28 December 2012

On Location for The Link

In the course of writing my historical thriller, The Link, my grandiose plans soon birthed  a number of roadblocks that threatened to detour the project. One of these was the locations. As soon as I determined that my story would be centred around the events leading up to the announcement of the Piltdown Man finds in 1912, the locations pretty much decided themselves: the story would be set in London (the home of the natural History Museum) and Lewes (the Sussex home of Charles Dawson who featured prominently in the affair.)

As I dove into the the plot, it became pretty clear that the settings were also going to be core elements in the story. I couldn’t simply say “McKay ran down a street”; I would need to be clear what street. In Lewes the Castle had to loom over all the action and in London the Natural History Museum would be virtually a character in the story. I had to convey a real sense of place and atmosphere. 

I couldn’t justify the cost of a trip from Sydney, so I started collecting contemporary maps and photographs. For a couple of years I was resigned to the reality that, distance and money being what they were, I would have to live with photos, maps and my meagre imagination as the sources for the places in The Link.

Toward the end of 2008 the Baker Street Irregulars, that venerable New-York-based Sherlock Holmes society, announced that it would be launching my Australia and Sherlock Holmes at its annual Sherlockian celebrations the following January. My co-editor on that book, Bill Barnes, and I started talking about how great it would be to actually be there for the launch. Before you could say “The red-headed league is dissolved,” we had agreed to make the trip. And as long as I was going that far, why not continue around the world, stopping at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London’s annual dinner? And then . . . Well, you can see where I’m going with this.

So it was that on Friday, January 16 2009, I climbed the broad steps of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road in South Kensington and stepped inside London’s venerable house of nature. The bogus Piltdown fossils lay in a cabinet somewhere in the building and it was important for me to acquaint myself with them, but just as important was my need to soak up the atmosphere and details of the museum itself.

Humans in any era have a remarkable capacity for building structures of surpassing ugliness, monuments to misguided vision that the following generation just can’t wait to swing a wrecking ball at. The Natural History Museum is not one of these. It is, in fact, a brilliant example of a purpose-built building, a place supremely fitted for its job. Opened in 1881,  it is a temple to the natural world.
The building’s two imposing wings converge on a pair of square spired towers that flank an expansive arched public entranceway. The exterior stone is faced with terracotta and cobalt-blue tiles. Inside the doors you pass immediately into the great hall, a vast chamber 170 feet (52m) long with a high vaulted ceiling. The huge space is largely empty except for a cast of a full-sized 80-foot long (24m) dinosaur skeleton - a diplodocus. Affectionately known as Dippy, it was a gift of the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1905 and has presided over the great hall ever since. The only other bit of ornamentation is a white marble statue of Charles Darwin himself, gazing benevolently over the proceedings from his seat on the far landing.

The great hall in the Natural History Museum.
Darwin's statue resides at the far end on the landing.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this building is its ornamentation. Terracotta animals, birds, fishes and plants are scattered liberally over the interior and exterior surfaces. Ivy snakes up columns, monkeys gaze wickedly down from cornices, fleet-footed little dinosaurs sprint along the walls. Even the ceiling panels bear painted elements of nature, both extant and extinct.

My host was Robert Kruszynski, a curator in anthropology at the museum. He led me to his office in the bowels of the building where he presented me with a stack of cardboard boxes. After a quick tour of the contents, he left me alone with the sacred artifacts. “Take as much time as you need,” he said affably. And I did. I describe the various Piltdown pieces in The Link and I’ll wax poetic about my hands-on experience with them in a future blog.
One of the NHM's many
terracotta monkeys

I returned to the Museum the following day and haunted its halls and galleries, trying to picture what it would have been like in 1912: bowler-hatted men in starched collars rushing by on their Museum business; young mothers with their troops of restless children and long-suffering governesses trying to make the best of a rainy day; eager-eyed students of antiquity hovering over the display cases, notebooks and pencils in hand.

The London Docks in 1882
The Museum would be my main story location in London. For other places, such as the defunct Mark Lane underground station and the London Docks, which had been filled in for development during the 1970s, a visit was impossible. I needed to fall back on my imagination again.

On the Sunday afternoon I followed Stephen McKay’s example and caught the train from Victoria Station – not the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway this time: simply Southern – arriving an hour or so later at Lewes. And like McKay, I trudged up Station Street, turned left at the High Street and checked into the White Hart Hotel.

The White Hart, Lewes High Street (2009)
Based on photographs, Lewes hasn’t changed much since 1912. It is a quiet country town with a population today of about 16,000. Harveys still brews traditional bitter and ales and the White Hart still welcomes guests in accommodations much like what McKay experienced.  

I had already plotted the story by this time, so I knew my locations. I just had to visit them in person.

My first stop, for very good reasons, as you’ll know if you’ve read The Link, was Lewes Castle. Built shortly after the 1066 Norman conquest by one of William of Normandy’s companions, it served the local barons well over the following centuries but fell into disuse and by the end of the 16th century it was already described as a ruin. Today it crouches on the highest point of land in the town and, diminished though it be, it still dominates the area. Only two of the original three towers survive along with the walls connecting them, and those are much broken down. The rest of the walls are almost completely destroyed.

The walled structure encloses the keep, an open circular lawn dominated by a massive lime tree at its centre. I could not wait to climb the winding path up the 50-foot high castle mound and soak up the atmosphere of the keep.

Lewes Castle from the bottom, with the unclimbable path
under construction
But it was not to be. Health and safety regulations and a view to modernisation had mandated that the path be rebuilt, so I was confronted with a “Do Not Enter” sign and a bunch of workmen toiling away at the ruined path. I was informed by the nice folks in neighbouring Barbican House, home of the Sussex Archaeological Society which owns the castle, that for reasons of insurance liability no exceptions could be made, even for an author who has traveled all the way from Australia. Once again I would need to rely on old photographs, in this case a single one.

Lewes Castle keep (early 20th century).
Note the policeman.
I was able, however, to wander up the narrow lane called Castle Gate, past the red-bricked Barbican House and through the Barbican Gate where I could view the castle from the bottom.

Castle Lodge (2009) with Lewes
Castle above.
Up the path a bit, if you peer over the stone wall faced with local flints and topped with rounded bricks, you can spot Castle Lodge, the home in 1912 of the famous Charles Dawson, discoverer of Piltdown Man. In my novel I have described the house in some detail based on historical photos and documents, but I was reluctant to poke my camera – or indeed myself – through the gate out of respect for the owners, for it is still a private home.

In the three pleasant days I spent in Lewes, I managed to check out a number of iconic spots in town and get a sense of the place, including some of its historic public houses.

There was one more disappointment. On a cold, drizzly January afternoon I spent a soggy hour wandering through the quiet churchyard of St John Sub Castro (“under the castle”) Church, peering at ancient gravestones but I failed to find Dawson’s grave. Since I returned home, I managed to locate its photo, taken by more perceptive observers.

St John's churchyard. Charles Dawson is in there somewhere.
St Nicholas Lane, where Parker & McKay encountered some small difficulties
Lewes High Street (2009)
Countryside at the edge of town (2009), where in 1912
a company of vandals launched a furtive night-time raid.
Castle Gate looking toward the Barbican Gate (2009). Castle Lodge just visible to the left.
Barbican House on the right, impenetrable construction barrier on the left.
The lesson of my expedition was clear: there is no substitute for going on location if you’re writing about a place. It gives me new respect for those science fiction writers who make life on Mars or in the 23rd century Earth come alive. 

The Link is published by Loquat Valley Books, 2012. You can pick up a copy here.

17 December 2012

Five Lessons from Piltdown Man

Today is the 100th anniversary of the day that Piltdown Man was announced to the world. It remains a mystery that has not yet been solved a century later.

There were actually two important announcements in the Piltdown affair: one in 1912 trumpeting the great fossil discovery, and one forty-one years later in 1953 when the wheels came off completely.

On December 18 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist, and Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of the Department of Geology at the British Museum, announced the discovery in England of the remains of a new form of primitive human. Nine pieces of a skull and part of a jaw had been unearthed in a gravel pit near Piltdown in Sussex. The skull fragments were decidedly human, though unusually thick; the piece of jaw was in many aspects ape-like but in others quite human. Woodward claimed that this unique combination justified creating a new genus and species and he named it, "in honour of its discoverer, Eoanthropus dawsoni," Dawson’s Dawn Man.

The Piltdown find was particularly exciting to British scientists. It fulfilled the prediction of many Darwinians that primitive man developed an advanced brain first, retaining an ape-like jaw that carried large fighting canines. The first discovery of ancient human remains in Britain, it also provided a major boost to the national ego: the birthplace of Shakespeare and Newton could hardly be without earlier evidence of human cultural advances.

Only the left side of the jaw had been found, with two molar teeth still in place. But was it an ape jaw or a human jaw? The fragment was ape-like in shape and size but the two molars showed significant flat wear, a pattern occurring in humans but never in apes. Key parts of the jaw that would have tagged it as human or simian had been broken off, leaving a great deal of room for interpretation.

Several commentators thought that the pieces came from two individuals: the skull from a human, the jaw from an ape. Others, including Woodward, believed it would be highly unlikely to find the remains of two individuals so close together.

Strong support for Woodward’s position was provided by later finds in the Piltdown area: in 1913 a canine tooth that matched his predictions in size and wear pattern; in 1914, a piece of carved bone; and finally, in 1915, fragments of a second Piltdown Man.

Piltdown Man was not, however, granted a comfortable home in science's world view of our past. For the next thirty years opinion was strongly divided. There were those who defended him as the definitive proto-Englishman. And there were those who maintained that, however unlikely, the skull was human while the jaw came from an ape. As more fossil humans were unearthed around the world and the jigsaw puzzle picture of our pre-history took a more definite shape, the odd collection of bone bits from the Sussex gravels became increasingly hard to fit into our collective understanding. Edwin Ray Lankester, at one time Director of the British Museum (Natural History), brushed the contradictions under the rug: he saw this ape-like, human-like creature as an evolutionary link between apes and men, and hence “the most startling and significant fossil bone that has ever been brought to light.” The American palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, a more skeptical observer, stated flat-out that the skull was very much a modern human one except for being very thick, and the jaw was identical to an ape’s. But he failed to make the obvious deduction that the two did not belong together. He could only conclude that Piltdown race was “a side-branch of the human family.”

In 1953, three British scientists began to ask some new questions about Britain's most famous fossil, applying newly-developed chemical aging tests. Their paper, published by the British Museum, was a bombshell, and not only to a few specialists. "Piltdown Man Forgery", The Times headline of November 21, was typical of the reaction from the world press.

The fossils, the analysis showed, had been artificially stained by a chemical bath to give the appearance of age; some had also been dipped in iron sulphate to impart the rusty colour of long oxidation in an iron-rich environment. The jaw's molars had been filed down to simulate human wear patterns and the separate canine had also been stained and filed. The jaw itself came from an orangutan. The skull, though human, was only a few hundred years old.

The discovery of the forgery touched off the hunt for the forger. Charles Dawson was the first and most popular suspect, yet the next 60 years have seen a steady trickle of papers and books offering new theories. Today the long list of the accused includes prominent scientists, amateur geologists and anthropologists and members of the British Museum staff, though Woodward himself has always been considered above suspicion. The debate is still active, largely because all of the evidence is either circumstantial or hearsay and none of the original principals is alive to tell his story.

I always through that it was weird that the best minds in the world took 40 years to twig to the possibility of fraud. There were a few veiled suggestions along the way that there was something not quite right about Piltdown man, but nobody came right out and shouted “J’accuse!” Forty years.

In my novel The Link, I explore what might have happened if someone had spotted the hoax back in 1912. In my fictional story, the one who identifies the fake is not a professional scientist. There’s a good reason for this. In a more innocent age, scientists were simply not used to their fellow seekers cooking the books. They were used to dealing with mysteries laid out by nature and, as Augustus Parker says in The Link, “Nature does not cheat.” Instead, someone outside of academic circles, someone with a fresh viewpoint, spots the fake.

Apart from the tendency of specialist researchers to miss the more devious possibilities presented by the Piltdown fragments, two World Wars seriously distracted the world of paleontology in the period between 1912 and 1953. Any number of workers in the field – senior as well as junior – were redirected from their studies into wartime activities, and practical branches of science such as cryptology and electronics tended to hog the scientific stage.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that the Piltdown perpetrator got away with it for so long. But why should we care today, in 2012? Surely the exposure was 60 years ago. Science has moved on, bruised but much the wiser.

Well, there are lessons to be taken from the Piltdown episode, lessons that apply not just to academic activities, but to everyday life as well.

1. While closely examining the trees, take a minute to check out the forest.
Scientists were focused on the actual fragments, rather than looking at the bigger picture: the process by which they were produced.

2. Assume the best of humanity and, at the same time, the worst.
The investigators forgot that there was a human factor involved in the Piltdown Man affair: specifically the man who discovered it.

3. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
It’s hard to beat the classics. This Sherlock Holmes truism should be taped to the wall of every scientist’s office. And everyone else’s for that matter.

4. The simple answer is usually the correct one.
This is a simple-English bastardization of Occam’s razor, the principle first stated by the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. What he actually said was "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate," which of course translates to "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily," but I prefer the modern restatement. Osborn’s failure to draw the obvious conclusion about Piltdown from the bare facts is a primary failing to observe the razor. 

5. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Whether it's money from Nairobi or fossils that precisely fit your theory, little alarm bells should be ringing.

Science has generally taken these lessons to heart although, like any endeavour where humans are involved, there are occasional failings.

More close shaves from Occam's razor in future blogs. 

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.