Charles Dawson

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For other people named Charles Dawson, see Charles Dawson (disambiguation).
Charles Dawson
Charles dawson portrait.jpg
Charles Dawson
Born (1864-07-11)11 July 1864
Preston, Lancashire
Died 10 August 1916(1916-08-10) (aged 52)
Lewes, Sussex
Cause of death Sepsis
Nationality British
Occupation Solicitor
Known for Piltdown Man hoax

Charles Dawson (11 July 1864 – 10 August 1916) was a British amateur archaeologist, who was initially credited with, and is now blamed for, discoveries that turned out to be imaginative frauds, climaxing with that of the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni), which he presented in 1912. Dawson was often present at finds in the archaeological digs, or was the finder himself.

Born the eldest of three sons, Dawson moved with his family from Preston, Lancashire[1] 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. 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.[2]

Alleged discoveries[edit]

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.

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.

He studied ancient quarries, reanalysed 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.[3] Investigating unusual elements of the natural world, Dawson found a toad petrified 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 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.


Questions about the Piltdown find were raised from the beginning, first by Arthur Keith, but also by paleontologists and anatomists from the Smithsonian Institution and from Europe. Those disputing the find were attacked in very personal terms. Challenges to Piltdown Man arose again in the 1920s, but were again dismissed. 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.[4][5]

In 2003, Dr. 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".

A team of British researchers used DNA studies to provide added evidence for the provenance of Piltdown Man. They concluded that Dawson acted alone, and was the only person in the group of suspected perpetrators with sufficient scientific knowledge to have carried off the bluff.[6][7]

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.


  1. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1864 8e 548 PRESTON. Charles Dawson, mmn = unknown
  2. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: SEP 1916 2b 187 LEWES. Charles Dawson, aged 52
  3. ^ D. P. S. Peacock, 1973, "Forged Brick-Stamps from Pevensey."
  4. ^ Unraveling Piltdown, by John Evangelist Walsh © 1996
  5. ^ The Neanderthal Enigma, by James Shreeve © 1995
  6. ^ [1] Isabelle De Groote et al, New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdown man’ , Royal Society Open Science, 10 August 2016. "Our re-evaluation of the Piltdown fossils using the latest scientific methods (DNA analyses, high-precision measurements, spectroscopy and virtual anthropology), shows that it is highly likely that a single orang-utan specimen and at least two human specimens were used to create the fake fossils."
  7. ^ De Groote, Isabelle (10 August 2016). "Solving the Piltdown Man crime: how we worked out there was only one forger". The Conversation. United States: The Conversation. Retrieved 11 August 2016. 


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