|The unfolding of a major controversy in rug studies exposes problems in our field, but it also evokes a simple and positive observation: we must be coming of age. Throughout the history of a list of study areas from archeology to zoology, bogus evidence and reputation enhancing "discoveries" often punctuate serious efforts to clarify real knowledge. Science, recently a religion of sorts, replete with a "cosmic bang" and atomic miracles, is by no means immune, but art and religion remain the perennial favorite arenas of hoax artists. Pieces of the True Cross, marketed widely 500 years ago, are not so plentiful now. The public moves on to other enthusiasms and precious
wares -- including strands of Elvis' hair and chunks of the moon. Each generation finds comfort in its own amulets, its own "true" relics.|
Only a seasoned practitioner could tell us all of the skills needed to pull off a complex hoax, but some prerequisites are apparent. A successful perpetrator must possess considerable knowledge, not only of the subject at hand and the field in which it is planted, but also of the intellectual and emotional climate of his or her time, touching on what we might call the "psychology of belief." Because support from other authorities is so important, knowing what specialists in a given field will accept is critical. "Fooling the experts," at least a portion of them, comprises easily half the battle. Few "experts" do not have a weak spot. A well-crafted hoax stands a better chance of success if it takes these weakesses into account, especially if it serves more than the perpetrator's own narrow purposes. Whether the gain is in reputation, monetary terms, or a sense of influence, power, or special status, room must be made for the self interests and emotional predispositions of key supporters. This group influences a still larger audience of readers or buyers who comprise the final market. This market resides, finally, in the emotions of individuals. If a hoax satisfies our emotional needs and expectations sufficiently, giving it up becomes as difficult as abandoning a part of ourselves.
Like some jokes or a good meal, hoaxes require a keen sense of timing. First a glass of wine; then the appetizer. Only when the atmosphere is right and the guests are relaxed can the main course be served. Swallowed whole or even partly ingested, the "meal" can be terribly hard to expel from one's system. When swallowed by enough individuals, a hoax can gain a requisite level of support, triggering a steam-roller effect. From the perpetrator's viewpoint, the ideal situation involves vocal partisans who believe with such conviction and vehemence that, on their own steam, they will rise up to confront doubters or skeptics, fighting if exposure is threatened.
Consequently, fully debunking "successful" cases calls for the dispassionate logic and thoroughness of a Sherlock Holmes. Even greater skills than this may be necessary, since Holmes' creator, A. Conan Doyle, fell hook, line, and sinker for two of the three hoaxes addressed in this article.
After a successful hoax finally comes apart, those who unmask it commonly meet resistance from a coterie of true believers, still defending the indefensible. (Murray Eiland's essay which follows this article touches on this very point.) Clearly, there are mechanisms in human nature which make it easier for all of us to believe in things which simply are not true. On the other hand, any audience will only swallow so much. A purported Roman coin bearing the worn likeness of an emperor may be believable. A painting, cracked and soiled by a clever forger, may look convincingly like an earlier canvas, but a coin bearing the sharply struck date "151 B.C." or a painting on modern plywood are simply not credible. A hoax fails miserably when it drastically contradicts existing evidence, however, a hint of plausibility supported by influential backers can give a hoax real legs.
|Consider the case of Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths . Armed with only a camera and remarkable talents as storytellers, these two young relatives and friends managed to convince millions of people that they had contacted and photographed tiny, angelic fairies. A glance at the face of Frances Griffiths provides some hint as to why so many credulous people accepted this tale. Could such an innocent face possibly mask a deceitful heart? Perhaps something in her eyes compounds the question. Is there a hint of mischief? From our vantage point, it is easy to say that there is. However light-hearted, inventive, and innocent the fib, both girls were lying through their teeth.|
The fairy photographs hoax began one Sunday in 1917 as an imaginative alibi, one which grew completely out of control. To justify their tardiness for Sunday high tea, EIsie and Frances explained that they had been unavoidably detained by fairies encountered in a wooded area near their village home in Yorkshire. In support of this yarn, they soon produced photographs showing Frances surrounded by minuscule, winged creatures . Elsie's parents dismissed the photographs as nonsense but the pictures somehow came to the attention of Edward Gardner, a devoted British Theosophist. In Gardner's eyes, this "evidence" was profoundly important, providing concrete proof that fairies, perennially the subject of legends and myths, existed in the three dimensional world of daily existence. The importance of this discovery was not lost on other spiritualists of the day, including A. Conan Doyle. Doyle took the lead in publishing the photographs, accompanied by supportive commentary.
As we would expect, there were many challenges to the fairy-photographs phenomenon. Because it was so obviously a piece of nonsense, published challenges fell outside the confines of any scholarly discipline. However, support from such eminent authorities as Conan Doyle became a convenient shield for Elsie and Frances during succeeding years whenever questions arose. After all, had not great experts passed favorably on their evidence?
Frivolous, almost harmless hoaxes such as the fairy photographs may seem ridiculous, but they reveal a side of hoaxes which more sinister examples often fail to convey. The key to a hoax's success depends on a division in our perceptions and, subsequently, in the manner in which we assess evidence, a division of which we are ordinarily unaware. A "good" hoax appeals to more than our analytic minds. It enters our emotions and offers something which we enjoy and, once savored, are reluctant to give up. Few of us believe in fairies, but we all like a good story with amazing elements, something that every "good" hoax supplies.
|By far, this century's most successful scientific hoax was "Piltdown Man," named after closely related sites near Piltdown in southeastern England. In the period from 1908 to 1915, Charles Dawson, presumably working with an accomplice, planted anthropological and archeological "evidence" in the form of bones, bone fragments, and implements which, when duly discovered and analyzed, astounded the British scientific community. At last, here was testimony that early man, or one of his direct precursors, had lived in the British Isles. More importantly, Piltdown materials appeared to confirm viewpoints shared by segments of England's post-Darwin anthropological and paleontological communities regarding the hot topic of the hour: the descent of man.|
The planted Piltdown evidence surfaced in stages. A human skull of believable age appeared first. Subsequently, a fragmentary jaw with both ape-like and human features was discovered -- at just the perfect moment. Both objects, as well as several teeth -- were retrieved from surface gravel heaps which workmen had dug from gravel beds in the course of road work. In the eyes of some specialists, the jawbone shed light on a favorite topic of debate: was early man related to apes, or did he develop through some other genealogical route? The correspondence of expectations within the scientific community and "discoveries" atPiltdown, bolstered soon enough by a dramatic "reconstruction" of the skull , was so perfect that debate on the Piltdown materials failed to focus on the real point: their fundamental authenticity.
Detractors had always insisted that the incomplete jaw and fragmentary skull did not quite match, at least in the manner suggested by the famous "reconstruction" devised by Arthur Woodward, Dawson's most influential supporter. Earlier debates focused on such issues, especially on alternative ways of piecing Piltdown bones together in a useful configuration. Various attempts, at times involving heated exchanges among experts, promoted divergent conclusions as to their age and place in anthropological studies. With clear hindsight, we now see that this style of debate distracted researchers from more fundamental doubts. For over three decades, very few of Piltdown's questioners carried their reservations quite deep enough.
In 1953, a South African researcher, Joseph S. Weiner, went much deeper, taking the lead in exposing the hoax. Weiner's fundamental work was aided by Wilfried Le Gros Clark and Kenneth Oakley. Weiner began by allowing a new level of questioning to enter his thoughts. If the jaw and the skull were,in fact, part of the same individual, then they naturally would have been found in the same location. But what if they were not related? How, then, did the ape-like jaw and the partial cranium come to rest in precisely the same gravel heap? Their discovery together called for an extraordinary network of coincidences wherein rare remains of unrelated creatures, separated from each other by substantial time periods, chanced to survive in the same locale, later to be discovered at about the same time, by the same man or his coworkers. By 1953, knowledgeable students of the subject realized that these bones were not discovered in situ, that is, in undisturbed ground layers, but were found in a pit among disturbed piles of gravel. Also important was the fact that no previous finds had been reported from the same area. Ominously, no subsequent discoveries were made there after Charles Dawson died in 1916.
Considering all this, Weiner entertained a possibility which opened the door to radical reassessments of the Piltdown materials. Wasn't it conceivable, he reasoned, that the jawbone had been obtained beforehand and intentionally placed in the gravel pit? By 1953, such dark thoughts stood a chance of being tested. At that time, "Piltdown" was still considered secure as a whole, but a core group of conmitted supporters was no longer on hand to deter questions through arguments about the bones themselves. Complex references to speculative theories could not work either, now that findings in other parts of the world created a more secure foundation of knowledge.
Weiner's suspicions called for thorough research. He initially focused on he jaw's sole human-like feature, the teeth. Any evidence of tampering, especially relating to the factor of size, would broaden concerns about other aspects of Piltdown Man. Microscopic analysis revealed what Weiner suspected: abrasion marks on the surface of the teeth proved that they had been filed to make them smaller. Further, the jaw had been artificially stained by potasium bichromate to heighten its esemblance to the skull.1 Once the door to doubt was open, everything soon came apart at the seams. The whole thing was a hoax. It now appears that not a single bone, tooth, or implement ascribed to several sites near Piltdown actually came from there.
"Piltdown Man" had held up for so many years that only several suspects in the next stage in the drama -- unmasking the perpetrators -- remained alive when it was debunked. One was Sir Arthur Keith, a friend of Dawson's, an anatomist with a keen interest in "early man" discussions, and an individual given to intense arguments. He appeared shocked when he learned that Charles Dawson had deceived him. Keith was not considered a likely candidate for the primary accomplice until well after his death in 1955.
Surely the hoax's leading figure was Dawson, a lawyer and amateur geologist who, fascinated by early-man debates, envisioned a place for himself in this discussion, and in the annals of science. Keith also stood to benefit in the same way. By advocating a correct analysis of the Piltdown materials, he stood to gain in the "currency" of reputation. We can assume that the pleasure of "fooling the experts" added incidental rewards.
If the latest unraveling of the Piltdown story is correct,2 Dawson and Keith worked together to doctor and salt the materials, to orchestrate their exposure, and to supplement private showings with well-timed "leaks" to periodicals and the press. Written correspondence with influential enthusiasts such as A. Conan Doyle contributed to the venture's success. Dawson's greatest coup was to attract support from one of Britain's most respected vertebrate paleontologists, Arthur Smith Woodward. With only the skull fragments initially in hand, Dawson "hooked" Woodward in the mistake of a lifetime. The opportunity to be associated with a major find in the area of his specialization was so great that Woodward pursued this new discovery with vigor, plunging into participation in the hoax itself, though unwittingly. It was Woodward who, working shoulder to shoulder with Dawson in June of 1912, "discovered" the famous "mandible," the ape-Iike jaw with man-like teeth, precisely the proof Woodward needed to support his own theory of human origins. Later, another friend of Dawson's, invited to Piltdown, found a tooth which fit ideally into Woodward's concepts and became part of his skull "reconstruction." By 1917, models of the Piltdown skull were reproduced in England and sold through the mails.
The noted anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, later
|Charles Dawson's approach required not only deceit but planning, patience, and some appetite for physical labor. He, Woodward, and others spent days digging in the gravel in several sites near Piltdown, looking for huminoid remains. Dawson must have experienced excruciating suspense and impatience as he waited for Woodward to stumble on the carefully planted jaw. Once Woodward laid his hand on the "mandible," Dawson could all but retire from the ensuing debates, his contribution acknowledged and secure. Had he lived a few years longer, he would probably have attained his goal of appointment to the Royal Society.
After Dawson's death, Arthur Woodward, the unsuspecting collaborator, carried the ball, placing his reputation on the line in support of "Piltdown Man"... and his own ideas.|
The Piltdown gravel trench became a protected national site in the mid 1930s, and in 1938 Sir Arthur Keith unveiled a monument commemorated this acclaimed spot. He must have felt totally secure then, unaware that doubts remained scattered like seeds, ready to germinate when external influences were favorable. The scientific world remains indebted to Joseph S. Weiner and his colleagues for swimming against the current, spelling out inconsistencies in one of science's "sacred cows," and calling a spade a spade.
The Piltdown Hoax is fascinating and entertaining. However, it is vital to note that years of study were wasted by two generations of specialists who were fruitlessly distracted by "Piltdown."
Several researchers squandered careers without the slightest personal or communal benefits. Millions of stu- dents and casual readers were misled. Can there be a positive side to such a story? The entire affair showed that "science," a gold-plated word in the 2Oth century's lexicon, can be as personality-ridden and prone to fantasy and deceit as any field in which individuals cajole, convince, or brainwash each other. Piltdown reminds us of ways and means whereby forceful personalities press their own interpretations and dreams, without regard for consequences shouldered by the rest of us. I know of no one who, upon hearing about the Piltdown hoax, does not feel some degree of indignation toward its perpetrators. However, not all hoaxes evoke such responses, witness the rather benign acceptance of the fairy photographs confessions.
|Because of its emotional attraction, art of all periods comprises a fertile ground for misrepresentation, doctored histories, and outright hoaxes. One of the art world's most publicized cases involved Henricus Antonius van Meegeren, a Dutch painting dealer who was also something of an artist himself. Van Meegeren's talents focused on a peculiar specialization: he forged paintings. His most famous efforts involved the l7th century Dutch master, Vermeer. Among an extensive corpus of work, Vermeer produced a few atypical paintings. Studying Vermeers of this type, Van Meegeren saw his opportunity -- and took it. Employing carefully considered materials, he made new "Vermeers," baked the paintings to age them and pawned them off as rediscovered masterpieces.|
Joy upon discovering these "new" Vermeers was by no means immediate or universal in Dutch art circles. But, once again, a hoax benefited from support and validation by key authorities. Among them, Dr. Abraham Bredius, a notable Dutch art historian, placed his stamp of approval on the "rediscovered" Vermeer's. Confronted with the made-up "Christ at Emmaus," he wrote, "It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration.... And what a picture! ...what we have here is a -- I am inclined to say -- the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft!"4
Christ and the Adulteress by Van Meegeren
Van Meegeren might have continued forging paintings until his hand gave out had it not been for one key customer, albeit an unwelcome one: the Nazi warlord, Hermann Goering. Fancying himself a great connoisseur of art, Goering approached Van Meegeren during the German occupation of the Netherlands. In his capacity of art dealer, Van Meegeren offered an extremely rare work, another rediscovered Vermeer, entitled "Christ and the Adulteress". Goering fell for the painting and bought it, paying with -- what else? -- forged British bank notes!
After the war, Van Meegeren's dealings with Goering came to the attention of collaboration courts who brought him to trial for selling a national treasure, Vermeer's "Christ and the Adulteress," to a Nazi. What an agony of a situation to be in. He readily admitted the sale but proclaimed irnocence on extraordinary grounds.
He insisted that the painting Goering bought was no Dutch masterpiece; it was a fake and Van Meegeren could show the court precisely how it was done. Setting up a canvas, he painted a new "Vermeer." This revelation bought Van Meegeren his freedom and fame of a sort -- in the shadowy world of hoaxes.
Art critics today uniformly view his "Vermeers" in the same light as did detractors in the 1930s: weak paintings requiring extraordinary suspension of judgment to be placed next to authentic Vermeer masterpieces. Whatever their weaknesses as works of art, Van Meegeren made a lot of money with his hoaxes. These material rewards were one of several driving forces behind his career. He despised art critics, curators, and art historians, and must have derived unique satisfaction when segments of these communities rewarded his paintings with the highest possible accolades, even after better minds declared them to be questionable or out-and-out fakes.
Why does a person who is capable of legitimate creativity, useful study, or fruitful exploration resort to such a risky enterprise? The usual explanations focus on the profit motive, the itch for fame, and the satisfaction of fooling one's peers. However, there are cases in which gifted individuals concoct hoaxes over and over and repeatedly get caught. How are we to understand these instances? In my opinion, literature on psychological addictions may well hold the key. Excitements involved in all phases of the affair -- its organization, unveiling, defense, and even the humiliation of full exposure -- evoke emotional stimulations which are, in the modern parlance, "addictive." Teachers, psychiatrists, and public health therapists throughout the world report that some disturbed individuals repeat stress-producing, risky experiences, even when more positive stimulation is available to them. The ranks of fallen preachers, politicians, and, for that matter, psychiatrists suggest that status and the possible loss of reputation do not protect a given individual from harboring these problems. If this line of thinking is correct, even the hoax perpetrators themselves may not be able to tell us why they do it. A great deal of self-insight would be necessary for a person to gain the requisite understanding.
On the believing side of the hoax equation -- the receptive audience -- explanations are, we would hope, more simple. Since counterfeit only exists because there is true and valid currency, we all experience a natural tendency to accept what is seriously offered us as authentic. We can readily question children who, with crumbs on their lips, deny that their hands went into the cookie jar. But we can be forgiven for failing to carry our questioning minds with us into all avenues of our hobbies and occupations, particularly into areas which provide us with emotional satisfaction. For better or worse, daily life rarely forces us to distinguish clearly between emotionally colored thinking and thought of a purer, more analytical type. We may wish that our parents, children, and friends would make this division more often and act accordingly, but, often enough, we fail to do so ourselves. Either instinctively or through study, hoax perpetrators know about this division and the difficulty we have in separating what can be called "emotional thinking" from more objective ratiocination. They know that we love a story with surprises and astounding elements, something to believe in. To break the spell of a comforting hoax requires that our reasoning faculties be armed with sufficient information to block efforts on the part of emotions to reassert their picture of reality. Naturally, a hoax artist, caught in the throes of exposure, compounds matters by fogging all logical explanations. Doing so tends to throw the subject back into our emotions, where the hoax has a fighting chance. It often works, leaving some believers saying, "But there has to be some truth in it!"
Our ability to readily accept the unvarnished truth about a hoax may depend, in part, on the complexity of motives behind it. If the motives are simple, we can be aware of experiencing similar motives ourselves and, therefore, can see what the perpetrator has done, and why. In Elsie and Frances' case (the fairy photographs), the motives are easy enough to comprehend. Two girls wanted to stay out of trouble with their parents and have some fun. We all have such impulses, as children and as adults. Other hoaxes, however, arise from much more complex motives, as we saw in the two serious cases, "Piltdown Man" and the faked Vermeers. The great majority of us simply are not capable of the level of deceit inherent in Charles Dawson's "discoveries" or in the fake Vermeers of Van Meegeren. Even if we were tempted, we could never carry it off. Consequently, we cannot see very deeply into the motives and methods of the most serious perpetrators. Especially in connection with examples such as "Piltdown Man," debunking a complex hoax requires an overwhelming assembly of facts which finally break the charmed circle of the hoax's emotional appeal.
Is the rug field especially prone to hoaxes? Admittedly, ours is a young field and any new study area lacks clear standards of what comprises evidence. Given the long history of dealer stories and broad claims in the realm of "symbolism," we are vulnerable to a variety of mistakes and deceptions.
Like all disciplines, the study of rugs grows by struggling to delineate what is true from what is not. Faulty conclusions and even hoaxes have a role in this process. The development of a field inevitably leaves more questions unanswered at the end of the day than answered. But now and then really solid headway can be achieved. The essential study, minus unnecessary distractions, can be renewed. Learning that a proclaimed foundation stone is painted cardboard -- even a hoax -- is simply part of the process.
2. See Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery, chapter 8 for a cogent review of recent conclusions. Since the 1950s, various authors named a variety of possible suspects. A. Conan Doyle figured prominently in one theory but this suggestion has found no substantial support among students of the subject. The evidence presented by Frank Spencer may not amount to overwhelming proof of Arthur Keith's complicity. His readers are left to "decide for themselves." I find the case convincing.
3. Later photos, intended to provide additional substantiation, were less impressive. See page 77 in FAKE? The Art of Deception, edited by Mark Jones with Paul Craddock and Nicholas Barker. In discussing this hoax I have relied on Christopher Sheppard's amusing account, found on pages 87-90 in in FAKE?
4. Burlington Magazine, November, 1937.
What happens to the "disappointed" believers, however, makes for an interesting study in itself. Understandably, most of those who have seen an anticipated doomsday come and go abandon their previous beliefs and find some bridge back to mainstream reality. Yet a significant fraction of the original believers, for reasons known best to themselves, cling even more fervently to their faith, offering instead some rationalization as to why the expected event did not occur. They may theorize, for example, that the idea had been correct but that God had decided to reset doomsday to test their faith.
Other groups head back to the drawing board, reasoning that the basic idea was sound but, somewhere in the process, there had been a miscalculation, a minor error in arithmetic or interpretation. Soon a new belief system emerges to replace the old. Doomsday is still right around the corner, but the group is now more cautious in setting an exact date.
In my opinion, believers in the Anatolian goddess theories have seen their beliefs tested and found insupportable, and they are momentarily in the process of reformulating their credo. In this case, the "disappointment" came in the form of the Oriental Rug Review issue in which the Mellaart claims for Neolithic origins of modern kilim designs were demonstrated to be unreliable, implausible, internally inconsistent, and almost certainly spurious.
By the time this material appeared in print, however, the Anatolian goddess ideas already had a great number of adherents. Faced with the new material, they reacted predictably. Most of them appear to have abandoned their belief system, whose most blunt manifestations include claims that certain figures on kilims of the last few centuries represent goddess figures descended from neolithic cults. Most former believers seem to have cut their losses and gone on to other matters.
We need not look far, however, to realize that others have sought a rationale for continued belief and, not surprisingly, they seem more committed than ever to some permutation of the neolithic origins theory. While this takes some fancy footwork, the positions themselves seem to fall into several basic categories:
1) No one yet has actually proved that the Anatolian goddess is a hoax,
2) So what if the Mellaart drawings can be cast aside, there is still some reason to believe in the goddess theory, or,
3) Faith is stronger than reason. I believe every word of The Goddess from Anatolia.
The first of these approaches seems easiest to dismiss, Since when does the burden of proof for a new theory rest upon its detractors, as though it is correct until proven either a hoax or merely wrong? The second rationale is equally flimsy. As Marla Mallett has so bluntly proclaimed, "Without the suspect Mellaart 'reconstruction' drawings, there is no Goddess theory." For the third approach, based on faith, there is no answer; some people will choose to believe, and, of course, that is their right.
But it may also be instructive for us to look upon the motivations of those who still cling to the neolithic origins/goddess theories for more personal reasons. Imagine those, for example, who in the great "realization" following the goddess "revelations" actually invested heavily in tattered kilims with "elibelinde" figures. Rumors have circulated in the field about several major collectors who spent enormous sums to acquire these "holy relics." Will such people be eager to recognize that their purchases may not represent what they at first thought (or were told)?
Then imagine the dealers who did the selling. Will they be pleased at the prospect of facing their customers with a smile and discussing the possibility that they were both perhaps too enthusiastic about the new ideas?
And what of those who first came out in print in support of the Mellaart material? Will they be eager to recant and confess to having been deceived?
And what about the collector who has neither bought a kilim with goddesses nor written about them? He still may have committed himself in conversation with this friends. Will he have the courage to admit that he too readily accepted a theory, or will he respond like the faithful who are reluctant to acknowledge that the doomsday theory was excessively alarmist?
The next time we read of a group whose date for the world's end has passed without incident, let us be cautious in imagining that their beliefs lave been shattered. While many believers will have fallen away, others will cling even more fiercely. Surely we cannot doubt that faith conquers all.