Secret life of serial hoaxer

November 21, 2003

The amateur antiquarian whom many blame for the Piltdown man forgery has been exposed as a serial hoaxer whose creations fooled palaeontologists, archaeologists, geologists, naturalists and historians.

A study to be published next month shows that Charles Dawson (pictured) made at least 37 "discoveries" that subsequently turned out to be fakes before he found what was thought to be 500,000-year-old evidence for the "missing link" between apes and humans.

Piltdown man was revealed as a fraud 50 years ago, when carbon dating found it to be a medieval human skull and modern ape jawbone.

Many people have been implicated in the hoax, but evidence gathered by Miles Russell, senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University, could end the dispute. He found a catalogue of artifice that he believes Mr Dawson created in a bid for academic recognition.

The dodgy discoveries include:

  • A Roman statuette made from cast iron - a metal-working technique that developed in the west a 1,000 years after the Roman era. Analysis found it to be modern
  • Teeth from a hitherto unknown extinct animal, Plagiaulax dawsoni, a supposed transitional form between reptiles and mammals. Wear patterns were made with a metal file
  • A prehistoric boat that seemed to be midway between a coracle and a canoe. The remains apparently crumbled after Mr Dawson had studied them
  • Stamped tiles thought to have been part of the last major Roman building project in Britain. Thermoluminescence dating suggests they were made no earlier than 1900.

Dr Russell said Mr Dawson's discoveries all seemed to relate to missing links and were all made within 20 miles of his East Sussex home - as was Piltdown.

Many were reported in learned journals and supported by prominent academics before being questioned by experts years later.

The work helped to secure Mr Dawson's election as a fellow of both the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquarians.

Dr Russell, whose book Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson is published by Tempus in December, said: "He fooled archaeologists, geologists and other academics by giving them what they wanted."

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