Sherborne Horse's Head

Letters to Nature  

[86] January 16, 1926

The Palæolithic Drawing of a Horse from Sherborne, Dorset

Arthur Smith Woodward

In the third edition of his "Ancient Hunters," p. 536, Prof. W. J. Sollas states that the drawing of a head of a horse on bone from Sherborne, which I described in 1914 as an example of Palæolithic art, "is a forgery perpetrated by some schoolboys." I read this statement with surprise, because the bone is in a semi-fossilised condition, and I think all who study the specimen will agree that the drawing must have been made when it was fresh. When it was exhibited to the Geological Society, indeed, it was generally accepted as of Palæolithic age. Through the kindness of Mr. Nowell Smith, headmaster, and Mr. R. Elliot Steel, formerly science master of Sherborne School, I have therefore communicated with Mr. Arnaldo Cortesi, the survivor of the two schoolboys who discovered the bone. He writes, "I confirm the genuineness of the find," and remarks that at the age of fifteen years he was too ignorant of the subject to take part in any such "trick" as Prof. Sollas suggests.

I may add that in the autumn of 1923, with the kind permission of Major Wingfield Digby, Mr. Elliot Steel and I examined one of the fissures in the quarry whence the bone is supposed to have been obtained, but we had no success. The teeth of mammoth and rhinoceros from the lower part of the same valley, now in the Sherborne School Museum, are still the only other Pleistocene remains from the neighourhood.

Arthur Smith Woodward

Hill Place, Haywards Heath, Sussex.

[233] February 13, 1926

The Palæolithic Drawing of a Horse from Sherborne, Dorset

by W. J. Sollas

In entitling his account of this object "On an apparently Palæolithic Engraving on a Bone from Dorset" (my italics) Sir Arthur Smith Woodward displayed his habitual caution, and it is with great regret that I now find myself obliged to differ from one for whose judgment I have so great a respect. For I still believe the Sherborne drawing to be a forgery and a clumsy one at that. It was perpetrated as a practical joke, such as delight the heart of boys of fifteen. How far the finders of the bone were involved in the affair there is nothing to show, one or other of them may have been innocent of it. But that some of the boys in the school were not quite so ignorant as Mr. Araldo Cortesi professes himself to be is shown by the fact that they were familiar with "Early Man in Britain" and the illustration of the Creswell Crag horse given there by Sir. W. Boyd Dawkins.

Mr. Bayzand, who was intimately acquainted with all the facts–which he communicated to me–acutely remarks that a tracing of the Sherborne drawing when superimposed on that of Creswell reveals an identity in size and as well a remarkable correspondence in outline. The odds against such a correspondence arising as a mere coincidence are sufficiently great, but it is easy to understand how a tyro in the art of forgery would have found it difficult–unless he happened to be a skilled artist–to make a sufficiently plausible copy with a change of scale. Further, those parts of the Sherborne copy which differ from the Creswell original do so in just those details which are likely to betray the inexperienced observer.

I do not fully understand the term "semifossilised," but I imagine it is intended to mean less altered than the mammalian teeth found in the gravels of the neighbourhood, i.e. in just such a state as might be expected of a bone which had lain in a refuse heap exposed to the air.

W. J. Sollas

University Museum, Oxford, January 22.


C. J. Bayzand

Prof. W. J. Sollas has directed my attention to a letter in the issue of Nature of January 16, by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, on the supposed Palæolithic drawing of a horse from Sherborne.

A the time of the "discovery" of this drawing I was engaged at the Sherborne School in arranging the museum collections and then learnt something of the history of the find.

The whole affair, as I gathered, was a trick played solely for the benefit of the science master without any idea that it would go any further. Its success was a source of much merriment at the school, particularly amongst those boys who were under this master, and I was even invited by some to inspect the fake.

I may mention that a copy of "Early Man in Britain" was lying in the Museum while I was there, and I should add that I was informed that the bone was discovered near a rubbish heap on the Bristol road, where some of the refuse of the town had been deposited.

This, so far as I can remember, was in the year 1912 or 1913, and I dismissed the whole matter from my mind until I learnt, not without surprise, that Sir Arthur Smith Woodward had communicated the "discovery" to the Geological Society. When later I read his account I at once informed Prof. Sollas of all that I knew, and so am directly responsible for the statement made by him in the third edition of "Ancient Hunters."

C. J. Bayzand..

Oxford, January 21.


[341] March 1926

Drawing of a Horse from Sherborne

R. Elliot Steel

In Nature of February 13, p. 233, Mr. C. J. Bayzand describes how his leg was pulled by certain boys of Sherborne School (for whose conduct, on their behalf, I wish to apologise to him‚ with respect to the finding of this inscribed bone.

As I probably know most about the circumstances of the find, I may be allowed to state the facts.

In, if I remember rightly, September 1911, among the new boys who visited the school museum for the first time were A. Cortesi and P. C. Grove, who asked where they could obtain fossils like those in the museum. I directed them to a certain quarry where, as it was being worked, they could find ammonites, etc. In this quarry, on a heap of broken stone, which the workmen told me had come from the opening to an adjacent fissure, still visible, where the rock was much broken, Cortesi, in the presence of Grove (who died in the War), picked up, among other things, a bone, which he handed to the latter, asking if it was a fossil. Grove said "No"; but in giving it back he noticed a drawing upon it. So Cortesi took it to his boarding-house, where in the evening it was examined and thought little of; but when Cortesi was about to throw it into the fire he was stopped by Jefferson (then a boy who had been a year in the school‚, as stated by him

in a recent letter to the headmaster, which I am permitted to send for publication. The bone was accordingly brought to me for inspection, and afterwards given to the school museum by Cortesi.

That two new boys should have made such a discovery was, as any public school boy will understand, not looked upon favourably by many of the older boys, and very soon sides had been taken, for and against, and as "fama viret eundo," the latter party soon changed the locality of the find to a town refuse heap, and would-be recruits were shown how Cortesi must have drawn it, though this was not very effective, for he could not draw "for nuts," as boys say, and the Town Council of Sherborne burned their refuse and do not allow inhabitants to keep horse bones on their premises till they are as brittle as this one.

Eighteen months later the quarrymen broke into a narrow cave forming the lower part of the same fissure, and it was then evident that the heap on which the bone was found was composed of the debris from the quarrying away, some years before, of the entrance to this cave, which pointing south—west was situated near the summit of a short narrow valley, now dry from the working back of some of the Somerset streams draining the low land between Sherborne and Glastonbury and the Mendips, and in which, lower down, we have discovered remains of the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

Cortesi was always very jealous for his find to be attributed to himself alone, so it was improbable that any one else at Sherborne drew it, and he certainly could not himself. As a hoax on a master, a new boy in a public school, with all his troubles before him and without for some years any privacy, would scarcely think of hoaxing masters he knew nothing about; in fact, Cortesi's letter to the headmaster disposes of anything of that kind.

I have done my best to unravel the mystery of its production, if it is a 'fake,' and I have come to the conclusion, which I hope Prof. Sollas will accept, that it was not manufactured at Sherborne School. Like Mr. Bayzand, I always felt its similarity to Sir W. Boyd Dawkins' Creswell Crag specimen must raise doubts; but since I, as in duty bound, submitted it to the inspection of the members of the Geological Society, my doubts have been somewhat allayed and I have placed my trust and confidence in them, seeing that I am not in a position to be able to express an opinion myself. May I therefore, in conclusion, ask some member of that learned society to explain how they got over this difficulty in similarity to the Creswell Crag inscribed bone?

R. Elliot Steel.

Stalbridge, Dorset, February 18.


Letter on Sherborne Horse's Head.

Copy of Part of the Letter of Mr. E. A. Ross Jefferson

17 Kensington Palace Mansions

De Vere Gardens, W. 8,


Dear Headmaster–Perhaps I may be able to throw some light on the "Palæolithic Bone." Cortesi [342] showed it to me when he was about to throw it in the day-room fire, and I told him not to be such an Ass; as I had been reading about the Palæolithic Period, and saw at once that the bone was a real find.

I told him to show it to Bob Steel, which he did; and for that reason it is in the museum to-day.

The idea of the bone not being genuine was a rumour started by that arch-humourist, Mr. X–

Yours sincerely, E. A. Ross Jefferson.


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