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Extraordinary fossils and inscriptions: Works of Nature or God? Or made by jealous colleagues?


Title page

In the early 18th century, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer--chair of natural history at the University of Würzburg and chief physician to the Prince Bishop of Würzburg--took part enthusiastically in the debate about the origins of fossils. Were they traces of real plants and animals, indicating that the earth was of great age, some other natural phenomena, or part of the biblical creation? Single-minded and with a high opinion of his scholarly abilities, Beringer was wide open for a simple, but devastating hoax.

Many accounts, as in The Scientific Monthly for May 1925, say Beringer often took students out to dig for fossils. On one mountain they planted carvings of bizarre lizards and salamanders, mating frogs, spiders with webs, birds walking and flying, and even slugs and butterflies. Beringer thought these were real, and, inspired by their success, the pranksters made ones with Syrian, Hebrew, and Babylonian inscriptions, even one with the name Jehovah on it. Beringer "wholly, publicly committed himself to the belief that fossils were merely the capricious fabrications of God, hidden in the earth by Him for some inscrutable purpose; possibly, thought Beringer, merely for His own pleasure; possibly as a test for human faith" and proceeded to write a book on them. Alarmed, the perpetrators told all--but he rejected their confession, claiming they were trying to stop the publication of his proof of the stones' godly origins. Beringer's masterpiece, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, was printed in 1726. Soon after, the doctor uncovered another "fossil." It had his name on it. Beringer's bubble of illusions burst. Devastated, he tried to buy up all of the copies of his book, dying penniless and heartbroken. The story, in this version, was "a memorial at once of an almost incredible hoax, a colossal farce and a pitiful story of broken ambition and humbled pride."



But historians Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf, who in 1963 produced the first English translation of Beringer's book, showed the truth behind the tale lies not in farcical student antics but in a slanderous plot by Beringer's jealous colleagues. Far from dying as a result of his shame, Beringer initiated legal proceedings. The stones were proved to be fake and the perpetrators revealed: J. Ignatz Roderick, professor of geography, algebra, and analysis at the university, and Georg von Eckhart, privy councillor and librarian to the bishop's court and university. Eckhart and Roderick were disgraced, but Beringer kept his job, lived another 14 years, and published several more books.

Roderick and Eckhart had hired 17-year-old Christian Zanger to assist them. Roderick carved the stones, which Zanger polished. In court, Zanger said Roderick devised the scheme "because Beringer was so arrogant and despised them all." Zanger and two other boys, Niklaus and Valentin Hehn, who were not in on the hoax, were then hired by Beringer to excavate and collect the stones. Some were planted, to be found by Zanger or the Hehns, others Zanger sold directly to Beringer.


Animal fossils

When Beringer announced his intention to publish, Roderick and Eckhart spread rumors about the fossils' authenticity. But Beringer thought they were trying to rob him of his great discovery. "Our idiomorphic stones are not the handwrought products of recent artistry," he wrote, "as some persons have shamelessly pretended, and attempted to peddle to the public by widespread rumor and gossip."

Beringer was also aware that Roderick had carved a few stones, planting some on the mountain and giving others to "a stonecutter's helper" [Zanger] hired "to sell them to me." In court, Zanger said this was "to see if [Beringer] could be tricked into buying the false stones." When he "returned to the residence of the privy councillor, they all had a big laugh that Dr. Beringer was deceived by the stones." But the doctor refused to accept the implications of this incident, asking "Does this mean that every iconolith I have uncovered during the past six months smacks of imposture?" He answered himself with a firm "no."

Beringer was taken in because he was obstinate and because the stones fit the early 18th-century debate about the origins of fossils (Gould 1998). He compared his stones against various theories: relics of the Flood, the vagaries of Nature, created by a "marvelous force of petrifying moisture and salts of the earth" or some subterranean "generative vapor." But the 100 or so with inscriptions, unlike anything found before, baffled him. "For whatever power has fashioned [them] the agent...has surpassed his limits by employing the art of writing, and has traced the characters of several languages, but especially those of the sacred tongue, so exactly in accordance with the rules of Hebrew orthography that they were adjudged in the opinion of experts to extol in eloquent titles the most holy name, power, and wisdom of God, and thus perhaps manifest the one and only author of these wondrous stones."



As Beringer describes the stones and weighs the interpretations in his book, he passes by one telltale clue after another: "The figures...are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor." The fossils have a "smoothness suggesting the polished effect of applied pumice, though the lower side retains its natural soiled roughness." "One would swear that he discerned on many of them the strokes of a knife gone awry...."

Beringer's experience shows how hoaxers can exploit a single-minded belief that can blind those unwilling to question their own initial conclusions despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Trapped by their own hoax, Roderick and Eckhart tried to shift the blame. Roderick threatened the Hehns with irons and fetters if they did not admit to having carved and hidden the stones. They promised Zanger "much money and many favors if he would state that the Hehn brothers made the stones." To his credit, Zanger refused and the hoaxers were disgraced. (He did, however, ask "the commission for help in obtaining the wages owed to him by Roderick for eight days of stone polishing for which he had received no compensation.")