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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 02:01 GMT
Charles Dawson: 'The Piltdown faker'
On the 50th anniversary of the unmasking of the Piltdown Man hoax, archaeologist Dr Miles Russell explains why he believes local solicitor Charles Dawson was the man behind it all

In his life Charles Dawson achieved recognition as the greatest British antiquarian and amateur palaeontologist.

The actor Ed Skelton plays Dawson in a new BBC Timewatch investigation

Within the social circles of his home county, his discoveries earned him the title "the Wizard of Sussex".

He was also a well-respected solicitor, doing much to benefit his local community.

Hard to believe then that this is the same man accused of being the mastermind of the most infamous scientific fraud in history.

Did the outwardly genial "Dr Jekyll" persona of Charles Dawson really mask an intrinsically evil and scheming "Mr Hyde"?

Unlike his brothers, Charles pursued a modest early career. He never went to university, opting instead to follow his father into the legal profession.

From his earliest days, however, Dawson possessed an interest in the natural world, collecting a variety of fossils from around Hastings.

Thousands of text books would have to be revised because of the hoax, said the Daily Mirror

Amongst these fossils he found teeth from a previously unknown species of mammal, later named Plagiaulax dawsoni in his honour.

In 1885, he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, an amazing achievement for a man who then was only 21.

His interest in archaeology developed and his uncanny knack of making spectacular discoveries continued. In 1893 he found a Roman statuette made, uniquely for the period, of cast iron.

Serpent discovery

Other discoveries followed, including a unique hafted stone axe and a unique form of ancient timber boat.

In recognition of his work Dawson was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries London in 1895. He was now Charles Dawson FGS, FSA.

Skull, Skull, BBC/Natural History Museum
1911 - first skull fossils found
1912 - discoveries publicised
1915 - Charles Dawson dies
1949 - Piltdown ages queried
1953 - Fossil fakes unmasked
From 1895 he began to write extensively on all aspects of Sussex history and archaeology. He found evidence for the final phases of Roman occupation at Pevensey Castle.

He investigated toads petrified inside flint nodules, sea-serpents in the English Channel, "incipient horns" in cart horses, a new species of modern human and a strange cross between the goldfish and the carp.

Dawson's greatest claim to fame, however, was the discovery of the "missing-link": Piltdown Man.

Since the 1950s discussion has swung for and against Dawson as perpetrator of the Piltdown forgery.

Most of the arguments suggest that Piltdown was a "one off", a single, elaborate hoax designed to fool the scientific community or embarrass key establishment figures.

The 'big one'

Under such circumstances any number of people may plausibly be held responsible.

Piltdown Man jaw, BBC/Natural History Museum
Like Piltdown Man's jaw, many of Dawson's so-called discoveries were forged
It has become apparent, however, through analysis of Charles Dawson's career, that all is not as it seems.

Of his discoveries, at least 38 are fakes: from the teeth of P. dawsoni and Blackmore's hafted stone axe to the "Roman" statuette and the Brighton "Toad in the Hole".

The only suspect in each of these frauds is Charles Dawson himself - the same man who uncovered the remains of Eoanthropus dawsoni, the Piltdown Man.

In March 1909 Dawson wrote to his friend Arthur Smith Woodward complaining that he was "waiting for the big 'find' which never seems to come along".

CHARLES DAWSON (1864-1916)
Qualified solicitor in Lewes
An amateur fossil hunter
Dubbed 'Wizard of Sussex'
A little while later, apparently inspired by a meeting with local author Arthur Conan Doyle, Dawson conceived his greatest hoax; one that would hopefully gain him a Fellowship of the Royal Society and, almost certainly, earn him a knighthood.

Piltdown Man, in its various incarnations, generated academic interest like no other discovery.

Dawson alone

Using the skills honed over the previous decades (such as the filing of Plagiaulax teeth and the whittling of the Bulverhythe antler with a steel knife), Charles Dawson gave British palaeontology what it had craved for so long: A British ancestor; a missing link from the home counties.

Miles Russell makes the case against Charles Dawson in a BBC Timewatch investigation

Charles Dawson FGS, FSA never received his knighthood, though many others associated with the Piltdown "find" were to. He was never elected to the Royal Society.

He died in 1916 before receiving such great honours. As he died, so did Piltdown Man; no further discoveries ever being made at the dig site in Sussex.

Dawson had the means, motive and opportunity to fake Piltdown Man. He had no need for an accomplice and we can dispense with any theories concerning conspiracy within the scientific establishment.

Piltdown was not a "one-off" hoax, more the culmination of a life's work.

Piltdown Man: The Secret Life Of Charles Dawson by Miles Russell is published by Tempus Stroud (ISBN 0752425722).

Dr Russell put his case against Dawson in a Timewatch documentary on Piltdown Man on 21 November, on BBC Two.

Piltdown Man: The Context And Exposure Of A Scientific Forgery is an exhibition that runs at the Natural History Museum from 25 November.

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Charles Dawson had a history of scientific hoaxing and forgery"

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