Piltdown Man: British archaeology's greatest hoax
When the find was revealed to be a 'cheap fraud', several eminent men – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – were put in the frame. Now scientists aim to put an end to the mystery once and for all
The Observer, Sunday 5 February 2012
In a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London's Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic's precise chemical make-up.
The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world's greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth.
The news of the Piltdown find, first released in late 1912, caused a sensation. The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artefact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat – if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival.
It was too good to be true. As decades passed, scientists in other countries uncovered more and more fossils of early apemen that differed markedly from Piltdown Man. "These had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown," says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is leading the new study. "But many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science."
In the end, the Piltdown Man began to look so out of kilter with other fossil discoveries that a team led by geologist Kenneth Oakley, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and anthropologist Joseph Weiner took a closer look and in 1953 announced that Piltdown's big braincase belonged to a modern human being while the jawbone came from an orangutan or chimpanzee. Each piece had been stained to look as if they were from the same skull while the teeth had been flattened with a metal file and the "cricket bat" carved with a knife. As Bournemouth University archaeologist Miles Russell puts it: "The earliest Englishman was nothing more than a cheap fraud." It had taken almost 40 years to find that out, however.
Bones of contention: the 'skull' fragments with a full-size replica. Photograph: Antonio Olmos
Since then, more than 30 individuals have been accused of being Piltdown hoaxers. Charles Dawson, the archaeological enthusiast who found the first pieces, was almost certainly involved. But many scientists still suspect he had the backing of experts who were the true guilty parties. Candidates include Arthur Conan Doyle, who played golf at Piltdown and had a grievance against scientists because of his spiritual beliefs; the Jesuit philosopher, palaeontologist and alleged practical joker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in Sussex at the time and who actually helped Dawson dig at Piltdown; Arthur Smith Woodward, the Natural History Museum scientist, who accepted Dawson's finds as genuine and argued they belonged to a new species of early human; the anatomist Arthur Keith, who also passionately endorsed the discovery; and Martin Hinton, another museum scientist, whose initials were found, in the mid-70s, 10 years after his death, on an old canvas travelling trunk, hidden in a museum loft, that contained mammal teeth and bones stained and carved in the manner of the Piltdown fossils. When it comes to suspects, the Piltdown Hoax makes Midsomer Murders look restrained.
"The trouble is that after 100 years we still do not know the identities or motives of those responsible," says Justin Dix, the Southampton University geochemist who will carry out much of the chemical analysis. "It is time we did." Hence the new project, which aims to uncover the identities of the hoaxers. And key to that will be the uncovering of the exact chemical make-up of the forged mat- erial – and the precise sequence of events that led to their discovery.
On the morning of 15 February 1912, Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum, sat down at his desk to open his mail, which included a letter from his friend Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur antiquarian. Dawson began with gossip about their mutual acquaintance Arthur Conan Doyle, who was completing his latest novel, the prehistoric adventure The Lost World. Then he dropped his bombshell. He had stumbled on a very old layer of gravel, near a village called Piltdown, where he had found some iron-stained flints and "a portion of a human skull". This was the first mention, made to the outside world, of the fossil that was to be known as Piltdown Man.
During subsequent correspondence, Dawson – known as the Wizard of Sussex because of his skill at finding archaeological treasures round the county – revealed that during a dinner at Barkham Manor in Piltdown he had gone for a stroll and noted flints strewn around the grounds, the leftovers from gravel excavations used for local road building. Dawson asked the labourers to bring him any interesting finds and was rewarded when one presented him with "a portion of human cranium… of immense thickness". The lawyer then found another piece of skull – though no specific dates were provided by him. Nor was the labourer ever identified.
In May, Smith Woodward took charge of the first pieces of Piltdown skull and concluded they belonged to a previously unknown early human named Eoanthropus dawsoni – Dawson's dawn-man. Excavations continued at Barkham Manor and a series of flint tools were uncovered along with more bone pieces and animal remains, including the teeth of hippopotami that used to wallow around English waterholes in ancient times. On 21 November 1912 the Manchester Guardian broke the story. Under the headline "The Earliest Man: Remarkable Discovery in Sussex", the paper revealed details of the skull, whose estimated age, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 years, made it "by far the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England".
A few weeks later, at the Geological Society, Smith Woodward outlined further details to general scientific approval. Only one scientist, anatomist David Waterson, voiced doubts. The cranium looked human while the jawbone resembled that of a chimpanzee, he noted. No one else appears to have agreed – for a very straightforward reason. Palaeontology in Britain was going through a lean time and its practitioners desperately wanted to believe that fossil gold had been struck. Digs in France, at Cro-Magnon, and in Germany, at Neanderthal and Heidelberg, had produced startling finds of early humans. Britain had nothing. One French palaeontologist had even dismissed his English counterparts as mere chasseurs de cailloux – pebble hunters.
The jibe hurt. Hence English researchers' willingness to accept the Piltdown finds. They may have been crudely made but the finds gave scientists what they wanted: evidence that England had been an important crucible in the forging of our species. "No one did any scientific tests," says Russell. "If they had, they would have noticed the chemical staining and filed-down teeth very quickly. This was clearly not a genuine artefact. The scientific establishment accepted it because they wanted it so much."
There was more to this uncritical acceptance than mere jingoism, however. Piltdown also seemed to support the theory, then firmly upheld by English palaeontologists, that growing brainpower had driven human evolution. Our intelligence, above all, separated us from the animal kingdom. Thus our brains would have expanded early in our evolution and evidence for that should be seen in fossil skulls – like the one at Piltdown. It had a huge braincase but primitive teeth, suggesting – wrongly – that our cranial enlargement had happened early in our evolution. In fact, brains came late to humanity (see box below).
Excavations at Piltdown continued. In August 1913, Father Teilhard de Chardin, who went on to be one of the 20th century's most influential Jesuit scholars and philosophers and who was then living in Sussex, joined in and found a canine tooth supposed to have come from the apeman – a discovery that has linked him ever since with Piltdown conspiracy theories. Finally came the discovery of the cricket bat. The Piltdown hoax was complete.
By 1915, Dawson's dawn-man had become established scientific fact. The painting, A Discussion of the Piltdown Skull, by John Cooke, presents its discoverers in an almost holy atmosphere. Keith is seated while Smith Woodward stands behind him in front of a table with pieces of skull on it. Also standing, with a picture of Charles Darwin behind him, is the benign figure of Charles Dawson. "The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson," says Russell. "The former had the theory, the latter had provided it, it is being suggested."
Certainly, the Wizard of Sussex had come far. He was now feted as one of the world's greatest archaeologists and would have been knighted, as were Keith and Smith Woodward, had he not died of septicaemia in 1916. Kindly and rotund, the figure of Dawson looks the acme of Edwardian rectitude, a successful solicitor and expert antiquarian. But he had secrets that only came to light decades after his death. In fact most of his "wizard" finds turned out to be frauds, recent investigations have revealed. He was, quite simply, a serial forger, says Russell. "I have counted 38 hoaxes or dodgy finds made by him before Piltdown," Russell states. He forged axes, statuettes, ancient hammers, Roman tiles and a host of other artefacts – trickery that earned fellowships of both the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquaries. "Piltdown was not a one-off. It was the culmination of a life's work," says Russell in his book Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson.
And that looks pretty conclusive. The man had more form than Professor Moriarty. There would be no need to look any further, were it not for some nagging doubts – including one of Chris Stringer's. It's the cricket bat that gets him. "It was huge but apparently everyone missed it until the end of the dig. Until then everything had been carefully engineered: the skull fragments and artefacts, all made to look alike. And then the cricket bat turns up. It is bizarre and only makes sense if you conclude someone wanted to alert the authorities that fraud was going on, but did not want to do so publicly, perhaps to avoid bringing disgrace to the museum. So they planted something so ridiculous that everyone would surely realise it was a fake, a laugh. Unfortunately, everyone took it seriously."
And the second hoaxer? Who better than Martin Hinton, the Natural History Museum scientist who possessed that bag, discovered after his death, containing incriminating dyes and chemicals, and who worked with Keith and Smith Woodward? Thus there may have been two hoaxers working independently: Dawson and Hinton.
Or consider Teilhard de Chardin, a religious philosopher and expert on human evolution, who was involved in making finds at Piltdown. His guilt has been forcefully advocated by the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and more recently by the South African palaeontologist Francis Thackeray. "I think Teilhard did it as a joke," says Thackeray. "Just after Piltdown's first announcement, he wrote to a colleague to say he thought palaeontology deserved to be the subject of jokes. He was also known to be a joker." Teilhard probably expected the prank to be spotted straightaway, but was horrified to discover it had taken root in scientific thought. So he stayed silent.
And then there is Conan Doyle. A former doctor and fossil collector, he had the expertise to create forged skull fragments. One of his characters, in The Lost World, published in 1912, even states: "If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph." He also had the opportunity. He played golf at Piltdown, after all. As to motive, his spiritual beliefs had brought him into conflict with science and he may have wanted to humiliate its practitioners. "But if that is the case," says Stringer, "why didn't he announce his triumph after so convincingly fooling the world of science? That doesn't make sense."
As for Smith Woodward and Keith, both were keen advocates of the theory that humans had big brains early in their evolution and could have procured these bits of skull – using Dawson to deposit their handiwork – because they were convinced they represented the truth. But if Dawson was just a stooge in this business, why did the uncovering of finds at Piltdown stop immediately after his death? People went on looking for years, but never found a thing after 1916.
It is a perplexing mix of suspects, which the new research hopes to unravel by studying and measuring the skull carefully and by analysing every chemical present in the stains and chemicals used in the different pieces. Do the dyes match those in Hinton's trunk? Does the canine found by Teilhard contain chemicals not found in the other pieces? Or is its staining unique? "We are going to fingerprint all the material found at Piltdown and unravel how many patterns of interference have occurred – and how many individuals were involved," says Stringer. "We might get our hoaxer or hoaxers that way."
As for Piltdown, there are few signs left around the village today to show this was once thought to be one of the most important sites in human evolutionary history. The Manor is locked and gated and the plinth that marked where the first find was uncovered is out of sight of passers-by. Even the local pub, which until last year revelled in the name of the Piltdown Man, has now changed its name to the Lamb. As Joseph Weiner, who helped reveal the hoax, once noted: "Piltdown Man has lost his place in polite society."
Three special features mark out Homo sapiens from the rest of the primate world. We walk upright; we make complex tools and we have big brains. And of these features, it was thought – for a long time – that big brains came first. They drove a need to free hands and arms in order to make tools – which our developing intellects subsequently invented. Hence the easy reception given to the finds at Piltdown. They accorded with the notion that human intellect has a deep-rooted evolutionary past. But we now know that this sequence is not the case. Upright stance came first, tools came later and big brains, measured in terms of modern human standards, arrived last. The Piltdown forgery was a bad guess.
Study into Jersey Neanderthal mammoth hunters
26 January 2012 Last updated at 10:26
Archaeologists are investigating the truth behind the story that Ice Age Neanderthals in Jersey would push mammoths off cliffs in St Brelade for food.
About 30 years ago, evidence suggested early residents of what is today the island of Jersey chased the giant mammals off the cliffs at La Cotte above Ouaisne.
Dr Geoff Smith, an analyst for Jersey Archive, said: "It was in the 70s and 80s that the hypothesis was put forward that Neanderthals were grouping together to drive herds of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos off the cliffs and butchering them."
He is now using new technology to look at whether that theory is correct or not.
Dr Smith said: "No-one has ever really questioned it so we are going back, re-assessing and re-analysing and see if we can come up with new information to come up with more support or even refute it slightly.
"We don't know, we are never going to completely understand, but we just want to see if we can get more data and understand Neanderthals even better."
In a cave at La Cotte in Ouaisne Bay archaeologists have, over the years, found tools and the fossilised bones and teeth of woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave bear and reindeer.
These remains date from a time when the view from Ouaisne was not sea, but a huge treeless land stretching all the way to what is now St Malo.
Groups of nomadic people would move northwards in the spring, following the animals to their summer pastures in the place where England is today.
On the cliffs at Ouaisne, it was thought these nomadic people would hunt for food by sneaking up on grazing animals and making them stampede over the edge.
A mammoth would have been about the size of an African elephant, weighing up to 6,000kg.
Head of community learning for Jersey Heritage, Doug Ford, said: "If you are faced with a 6ft hairy mammoth and you are armed with a sharp stick, you have to have a bit of an edge."
It is thought Neanderthals would drive mammoths off the edge of cliffs in St Brelade, Jersey
Dr Smith is working with his team in Jersey recording elements of the fossilised remains of mammoths and rhinos to discover whether the current stampede theory is correct.
He told BBC News: "Once I have recorded those, I take very clear high definition digital photographs to get close up shots of interesting pathology to see what health they were in.
"I record the ages of the animals to see if they resemble natural deaths or whether it is indicative of human hunting or other carnivore."
Dr Smith said there was no way of knowing whether, without excessive hunting, mammoths could have survived to the present day.
"Was the climate change so severe it forced them into a refuge somewhere from which they became such a small population they couldn't survive? We still don't know, new theories are coming out every day," he said.
Prehistoric stone row discovered in Wales
3 February 2012
Sandy Gerrard, a former English Heritage designation officer for 20 years, reported the discovery of an ancient stone row on the site of a proposed wind farm in Wales. It seems that the row at the Mynydd y Betws wind farm development went unnoticed by archaeologists researching the site prior to work starting.
There are two roads scheduled to cross the stone row but work has now stopped in the area around the row pending clarification by archaeologists working for Cambrian Renewable Energy Limited, the company building the wind farm.
"There are currently three scheduled monuments on Bancbryn and we decided to head straight there. Within moments we had identified several sites including a number of stoney mounds, a few hollows, a line of pits with associated banks and leading into and returning out from the fenced off area - a line of stones. In amongst these archaeological features but significantly not actually touching any of them were the scars of archaeological trenches indicating that excavation had indeed happened but appeared to have missed all the visible archaeology," said Mr Gerrard. "Our visit confirmed there were indeed archaeological remains and we are confident that future work will demonstrate that they are of some importance," he added.
Mr Gerrard said that the stone row is probably the most important of the features found and as it is associated with over 30 cairns, some of which are kerbed, it seems to form the focus of an incredibly important ceremonial landscape where the form of space between the numerous earthwork and built elements are as integral and important as the earthworks themselves. Mr Gerrard has spent much of his archaeological working life on Dartmoor and he believes the form of the newly discovered stone row is so identical to the same rows in England as to suggest a definite and tangible link between these people. The small size of the stones reflects what was available and even on Dartmoor some of the rows are formed by similar sized stones.
GPS measurements allowed experts to trace the stone row for 700m. The row is aligned south west to north east which is the most common alignment for South West England rows. Many of the stones peep through the peat and many more are probably lurking below.
"The discovery of this exciting monument has been tempered by the realisation that it is being cut into three parts by the new roads and the feeling that if it had been known about before it could have perhaps been saved in its entirety," said Gerrard. "The site is delicate and the huge diggers which have been trundling across it have already caused irreparable damage. It is to be hoped that the row will survive its amputation and outlast its temporary ignominy. To this end I have asked Cadw to schedule the monument as a matter of priority to ensure that any straying diggers do not complete the destruction," he concluded.
Edited from Heritage Action News (26 and 29 January 2012)
Stone road unearthed in Thanh Hoa
A stone road dating back to the 14th century has been discovered at the remains of the Ho citadel complex in the central province of Thanh Hoa.
The 2km road linking the citadel's southern gate with the Nam Giao worship platform has been described as the "most beautiful old stone road ever built in the country".
Archaeologists excavated a total area of 1,500sq.m in front of the southern gate revealing blue stones as big as 1sq.m buried up to 1m below the surface.
The road is thought to have been used by the king and the royal family when travelling between the citadel and nearby Nam Giao worship platform to pray to heaven for peace and prosperity at the peak of Don Son Mountain.
Archaeologists have found the road mainly intact and discovered various antiques including metal spears, stone cannon balls and ceramic objects from the early period of the late Ledynasty (1428-1527) as well as architectural ornamentation from periods.
Researcher and director of the Ho Citadel Preservation Management Centre Do Quang Trong said the good state of the road was thanks to the time and energy the original builders put into construction.
"So far, this is the most beautiful old stone road found in the country," he said.
The road has been listed in the heritage file of the citadel to submit to UNESCO by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a professional association that works to conserve and protect sites of cultural heritage around the world. The association hoped the road would be listed among the oldest stone paths of royal citadels in Southeast Asia.
Archaeologists also hoped to unearth remnants of a bridge at the southern gate that is mentioned in various historical sources.
Excavation will continue at both sides of the southern gate, three other gates and within the palace complex.
The citadel, mentioned in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (The Complete Annals of the Great Viet), was built during the reign of King Tran Nhuan Tong (1397) by Royal Mandarin Ho Quy Ly, who acceded to the throne in 1400.
It was recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site last June.
Curved stone gates face north, east, south and west and were found to be intact. The southern entrance, which consists of three curved gates, acted as the main entry point, and its design was a departure from the traditional Chinese-influenced design found in similar citadels. — VNS
Volcanic origin for Little Ice Age
30 January 2012 Last updated at 16:49
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News
The Little Ice Age was caused by the cooling effect of massive volcanic eruptions, and sustained by changes in Arctic ice cover, scientists conclude.
An international research team studied ancient plants from Iceland and Canada, and sediments carried by glaciers.
They say a series of eruptions just before 1300 lowered Arctic temperatures enough for ice sheets to expand.
Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, they say this would have kept the Earth cool for centuries.
The exact definition of the Little Ice Age is disputed. While many studies suggest temperatures fell globally in the 1500s, others suggest the Arctic and sub-Arctic began cooling several centuries previously.
The global dip in temperatures was less than 1C, but parts of Europe cooled more, particularly in winter, with the River Thames in London iced thickly enough to be traversable on foot.
What caused it has been uncertain. The new study, led by Gifford Miller at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, links back to a series of four explosive volcanic eruptions between about 1250 and 1300 in the tropics, which would have blasted huge clouds of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere.
These tiny aerosol particles are known to cool the globe by reflecting solar energy back into space.
"This is the first time that anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age," said Dr Miller.
"We have also provided an understandable climate feedback system that explains how this cold period could be sustained for a long period of time."
The scientists studied several sites in north-eastern Canada and in Iceland where small icecaps have expanded and contracted over the centuries.
When the ice spreads, plants underneath are killed and "entombed" in the ice. Carbon-dating can determine how long ago this happened.
So the plants provide a record of the icecaps' sizes at various times - and therefore, indirectly, of the local temperature.
An additional site at Hvitarvatn in Iceland yielded records of how much sediment was carried by a glacier in different decades, indicating changes in its thickness.
Putting these records together showed that cooling began fairly abruptly at some point between 1250 and 1300. Temperatures fell another notch between 1430 and 1455.
The first of these periods saw four large volcanic eruptions beginning in 1256, probably from the tropics sources, although the exact locations have not been determined.
The later period incorporated the major Kuwae eruption in Vanuatu.
Aerosols from volcanic eruptions usually cool the climate for just a few years.
When the researchers plugged in the sequence of eruptions into a computer model of climate, they found that the short but intense burst of cooling was enough to initiate growth of summer ice sheets around the Arctic Ocean, as well as glaciers.
The extra ice in turn reflected more solar radiation back into space, and weakened the Atlantic ocean circulation commonly known as the Gulf Stream.
"It's easy to calculate how much colder you could get with volcanoes; but that has no permanence, the skies soon clear," Dr Miller told BBC News.
"And it was climate modelling that showed how sea ice exports into the North Atlantic set up this self-sustaining feedback process, and that's how a perturbation of decades can result in a climate shift of centuries."
Analysis of the later phase of the Little Ice Age also suggests that changes in the Sun's output, particularly in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, would also have contributed cooling.
Could Plas Tirion's cow shed be oldest house in Wales?
By Nick Bourne
BBC Wales News
3 February 2012 Last updated at 15:06
A project to find the ages of historic buildings by dating their timbers may have found one of Wales' oldest homes.
Experts say new evidence shows north west Wales was an innovative place architecturally with cutting edge houses built in the 16th Century.
They are awaiting results on an "unremarkable" building in Conwy, a cow shed, which may pre-date Wales' oldest homes from 1402.
Specialists and volunteers are using tree ring dating or dendrochronology.
They say that architectural features give a rough guide to the date of a house, but these are sometimes altered when design tastes change over the years.
A project was established by enthusiasts in 2008 to discover more about the history and development of 16th and 17th Century Tudor and Jacobean houses in north west Wales.
Since then they have been working with experts including specialists at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW).
More than 200 properties have been examined and about 60 have been successfully dated using dendrochronology with the full results due to be published once the project ends in April.
The volunteers have been conducting separate research of historical records into all those houses.
And architectural historians have also produced surveys on the same properties with the oldest, so far, found to be buildings on Castle Street, Beaumaris, which date to 1482.
BBC Radio Wales correspondent Huw Jenkins is a volunteer on the tree dating project.
He took part as he has been researching the history of his home, Plas y Dduallt, in the Vale of Ffestiniog.
Tree-dating of the property and other houses dates them to within 30 years of each other between the 1530s-50s.
He said the properties were substantial in their day.
How the money was raised to pay for their construction is not known for sure.
But Mr Jenkins says it may have come from the proceeds of cattle droving rather than quarrying.
Mr Jenkins said tree ring dating explains an important part of the history of a property, but not all its story.
Other research, such as parish and census records, can tell a wider story.
The 1841 census showed 52 people living in five buildings on the site which occupied 600 acres compared with just five people in 2011.
However, results are eagerly awaited on one property in particular.
The style and use of a cruck frame - a tree trunk used to support a roof - leads some specialists to think a building used as a cow shed and store near historic house Plas Tirion, in Llanrwst, Conwy, could pre-date Wales' oldest domestic houses such as Hafod-y-Garreg in the Wye Valley, which dates to 1402.
Dendrochronology tests were carried out last week on the cow shed and the results will not be back for some weeks.
"We're looking forward to getting the results, hopefully at the end of March," said owner Sophie Scharer.
"We're very excited to be involved with the dating old houses project."
Experts became interested because the shed - thought to have once been a house due to blackened timbers suggesting a fire was regularly burned below - uses two separate trunks as a cruck frame.
That was the style used prior to the 1400s and which has been found in England, but not in Wales where only post-1400 properties have been found using a single trunk split in two.
Project members are keen to know if this could make the building the oldest dated domestic property in Wales - although some buildings such as churches are older.
Senior historic buildings investigator Richard Suggett from the RCAHMW said: "It's an unusual form of construction, which in England can date from the 14th Century.
"There aren't any earlier dated buildings in Wales than 1402 - so it's a 50-50 possibility."
He explained that tree ring dating is "the only way to establish an accurate chronology for building".
"I think it is fair to say that it is transforming our understanding of building history and hence social history," he said.
"Architectural historians thought north west Wales was a back water.
"We now know it was an innovative place and some of the most up-to-date architecturally exciting houses were being built here in the first half of the 16th Century."
Mrs Scharer's husband Ned, who works in building conservation, said even after the test results were back, they may never know for sure if the building was the oldest.
He said the fact that the building was "unremarkable", having been used as a cow shed and store, was probably the reason it survived.
The couple bought Plas Tirion, a local landmark, three years ago and have started restoring the property which includes highly decorative plasterwork from the 17th Century.
Treasure from sunken galleon must be returned to Spain, judge says
US court says $500m of gold and silver coins recovered by US treasure-hunters from Atlantic in 2007 belongs to Spain
Giles Tremlett in Barcelona
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 February 2012 17.03 GMT
It is one of the greatest underwater treasure troves of all time, a glittering haul of gold and silver recovered from a mysterious sunken Spanish galleon and secretly flown across the Atlantic to the US.
But now an epic battle over ownership of 594,000 gold and silver coins scattered on the ocean floor has ended with victory for the Spanish government, with the American treasure-hunter Odyssey Marine Exploration ordered to send the valuable haul back home.
A jubilant Spanish government announced on Wednesday that the $500m-worth (£308m) of gold and silver coins found at a site that Odyssey called "Black Swan" would be back on Spanish soil within 10 days.
"This sentence gives Spaniards back what was already theirs," said the culture minister, José Ignacio Wert. "There is a space of 10 days in which the coins must be returned."
The court decision puts an end to nearly five years of intrigue on the high seas since Odyssey scooped the precious haul from the Atlantic seabed in May 2007. To the fury of Spanish authorities it secretly landed the trove in Gibraltar and flew it out in chartered aircraft to its base in Florida.
A American circuit court judge has upheld a decision by Atlanta judge Mark Pizzo, who had declared the trove came from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by a British squadron off Cape St Mary, Portugal, in October 1804.
The judge rejected Odyssey's argument that there was no clear wreck site, with the coins scattered so widely it was impossible to say exactly which vessel they came from.
The treasure-hunting company, he said, had set out to find the Mercedes and had clearly done so.
Pizzo argued that the coins, all dated prior to 1804, matched the Mercedes' cargo of coins minted in Lima, Peru – part of a haul being brought back to finance Spain's European wars. He also said cannon found there matched those on the Mercedes.
Rightful ownership of the coins, which fill 600 barrels, now belongs to Spain and to descendants of the 250 Spanish sailors who were lost when the vessel blew up.
However, the whereabouts of a further 400,000 coins from the Mercedes remains a mystery.
The treasure was found by one of Odyssey's remote-controlled, deep sea robots as it scoured the seabed 1,100 metres down.
Odyssey's decision to use Gibraltar led to a tense stand-off in disputed waters off the rock. Shortly after the coins had been spirited off to Florida, a Spanish warship forced the company's 250ft Odyssey Explorer salvage vessel into the nearby Spanish port of Algeciras, while it was searched. Its captain, Sterling Vorus, was arrested, but later freed.
The Wikileaks release of state department cables revealed that US diplomats had offered to side with Spain against Odyssey. The US ambassador in Madrid sought to tie the treasure to attempts by an American citizen, Claude Cassirer, to recover a painting by Camille Pissarro that hangs in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemizsa museum.
"It was in both governments' interest to avail themselves of whatever margin for manoeuvre they had, consistent with their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favoured the bilateral relationship," Aguirre told the then culture minister, César Antonio Molina, in July 2008.
In contrast to its battles with Spain, Odyssey has done deals with the British government to recover and share sunken treasure.
An agreement to excavate a wreck thought to be the 80-gun warship HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 carrying up to 10 tonnes of gold, led to complaints that a unique heritage site was being despoiled. The Sussex and 12 ships in its fleet sank in storms in 1694 while on a secret mission to bribe the Duke of Savoy to act as an ally in a war against Louis XIV of France.
"The whole arbitration process is still not one that gives us confidence in what ministers have told us, which is that the archaeological issues are paramount." said George Lambrick, director of the Council for British Archaeology, adding that serious concerns remained.
Neil Cunningham-Dobson, a British archaeologist who led initial examinations, denied the company would spoil the site: "Odyssey are one of the best and most reputable firms in the business and use the latest technologies."
Wert said some of the coins would be distributed to Spanish museums. "We want people to see them," he said.
He admitted the only stumbling block to the immediate return of the coins might be a further appeal by Odyssey, if it was accepted by a higher court and a suspension order placed on the sentence.
A spokeswoman for Odyssey, Laura Barton, indicated an appeal might be forthcoming. "Currently, there is no final order from the court to give the Black Swan coins to Spain," she told the Guardian without giving further details.
"It is certainly reasonable to assume that should the cargo recovered by Odyssey be transferred to Spain, it will never be returned," the exploration company had argued before the appeals court.
In Small Things Not Forgotten
Tiny artifacts recovered at the excavations of 17th century Jamestown in Virginia give clues about life in the earliest years of the colony.
December 2011, Cover Stories, Daily News
Mon, Feb 06, 2012
Archaeologists excavating at the site of America's first permanent English colony on Jamestown Island in Virginia will tell you that even the smallest, microscopic artifacts recovered from the soil can tell you much about what life was like during the first years of the fledgling colony. So demonstrates Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologist Danny Schmidt through a newly released video. He shows how recently excavated soil from the colony's first well (constructed some time before 1611) has been water-screened through an 8th-inch mesh screen onto a window mesh to reveal tiny objects that, together, have told a story about the lives and events of the first colonists.
The well, called "John Smith's Well" after the famous colonist, was excavated by a team of archaeologists and students in 2009. The processing and analysis of the finds from the well, however, continue to this day. Located near the center of the original historical James Fort, it was part of a large, rectangular cellar. Excavations revealed that it was barrel-lined within the floor and was used for a time and then abandoned and backfilled with rubbish at some point before 1611. Because of the early date, archaeologists suggest that the well may likely be James Fort’s first well, which was dug in late 1608 or early 1609 according to a document where John Smith relates, "we digged a faire Well of fresh water in the Fort of excellent, sweet water which till then was wanting." The well is located adjacent to a storehouse that is identified as the first structure the colonists built inside the fort.
Notable finds from the well include a slate writing tablet with visible drawings and words, a child’s silver teething whistle with coral, iron tools and parts of weapons, a glass medicinal phial, objects made by the local Native Americans, a whale vertebra, dolphin bones with butcher marks, and shark bones and teeth. Most telling were numerous butchered dog and horse remains, along with rat and turtle bones. These animal remains suggest evidence from the "Starving Time" winter of 1609–1610, a period of forced starvation initiated by the Native American Powhatan Confederacy to remove the settlers from Virginia. Wrote colony president George Percy about that winter, "Then, having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats and mice."
The artifacts from the well number in the tens of thousands, but when considering the tiniest finds recovered from the water-screening, objects can number in the "millions", as stated by Schmidt in the video. Small Venetian trade beads, shell beads, fish scales, and pieces of crab claw, for example, so small that they could easily be missed without the wet-sieving, say something about trade, relationships, and diet within the Jamestown colony.
"While the smaller objects are not as eye-catching as some of the museum pieces you might see," says Schmidt, "they are still an important part of the story of what life was like here at James Fort during the early years of the colony."
According to Jamestown archaeologists, the analysis of the artifacts from the well will likely continue for many years to come, affording an ongoing opportunity for not only other archaeologists and specialists, but also for the visiting public. Says Schmidt, "the public can join us in picking through this material and sharing in the moment of discovery".
More about Jamestown and the archaeology at the site can be found at the Jamestown Rediscovery website.