'Queer things' afoot on banks of Clyde

IT COULD have been the storyline from a Hollywood blockbuster: an ancient dwelling discovered on the shoreline; mysterious patterned artefacts and accusations of a fraud that rocked Scottish archaeology. But this was no Indiana Jones adventure - it all happened on the banks of the Clyde more than 100 years ago, and now a new book aims to shed light on this strange tale.

The remains of the Dumbuck Crannog - a round, wooden structure on the north bank of the Clyde, near Dumbarton Rock - were discovered by William Donnelly on 31 July 1898. He was a well-known artist, working for the Illustrated London News as its Scotland correspondent, as well as an amateur ornithologist and archaeologist.

The renowned academic Dr Robert Munro was called in to see what was left of the platform and agreed it was likely to have been a crannog.

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Under the auspices of the Helensburgh Naturalist and Antiquarian Society, an excavation of the site began in late August, directed by Donnelly, along with John Bruce and Adam Miller.

The dig revealed the platform was about 15 metres in diameter, with a central pit on the inside and rings of wood and stone surrounding the outside. An 11m-long canoe, hued from a single oak tree, and a boat dock were also found on the site.

But it was another find that drew public attention and ignited one of the longest-running and most heated controversies in Scottish archaeology. A series of strange objects were unearthed at Dumbuck: stones and shells with carvings of lines, circles and human forms unlike anything found at other crannogs along the Clyde. But the authenticity of the carvings was thrown into doubt by Dr Munro, who revisited the site once the excavation was in full swing.

The controversy spilled over on to the letters pages of the national press, with supporters of Donnelly claiming the artefacts were genuine, while Dr Munro and other experts refuted the claims. The Scotsman reported on a meeting of the Glasgow Archaeological Society. Many critics thought the shale carvings, known as the "queer things on the Clyde", were planted at the site and the reputation of Donnelly was cast into doubt. The debate rumbled on until Donnelly's death of in 1905, hastened, his son Gerald claimed, by attacks on the Dumbuck finds.

More than 100 years later, a new book, Controversy on the Clyde brings the tale up to date. Dr Alex Hale, one of the book's authors, is an archaeological investigator with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. He and co-author Dr Rob Sands a computing specialist now working at University College Dublin, visited Dumbuck Crannog in 1999 and 2000.

Even a century after the original excavation, the team was able to find another one of the "queer things" buried at the site. "The site itself is bona fide," Dr Hale says. "It's recognised as a crannog, but it's clear the shale artefacts are fakes.

"What previous excavations do ... is turn up lots of questions. With the range of techniques we have today, we can attempt to answer those questions."

One answer the team was able to provide was about the date the crannog was built: using radio-carbon dating, they narrowed the range to 200BC-200AD. This may seem large, but it is a big improvement on earlier estimates, which placed the crannog somewhere in the neolithic period, while others claimed it was a mediaeval fish bothy.

The controversy over Dumbuck re-emerged in 1932, when Ludovic Mann, a supporter of Donnelly, claimed the artefacts contained measurements that fitted a "prehistoric scale" he had identified. Writing in The Scotsman, he believed he had proved the artefacts genuine, but Dr Munro and others disagreed.

Dr Hale became interested in the mystery of the "queer things" while studying crannogs in his PhD research. He says: "The thing that came out of Dumbuck was the human story as well as the archaeology. "Obviously, Donnelly is a fascinating character - he was quite a showman and unusual in his dress, wearing a frock coat and a top hat. This isn't the style of dress from the late-Victorian era; this is the style from 40 years earlier."

He hopes the book will raise awareness of Donnelly's work and people may discover paintings in collections that have previously not been attributed to the artist. The search is bearing fruit: following the publication of the book, a member of the public has been in touch to say she has one of Donnelly's paintings. Dr Hale hopes the search may lead to Donnelly's missing sketch books, which may contain archaeological drawings.

The mystery of the Dumbuck Crannog may not be laid to rest just yet - Dr Hale has other plans for the "queer things". He said: "What we intend to do next is get an art historian to look at the markings and give us an impression of whether it's one person doing it, or whether there's more than one person.

"Of course, one person may have carved a few things and, after they were found, someone else thought, 'This is a good wheeze', and so it goes on."

Whether there was one forger or many, Drs Hale and Sands are careful not to point the finger in their book, leaving the identity of the culprit behind one of Scotland's most enduring mysteries lost in the mists of time.

Controversy on the Clyde - Archaeologists, Fakes and Forgers: The Excavation of Dumbuck Crannog, by Alex Hale and Rob Sands, is published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and is available from its website at www.rcahms.gov.uk

Other major cases of famous fakes and historical hoaxes

PILTDOWN MAN

FOSSILS of human-like remains found in a gravel pit at Piltdown, in Sussex, between 1911 and 1915, were thought to belong to the missing-link between humans and apes. It was not until 1953 that modern analytical techniques, carried out by Oxford anatomist Joseph Weiner, showed the artefacts were forgeries. Suspicion fell on Charles Dawson, the amateur fossil collector who made the major discoveries at Piltdown, along with Arthur Smith Woodward from the British Museum. Dawson died of septicaemia in 1916 and so could not be questioned about what has become the most famous hoax in British archaeology.

THE HITLER DIARIES

THE Sunday Times published what its editors thought were extracts from Adolf Hitler's diaries in 1983. But experts soon challenged the authenticity of the documents and Konrad Kujau, a German forger, was imprisoned for four-and-a-half years for his deception. He had received almost five million dollars from Stern magazine and around another half-a-million from the Sunday Times after convincing them the diaries were genuine. Gerd Heidemann, a journalist from the magazine, also served a spell in prison after acting as the go-between, knowing full well, the court decided, that the 62-volume epic was a fake and not the daily journal of the Nazi dictator.

HAHNHFERSAND MAN

SCANDAL rocked German archaeology back in February when Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten left his university post in Frankfurt, after it emerged he had continually falsified the dates of "stone-age" relics. The worst case was "Hahnhfersand Man", where skull fragments found in a peat bog near Hamburg were identified by Protsch as being more than 36,000 years old and a key link between modern humans and Neanderthals. They were in fact only 7,500 years old, according to the radiocarbon dating unit at Oxford University. Protsch was caught trying to sell the university's entire chimpanzee skull collection to a buyer in the USA, triggering an inquiry.