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Professor Beringer's Lying Stones

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In the early 18th century, some mysterious carved limestone rocks were discovered on Mount Eibelstadt about 10 km from Würzburg in central Germany. A distinguished professor at the University of Würzburg was intrigued by the objects and declared they must have been carved by God.

Etchings of some of the stones that excited Dr. Beringer.

Etchings of some of the stones that excited Dr. Beringer.

Professor Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer

It seems Professor Adam Beringer was a man of exceptional talent; by the time he was 27 he was already a professor of medicine at the University of Würzburg. That was in 1694 and was the start of a rapid rise through the university's hierarchy.

He developed an interest in natural history and began collecting oryctics, objects dug out of the ground such as fossils. He paid boys to find these things and bring them to him.

Most of what the lads found were not very interesting but he kept them in his cabinet of curiosities and occasionally pulled an item or two out to illustrate a lecture. That all changed on May 31, 1725 when his hired hands delivered three fascinating rocks they'd found on Mount Eibelstadt.

Two stones had what looked like worms carved on them, the third an image of the sun. What could these curious rocks mean? The puzzle grew more and more weird over the coming weeks as Beringer's teenage scavengers carried in more strange looking stones. There were carvings of spiders, birds, lizards, and comets.

All this happened in the midst of a vigorous debate among scholars about fossils and their origin. Now, Dr. Beringer had in his hands what he believed to be proof of the divine creation of fossils.

“These wondrous exhibits reveal the most bountiful treasure of stones in all of Germany, buried for so many centuries, and at last, thanks to my persevering efforts and investigation under a benign Providence, discovered and unearthed at no small cost and labour.”

— Professor Johann Beringer

Würzburg Lithography

Beringer was so excited by his discoveries that he decided to go into print with them. Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis (Würzburg Lithography) was written in collaboration with one of Beringer's graduate students, Georg Hueber. It was presented as Hueber's doctoral thesis but was almost entirely Beringer's work.

The title page acknowledges that the dissertation was written with the help of his adviser who modestly describes himself as “The most noble, illustrious, and learned” Dr. Beringer.

The learned and illustrious scholar describes how some of stones have Hebrew letters carved on them. There was even the Hebrew word for God. What other proof did a person need of divine involvement?

So, the conclusion of Beringer and Hueber was that God was making trial models of fauna and flora before he created the real, living things. Having perfected the shapes on the animals and plants he was going to make he dumped his stone prototypes for later scholars to find.

Two pages from the Würzburg Lithography.

Two pages from the Würzburg Lithography.

Pranksters Confess

As the Würzburg Lithography was nearing publication a couple of Beringer's university colleagues got wind of its contents and decided to reveal what they knew about the mysterious stones.

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Librarian Georg von Eckhart and mathematician J. Ignatz Roderick had developed a dislike for Prof. Beringer; they found him boastful and pompous. They had decided to burst the professor's arrogant balloon with a prank.

In an elaborate hoax, Roderick (clearly a man with time on his hands) had carved about 2,000 stones and planted them where it was known Beringer's helpers would find them. The pair enlisted one of those helpers in their scheme.

But, when they found that their target had been taken in more deeply than they could have imagined they decided their tomfoolery had gone too far and tried to stop it before Beringer made a hugely embarrassing mistake.

Archaeology magazine reveals that “Alarmed, the perpetrators told all—but he (Beringer) rejected their confession, claiming they were trying to stop the publication of his proof of the stones' godly origins.”

Shortly after the book came off the press, the great professor was given a stone with the word “Beringer” carved into it. Imagine the feeling in his stomach when he realized he had been spectacularly duped.

Mostly aquatic depictions.

Mostly aquatic depictions.

Aftermath of the Lying Stones Hoax

Two versions exist of what happened after the fraud was exposed. One has Beringer rushing around trying unsuccessfully to buy every copy of his book causing him to die in poverty and disgrace.

Another, more plausible story, comes from historians Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf. In 1963, they published an English translation of Beringer's text and argued that it was the pranksters who suffered most from the affair.

When Professor Beringer realized he had been made a fool of he sued the engineers of his downfall. The legal proceedings found that the rocks, which the court called “the lying stones,” were indeed fake and that Eckhart and Roderick were responsible for the chicanery.

Beringer remained a professor at the University of Würzburg while the two tricksters were disgraced. However, the name of Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer is forever linked to a man whose prideful belief in his own academic genius led to his downfall.

Strange inscriptions on the lying stones.

Strange inscriptions on the lying stones.

Bonus Factoids

  • The Cardiff Giant was a large human figure unearthed in New York State that caused a sensation in 1869. It was declared to be a fossil of an ancient Indian that was spoken of in the Book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days . . .” You can read more about this here.
  • In 1917, an ancient tooth was discovered in Nebraska. An eminent paleontologist said it was a remnant of a previously undiscovered tribe of hominids. The complete story is here.
  • Crystal human skulls started turning up in Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were thought to possess magical powers conferred on them by Mayan and Aztec cultures. Follow the story here.

Sources

  • “Cheating Wonders: Beringer’s Lying Stones.” Cara Giaimo, Atlas Obscura, August 17, 2015.
  • “Beringer’s Lying Stones: How did a Professor find Fossils of God?” Pipin Dimri, Historic Mysteries, undated.
  • “Carved by God: The Story of Beringer's Lying Stones.” Brent Swancer, mysteriousuniverse.org, August 12, 2021.
  • “The Beringer Hoax.” Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America, 2009.
  • “Exceptionally Preserved Fossils from Wurzburg, Germany, Suggest New Theory of Fossil Formation.” Sarah, The Geological Society of London, April 1, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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