Real Casts, Fake Fossils

Fossil casts as part of museum exhibit.  Human Origins Centre, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.  Disclaimer:  These casts are real casts of real fossils.  (Photo: L. Pyne)

Paleoanthropology is a science that depends on access.  Access to collections, access to measurements, access to methods, and, of course, access to hominin fossils, themselves.  The question of what “access” means and how that translates into “good science” – a trade-off of collaboration and control – has been asked and answered many times throughout paleoanthropology’s history.  (This previous blog post addressed this question in a bit more detail…)

For early twentieth century paleoanthropology, access to fossils came primarily through the creation and exchange of casts.  As shipping a rare, original fossil was undesirable, a cast of a fossil became a useful and important replica – a proxy that could be studied and measured in scientific circles and displayed in a museum. 


Creating a cast of a fossil is a difficult process – it’s a balance of art, technology, and science.  The cast needs to capture the intricacies and the overall shape of a fossil.  As it is rare for a fossil, itself, to be sent around for scientific study, the cast became the material object under study.  The cast of the fossil can be ordered and displayed in museums and universities, casting (as it were) a much wider scope of influence than the original fossil, itself. 

Certainly, the original fossil is studied, photographed, and sketched and in modern casting technology, three-dimensional scans and various other digital measurements are taken.  But it is the cast of the fossil that propagates through scientific, educational, and museum circles, lending a sense of credibility – even a legitimacy – to the fossil copy.

But what happens when the cast is wrong?  What happens when the fossil cast in question simply doesn’t have credibility or legitimacy? 

In short, it depends. 


The "Piltdown Man" cast on display at Sterkfontein Cave Museum & Visitor Center, South Africa.  (Photo: L. Pyne)

Jan Freedman has some great blog posts and discussions about “When Casts Go Wrong” and the problems that surround making a “bad” cast of a fossil.  People are left with faulty impressions of the long-extinct biota, drawing inconsistent conclusions from flawed observations.  What is “there” to observe isn’t what was “there” to begin with and thus the problem of accuracy propagates through scientific inference, like a game of telephone.

But what about casts of fossils that were never fossils to begin with?  How do these non-fossils-but-real-casts exist in paleo-disciplines that already struggle with so few material objects?  What is the role of real casts of non-real fossils?  For famous hominin fossils, like the Piltdown Hoax, casts are created and easily attainable.  It’s understood that the “fossil” is a hoax and none but the most clueless would actually stick Piltdown in any phylogeny.  (Except, perhaps, as an ironic historical offshoot…)  Piltdown is often displayed in museums next to a placard noting the historical circumstances that surrounded the episode.

From S.A. & P.F. Baldwin (Education Palaeontological Reproductions).  BER 1.0C  "A Fossil Slug showing the complete body and head with both tentacles extended with the eyes at the ends.  In strong positive relief carved by Beringer's students on a slab of rock together with 3 Hebrew raised characters.  Specimen 85mmx18mm on a block 95mm x 45mm." (pp. 68)  (Click to enlarge.)

Other famous fossil hoaxes, however, occupy a curious niche.  Take, for example, the early eighteenth-century Beringer hoax fossils – pre-Cambrian relics that seemed to have Syrian, Hebrew, and Babylonian inscriptions as part of the fossil.  Johann Beringer was the chair of natural history at the University of Würzburg and had quite the penchant for all things natural history, especially fossils.  On May 31, 1725, Beringer’s students brought some remarkable finds to his attention – “fossils” with stars, worms, and odd lettering.  He published this treatise, titled Lithographiae Wirceburgensis in early 1726. 

It came out later that these fossils were total fakes. Victim of student pranking?  Malicious misdirection?  (Archaeology Magazine and the Museum of Hoaxes have great synopses of the controversy for those interested in more details.)  Beringer reported made every attempt he could to gather up the fakes and destroy them.  However, it’s possible to order copies of the “Beringer Hoax Fossils” from places like Educational Palaeontological Reproductions.  With over two thousand “Beringer fossils” in the faux paleo-record, it’s harder to simply acknowledge them the way that history deals with Piltdown

And this begs the question of what purpose these casts serve.  What historical place are these casts holding?  Widely recognized as fake, they’re not touted as legitimate fossils.  So what are the casts of non-fossils?  Objects?  Education?  Historical reminders?  Meta-curiosities?  (This feels like an awfully sentimental treatment of history…) 

Real casts of non-fossils occupy a curious and difficult place in the history of material objects within the paleo-sciences.  They are objects and histories within the larger frame of science.




The Beringer Hoax Archaeology Magazine

Gould, Stephen Jay (2000). The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History. Harmony Books.

 Jahn, Melvin E. & Woolf, Daniel J. (1963). The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer being his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis. University of California Press.

Pain, Stephani (25 December 2004). "Histories: Johann Beringer and the fraudulent fossils". New Scientist.