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.

While some of the ‘iconoliths’ display animals with shells or skeletons, the majority are soft-bodied organisms. In the few iconoliths of shell-bearing animals, there is no distinct shell, just its shape in the limestone. A few examples exist of vertebrates with bony skeletons, but these are anatomically incorrect. For example, a bird iconolith (Fig. 4) has absurdly coarse ribs. Other birds are preserved next to clutches of their eggs. Rarely, two different ‘fossils’ occur on opposite faces of a single iconolith (Fig. 5).

Deposits image

Apparent examples of predators caught in the act of capturing their prey are common (Fig. 6), as are animals mating, especially frogs (Fig. 7). There are several examples of incongruous assemblages of fishes, moths, snails and so on, on a single iconolith (Fig. 8). It is worth noting that few, if any, of the organisms can be precisely identified – for many, the broad taxonomic group is clear (for example, frogs and beetles), but, for others, even this is difficult to ascertain. Featureless elongate forms may represent either worms or snakes. There are a few mermaid- and angel-like iconoliths (Fig. 9). Vying with these for the honour of being the most bizarre are iconoliths shaped like miniature celestial bodies – the sun, moon, stars and comets (Fig. 10) – and others representing Hebrew script (Fig. 11). It is worth noting that, in the early eighteenth century, the possibility of fossils taking the shape of celestial bodies and somehow related to objects seen in the sky was not considered to be preposterous. Witness the pentaradiate stem segments of isocrinid crinoid fossils, widely known as ‘starstones’.

The sheer scale of the fraud is astonishing. It is estimated that over 1,000 iconoliths were manufactured, all probably made within the space of about a year. More than 490 iconoliths survive today in various European museums (Niebuhr and Geyer, 2005). The greatest numbers are in the collections of the University of Würzburg and the Mainfränkisches Museum in Würzburg, with a combined total of 311 specimens, and the Oxford University Museum owns two examples (Edmonds and Powell, 1974). The Muschelkalk limestone in which they are carved is a compact and well-lithified micrite, demanding physical effort to work. It is possible to envisage a cottage industry of stone cravers labouring energetically in the period leading up to the publication of Beringer’s book.

Fig 12
Fig. 12. The frontispiece of Beringer’s Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726).

Whodunit?

As for the ‘whodunit’ element of this fraud, a popular myth is that Beringer’s students carved the iconoliths as a prank. Only when Beringer discovered an iconolith carved with his own name did he realise he had been fooled. This is the story told, for instance, in a standard early book on the history of geology and palaeontology written by Karl von Zittel (1901, p. 18). However, evidence from court records (see Jahn and Woolf, 1963) suggests instead that the culprits may have been two of Beringer’s colleagues at Würzburg University. Within days of the publication of Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, Beringer initiated a judicial enquiry against the three collectors from Eibelstadt, who in turn implicated J Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart, respectively Professor of Geography and Algebra and librarian. Unfortunately, the final outcome of the enquiry is unknown as the records are incomplete. It has even been suggested (Niebuhr and Geyer, 2005) that Beringer himself may not have been an entirely innocent party in the fraud.

Fig 13
Fig. 13. Some of the products of the Lügensteine Association.

Beringer in context

It is all too easy with our modern knowledge of fossils and how they are formed to dismiss Beringer as a gullible fool. In the early eighteenth century, however, the true origin of fossils had not been completely established and there was a poor understanding of what could and what could not be fossilised. Granted, Steno and others before him argued convincingly that fossils were the remains of once living organisms naturally entombed in sediment, but various alternative theories of fossilisation were still being debated. These included vis-plastica, whereby fossils grew inorganically in the rock like minerals, and the Spermatick Principle, explaining at least some fossils as the progeny of the airborne seeds of marine animals that became lodged in cracks in the rocks and developed into fossil shells resembling, though not identical to, animals living in modern seas. Beringer’s book tried to apply these and other theories of fossilisation, such as the Biblical Flood, to his iconoliths, but he was unable to reach any firm conclusion. Paradoxically, given his change of opinion after the book was published, he went to great lengths explaining why they were not of human manufacture, despite the fact that several had apparent scratch marks on their surfaces as if made by a knife. Beringer acknowledged that some fake iconoliths had been produced and he even witnessed one being carved. These he considered to be like fake Roman coins made by the unscrupulous to profit from the high value of the genuine articles. However, he claimed that he could easily distinguish the fake from the real iconoliths.

Why did Beringer cling to his belief that the iconoliths were natural objects and what made him eventually change his mind? These are difficult questions to answer. Beringer wrote that he had been favoured by Divine Providence to have the iconoliths delivered to him for description, which may have pre-empted any questioning of their authenticity. One school of thought (Cooper, 2007) is that he was motivated by the desire to glorify Franconia, the unique presence of the iconoliths raising the stature of Franconia above neighbouring regions. The elaborate frontispiece of Lithographiae Wirceburgensis depicts several classically dressed figures deporting themselves over a hillside littered with iconoliths and capped by a monument bearing the emblem of the Prince Bishop of Würzburg (Fig. 12). Together with the book’s dedication, this makes it clear that Lithographiae Wirceburgensis was aimed at the head of state of Franconia, Prince Bishop Christoph Franz von Hutten. Ironically, it may well have been von Hutten who finally persuaded Beringer that he had been cruelly deceived.

Fig 14
Fig. 14. Mating frogs key ring from the Lügensteine Association.

Lügensteine renaissance

Beringer’s iconoliths became the talk of polite German society immediately after the fraud was revealed. Except for a few articles (for example, Taylor, 2004; Pain, 2004; Pain and Byrd, 2005) and, unlike the Piltdown conspiracy which still attracts considerable public interest, Beringer’s Lügensteine have been relatively neglected. However, there is now a Lügensteine Association in Germany, with a small museum and web pages devoted to this fascinating case of fossil fakery on a massive scale (https://www.beringers-luegensteine.com/en/home.html). The aim of this association is to encourage research on the Beringer fraud. To publicise its activities, the association produces replica Lügensteine, some as chocolates, soap or key rings (Figs. 13 and 14). Now there’s something not yet tried for Piltdown Man.

About the author

Paul Taylor is a Merit Research Scientist in the Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, London.

References

Beringer, J. B. A. 1726 Lithographiae Wirceburgensis. Würzburg: Fuggart.

Cooper, A. 2007 Inventing the Indigenous. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edmonds, J. M. & Powell, H.P. 1974 Beringer ‘Lügensteine’ at Oxford. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 85: 549–554.

Jahn, M. E. & Woolf, D. J. 1963 The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Bartholemew Adam Beringer being his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Niebuhr, B. & Geyer, G. 2005 Beringers Lügensteine: 493 Corpora Delicti zwischen Dichtung und Wahrheit. Beringeria Sonderheft 5(2): 1–188.

Pain, S. 2004 Johann and the magic stones. New Scientist, 25 December 2004/1 January 2005: 74–75.

Pain, S. & Byrd, B. 2005 Johann and the Magic Stones. Muse 9(5): 38–43.

Taylor, P. D. 2004 Beringer’s iconoliths: palaeontological fraud in the early 18th century. The Linnean 20: 21–31.

Zittel, K. A. von 1901 History of geology and palaeontology. London: Scott.


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