Charles Dawson

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Charles Dawson
Charles dawson portrait.jpg
Charles Dawson
Born(1864-07-11)11 July 1864
Died10 August 1916(1916-08-10) (aged 52)
Cause of deathSepsis
Known forPiltdown Man hoax

Charles Dawson (11 July 1864 – 10 August 1916) was a British amateur archaeologist who claimed to make a number of archeological and paleontological discoveries that were later exposed as fraud, including the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni), which he presented in 1912.

Born the eldest of three sons, Dawson moved with his family from Preston, Lancashire to Hastings, Sussex when he was still very young. Charles initially studied as a lawyer following his father and pursued a hobby of collecting and studying fossils.[1]

He made a number of seemingly important fossil finds. Amongst these were teeth from a previously unknown species of mammal, later named Plagiaulax dawsoni in his honour; three new species of dinosaur, one later named Iguanodon dawsoni; and a new form of fossil plant, Salaginella dawsoni. The British Museum conferred upon him the title of Honorary Collector. For these important finds he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society and a few years later after another find, to the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1895. Dawson died prematurely from septicaemia in 1916 at Lewes, Sussex.[1][2]

Alleged discoveries[edit]

A replica of the Piltdown Man skull.

In 1889 Dawson was a co-founder of the Hastings and St Leonards Museum Association, one of the first voluntary museum friends groups established in Britain. Dawson worked on a voluntary basis as a member of the Museum Committee, in charge of the acquisition of artefacts and documents. His interest in archaeology developed and he had an uncanny knack of making spectacular discoveries, The Sussex Daily News named him the "Wizard of Sussex" for his success.[2]

In 1893 Dawson investigated a curious flint mine full of prehistoric, Roman and mediaeval artefacts at Lavant, near Chichester and probed in inner depths of two tunnels beneath Hastings Castle. In the same year, he presented the British Museum with a Roman statuette from Beauport Park, which was made, uniquely for the period, of cast iron. Other discoveries followed, including a strange form of hafted Neolithic stone axe and a well-preserved ancient timber boat.[2]

Toad in the hole, claimed by Dawson to have been found by workmen in a Lewes quarry

He studied ancient quarries, re-analysed the Bayeux Tapestry and, in 1909, produced what was then the definitive study of Hastings Castle. He later found faked evidence for the final phases of Roman occupation in Britain at Pevensey Castle in Sussex.[2] Investigating unusual elements of the natural world, Dawson presented a petrified toad inside a flint nodule, discovered a large supply of natural gas at Heathfield in East Sussex, reported on a sea-serpent in the English Channel, observed a new species of human and found a strange goldfish/carp hybrid. It was even reported that he was experimenting with phosphorescent bullets as a deterrent to Zeppelin attacks on London.

In recognition of his many discoveries, Dawson was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1895. At the age of 31, and without a university degree to his name, he was now Charles Dawson F.G.S., F.S.A. His most famous discovery was in 1912 with the discovery of the Piltdown Man which was billed as the "missing link" between humans and other great apes.[1]

Charles Dawson never received a knighthood, though many others associated with the Piltdown "find" did, and was never elected to the Royal Society. Following his death in 1916, no further finds were made at Piltdown.[2]

Questions about the Piltdown find were raised from the beginning, first by Arthur Keith, but also by paleontologists and anatomists from the United States and Europe. Defense of the fossils was led by Arthur Smith Woodward at the Natural History Museum in London. The debate was rancorous at times and the response to those disputing the finds often became personally abusive.[2] Challenges to Piltdown Man arose again in the 1920s, but were again dismissed.

Posthumous analysis[edit]

In 1949, further questions were raised about the Piltdown Man and its authenticity, which led to the conclusive demonstration that Piltdown was a hoax, in 1953. Since then, a number of Dawson's other finds have also been shown to be forged or planted.[2][3]

In 2003, Miles Russell of Bournemouth University published the results of his investigation into Dawson's antiquarian collection and concluded that at least 38 specimens were clear fakes. Russell has noted that Dawson’s whole academic career appears to have been "one built upon deceit, sleight of hand, fraud and deception, the ultimate gain being international recognition".[4]

In 2016, a team of British researchers used DNA studies to provide added evidence for the provenance of Piltdown Man. They concluded that Dawson likely acted alone, and was the only person in the group of suspected perpetrators with sufficient scientific knowledge to have carried off the bluff.[5]


  1. ^ a b c Spencer (2004)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Walsh (1996)
  3. ^ Shreeve (1995)
  4. ^ Russell (2013)
  5. ^ De Groote, Isabelle; et al. (2016). "New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created 'Piltdown man'". Royal Society Open Science. 3 (8): 160328. doi:10.1098/rsos.160328. PMC 5108962. PMID 27853612.


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