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Our Saturday classics over the last few weeks have been on the heavier side. So we thought we would pull something a little lighter out of the archives today. And that is Johan Bringers fossils. Fossils kind of goes in quotation marks there. Yeah, this is a story that combines all of the key ingredients, personality conflicts, a hoax, and the delightful explanations that people came up with for how to explain fossils before humanity had actually worked out the science there.
This originally came out on April 22nd, 2013.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. My name is Holly Fry and I am Tracy B. Wilson. And today we're going to talk a little bit about early fossil study. Yes.
When when we started on this podcast, I was very sad that previous hosts had already talked about the Bone Wars. So I am glad that you found a different crazy fossil story for us to talk about.
It is it's one of those things that's often told in archaeology studies as sort of a cautionary tale to some degree. But it's kind of a fascinating little story. And the tale that's often told is not really completely accurate.
So what we're talking about today is Johann Barrenger, and he was born Johann Bartholomaeus, Adam Barrenger in 1967. He was the son of a professor, Johann Ludwig Barrenger. And Berenger was an active scholar.
He eventually became the chair of natural history at the University of Pittsburgh, and he was also chief physician to the bishop of Pittsburgh. And the Prince bishops patronage enabled Berringer to study a hobby subject, which was fossils.
But unfortunately, Berringer was by most accounts rather arrogant and conceited, which kind of led to the events that ended up unfolding.
Right. So there were several theories about the origins of fossils at the time. There was the spermatic principle, and that was that the results of marine animals mating could escape into the sea and sometimes evaporate into the atmosphere, fall down as rain and grow new fish in the crevices where the fertilized eggs fell. Which is delightful. Yes, so the theory there is that the fish examples that you would find in fossils were actual fish that had grown in the rock because they had fallen from the sky as fertilized eggs.
There's the helio memory theory, which is that rays from the sun could sort of leave a photo imprint onto stones of the things that the light had already touched, which is also delightful.
And it makes me think of photography a little bit. Yeah, always. It's kind of a fascinating theory to be rolling around in the early 17th.
Right. The Sun was painting pictures on things. So the next was the plastic theory. And that's similar to the spermatic theory. But with the fossils spontaneously growing inside of rocks, people had that same theory about other animals, like living animals, too.
Yeah, it was that that was used to confuse me. The child. This generation was popular. Yes. As a as a concept. So gooseneck clams were spawning geese in people's minds at the time. So then there's the signature of God, which was Barondess favorite.
And it is mine too, because I want to call it the best theory if you have ever read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and that's that God carved out the images of animals and plants into the rocks when he was making the earth.
And Barrenger believed the fossils were, quote, stones of a peculiar sort hidden by the author of Nature for his own pleasure, i.e., they were made by a higher power, often just out of a sense of delight, rather than occurring via these other principles that were in discussion at the time.
And so to set that up, that kind of sets up our story, which is, as we said, there are two versions. So we're going to start with the first version, which is kind of the legendary version. And according to this version, again, he Barrenger was a professor at the time.
And on May 31st of 1725, two or sometimes three, depending on the source, students brought him fossil samples and there were three samples.
One had a three dimensional image of the sun and two had worms or wormlike markings on them.
But they were raised up. They weren't embedded inside the rock. They were on top of it like extruded.
So he was immediately excited and puzzled by these stones. And between the first delivery at the end of May and November of 17, 25 more sample fossils followed. Yes, the students kept bringing him samples and these contained all kinds of different images, including heavenly objects like comets with tails and moons.
And then even things like Hebraic letters. There were plants, there were insects, there were small animals.
Things that we would probably recognize pretty quickly couldn't happen because a lot of them involved soft tissue that would normally be broken down in a fossil situation.
But Barrenger was just super excited by all of these discoveries. Right.
And we as we've talked about before, he was pretty arrogant and had a high opinion of his own knowledge. So this is sort of a pride goeth before the fall kind of situation.
Yes. So he allegedly received somewhere around 2000 of these stones, which he thought were legitimate things.
So he after studying them over the course of several months as they were coming in, he said about writing what he believed would be a masterpiece in lithography studies, which lithography is what fossils were called at the time, not the modern meaning.
And his 1726 book, The Iceberg Lithography, was this masterpiece which he thought was going to be kind of his own scientific opus. And the book features illustrations of the Stones, and it discusses their possible origins, including the theories that we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast.
While he was working on the book, rumors started to circulate that the stones that he had were fake cantrip created by contemporary hostas with the goal of seriously embarrassing him because he was pompous and pretentious.
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And in his book, because these rumors did start to circulate before it was complete, he actually includes an entire chapter about the hoax rumors.
And I'm going to read a passage from it. It's a little bit lengthy, but stick with us. He says, quote, Then when I had all but completed my work, I caught the rumors circulating throughout the city, especially among prominent and learned men, that every one of these stones, which on the advice of wise men I proposed to expound in a published treatise, were, quote, recently sculpted by hand, made to look as though at different periods they had been resurrected from a very old burial and sold to me as one indifferent to fraud and caught up in the blind greed of curiosity.
Further, that I once deceived in my wretched turn was deluding the world and trying to sell new hoaxes as genuine antiques to the silent laughter of prudent souls. I was shocked beyond words to learn that the authors of this atrocious calumny were two men, perhaps best described as a pair of antagonists whose names I have reason to protect at present, men with whom I was closely associated in numerous functions, former colleagues in the academic society. He went on in this whole chapter about the hoax rumors to say Our idea, morphic stones are not the handwrote products of recent artistry, as some persons have shamelessly pretended and attempted to peddle to the public by widespread rumor and gossip.
So the two men he keeps referring to but not naming are a geographer, Jay Ignatz Roderic, who is a professor of geography, algebra and analysis at the University of Pittsburgh, and a historian George von Eckardt, who is privy councilor and librarian to the court and the university. But the hoax rumors, of course, were indeed true.
So he became so embarrassed, according to the legend, when he found a stone that had his name carved on it, just as the book was rolling off the presses and into the hands of the public.
And he was allegedly so chagrined at this and having having been pranked by students that he tried to buy up every copy of the book in existence and bankrupted himself and died soon after the ordeal in misery and destitution. So that's the sort of legendary version of the story.
Yes, that's the extremely cautionary tale of a fossil hoax. And the Real Story does have some seeds of truth in that version.
But there are some wide swings into the realm of falsehood as well.
The dates for the Stones being presented to Berringer in the publication of his book are indeed correct. But the machinations of the hoax in the manner in which it was revealed and what happened post discovery are quite different. And the real story was actually revealed in court documents and transcripts that were found in the Pittsburgh State Archives.
Dr Heinrich Kershner is recognized as the person who discovered these items in 1935, although Melvern E Yourn and Daniel J.
Wolfe, who produced the annotated and translated work of Barrenger book, are the people that are cited with doing so more often.
John and Wolfe themselves cite Kirshner's work, and the story that's told in the transcripts is really one of Academic N.V. It's kind of just a drama that's playing out among colleagues that are just kind of have vendettas against one another and have a jealousy at the heart of their relationship.
Barrenger did take students with him to dig for fossils, and there were three in particular that were involved in this particular episode.
One was 17 year old Christian Zanger and two brothers, Nicholas, who is 18, and Vallentine, who was 14.
Haine, it turns out that the prank was not something that they thought up themselves. It was a plan on the parts of Jay, Ignatz, Roderic and George von Eckardt to use Barrenger his own obstinance against him.
Roderic and Eckardt had apparently hired Zanga to Polish stones for them that Roderic had carved and sort of aged them a little bit and then Zanga would plant them and dig sites. But some were also handed off to a stonecutters assistant to sell to Barrenger as though he had accidentally found them at sites or as though he had come into possession of them, kind of to support the idea that it was natural by having these things come from multiple sources instead of one stream of supply which might look suspicious.
And part of the reason that he was convinced that these fossil samples were the work of God was the inclusion on some of the stones of language that put them outside the natural imprint theory.
Right. While animals and plants happen in nature, letters don't.
So that's part of why Berringer, who was already a little predisposed to think that these were divine creations that just supported that theory as far as he was concerned, rather than dismissing the validity of the fossils as some people might have approached them. Right. So because the samples substantiated his theories of fossils, of where fossils came from is cognitive bias kind of led him down the path of words?
I mean, they're real instead of words mean they're fake.
Yes. So he fell right into the trap set by his fellow academics. And as Barrenger sample set grew and he started working on his book in earnest, Roderic and that card apparently began circulating the hoax rumor because they were afraid that if Barrenger published the work without the hoax being revealed, they could somehow be connected to the findings and would be ruined along with their colleague, because they were starting to think that if he went ahead and published it, the entire university would kind of be embarrassed and they would be embarrassed.
And whether or not they were implicated as hucksters, it could be just a really bad scene. So they didn't want him to publish the book?
No, it was partially covering their own behinds. Oh, yeah.
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There's some dispute as to how he was finally convinced that this was a hoax. It is possible that he found a rock with his name on it. But no such rock has ever been recovered. And some accounts suggest that Roderick and Eckhart had finally thought that things had gone too far and that they outright told Berringer that the Stones were fakes. But he wouldn't believe their confession because he was so convinced at that point.
There's also a theory that the church bishop was involved in convincing him of the truth. This is a part of the story that hasn't ever really been clear, and it's not referenced in the court proceedings that we have to document it.
And after the fraud was exposed, though, however, he was convinced Barrenger took action.
And on April 13th of 1726, there was a hearing at the Vestberg Cathedral chapter accusing Roderic in a car of trying to dupe Berringer. So unlike the legend story, where he just is ashamed and tries to hide the whole thing, he actually is pretty open about trying to pursue his hoaxers and bring them to justice.
Municipal trials followed all of this on April the 15th and June 11th of 1726.
The young diggers that were involved were questioned about their involvement. And if you read the Yanin Wolf translation and annotation of Bringers book, the hearings are included in the appendices and all of the specific questions that they ask.
The kids are in there, which we won't go through because it really is kind of a long, arduous. Have you ever carved a thing?
Do you know how to car?
I mean, they're really specific questions and they go on for quite a while, but the trial papers begin and end rather abruptly. We've talked about other trials on the podcast, and there's often like we get the opening arguments in the discussion in the lead in this kind of just starts with questions to the kids and ends after the June 11th trial, which was also questions it doesn't really get to what happened like in deliberation and discussion. It just kind of includes the questions in the answers.
Roderick tried to shift the blame to the boys Barrenger had hired to help him with his digs. And the Haynes really appeared to be innocent in the whole thing. There was apparently a bribe that was offered to Zanger, also to blame the Heying, the Heene brothers. But Zanger refused to take it.
Yes. So it pretty quickly became apparent that Roderic and Eckardt were in fact guilty and they were disgraced when that became obvious. So the very thing they had hoped to avoid by pointing out the hoax and starting the hoax rumors came to fruition in their trial.
So Zanga was implicated. But it doesn't appear that any real punishment came to him because he did know that they were faking these stones. But he did ask the commission for Assistance in collecting eight days worth of wages that Roderic owed him for polishing stones, which I just thought was sort of funny.
But in the midst of all this, he's like, yeah, they were faking it. And he still owes me money for this fraud. I loved it. So what was the motivation for all of this? It's the antagonists wanted to ruin Barrenger because, quote, he was so arrogant and despised them all.
Yeah, it's just as simple as that.
I have seen some kind of less dependable sources that suggested that there may or may not have been a love affair involved between one of the other academics and someone that was connected to Berenger. But I never found any verification of that. It really does in most articles and discussions of it kind of come down to you. They just thought he was an arrogant jerk. Right. And they just wanted to put him in his place.
Let's show that jerk face with our fake fossils. Yeah.
And while tales of Berringer Shaiman demise completely color the apocryphal story, as we said, it's kind of a cautionary tale of like, you know, don't fall for things that you just want to believe because you'll end up poor and embarrassed and die an early death.
Yes. Love your shame. He actually emerged from the hoax ordeal pretty well in his time.
And he went on to write two more books that were not about fossils. So he really came out pretty well in the whole deal. So Eckhart, on the other hand, died four years after the trial, and he had actually been working on a history of the Duchy of Pittsburgh for many years. But after this all happened, he was denied access to the library archives and he never got to finish that work.
Roderick left Pittsburgh and shame Barrenger died in 1740, which was fourteen years after the hoax trial.
And even though the remainder of his life seems to have gone pretty well, he has not been treated terribly well by history.
He's become kind of a symbol of gullibility and the foolishness of cognitive bias.
In 1767, which was 27 years after his death and 41 years after the original publication and trial. Berenger, Vicksburg Lithography was republished and 40 434 of Berringer Stones, which came to be known as Lurgan Stena, which literally means limestones or lying stones actually survive. There were 494 depicted in the book, and many of the collection that remains are at the University Museum at Oxford. Barrenger claimed that he had received more than 2000, but it's possible that that's a bit of an inflated number.
So you can go visit some of these stones. Some of them are apparently in the hands of private collectors as well, because they are still significant and they're in antiquity and continue to be a cautionary tale.
Even though he did not die in shame.
Immediately after, though, he went after the people that tried to make a fool of him, which I kind of love about this story.
Don't be a jerk or fall prey to your own. Hubris is the moral of this story. Yeah. So that is the story of Johann Berenger lying stones, which I sort of just love.
It's one of the stories that we wish there were even more records. There are no like portraits of him, for example, but I still just love that it's studied and examined.
And as we've said, it's become almost like a fairy tale told to archaeology students on how not to be duped. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of the archive, if you heard an email address or a Facebook you or something similar over the course of the show, that could be obsolete. Now, our current email address is History podcast at I, heart radio dot com, our old HowStuffWorks. The email address no longer works and you can find us all over social media at MTT in history.
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