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Frauds, Fakes and Fossils

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What are they?
Creations of mind?- The mind can make Substance,
and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh
The Dream“, Lord Bryon (1788-1824)

In the year 1725 the professor of medicine and personal physician of the bishop of the German town of Würzburg, Dr. Johann Bartholomäus Adam Beringer (1667-1738), was approached by three chaps, who offered him the possibility to purchase some strange stones they had found in the fields.
Beringer recognized the unique value of the discovery and paid a rich reward for these and further specimens. After a short time he possessed the greatest collection of stones displaying on the surface various bugs, molluscs, plants, birds, mammals, stars, suns and even Hebraic letters.
One year later, in 1726, Beringer published a monographic work with 14 sections and 21 plates depicting 204 specimens of his collection: the “Lithographia Wirceburgensis”, assuring the veracity of the stones as a divine miracle.
But then the scandal was revealed – the chaps admitted that the stones were artificially carved, incited by two peers of Beringer, the mathematician Jean Ignace Roderique (1697-1756) and the theologian Johann Georg von Eckhardt (1664-1730). The two scholars admitted that the fraud was their revenge for the presumptuous behaviour of Beringer and intended to expose his credulity and incompetence. The public and the media were not amused by the childish behaviour of all the involved persons: The reputation of all the three scholars was ruined, Roderique and Eckhardt were forced to leave the city and Beringer tried to minimize the damage by destroying almost all of the printed copies and the printing plates of his book. He never recovered from the humiliation and died embittered years later.
Almost every student of earth sciences knows this or a similar version of the myth, often told in textbooks as warning of blind faith and argument from authority. The beautiful carved stones of limestone are today remembered as “Würzburger Lügensteine” – the infamous “lying stones of Würzburg“.
However careful study of the still existing stones and the preserved historic documents of the lawsuit that investigated the claims of fraud at Beringer´s time depict a much more complicated “criminal case.”

Fig.1. and 2. The lying stones as depicted in the Lithographia Wirceburgensis (images in public domain).

Today 434 lying stones survive, 494 are depicted in the Lithographia Wirceburgensis and Beringer himself claims that he possessed more than 2.000. However considering the short period in which the “discoveries” took place (less than one year) it seems more reasonable to assume that this number is deliberately exaggerated. Estimated 600 to 1.100 true lying stones seem a more plausible number.

Beringer affirms that he received or discovered the first stones in May of the year 1725. Between June and November he hired the two brothers Hehn, the chap Zänger and later a fourth person, which name is not recorded, to collect further stones on the presumed site of the first discovery.
Beringer began almost immediately to describe the various stones and ordered the printing plates for his book; he also published a preview of his work in October of 1725. Already then first doubts were cast on the veracity of the stones, but Beringer presented various witnesses that could testify that indeed the stones were found during the excavations on a hill near Würzburg. Johann Georg von Eckhardt, and later Jean Ignace Roderique, were send to investigate the site but couldn’t find any stone there. However they also couldn’t provide evidence to dismiss Beringer´s claims.

It is important to note that Beringer never affirmed that the stones were true petrifactions ( the petrified remains of organisms killed by the biblical flood) and he even states that the stones differ from the true petrifactions found in the hills near Würzburg. He discusses in great detail the various explanations proposed for the origin of petrifactions in the first chapters of “his” Lithographia (as a matter of fact the book is published as doctoral thesis under the name of one of Beringer´s students – Georg Ludwig Hueber – but his contribution is limited to an introduction of 9 pages) and examines the various hypotheses, but dismiss all in favour of a literally “miracle”. God himself created these stones and the recognizable carving spurs (!) on the stones are only a trace of the power of god creating these figures.

In spring of 1726 Beringer received some rocks from the fourth chap, this time in fact fabricated by Roderique to reveal the artificial nature of the stones. The fraud is revealed, even in the presence of the bishop (the Lithographia is dedicated to him), but Beringer simply modifies some chapters of the Lithographia, still in press, claiming that it is now only proven that the last stones are fakes and the first generation is still evidence for (literally) god’s hand carving the rocks. Beringer is apparently so self-confident in his position that he initiates a process against the claims of fraud regarding his persona. In the process, that will last until after the publication of the Lithographia, the incriminated chaps will only admit to have sold the stones to Beringer, but not to have carved the figures. Considering the depictions of exotic animals and even Hebraic letters on the lying stones it is in fact difficult to image that people from a rural area with no naturalistic background would be able to execute such an elaborate hoax.
There is no doubt that the scholar Roderique manufactured some of the stones, however he arrived to Würzburg only in the winter 1725-1726, so he can not be responsible for the first generations of stones described by Beringer already in October of 1725. Roderique left Würzburg voluntarily in 1730, the revealed “scandal” had no influence on his career and he died as respected scholar and publisher years later. There is no evidence that Eckhart played a major role in the entire story, apart the first investigation of the supposed excavation site. Both Roderique and Eckhart had no motive for revenge versus Beringer and were relatively unsuccessful in the attempt to discredit the lying stones, as they – or others, could never demonstrate that that the first stones were fakes.

But who then faked the first lying stones?

Beringer didn’t suffer too much from the supposed scandal, not only didn’t he even try to prevent the publication of the Lithographia after the first claims of fraud (there was still plenty time left), but he retained his position and reputation. In 1767 even a second edition of the Lithographia was published with the original plates (not even touched by Beringer) of the first edition.
His hypothesis of divine intervention on the rocks was never ridiculed in a time when fossils were anyway considered the vestiges of a biblical flood. However it is true that after the newspapers revealed that it was possible to fake the stones (like done by Roderique) the lying stones could no longer be used to support uncritically this hypothesis.

Only after Beringer´s death his strange behaviour, he remained unimpressed by all the claims of fraud, was interpreted by many authors as simple ignorance or even criminal stubbornness. But maybe he remained calm because he was sure that nobody could definitely prove that the first generations of stones were fakes, simply because he knew who carved the figures in the stones. Beringer had the naturalistic knowledge and probably also the contacts to professional craftsmen to perpetuate such an elaborate hoax – even if we never will know the entire truth, one fact is clear, the modern myth of the lying stones is itself a lie…

Bibliography:

BEHRINGER, J.B.A. & HUEBER, G.L. (1726): Litographiae Wirceburgensis, ducentis lapidum figuratorum, a potiori insectiformium, prodigiosis imaginibus exornatae specimen. Würzburg 1726. Scan by www.BioLib.de
NIEBUHR, B. & GEYER, G. (2005): Beringers Lügensteine: 493 Corpora Delicti zwischen Dichtung und Wahrheit. Beringeria Sonderheft 5, Teil II: 188

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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