Author: Chris Nedin (firstname.lastname@example.org) Title: On _Archaeopteryx_, Astronomer
Author: Chris Nedin (email@example.com)
Title: On _Archaeopteryx_, Astronomers, and Forgery
. . . On _Archaeopteryx_, Astronomers and Forgery
_Archaeopteryx lithographica_ is regarded as one of the most important
fossils ever discovered. This isn't because of any uniquely
transisional nature, since many transitional forms exist (e.g. the
synapsid to mammal transition), but due to the fact that
_Archaeopteryx_ is such a good example of evolution. The skeleton is
essentially reptilian, with close affinities to theropod dinosaurs,
and possesses teeth, a long bony tail, abdominal ribs and three digits
on each hand - characters absent in birds. However, the specimens also
show certain bird characters such as a furcula (wishbone) and a
retroverted pubis (characters also shared with some dinosaurs) and a
opposable hallux (big toe) for perching. Along with these other avian
characters, the most spectacular feature is the distinct impression of
feathers around the forelimbs and tail, feathers almost exactly like
those of modern birds.
The authenticity of _Archaeopteryx_, or more specifically
theauthenticity of the feather impressions, was questioned in 1985 by
a group which included, Prof. F. Hoyle (astronomer), Dr. N.
Wickramasinghe (mathematician), Dr. L. Spetner (physicist), Dr. R.
Watkins (medical doctor) and J. Watkins (photographer) in a series of
articles published in the British Journal of Photography (Hoyle et al.
1985; Watkins et al. 1985a, 1985b, 1985c). Interestingly, one of the
authors (Dr. Spetner) was claiming that _Archaeopteryx_ was a fake as
early as 1980 (Trop 1983). Apparently on the sole fact that the
London specimen was sold by Dr.C Haberlein and the Berlin specimen was
sold by Dr Haberlein's *son*! (The Harberleins were well known
collectors, possessing one of the finest collections of Solnhofen
Needless to say, these claims were vigourously opposed by the British
Museum of Natural History (BMNH). Several people within the Museum
collaborated to refute the claims of forgery. These were A. Charig
(chief curator of fossil amphibians, reptiles and birds, BMNH), A.
Milner (principle scientific officer - fossil amphibians, reptiles and
birds, BMNH), C. Walker (senior scientific officer, fossil amphibians,
reptiles and birds, BMNH), F. Greenaway (principle photographer, BMNH)
and P. Whybrow (photographer, BMNH).
WATKINS ET AL. OPENING STATEMENTS.
In the first part of their claim that the feather impressions were a
forgery, Watkins et al. stated that, "Although several other reptilian
fossils have subsequently been reclassified as _Archaeopteryx_, the
first two refered to above [the London and Berlin specimens - cn]
remain unique in that they are clearly of the same prototype and
possess unmistakable feather imprints." (Watkins et al. 1985a, p.
264-265). This was reiterated by Hoyle et al. (1985), who suggested
that the feather impressions on the Teyler, Eichstatt and Maxberg
specimens were too poor to be accepted as feathers.
This is incorrect. It is true that none of the other specimens have
feather impressions as good as those found on the London and Berlin
specimens and that the recognition of feathers on the Teyler specimen
would not be possible without reference to the London and Berlin
specimens. However, the Eichstatt specimen has clear feather
impressions and the Maxberg specimen has impressions in which the
structure of the feather is discernable as being typical of that in
modern birds (de Beer 1954; von Heller 1959; Charig et al. 1986). Not
only that, the feathers of the Maxberg specimen clearly refute any
possibility of forgery because they continue *under* the bones of the
skeleton and are overlain by dendrites (von Heller 1959; Charig et al.
1986). (Dendrites are crystal aggregates occurring along flat
surfaces, with a tree-like branching pattern. They often occur in
cracks or along bedding planes.)
Another statement is, "The significance of _Archaeopteryx_ lies in the
fact that it represents the only unquestionable case of a fossil
showing a transition between two vertebrate classes, aves (birds) and
reptilia (reptiles)." (Watkins et al. 1985a, p. 256).
Again, this is incorrect. There are numerous examples in the fossil
record, with probably the best documented example being the trasition
between the synapsid reptiles and the mammals (e.g. Kemps 1982; Benton
1990; Colbert & Marales 1991).
A third statement concerns the photography itself. In 1984, Watkins
et al. took comprehensive photographs of the London specimen, held at
the BMNH, on colour transparency film with a hand-held 35 mm SLR
camera and low angle tangential flash lighting. The resulting slides
were then enlarged by projecting the slide onto a distant screen and
by making black and white prints (Watkins et al 1985a). When
describing the technique used by Watkins et al., they comment, "Such
[photographic] studies have been made earlier but these have
inevitably been limited by the techniques available in the past."
(Watkins et al. 1985a, p. 265)
This is also incorrect. As the response from the Museum indicates, "As
professional photographers we have studied the fossil under various
combinations of light sources, emulsions, ultraviolet reflectance and
fluorescence, filtered UV fluorescence, intensive scanning by infrared
TV and high photomicrography. These studies have taken place over a
number of years." (Parmeter & Greenaway 1985, p. 458). Indeed, far
from being in any way superior to other methods, "the cursory
examination and poor photographs of the authors of the articles
[Watkins et al. - cn] bear no comparison with the close scrutiny and
exacting standards of the Museum." (Parmeter & Greenaway 1985, p.
458). The photographs themselves have too much contrast and too soft
a focus (Charig et al. 1986), making detailed study difficult and
these "newer photographs compare extremely unfavourably with
photographs of the same specimen taken by museum photographers who,
several decades ago, were already using low-angle oblique lighting
with far greater success" (Charig et al. 1986. p. 623). (See de Beer
1954 for an example of this.) Indeed, Watkins et al. "readily concede
the rudimentary nature of their photography, but were looking in the
time available for evidence to prove or disprove certain specific
theories. Ideally they might first have inspected the Museum's
photographic records, but, as ever, those holding controversial views
preferred to look for themselves before disclosing them" (Crawly 1985,
In yet another statement, the authors state, "It is now generally
believed that the skeleton is largely reptilian except for the furcula
(wishbone) which is bird-like" (Watkins et al. 1985a, p. 256).
This is misleading. The opposable hallux is also an avian feature as
is the position of the pelvis (although this also occurs in some
dinosaurs) (see for instance, Ostrom 1976).
THE MAIN CLAIMS AND EVIDENCE, FOR AND AGAINST
Using a series of photographs, Watkins et al. claimed that the feather
impressions were fakes. The method used to create the forgery was via
the pressing of chicken feathers into a thin layer of artificial
cement surrounding a small reptile skeleton. (It should be noted here
that although one of the authors - Dr. Spetner - claimed that chicken
feathers were used, the impressions do not correspond to chicken
feathers, but are more like rail feathers). The cement would have been
made by mixing limestone from the same deposit with some binder and
which was spread thinly over the surface of the slabs. As
corroboratory evidence of this several observations were cited:
i) The difference between the surface textures of the limestone in the
feathered and unfeathered areas was cited as evidence of the presence
of a cement layer around the feathers (Watkins et al. 1985a).
The difference in surface texture is certainly real. However Charig et
al. (1986) explain it as being due to the impression of the animals
body on parts of the surface. An analogy used was likening it to the
differences in texture seen between a human footprint in mud and the
surrounding mud. "In other words, it was the feather impressions that
caused the differences in surface texture; not that a difference in
surface texture (due to some other cause) pemitted the preservation of
the impressions in some places and prevented it in others" (Charig et
al. 1986, p. 623). If a layer of cement is present, then some sort of
discontinuity should be visible between the true limestone and the
cement, on the surface and/or in vertical section (a vertical section
is a section cut through the slab, at 90 degrees to the fossil). No
such discontinuity has been found, even in vertical section. There
does appear to be a division in vertical section whereby an upper
500-850 micrometre (1 micrometre = 1/1000 millimetre) layer is
separated from the lower layer by a dark band. However, the upper
layer shows the same granular structure as the lower layer and the
structure is continuous through gaps in the dark band (Charig et al.
1986). Also the complete lack of air bubbles and the presence of
calcite crystals indicate that the whole section is original. Besides,
the upper layer is far too thin to receive any feather impressions
(Charig et al. 1986). A further point worth raising here is that any
organic bonding material available to a forger in the 19th century for
mixing cement would have shown some evidence of cracking or shrinking
away. No such cracking or shrinkage has been observed.
ii) The presence of detailed feather impressions on the main slab,
coupled with their absence on the general surface of the counterslab
was taken as evidence that the cement layer on the counterslab was
removed either because it was too difficult to match the feather
impressions or that material fell off when the counterslab was
hammered (Hoyle et al. 1985; Watkins et al. 1985b). Supporting
evidence was claimed to be .
iii) The occurrence on the slabs of smooth, flattened, slightly
elevated areas resembling "blobs of chewing gum" (Watkins et al.
1985a, p. 265), only a few millimetres in length and not always
matched by corresponding depressions on the opposite slab (Watkins et
al. 1985b), some bearing faint but detailed feather impressions. This
was claimed to be fragments of the lost cement layer which was not
fully removed (Watkins et al. 1985b). Hoyle et al. (1985, p. 694)
stated that these "blobs" are "without any place to go should the main
slab and counterslab be closed like the leaves of a book." In other
words they claimed that the slab would not fit tightly with the
counterslab since the "blobs" did not correspond to any depression in
These "blobs of chewing gum" appear to be natural irregularities in
the surface of the slab. Indeed, "careful casting of the surfaces of
both main slab and counterslab shows that there is always a good fit
between the two, except where it has been destroyed by subsequent
preparation. In no case is there an elevation on one slab 'without any
place to go should the main slab and counterslab be closed like the
leaves of a book.'" (Charig et al. 1986, p. 623).
iv) The regularity of the side veins of the feather impressions was
claimed to indicate a forgery, since the limestone could not have
split so evenly as to break along the length of the feathers (Watkins
et al. 1985b).
The Solnhofen Limestone is well known for its smooth, level bedding
planes along which it readily splits, providing an ideal, flat, smooth
surface for use in printing and for exposing fossils. The extremely
fine texture, essential for printing, is ideal in preserving the most
delecate anatomical structres, such as the medusae of jellyfish, the
hairlike setae of crustaceans and the wing menbranes of pterosaurs
(Charig et al 1986; Barthel et al. 1990).
v) The apparent "double strike phenomenon" was claimed to indicate
that the same feather was printed twice in a slightly displaced
position and was thus indicative of a forgery (Watkins et al. 1985a).
The reproduction of a double impression would be harder to forge that
a simple single impression, thus making it unlikely that a forger
would attempt such a double impression. Besides, it is also observed
on the Berlin specimen and has recently been much more convincingly
explained as representing two overlapping feathers (Rietschel 1985).
vi) The tail is in fact one large tail feather and the caudal
vertebrae are in fact the central axis of the feather (Watkins 1985a).
Not only is the tail "obviously segmented" (Charig et al. 1986, p.
625), individual feathers can be seen attached to the vertebrae via
ligaments (de Beer 1954; Charig et al. 1986).
Apart from the above comments, Charig et al. (1986, p. 623-624) cite
further evidence against a possible forgery. "Our conclusive evidence
of the authenticity of the _Archaeopteryx_ holotype, however, is
provided by what appear to be a number of fine lines on the main slab
that run in various directions across the feather impressions in the
region of the forelimb; some of them extend through the bony elements
of the skeleton and on to the tail. They are difficult to spot with
the naked eye, but their presence is shown with great clarity by
critically lit ultraviolet photography. Associated in a few places
with the more easily visible linear staining of an orange-brown
colour, they are presumably hairline cracks and are generally filled
with mineral matter. These cracks are also present on the counterslab
in precisely the same positions." This indicates that there is no
intervening cement layer between the two slabs, as does the presence
of manganese dioxide dendrites which have grown over the feather
impression in some areas. These too match precisely on the two slabs,
even in microscopic detail (Charig et al. 1986).
Watkins et al. offered two reasons for the forgery, both implicating
the then Superintendent of the Natural History departments of the
British Museum, Richard Owen (Runyard 1985). Firstly they suggested
that Owen forged the impressions to provide evidence in support of
Darwin's ideas on evolution. Given Owen's hostility towards Darwin and
his ideas (not towards evolution, merely towards Darwin's ideas on
evolution) this is extremely unlikely. The other reason was that Owen
laid a trap for Darwin, to tempt Darwin into making a fool of himself
by declaring the fossil proof of evolution and then revealing the
"evidence" to be a forgery. This however is ludicrous. Owen himself
made a detailed description of the specimen (Owen 1863) thus laying
himself and his reputation open to ridicule should the specimen prove
to be a forgery. Besides, although Darwin knew of the specimen, he
made no reference to it in his works. He knew that one specimen could
not prove his ideas on evolution.
The evidence claimed by Watkins et al. to indicate that the feather
impressions are a forgery appear to be easily explainable by natural
processes. Detailed study of the London specimen both across the
surface and in vertical section have failed to provide any evidence to
support the contention that a layer of cement is present. The method
claimed to have been used to produce the forgery cannot explain the
presence of fine lines crisscrossing the fossil, or the matching
dendrites on the slab and counterslab, which occur on top of the
feather imprints. The feather imprints on the Maxberg specimen,
despite claims to the contrary, are clearly identifiable as such. In
this case, forgery of the type envisaged by Watkins et al. can be
discounted because of the fact that the impressions run underneath the
bony elements of the skeleton.
Something that should be obvious to anyone is that "any conclusions
about the authenticity of the fossil should be based on the best
possible evidence. Photographs are just one ingredient of such
evidence" (Parmeter & Greenaway 1985, p. 458). Watkins et al.,
however, cite as evidence of their claims a set of "rudimentary,"
"poor" photographs having "too much contrast and too soft a focus,"
without looking at the much more extensive and better quality Museum
The claims that the feathers of _Archaeopteryx_ are fake has been
shown to be unsupported. Thus the claim that "the significance of
_Archaeopteryx_ lies in the fact that it represents the only
unquestionable case of a fossil showing a transition between two
vertebrate classes, aves (birds) and reptilia (reptiles)" has been
upheld. In other words, Watkins et al. claim that _Archaeopteryx_
represents a transitionary form, but cannot be accepted as such
because it is a forgery. Since the claim of forgery has not been
substantiated, _Archaeopteryx_ must therefore be an example of a
transitionary form by Watkins, et al.'s own admission (notwithstanding
the fact thay they mischaracterise _Archaeopteryx_ as the "only"
I doubt however, that this particular quote will show up in any
Thanks go to Rich Trott for suggesting improvements. This is a
University of Ediacara Palaeontological Contribution.
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