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Highlights from West Berkshire Museum collection; The Piltdown skull

Trish Lee

trish lee

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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The Piltdown Skull

The Piltdown Skull Image copyright of West Berkshire Museum

In lockdown, we all miss mooching around our wonderful West Berkshire Museum at Newburytoday – on the bright side, it does give us more time to take a closer look at some of their treasures. In our new series, museum staff choose some of the fascinating pieces in the collection:

1 West Berks Museum volunteer Sue Ellis: The Piltdown skull

THE cast of the Piltdown skull in West Berkshire Museum is an interesting and intriguing object. Interesting, because of its history. Intriguing because it is one of a very few such casts still on display, a century on from when the skull was first discovered, and it marks a fascinating piece of history, worthy of remembering.

The Piltdown discovery, to our modern age, is an early example of ‘fake news’ – a ground-breaking discovery which perplexed and confused the archaeology of early man from 1912, when the skull
fragments first hit the headlines, to 1953, when they hit the headlines again, for other reasons.
Charles Dawson, the self-important Lewes solicitor who had found the bones and the associated artefacts, was the obvious culprit for the forgery. Although he had carried out the digs around a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, with the assistance of several other gentleman antiquarians, as well as Sir Arthur Smith-Woodward, the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, only Dawson was known to have found some of the bones from the second Piltdown site, and following his death, no other finds were excavated, although poor Smith-Woodward carried on digging at the site for 20 more years, and erected a monument to the Piltdown find, and its finder, in 1938.

We know from the museum records that the cast of the skull was purchased in 1926 with a grant from the V&A. A century later it’s hard to understand the interest in the Piltdown finds, but at the time it
was important to the country that the earliest hominid should also be ‘the earliest Englishman’, and so
few hominid finds of any antiquity had been discovered that the reconstruction of the skull seemed entirely plausible, and fitted well with Heidelberg Man, a jawbone discovered in 1907. So in the early 1920s museums across England were purchasing casts of the skull to exhibit. The museum’s record suggests that a grant of £5 5s was made to purchase two casts – one of which may have been a Neanderthal skull cast (Neanderthals were well known following late 19th-century finds). It is possible that the two skull casts were exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s to demonstrate the evolution of early man, perhaps with a more modern human skull for comparison, and may have been linked with Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species.

Over the 1920s and 1930s, concerns began to be raised, particularly as later finds of hominid remains showed that Piltdown was atypical with its human type skull and apelike jaw and teeth. In 1949 a fluorine test proved the bones were relatively recent and more intensive tests were carried out. By 1953 the small group of scientists working on the bones were ready to publish their results. They had found that the jawbone, of an orangutan, was modern and had been whittled to fit the skull, which was an older human skull, broken into pieces. All the pieces had been artificially stained to match and filed in places to change their shape. The whole Piltdown find was a massive fraud, with the artefacts and other fossils from the site probably coming from Dawson’s own large collection.

Why did he do it? Probably for fame and renown rather than money. But his obituary might be found in the statement made at the unveiling of the Piltdown monument:

So long as man is interested in his long past history, in the vicissitudes which our early forerunners passed through, and the varying fare which overtook them, the name of Charles Dawson is certain of remembrance.

Too true.


This article was written by Sue Ellis, a volunteer with West Berkshire Museum.

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