Philip Grove and Arnoldo Cortesi came from very different backgrounds and had very different destinies. Cortesi would one day become Rome correspondent of the New York Times; Grove however, put on a uniform for the First World War and was killed in action during the Battle of Arras in 1917. Yet as boys in 1911 these two men found themselves fellow pupils and friends at Sherborne School. They also shared a passion for the ancient merely because it was old, including fossils that they discovered they could collect from a disused quarry to the north of the town out of school hours.
One day the boys returned from one of their explorations in the quarry with a fragment of bone they claimed to have found on a pile of rubble at the entrance to a cave since quarried away. Cortesi first showed the bone to some other boys who were not interested, but when he attempted to discard the bone in the dayroom fire an older boy called Ross Jefferson intervened and advised Cortesi to show it to the school’s science master, Robert Elliot Steel, first. Steel, who had himself collected mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones from the quarry for the school’s geological collection, could see that the ancient looking bone bore the crude engraving of a horses head, and asked Cortesi to supply a statement about how the bone was found.
The school bursar then passed this certificate on to Joseph Fowler, a master, who in turn donated all his papers about the bone to the Smith Woodward Archives at the Natural History Museum in London. The bone itself was sent to the museum’s curator of geology, Arthur Smith Woodward, for examination. In a paper prepared for the Geological Society in 1914 Smith Woodward described the find as “an apparent Palaeolithic engraving of a hog-maned Mongolian horse”, and at a subsequent meeting his opinion remained unchallenged by members.
The next development in the saga came in 1924 when William Sollas, Professor of Geology at Oxford, wrote a paper in which he expressed the opinion that, to date, finds from known Palaeolithic sites in England lacked evidence of early artwork. Woodward considered that the semi-fossilised condition of the bone proved its Palaeolithic authenticity because such a condition would have been impossible for a modern forger to replicate. Any attempt to do so, he thought, would have resulted in flaking.
Woodward contacted Arnoldo Cortesi, by then writing for the New York Times
in Rome, for an assurance that the find was genuine, since he thought that Sollas suspected that Cortesi had forged the artefact. However, after Grove had been killed at Arras, his mother and brother affirmed that Phillip was adamant the Sherborne “Palaeolithic” horse was genuine.
In 1926 Sollas said that his assistant, C J Bayzand, would confirm that the etching on the bone had been copied from the drawing of a horse on a bone found in a cave at Cresswell in Derbyshire without Sollas ever having seen the Sherborne specimen.
A group of boys working on the school’s museum collection told Bayzand that the bone was a fake, even claiming that it came from a rubbish tip on the Bristol road.
Woodward did not reply to his charge of forgery, but in a letter to Nature in 1926 Elliot Steel apologised to Bayzand for the hoax the boys in the museum had played on him! He described how the bone had been found and that a group of older boys, jealous of the discovery, concocted and disseminated the forgery story. Sollas never replied to Steel’s letter, but Professor Boyd-Dawkins effectively demolished Sollas’ evidence.
From the 1950’s onwards however, the bone came under much more intense scientific scrutiny and examination. In 1957 Dr Kenneth Oakley conducted a fluorine test, which gave the bone an upper Palaeolithic age. But when was the image of the horse’s head carved onto it?
In 1978 Professor Douglas, who had succeeded Sollas, accused him of neglecting
to notify Woodward that the Sherborne bone was really a fake before Woodward presented his paper to the Geological Society in 1914, in order to discredit him.
Further tests by Dr Anne Sieveking and Dr M Newcomer demonstrated it was possible for the bone to be engraved with a flint, a finding at odds with Smith Woodward’s opinion that it wouldn’t have been possible to inscribe bone without flaking it. In addition, high magnification showed that the image’s etched lines disappeared into fine cracks. This indicated the bone was already degraded before the etching was done. But were the cracks the result of heat or frost? – and when were they formed? Could an artistic Palaeolithic hunter have used an already degraded bone?
It was pointed out that the odds against two boys only ten days at school finding in a large quarry a bone from a horse species long extinct in this country, then engraving a representation of its head on it were so remote as not to merit consideration. DNA analysis however, was considered but thought to be too hit and miss.
If the bone could be identified as coming from the species of horse apparently portrayed on it, then this would be evidence pointing towards a prehistoric age, though this could not prove anything about the age of the image. As this was not possible and as there was some distinction between the muzzle detail of the Sherborne and Cresswell horses, a conclusion of probable forgery was arrived at.
Furthermore, in 1994 high magnification examination of the bone at Cambridge revealed the grooves of the etch-marks to be so fresh that, unless they had been scrubbed clean, they must have been cut in modern times. Radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis did prove the bone to be a mammalian rib – and no older than the 14th century, thus conflicting with the Palaeolithic result from Oakley’s 1957 fluorine test. Evidently the etching was carried out by a modern person using a modern tool.
The probable reconstruction of events is as follows. It was true that Cortesi was a skilled draughtsman who had won a prize for drawing at the school. It was believed therefore, that, with no intent to deceive, he had copied the Cresswell horse onto the bone in the school’s museum, his talent in this regard contributing to its acceptance as genuine. The idea of hoaxing Elliot Steel may have been Ross Jefferson’s, who suggested that the boys should show the bone to Steel. After learning the bone had been sent to the British Museum, the boys decided to confess to Bayzand, but he failed to pass the information on.
Sollas and Bayzand thus dismissed the engraved rib upon the word of two schoolboys without seeing or inspecting the find. So the overall conclusion is that the horse bone was indeed a forgery, and one fooling many scholars and scientists for almost a century.
Incidentally, the school’s museum, around which so much of this drama unfolded, was bombed and gutted during an as yet incomprehensible air raid on Sherborne in 1940, despite being a small country abbey town having no munitions factories, ordnance depots or obvious strategic significance.