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Fake fossils down through the ages
March 31, 2009 9:46 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of the 18th Century German professor Beringer who published a book, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis in 1726 which purported to show remarkable fossils, including spiders in their web, copulating frogs and Yahweh written in Hebrew (high resolution images of the original plates: 1, 2, 3, 4) This turned out to be a fake but the conventional story of the humiliated Professor Beringer and his Lying Stones of Wurzburg is not as simple as the one usually retold in textbooks. And as Gould mentions fossil fakes are not a thing of the past.
posted by Kattullus (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Google cache of a single page version of Gould's essay.
posted by Kattullus at 9:47 AM on March 31, 2009


Fascinating stuff. But your use of the present tense is giving me the willies.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:51 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Historical present.
posted by Kattullus at 9:56 AM on March 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


Man, I had forgotten how good Gould's science writing was. Great stuff, thanks!

(And I'm only a few paragraphs in, but I'm very surprised anyone would take this childish fakes as real. Birds with perfectly spherical heads? Big fat spider webs? REALLY?)
posted by DU at 10:05 AM on March 31, 2009


I think history is a little poorer that Beringer was stopped before he attempted a fossil triceratops in full riding harness. Thankfully, someone is giving it another go.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:14 AM on March 31, 2009


250,000 people who swear they were there when Bobby Thomson hit his home ruff

Photos or it didn't happen.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:24 AM on March 31, 2009


Stephen Jay Gould and a case of scientific fakery? It's just the post I wanted to read today.
posted by annaramma at 10:34 AM on March 31, 2009


Read further, DU: ...Beringer's hoaxers had not crafted preposterous objects but had cleverly contrived--for their purposes, remember, were venomous, not humorous--a fraud that might fool a man of decent will and reasonable intelligence by standards of interpretation then current. Beringer wrote his treatise at the tail end of a debate that had engulfed seventeenth-century science and had still not been fully resolved. What did fossils represent and what did they teach us about the age of the earth, the nature of our planet's history, and the meaning and definition of life?

Beringer did the best with what knowledge he had. As do we all.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2009


The University of Bologna have better quality illustration plates imho ("Tab." at the back of the book in the dropdown)
posted by peacay at 10:41 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I saw that too, but I'm still left feeling like this is kinda obvious. They don't look anything like real birds but they do look remarkably like birds that humans make.

...a fraud that might fool a man of decent will and reasonable intelligence by standards of interpretation then current.

Really?

OK, they didn't know that fossils were previously living animals, so there's no reason to have judged them by that metric. But from the fact that all you have is a claim that someone found them AND they look just how humans would draw a bird? You then went on to write a book about this OMGinexplicable occurrence?

I have to say I agree more with the canonical take on sticking to the evidence you have.
posted by DU at 10:50 AM on March 31, 2009


I purchased two examples--a scorpion of sorts and a lizard--as virtual dead ringers for Beringer's Lugensteine, and I present a visual comparison of the two sets of fakes, separated by 250 years and a different process of manufacture (carved in Germany versus cast in Morocco). I only wonder if the proprietor believed my assurances, rendered in my best commercial French, that I was a professional paleontologist and that his wares were faux, absolument et sans doute--or if he thought that I had just devised a bargaining tactic more clever than most.

I'm fairly certain that an obviously well-to-do whitey like SJG probably paid 10 to 50 times the cost price for the fakes, so no, I doubt the Moroccan vendor thought his "bargaining tactic" was especially clever.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:56 AM on March 31, 2009


DU, I'm thinking that, since these were drawings of (purported) fossils, a credulous reader could be assured that any unrealistic-ness was the fault of the artist, not of the actual object.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:22 AM on March 31, 2009


Hmm… I was thinking that Gould had written before on Beringer, though a much shorter piece.

I have to say, forgeries, fakes, flim-flams… They're my favorite kind of history. There was an incredible series of tablets that were "discovered" in rural Michigan as part of a post-Mormon religious scam in the late 1800s, but I can't seem to find more info on them, and my memory is fading (I heard about them during a radio interview, but now have begun to dread the idea that I dreamed the whole thing).
posted by klangklangston at 12:06 PM on March 31, 2009


The funny part is that last link is selling lots of HUGE RARE! TRILOBITES with minimal "RESTORATION!" (i.e. fakery). And yet they have pages describing how to identify fakery! How convenient!
posted by Big_B at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2009


klango: I have a similar kind of memory, although it involves Joseph Smith Jr discovering more tablets, which were faked & deliberately planted (or something like that) and then being faced with a Satanic Verses kind of situation, whereby he had to repudiate them without losing face...?

It's not the easiest thing to google, because there's so much noise out there from vested interests either within or against the Mormon church.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2009


Great essay—thanks for the post!

I saw that too, but I'm still left feeling like this is kinda obvious. They don't look anything like real birds but they do look remarkably like birds that humans make.

Are you really that incapable of stepping outside your own parochial point of view? Don't you realize that in 200 years some of the things you believe will seem obviously stupid? They don't look anything like real birds to you. There is no such thing as an objective "looking like."
posted by languagehat at 2:01 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was an incredible series of tablets that were "discovered" in rural Michigan as part of a post-Mormon religious scam in the late 1800s

Maybe the Voree Plates?

Joseph Smith Jr discovering more tablets, which were faked & deliberately planted (or something like that)

Maybe the Kinderhook Plates?

(There might be other similar types of discoveries/forgeries as well--these folks were pretty obsessed with digging treasure, buried plates and that type of thing. Those are two off the top of my head.)
posted by flug at 2:29 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


They don't look anything like real birds

A major point of the article is that exactly this (the idea that moons, stars, letters, and other forms that were found are **not** exact copies of something natural) is the aspect of the forgeries that gave support the alternative theories of fossil formation.

Of course now we know those theories of fossil formation are false, but the idea that these are bird-like shapes but not an exact cell-for-cell copy of a bird's skeleton is exactly what was getting Beringer excited about this find. This is what supported the alternative theory that fossils weren't actual animals that were buried and solidified but rather that they were created by some other process that "mimics nature" or some such.
posted by flug at 2:46 PM on March 31, 2009


"Maybe the Voree Plates?"

No, but interesting.

These were discussed on a Michigan public radio program (the name escapes me, but it was usually hosted by Todd Mundt), and had someone from the Michigan Historical Society talking about the tablets.
posted by klangklangston at 2:55 PM on March 31, 2009


What? Those aren't fakes. Those are just God, fucking with us.
posted by Pronoiac at 3:09 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to say, forgeries, fakes, flim-flams… They're my favorite kind of history.

You might enjoy this, a story of how a giant cast of an elk lay was promoted as Bigfoot's butt.
posted by Tube at 4:59 PM on March 31, 2009


My favorite part is the last line of the article: "Follow your bliss, but never draw to an inside straight."
posted by lucasks at 5:12 PM on March 31, 2009


Heh. The orb web spider has concentric circles in the web, not spirals.
posted by dhruva at 11:25 PM on March 31, 2009


"Maybe the Voree Plates?"

No, but interesting.

These were discussed on a Michigan public radio program (the name escapes me, but it was usually hosted by Todd Mundt), and had someone from the Michigan Historical Society talking about the tablets.


The Michigan connection is that Strang and his entire "Strangite" congregation moved to Michigan (Beaver Island on Lake Michigan) soon after the Voree Plates incident and Strang lived the rest of his life there.

So it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Strang, Strangites, and the Voree Plates were a topic of discussion by a Michigan historian.

However, there is at least one more set of plates that Strang "discovered" and translated, the Plates of Laban.
posted by flug at 8:03 AM on April 1, 2009


When you're Strang, faces come out in the rain... when you're Strang.
posted by grubi at 9:22 AM on April 1, 2009


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