Field of Science

Fakes, Frauds and Fossils: The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer

In 1725 the amateur palaeontologist Dr. Johann Bartholomäus Adam Beringer (1667-1738), personal physician of the bishop and superintendant of the renowned Julius-infirmary of the city of Würzburg, was approached by three youngsters, who offered him some strange stones, which they have found, to buy. Beringer was enthusiastic, paid a rich recompense for this and further discoveries, and in short time possessed the greatest collection of these rocks, depicting bugs, molluscs, plants, birds, mammals, stars and suns, and even Hebraic letters.
In 1726 Beringer published a monographi
c work, with 21 plates depicting 204 of the rocks and describing them in 14 sections: the "Lithographia Wirceburgensis".
But then the scandal was r
evealed, the youngsters admitted that the rocks were a fraud carved by themselves, incited by two colleges of Beringer, the mathematician Jean Ignace Roderique (1697-1756) and the librarian Johann Georg von Eckhardt (1664-1730), who in this way perpetuated their revenge on the presumptuous Beringer. Roderique and Eckhardt had finally to leave the city, and Beringer tried to minimize the damage by repurchasing all the printed copies and destroying the print-plates, but his reputation was irreversible lost.

This post is a tentative submission to "The Giant´s Shoulders" Blog Carnival

In other versions of the story it was only a joke of students, or Roderique tried to eliminate his concurrent in a secret love to Beringers wife, or the potters of the city fabricated the rocks of clay just for fun.
The objects of the story, the beautiful carved limestone-rocks (limestone of the Obere Muschelkalk format
ion), reached worldwide paleontological fame as "Würzburger Lügensteine" - the Lie-Stones of Würzburg. But like in every myth there is only a spark of truth in this historical tale.

Fig.2. Figure of some of the "Lie Stones" showing what seem´s to be comets or stars.

A carefully research on the stones itself and t
he still existing documents of the process depict a much more complicated and intrigued "case."

The first stones were brought to Beringer on May, 31. 1725, in the same years between June and November the brothers Hehn, the youngling
Zänger and later a fourth person, which name is not recorded, collected further stones on the presumed locality of the first discovery.
Today 434 lying stones survive, 494 are depicted in the "Lithographia Wirceburgensis", and Beringer claims that he possesse
d in sum more then 2.000, but it is more reasonable to assume that the number lies between 600 to 1.100 specimens, considering the short period of the "findings".
Beringer began to describe and prepare the plates of the discovery still in 1725, and published a preview of his work in
October. To critics on the authenticity of the stones he replied with the eye-witnesses of the findings, also he confirmed that for him the stones were natural objects, but not necessary true petrifactions of organisms.

Fig.3. Frontpage of the Lithographiaea Wirceburgensis.

Beringer discuss these considerations more in detail in the first chapters of "his" Lithographia (in fact the book is published under the name of one of Beringers students - Georg Ludwig
Hueber, as doctoral thesis, but it is accepted that his contributions are limited on a introduction chapter of 9 pages), he proposes various possibilities of the formation of the stones, but dismiss them in favour of gods intervention (the work was also dedicated to the bishop, a man of the curch) and he states that the stones differ from the fossils found usual in the Muschelkalk.
Also the recognizable carving spurs (!) on the stones are only a trace of the power of god creating these figures.

In spring of 1726 Beringer buys some rocks from the fourth youngster, this time in fact fabricated by Roderique to re
veal the artificial nature of all the stones. This time the fraud is revealed, even in the presence of the bishop, but Beringer simply modifies some chapters of the Lithographia, still in press, to reply to the critics of the artificial nature of the stones, and enforcing their "natural" formation by (literally) God's hand.

In the process after the publication of the final draft the incriminated youngsters admitted only to have sold the stones to Beringer, but not to have carved it. Also the depiction of exotic animals and letters, the quality of some of the carvings seems to outreach their possibilities.
Roderique arrived to Würzburg only in the winter 1725-1726, so he can not be incriminated for the first generations of stones recovered in the year 1725.
Roderique left Würzburg in 1730 by his own choice, the "scandal" had no influence whatever on his career. The role of Eckhart in the affair is dubious, not even proven in any way.

And Beringer? Beringer not only didn't even try to prevent the publication of the Lithographia after the first claims of fraud (there was still plenty time left), but after "the scandal" re
tained his position and reputation, and published further books (but this time without geological content).

Fig.4. More Lie stones, depicting copulating frogs ?

In 1767 a second edition of the
Lithographia was published with the original plates (not even touched by Beringer) of the first edition.

Beringer didn't suffer any disadvantages of the scandal, on the contrary, without continuing debunking efforts and critics his book at the time would have been regarded as a great work, not in contrast to the general explanation for true petrifactions (still regarded created by some mystical force), but as a prove of god's almighty power.

In the end Beinger had much to achieve, and little to lose, an important motif - so a new suspicious emerge in the case - could it be that Beringer itself carved the Lying Stones?
Maybe he could remain so unimpressed by the prove that the latter stones were fakes, by knowing that nobody could definitely prove that the first generations of stones were fakes, simply because he was the only one to know exactly who forged them?

Fig.5. The Hebraic letters.


BEHRINGER, J.B.A. & HUEBER, G.L. (1726): Litographiae Wirceburgensis, ducentis lapidum figuratorum, a potiori insectiformium, prodigiosis imaginibus exornatae specimen. Würzburg 1726.
NIEBUHR, B. & GEYER, G. (2005): Beringers Lügensteine: 493 Corpora Delicti zwischen Dichtung und Wahrheit. Beringeria Sonderheft 5, Teil II: 188

Online Ressources:

BibliOdyssey (15.08.2006): Fossil Fakes. Accessed 14.08.2010

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