The acceptance of eoliths as man-made is surprising, given that Victorian science had first dismissed the idea with respect to hand axes. I argue that scientific innovation involves an imaginative impulse that leads easily to over-optimistic interpretation, and that the eoliths were "invented" because they satisfied a requirement of a particular way of thinking. Once arguments in their favor had been accepted, the default "mindset" became one of disproving claims for human fabrication. The debate was conducted at a time when the rules of Pleistocene geology and archaeological interpretation were being established, and it determined the limit of what was scientifically credible. [Keywords: Eolith, authenticity, cultural cognition, history of archaeology]
It is possible to prove anything about types of stone implements, by selecting stones of an appropriate type...self deception is a perfectly innocent misfortune.
-R.A.S. MacAlister (1921:176)
In memorium, Peter J. Ucko, 1938-2007
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When Johan Beringer first published his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726), he included plates showing objects that today we see as genuine fossil mollusks and others that are not, but which appear as carved frogs (Figure 1). Fossilization was poorly understood at the time, and what was spurious was less easy to detect than it is today. What makes things more confusing is that in the early modern period, "fossils" referred to all manner of things "out of the earth": minerals, metals, earths, and "figured stones." These latter included what we would nowadays understand as fossils, but not only fossils (Cooper 2007:88, 93). 300 years after Beringer, we "see" the iconoliths in a different way, and know that this was a deception that led people to "accept" fake fossils on the analogy of "true" fossils (cf. Gould 2000, Tylor 2004). By comparison, consider a work of art by the contemporary British artist David Nicholls (Figure 2), in which he invites us to separate out the real from the false in a cabinet of curiosities. The history of science is replete with examples of the difficulty of distinguishing authentic objects from imaginative reconstructions, whether deliberate forgeries or attempts to describe a reality known to be false.
My focus in this paper is on those objects that have come to be described as "eoliths," particularly in the context of contemporary anthropological discussions of authenticity. I suggest that such a discussion may have a bearing on our understanding of similar episodes in the history of science relating to the discovery and interpretation of material objects, and in a general way to the role of authenticating processes in archaeological discourse, particularly those relating to human origins. Eolith is a term for crude, but purportedly humanly worked stones that generated a great deal of interest between 1860 and 1930. They became a problem in the context of the debate surrounding the existence of pre-humans in Europe before the beginning of the geological epoch we now call the Pleistocene, so-called "Tertiary Man" (Daniel 1950:97-99). Although eoliths are now mostly interpreted to be of non-human origin, one of the more extraordinary features of the archaeological collections of many local museums in the southeast of England is the presence of boxes containing large numbers of these objects. Some are reverently curated if no longer displayed; others have suffered ignominious ends. There has been a recent revival of interest in the controversy surrounding eoliths (de Bont 2003; Grayson 1986; O'Connor 2007; Sommer 2004, 2011; Spencer 1988) as part of mainstream history of science, and to a lesser extent in terms of "alternative" histories of archaeology (Cremo and Thompson 1998, Feder 2002). Here, I review the problem particularly as it relates to debates surrounding authenticity from the perspective of the anthropological study of scientific practice (Shapin 1979:42), with its distinctive emphasis on process, meaning, and context. …