Fake fossils by the hundred: the story of Johann Beringer’s ‘lying-stones’

The sorry tale of Johann Beringer has been part of the folklore of palaeontology for almost 200 years. In 1726, Beringer published a book illustrating some extraordinary ‘fossils’ reputedly found in the rocks close to Würzburg in southern Germany. However, very soon after its publication, Beringer realised that he had been tricked and that the specimens were fakes. The truth about the deception – and its perpetrators – is still shrouded in mystery, and the story of Beringer’s Lügensteine (’lying-stones’) ranks with Piltdown Man as the greatest of all fossil frauds.

Who was Beringer?

No portrait exists of Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667–1740) despite the fact that he was an important figure in Würzburg during the early eighteenth century. The son of an academic, Beringer became Chief Physician to the Prince Bishop of Würzburg and Duke of Franconia (Christoph Franz von Hutten) and to the Julian Hospital, and was also the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Würzburg University. Like other learned men of the time, Beringer kept a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ said to contain ammonites, belemnites and sharks’ teeth. He seems to have led a conventional life for someone of his high standing until May 1725, when an unfortunate train of events was set in motion. Three young men employed by Beringer to supply him with fossils delivered the first of a truly remarkable series of specimens purported to have been found at Mount Eibelstadt, a few kilometres south of Würzburg. These are the infamous Lügensteine, or iconoliths, described by Beringer in the Lithographiae Wirceburgensis of 1726. The original text was published in Latin, but Jahn and Woolf (1963) have published an excellent English translation accompanied by scholarly background information. Lithographiae Wirceburgensis contains 21 plates, depicting 204 specimens. A typical example is reproduced in Fig. 1.

Fig 1
Fig. 1. Iconoliths of insects. Plate 16 of Beringer’s Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726).

The Lügensteine

Rocks of the Middle Triassic Muschelkalk (‘shell limestone’) outcrop at Eibelstadt and can be seen in the soil of the vineyards that carpet the region today. The Muschelkalk contains abundant fossils of marine animals, including ceratitid ammonoids and bivalves, but Beringer’s iconoliths were something entirely different. Indeed, Beringer himself made it clear in his book that they were not ordinary fossils. Although there are a few iconoliths that superficially resemble true Muschelkalk fossils, even these are decidedly peculiar on closer inspection. For example, one specimen seems to be a ceratitid on one side, with a characteristic lobe and saddle suture pattern, but the imbricated radial markings on the other side are utterly different and quite unlike anything known in this group of ammonoids (Fig. 2).

The remaining iconoliths range from the barely credible to the totally incredible (Figs 3 to 11). The bulk of Beringer’s iconoliths are bas-reliefs, in which the ‘fossil’ fits almost exactly the shape of the rock, something which Beringer himself remarked on in his book: “The figures expressed on these stones, especially those of insects, are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor.” (Jahn and Woolf, 1963, p. 35). A few iconoliths take the form of moulds (that is, negative impressions), but most are in positive relief. Preservation is invariably perfect and the animals and plants are complete – for example, the plants may have roots, stems, leaves and flowers (Fig. 3). All of the animals and plants are in ideal orientations for their anatomical features to be observed clearly. There is no compression or other distortion.

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