Strange but True:

Found in the loft: the bones of a hoax

The Telegraph Group Ltd. August 1996

Paul Sieveking

[1] Most major historical. enigmas are destined never to be cleared up definitively, which is good news for armchair theorists and writers. Sometimes a solution may be staring us in the face but definitive proof remains beyond grasp. A few weeks; ago, for instance, James E. Files "confessed" that he and the late Mafia hitman "Chuck" Nicoletti crouched behind the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, and both shot President Kennedy. Since Files is now serving a 50-year sentence in Illinois for the murder of a. policeman, he has little to lose in making the confession, while gaining his half-hour of fame. The FBI dismissed the story. Occasionally, however, a mystery is cleared up, as shown by the presentation of Dr Brian Gardiner to the Linnean Society on May 24, which nailed the Piltdown hoaxer. Few deceptions have warped science so dramatically as the remains dug out of a Sussex gravel pit between 1908 and 1912. The pieces of Homo sapiens cranium, an orang-utan jaw and a Pleistocene "cricket bat" fashioned from the leg bone of an elephant fooled the academic Establishment for more than 40 years. Fluorine dating of the bones in 1949 showed they were of wildly differing age, but it was the inspiration of South African anatomist Joseph Weiner in 1953 that led to the debunking of "The First Englishman". The bones had been artificially stained and the "cricket bat" shaped with a steel knife. Furthermore, the gravel pit was not fossiliferous and all the finds had been planted. The identity of the hoaxers became an academic parlour game for many years. Charles Dawson, the lawyer and antiquary who unearthed the bones, was long the prime suspect, with opportunity and motive (he had a desperate desire to be elected to the Royal Society). In a deathbed statement in 1978, Professor James Douglas accused William Sollas, his predecessor in the chair of geology at Oxford, of giving the ape jaw to Dawson to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, the keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum. Other suspects included the anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the famous practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, among others. A canvas travelling trunk belonging to Dr Martin Hinton (1883-1961) was found in a loft of the Natural History Museum during roof maintenance in the 1970s. Dr Andrew Currant, a researcher specialising (like Hinton) in fossil rodents, examined the trunk's contents and, underneath hundreds of vials of rodent dissections, discovered carved pieces of fossil teeth and bones stained with iron oxide, manganese and potassium dichromate in the same proportions as the Piltdown specimens. In 1899, Hinton had published a paper showing how fossils in river gravels would become stained by iron and manganese oxides. In [2] 1910 Hinton became a "voluntary worker" in the Natural History Museum and fell out with his boss, Smith Woodward, over funding for a catalogue of rodent remains. "Hinton was well known for his elaborate practical jokes," said Dr Henry Gee, who wrote a report on Hinton in Nature. Other evidence found by Dr Currant and Professor Gardiner removed any doubts about his responsibility. I remember Martin Hinton with long white hair and baggy trousers, sitting in his study at Glaisters in Wrington, near Bristol, surrounded by monkey skulls and other macabre objects. After his death, his daughter gave me many of these - including a Romano-British skull and a piece of linen unrolled from an Egyptian mummy - which have pride of place in my collection. I wish I could recall Dr Hinton from the grave for a confidential tete-a-tete.






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