered to dress the part, complete with frock coat and pin-stripe trousers.’
Dawson’s discovery of the Piltdown skull was received with cold reserve by many of his fellow members of the Sussex Archaeological Society. It was never mentioned in the Sussex Archaeological Collections. In 1904 the society learnt that not only had Dawson purchased Castle Lodge, occupied by them since 1885, but that he had served on them a notice to quit. The society had understood that if the property was to be sold they should have the option of acquiring it.
Dawson’s action was considered sharp practice. Some believed that the vendors thought Dawson, being a solicitor, was acting on behalf of the society. It was certainly not the action of a man whom many people have described to me as being ‘genial, kindly and benign’.
ArchaeologistDawson was courting a widow Mrs H L E Postlethwaite, Park-lane, London, and he wanted Castle Lodge for his marital home.
The couple were married in 1905. He held a reception at Uckfield. Among those who attended were the staff of Messrs Dawson, Hart and Co, including an articled pupil, now a retired solicitor.
‘We had a wonderful time’, he says. ‘Mr Dawson was a generous man, and so the drink flowed freely’.
In the early days of his ‘find’ Dawson often carried the skull in a bag when he travelled by train between Lewes and his office. He would open the bag and show the skull to his friends, saying ‘What do you think of this? I dug it up at Barkham Manor’.
One such friend was Mr H Denman, a retired business man and staunch believer in Dawson, who describes him as an ‘aristocratic type of man – one of the old school’. Another of Dawson’s train friends was Mr Doreen Ditch, a retired dentist. Dawson produced a tooth and asked Mr Ditch where it fitted in the jaw of the skull.
‘I recognised it as being a lower canine tooth’, says Mr Ditch, ‘and told him where it belonged in the jaw. Mr Dawson put the skull and tooth back in his bag and appeared very pleased with what I had told him’.
Mr Ditch described Dawson as being a kind and gracious man. Mr Ditch is a member of the Loxfield Lodge of Freemasons at Uckfield, and Dawson was the first initiated member after the lodge was founded. He later became a Past Master of the Uckfield Lodge and Provincial Grand Sword Bearer.
On His DeskDawson kept the skull on his desk for people to admire, and should they be sufficiently interested to listen, he would cancel clients’ appointments, carefully polish his pince-nez glasses, and re-tell his story with the enthusiasm of a golfer who has holed in one.
‘Mr Dawson was so interested in archaeology,’ Mr Eade, an office boy when Dawson was digging the pit, told me, ‘that he would see only his own clients. He often left the skull on his desk, and it was my job to put it in the office safe. I really believe that he thought it was genuine, and if the skull is a fake, as they say it is, Mr Dawson was himself the victim of a hoaxer’.
Mr Eade’s impressions of Dawson are those gained when he was a 16-year-old lad, whereas we have access to more mature reasoning in a solicitor who worked with him for seven years. ‘Dawson’, he says, ‘was a leg puller in a quiet way. He would delight in leading our managing clerk, Cliff Turner, up the garden path. After Turner had swallowed the bait Dawson’s eyes would twinkle behind his glasses before he gave out a long chuckle.
He was gifted with a great sense of humour, and it was unsuspected by those who did not know him really well because of his austere appearance.When he was writing the History of Hastings Castle I helped him make models of the castle out of cork, colouring putty for the background. He employed a bearded photographer named Frisby to take pictures, and they were included in the book as old steel engravings.’
Dawson’s history was regarded as the standard authority until Mr Manwaring Baines, Hastings Museum curator, recently announced it as the writings of William Herbert. ‘There can be little doubt in my mind,’ says Mr Baines, ‘that Dawson used Herbert’s material and had passed it off as his own work’.
Edited extracts from ‘Sussex Express & Herald’ 19/26 Nov and 3/10 Dec 1954 with kind permission of the paper
Joseph Weiner gave his last talk on Piltdown in 1981 to a symposium at Georgetown University, Washington DC, addressing Stephen Jay Gould’s new accusation against Teilhard de Chardin. British Archaeology has seen a tape of this lecture. Dismissing Gould’s theory, Weiner is explicit in claiming Dawson as the sole culprit, something he never quite did in print. He addresses six themes.
Opportunity & Access. ‘There was only one person who had opportunity and access … that was Charles Dawson. No question of anybody else.’
Awareness. Dawson knew about the gravels. ‘Charles Dawson was that man’.
Ability. Some criticised Weiner for saying that Dawson was the only perpetrator: he was an amateur. ‘Dawson had been active in geology and archaeology for many years before Piltdown…
I have no doubt that he had the ability’.
Motive. ‘[Dawson] was an extremely ambitious investigator… already very well known, but never satisfied’. His ambition was to be elected to the Royal Society. ‘There can be no doubt that this was his motive.’
In possession. Gould said the evidence against Dawson was ‘only circumstantial’. This is not true. ‘He was caught red-handed’. The objects were in his possession. ‘Dawson cannot be absolved… I have no doubt he was the perpetrator’.
Alternatives. ‘In my book I left a small margin of doubt… As the years went on I have not seen any evidence to absolve Dawson’. Other theories are ‘conjectural… often ludicrous’.
BA is grateful to Edmund and James Weiner for permission to reproduce these extracts
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005