The Lying Stones of Adam Beringer

Mar 15, 2022 0 comments

Fossils prove the existence of life at its peak, but in Dr Adam Beringer’s case, they wrote nothing but demise. Almost 300 years ago, he discovered a set of plant and animal fossils near Würzburg in southern Germany that crafted the end of his thriving career. These fossils came to be known as Lügensteine or the ‘Lying Stones’ that caused one of the greatest paleontology frauds in the history of the world. But what makes this deception legendary, apart from a host of moral lessons and conniving turns of events, is the fact that at the butt of the prank was a savant of the field with the highest credibility (until he wasn’t).

Today, Eibelstadt is a quaint town with vineries and grass carpets. Once, it was the land of the lying stones. Photo: Tilman2007/Wikimedia

Born in 1667, Dr Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer grew up to become an important man in 18th century Würzburg. He was a professor and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Würzburg University, and practiced medicine at Julian Hospital. His days went by publishing academic papers that were cited by men of science around the world, but all his free time Beringer devoted to feeding his personal passion: natural history. Though conventional in most ways, the physician was known to possess a cabinet of curiosities that had on display the most wondrous objects from the natural world. He was the chief physician to Prince Bishop of Würzburg and Duke of Franconia at a time when modern medicine was largely based on natural remedies, and in 1695, he was also appointed keeper of the botanical gardens of the University in keeping with his interests and aptitudes.

But for all his accomplishments, there were many who despised the doctor’s rise to fame. At the University, two of his own peers were convinced on bringing Beringer down, and had long been brewing hate and concocting plans to such an extent. J. Ignatz Roderick, a professor of geography and algebra, and Georg von Eckhart, a librarian, were going to act on Beringer’s love for the shell limestone fossils of Mount Eibelstadt, which stood south of Würzburg. All went well until the forsaken summer of 1725, when the duo planted fake fossils in the mountain for him to find (the first of many). Beringer had employed three young men to dig up treasures from earth for his beloved cabinet; It is said that at least one of them was privy to the full extent of the plan. The diggers began to deliver the seemingly spectacular fossils to him, and Beringer was immediately enraptured. Little did he know that these would later come to be known as Lügensteine.

The fossils were perceptibly extraordinary, even to Beringer. Rocks of shell limestone or the Middle Triassic Muschelkalk are found in the land of Eibelstadt even today. But these iconoliths were different. Most of them were bas relief, with the fossil fitting perfectly enough inside the stone to make it seem crafted. In the fossils that displayed remnants of a skeletal structure, the anatomy was evidently incorrect. There were fishes and frogs, birds and snails carved in these stones, but also angel-like iconoliths and stones with Hebrew letters spelling the tetragrammaton YHVH: the name of God.

Many voiced their apprehensions about the fossil’s credibility, but Beringer remained unfazed, and went on to document his findings in his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis of 1726. The book contained 21 plates, depicting 204 specimens. Though written in Latin, it was later translated by Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf in English. “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,” he had said in his book. In his passion, he wrote the entire work without acknowledging what his own observations revealed: the fossils were fake. It was only after publishing the book did he own up to the fact that he had indeed been deceived. Something had changed, but what?

As years have passed, the suspense of the story has been attributed to different anecdotes. But the most popular one remains that the physician finally found a stone with a Hebrew inscription that translated to his own name, and it was only then that he realised that the findings had been fake all along. Some suggested that it were his students who pranked the professor. But after accepting his mistake, Beringer initiated a court trial against his three diggers, who purportedly implicated the professor's peers, Roderick and Eckhart. Rumour has it that the once revered scientist fell into a gradual demise from that moment on, buying copies of his own book and losing track of his professional career until his eventual death a few years later. The incident affected the pranksters as well. While Roderick had to leave Würzburg, Eckhart was unable to finish his scholarship.

Though the stones never got as famous as the Piltdown Man, they did their part in resparking conversation around trickery in the world of science. The incident triggered the opening of the Lügensteine Association in Germany devoted solely to fossil fakery. Of the over 2,000 stones that Beringer discovered, around 600 were distributed across England, Germany and Austria. Exhibitions of the forgeries were held at the British Museum in 1961, while casts of some of the fossils were preserved in the Naturkunde Museum at Bamberg. All of these are originals, boasting an ironic display of forgery for the world to see even today.

# The Lying Stones of Marrakech. Penultimate Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould
# Fake fossils by the hundred-the story of Johann Beringer's 'lying-stones' by Paul D Taylor
# Smithsonian Library and Archives


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}