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Lying stones

In 1725 Professor Beringer of the University of Würzburg dug up some extraordinary fossils: they contained the name of God written in Hebrew. A book, a court case, and the ruining of several careers ensued.

Johann Beringer was the head of the University of Würzburg’s Faculty of Medicine, and a keen fossil hunter. But he had enemies in the university. I don’t know why – maybe he was a jerk? Anyway, two of these enemies (a Professor of Geography and Mathematics and a librarian) decided to pull him into a complex and cruel hoax.

With the help of a local youth, they carved fake fossils out of limestone and planted them in nearby Eibelstadt. That youth brought the stones to Beringer and then led him to the same location to dig up more. He was fascinated, puzzled, and hooked.

The fossils themselves look pretty ridiculous: shells, worms and fish, but also spiders still in the web and frogs caught mid-coitus… but the most credulity-straining part was the appearance of inscriptions like the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew name of God).

What did Beringer make of all this? Well, he was scientist enough to admit that he didn’t know, but enthusiast enough to collect the fake fossils and write a book about them. This text, Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis, hypothesized about the origin of the fossils – were they a message from God, relics from the Great Flood, pagan sculptures, or a hoax? Yes, he actually considered the possibility of a hoax in his book, but dismissed it as implausible: why would someone go to this much trouble just to trick him?

The hoaxers, Roderick and Eckart, began to feel a bit guilty around this time.

They tried to convince Beringer that the stones were fake without admitting they were the ones behind it. Beringer interpreted this as an attempt by his enemies to discredit his discovery. Apparently they finally gave in, and created a fake fossil with Beringer’s own name carved into it. The jig was up.

The professor bought every copy of the book that he could find and destroyed them. And he took Roderick and Eckart to court. The case destroyed his credibility and the reputation of the two hoaxers, and the whole incident is today known as one of the most infamous cases of archaeological forgery on the record.

Categories: Early modern history Earth & sky Europe History Places Plants & animals Religion & belief Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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