By Sarah Sworder (Information Assistant)
The story behind Lithographiae Wirceburgensis and its accompanying objects is both comical and tragic.
Johann Beringer (1667-1740) was a physician and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Wurzberg, Germany. He also collected natural curiosities and had a keen interest in the origins of fossils. Beringer was a victim of a calculated hoax designed to discredit him. The hoaxers succeeded in damaging not only Beringer’s reputation but also managed to destroy their own. Beringer employed three students to hunt for curiosities on his behalf. It was from Christian Zanger and brothers Niklaus and Valentin Hehn that Beringer came to acquire these ‘fake fossils’.
The hoaxers were two colleagues of Beringer: J. Ignats Roderick, a professor of geography and algebra at the University of Wurzburg, and the Honorouble Georg Von Eckhart, privy councillor and librarian to the Bishop’s Court and University. The reason Roderick and Eckhart devised the scheme was because Beringer was ‘so arrogant and despised them all’. It was via Beringer’s students that Roderick and Eckhart would ensure the safe delivery of the stones. Some of the fossils, carved out of limestone, were found by the Hehn brothers on Mount Eibelstadt, whilst others were given directly to Beringer by Zanger. Zanger had acquired these straight from Roderick who had carved them and then paid Zanger to polish them.
Beringer ‘wholly, publicly committed himself to the belief that fossils were merely the capricious fabrications of God, hidden in the earth by Him for some inscrutable purpose’, and as a result of this belief he went on to publish his book Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726). Prior to the publication of the book the perpetrators of the hoax began to feel guilty, and attempted to sabotage the book’s publication by circulating rumours that the stones were fraudulent. Beringer dismissed these claims as he believed that Roderick and Eckhart were trying to rob him of his great discovery.
When you look at the fossils it is difficult to see how Beringer was so easily duped. The figures are of bizarre lizards, spiders with webs, even shooting stars and smiling amphibians. These were things that just do not seem possible to form so perfectly as fossils. Please see the photograph below of the casts held in The Natural History Museum Library to judge for yourself.
Shortly after the publication of his book, Beringer discovered another so called fossil with his name carved into it. It suddenly struck him that it was all a hoax and he tried to buy back as many copies of his book as he could find. Beringer took the hoaxers to court in an attempt to restore his ‘lost honour’. The court ruled that the hoaxers Roderick and Zanger were to be banished from Wurzberg, and Eckhart lost his post and privileges of access to the archives of the Duchy. The Hehn brothers were pardoned from having any knowledge of the hoax. Beringer continued in his role at the University of Wurzberg and even went on to publish further books which received academic accreditation.
However, Beringer was devastated by the humiliation the stones had brought him, and he died penniless after continuing to buy up as many copies of Lithographiae Wirceburgensis as he possibly could.
Some of Beringer’s ‘Lying Stones’, as they became to be known, still exist today, and are housed at the University Museum, Oxford, as well as in Wurzburg.
References and further reading
Jahn, Melvin (1970), 'Beringer, Johann Bartholomaeus Adam', Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2, New York, pp 15-16.
Mallot, John M (1982), 'Dr Beringer's fossils: a study in the evolution of scientific world view', Annals of Science, 39, London, pp 371-380
Pain, Stephani (2004), 'Histories: Johann Beringer and the magic stones', New Scientist, 25 December 2004, pp 74-75
Taylor, Paul (2004), 'Beringer's iconoliths: Palaeontological fraud in the early 18th century', The Linnean. 20, pp 21-31