In 1725, Dr. Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer had it all—the dean’s chair at Germany’s Wurzburg University, a sheaf of important medical papers to his name, and the grateful support of powerful patients, including the local Prince-Bishop (who ruled both secular and religious populations).
By 1726, that magnificent name had been dragged through the mud, all because of a bunch of rocks.
Beringer was a physician by trade, but his true love was natural history. He especially enjoyed collecting and poring over oryctics, or “things dug from the earth,” and he had hired some neighborhood boys to bring him interesting chunks of rock from the nearby Mount Eibelstadt. Most of them were nothing to write home about, worthy of serving as props for brief lectures on at the University or of slotting into his well-stocked cabinet of natural curiosities. But on May 31, 1725, the boys brought in a truly interesting haul: three stones, one shaped like a gleaming sun, the other two imprinted with worms.
That wasn’t all. Over the next few weeks, the his hired hands carted in more and more weirdly-shaped reliefs—stony birds, lizards, spiders, slugs, and even comets. Beringer was excited. At the time, scholars of oryctics were engaged in a passionate debate about where exactly “figured stones,” or fossils, came from. Here was Beringer’s opportunity to not only join the fray, but to blow everyone’s minds with his unprecedented discovery.
The problem? It wasn’t the kind of discovery Beringer thought it was. It was, rather, a hoax of exceptional magnitude—one that involved the perpetrators, Wurzburg University mathematician J. Ignatz Roderick and librarian Georg von Eckhart, carving upwards of two thousand stones into flora, fauna, and celestial signs. Christian Zanger, a 17-year-old the duo hired to polish and distribute the stones, later said they went to all this trouble ”because Beringer was so arrogant and despised them all.”
So Beringer was insufferable enough to inspire these two colleagues to prank him big time. But was he pompous enough to believe the stones were real?
He was. As the stones kept coming in and his collection got larger and stranger (Hebrew letters! Frogs mating! A “fish-faced bird”!), Beringer didn’t flinch. Rather than investigating outside tips that he might be getting hosed, he tried to incorporate it all into a cohesive theory. He roped in one of his graduate students, Georg Ludwig Hueber, and together they began work on the Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis, or “Wurzurg Lithography,” which, the title page crowed, was “ILLUSTRATED WITH OVER TWO-HUNDRED EXTRAORDINARY ENGRAVINGS.” (Though the treatise was supposedly Hueber’s dissertation, that same title page put much more emphasis on the involvement of his advisor, “THE MOST NOBLE, ILLUSTRIOUS, AND LEARNED” Dr. Beringer.)
The work uses the evidence of the stones to carefully debunk most then-predominant fossil theories—for example, they couldn’t have been carved by pagans because pagans didn’t know Hebrew, and they couldn’t have been petrified during the Biblical flood, because the flood happened in spring, and “how, then, did the diluvial tempest miraculously deposit… a mature acorn appended to a small branch?”
Most of all, they couldn’t be a massive, man-made trick. As the book neared publication, a guilt-ridden Roderick and Eckhart attempted to confess, fearing their prank had gone too far, and that either Beringer’s reputation would be ruined or that natural history would never recover. In response, the authors dedicated Chapter XII to asserting that ”our idiomorphic stones are not the handwrought products are fraudulent recent artistry, as some persons have shamelessly pretended.” If the “pair of antagonists” now trying to delegitimize his findings knew the stones were fake all along, why had they waited until now, the eve of publication, to show their hands? Like the others, the chapter begins with an engraving of one of the stones; this one shows a small, gutted bird, its ribs splayed to the sides.
In the end, Beringer and Hueber conclude that the stones must have been carved by God, during a sort of heavenly drafting process where he tried to figure out what Creation should look like. Eons later, he left these “capricious fabrications” on the hill—perhaps, Beringer theorized, as a fun game for Beringer, or as a present for the Bishop of Wurzberg. ”I do call the mountain… a new Parnassus of our fatherland,” Hueber wrote in the dedication to this Bishop. “For thereon… the eloquent stones proclaim the felicity of [Germany].”
In more dramatic versions of this story, Beringer is surprised, the day after publication, to be delivered a last stone, carved exactly in the style of the others. This one bears a single word—BERINGER—and in a flash of insight, the doctor realizes he’s been duped. He runs around town attempting to buy up all the copies of his just-pressed book, but it’s too late, and he lives out his years in disgrace, a man ruined by fake ruins.
Real life wasn’t so stark. People slightly less blinkered than Beringer realized that the fraud theory was the most plausible, and Beringer went to court to clear his name, bringing the attempted confessors with him. After all was said and done, Beringer came away only slightly bruised, living long enough to write two more books. Eckhart and Roderick suffered much more—after their teenaged employee refused to take the fall for them (they had failed to pay him for his polishing services), they were exiled from the University, and thus their livelihoods. Roderick left the city entirely, and Eckhart was dead within five years.
God may not have carved Beringer’s stones, but the lessons he took too long to learn are chiseled into the psyches of scientists everywhere. ”The quantity of censure and ridicule to which its author was exposed” made those who came after him “more cautious in indulging in unsupported hypotheses,” wrote James Parkinson, another professional doctor/natural history hobbyist, who became famous for describing Parkinson’s disease. If you ever need a reminder, a few hundred “lügensteine,” or “lying stones,” are still kicking around museums and private collections, lending their curiosity cabinets a weighty dose of skepticism.