1970s London Archaeologist Culture

Archaeologists on a tea break in London, 1974. Source: Hobley’s Heroes.

Hobley’s Heroes is an online archive that shows something of life as an archaeologist digging in London in the 1970s and 1980s, including dig site photos and an fanzine-like comic/workplace newsletter. Brian Hobley, Chief Urban Archaeologist, was their boss. It’s a fascinating repository that includes some far out field fashion and a glossary of the digger’s argot (“If in doubt, rip it out” was in use at least as early as 1974).

Hobley’s Heroes, Issue 1. 1975. Source: Hobley’s Heroes

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Coffeehouse Archaeology in England

Artifacts from the Claphams Coffeehouse assemblage. Source: Cressford et al. 2017: Figure 8.

Before England fell in love with tea, there was coffee. Beginning in the 1600s, coffeehouses spread through England. Historians think of them as the more polite, refined counterpoint to taverns and alehouses, a place where the customers – mostly male – could drink and discuss and debate the news of the day.

It’s a bit surprising that almost no coffeehouses have been explored archaeologically, but Craig Cessford and colleagues now describe artifacts, tightly dated to between 1770 and 1780, from a small brick cellar associated with Clapham’s Coffeehouse in Cambridge, England.
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Caveat Lector: New-ish data on the Piltdown Man Hoax

So what’s the new thing I learned from the recent DNA-and-other-scientific-techniques analysis of the infamous Piltdown hoax fossils? Some people use the word “caveat” as a verb.

There it is, in the middle of the nicely open access article:

However, we caveat this by emphasizing that Bornean orang-utans have suffered from habitat loss and range fragmentation, two processes that can result in rapid shifts in the geographical distribution of genetic lineages (p. 7)

The internet helpfully tells me that the use of caveat as a verb in modern usage is considered awkward, and is most closely associated with Alexander Haig of “I am in control here” fame. Haig was a decade or two ahead of his time in his tendency to turn nouns into verbs.

There are a few caveats (“noun: a warning or proviso of specific stipulations, conditions, or limitations” -the OED) that may be worth keeping in mind regarding de Groote and colleagues’ article.

  • The DNA analysis of the orang-utan and human bones that comprise the “Piltdown Man” fossils was mostly unproductive, the only positive result being evidence that two of the orang-utan teeth likely came from the same individual ape, who likely lived in western Borneo (that’s the conclusion that they caveated – now I’m doing it, too).
  • Traditional morphometry (i.e, measuring the actual fossils) was more successful in confirming that the fossil teeth are actually from an orang-utan, and not from a different species of ape. I did not realize this was considered uncertain (there has been no doubt that the teeth are not hominin since the mid 1950s), and in fact a 1982 article in Nature they reference is titled “Piltdown Jaw Confirmed as Orang” but since the ape teeth were deliberately modified by the hoaxer, it’s good to get additional confirmation of the species identification
  • This is kind of nifty:

    In combination, the geometric morphometric analyses link the Piltdown I mandible and Piltdown II molar; traditional morphometrics link the mandible with the canine, and ancient DNA analysis links the canine and Piltdown II molar. Therefore, given the nature of the context, we consider it highly likely that the Piltdown hoaxer(s) used a single orang-utan specimen originating from southwest Sarawak to construct parts of both Piltdown I and II (p. 7)

  • Radiocarbon dating attempts were a complete failure (contamination and other issues – probably not a big surprise).
  • Microscopy and μCT scans provide some new details on modifications that were made to the bones.
  • All this new research doesn’t really change anything about what was already known about the Piltdown hoax. The authors accuse Charles Dawson of being the sole perpetrator, but, as they acknowledge, Dawson has been “the prime suspect since the fraud was exposed in 1953.” (p. 12) Despite headlines like Human Ancestor Hoax At Piltdown Finally Solved and Study reveals culprit behind Piltdown Man, their new analysis doesn’t provide any evidence that incriminates Dawson any more or less.



DeGroote, I., et al.

2016  New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created ‘Piltdownman’. R.Soc. Opensci.3:160328. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160328