Dr. Beringer and The Hoax of the Lying Stones

So-called Würzburger Lügensteine, fake fossils produced in the 18th century in order to deceive Professor Adam Beringer, by seeming to confirm his theories about fossil-formation. These are displayed at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands.

I can’t help but pity Dr. Beringer.

via The Museum of Hoaxes:

Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667-1740) was a Senior Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg in Germany. Like many physicians of the time, he cultivated an interest in natural history. In particular, he was intrigued by what was called the study of oryctics, or “things dug from the earth.” Today we would call this the study of fossils, or paleontology.

Beringer kept a collection of interesting fossils he had acquired over the years. Until 1725 his collection was quite ordinary, but then, on May 31, 1725, some remarkable new pieces came into his possession. They were delivered to him by three local boys he had paid to explore nearby Mount Eivelstadt and bring him any interesting objects they might find.

What the boys brought him were three stones that displayed, on their surfaces, images in sharp, three-dimensional relief. One stone bore a stylized image of the sun. The other two bore images of worms.

Dr. Beringer was genuinely puzzled by the stones, and he grew even more puzzled as, over the course of the subsequent months, the boys continued to bring him more of these curiosities. By November they had brought him almost two thousand stones bearing the images of plants, insects, birds, snails, astronomical objects, and even Hebrew letters.

Beringer decided he should write a treatise about the stones, in order to bring them to the attention of other scholars. He published this treatise, titled Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, in early 1726.

….

As Chapter XII of the Lithographiae Wirceburgensis demonstrates, Beringer was well aware of the possibility of a hoax before he decided to go to press. He wrote in that chapter:

With peaceful mind and tranquil pen I pursued the dissertation which I had begun on this controversy. Then, when I had all but completed my work, I caught the rumor circulating throughout the city, especially among prominent and learned men, that every one of these stones, which, on the advice of wise men, I proposed to expound in a published treatise, were “recently sculpted by hand, made to look as though at different periods they had been resurrected from a very old burial, and sold to me as to one indifferent to fraud and caught up in the blind greed of curiosity; further, that I, once deceived, in my wretched turn, was deluding the world, and trying to sell new hoaxes as genuine antiques, to the silent laughter of prudent souls.” I was shocked beyond words to learn that the authors of this atrocious calumny were two men, perhaps best described as a pair of antagonists, whose names I have reason to protect at present — men with whom I was closely associated in numerous functions, former colleagues in the Academic Society.

Despite the possibility of a hoax, Beringer pressed ahead. Evidently he had poured so much effort into the study of the stones that he couldn’t bear the thought that all his work had been in vain. Instead, he convinced himself that, despite the rumor, the stones were real. He suggested that his two colleagues might be spreading a false rumor of a hoax in order to undermine his workBut evidently, shortly after the publication of the book, something did happen to convince Beringer that all the stones were fake. Perhaps it was, as the legend suggests, the occasion of being presented with a stone bearing his own name. Melvin Jahn and Daniel Woolf have suggested that the local Bishop of the Church might have made the situation clear to Beringer.

Once convinced of the hoax, Beringer decided to bring criminal charges against the two men he suspected of the deceit. These two men were J. Ignatz Roderick, Professor of Geography, Algebra, and Analysis at the University of Wurzburg, and Georg von Eckhart, Privy Councillor and Librarian to the Court and the University.

The case came to court on April 13, 1726, and Beringer won a conviction against the men. The transcript of this case, discovered in the Würzburg State Archives in 1935 by Dr. Heinrich Kirchner, is the main source of information we have about the hoax.

Unfortunately, the transcript does not shed much light on the motivation of the hoaxers. We simply learn that they hated Beringer because “he was so arrogant and despised them all.”

I chose chunks of the story to share with you here, but to read the entire piece, head over to The Museum of Hoaxes.

  • Number1Framer

    I’ve been into collecting fossils since I was a little kid (ironically the greatest investment I’ve ever made since the modern market is also flooded with fakes – real ones never go down in value, and Trilobites are where it’s at), and I cannot for the life of me figure out how this guy could think that ‘fossils’ of Hebrew letters were genuine. I get that back in those days science didn’t understand much about fossils since there wasn’t yet any formalized study of the field of ‘dragon bones,’ but that 3rd one down in the picture above looks like a goddamn kindergartner’s drawing of a turtle. Maybe he was exacerbating the situation in the hopes of inflating the legal payoff he eventually received? Interesting story though.

  • Number1Framer

    Using bizarre script font instead of (dot com). That’s a new one.

  • InfvoCuernos

    “SUCKER!” -that’s what those kids were shouting.

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