Is Archaeopteryx a Fossil Forgery?

The world's most famous fossil is increasingly coming under fire

Ian T. Taylor, author of "In the Minds of Men"

To many people the word "fossil" causes about as much excitement as watching grass grow. However, when we lift the veil to inspect the human side of the story of the world's most famous fossil, we find a labyrinth of intrigue and deception making it all somehow far more palatable.

Some Background

We begin our story in Lancaster jail, northern England, some time during the 1820's.

The lad was tall, ungainly in figure with a lofty forehead, long lank hair and fish-like eyes. Late in the night he carried a lantern and a strong brown paper bag as he descended the steps to the post-mortem room in Lancaster city jail. Apprenticed to the prison doctor, his assistance at post-mortems had given him an unrivalled opportunity to study anatomy. At this time medical students seldom had the legal means to study the human body dead or alive, but young Richard Owen became very knowledgeable.

His interest was excited by the prospect of acquiring for his personal collection the head of a dead Ethiopian prisoner. Hence, the brown paper bag. Finally, with the coffin re-nailed and his prize in the bag, he hurried out of the jail and down the hill. In his biography he recounts what happened then:

"...the pavement was coated with a thin sheet of ice, my foot slipped, and, being encumbered with my cloak, I lost my balance and fell forward with a shock which jerked the Negro's head out of the bag, and sent it bounding down the slippery surface of the steep descent. As soon as I recovered my legs I raced desperately after it, but was too late to arrest its progress. I saw it bounce against the door of a cottage facing the descent, which flew open and received me at the same time, as I was unable to stop my downward career."

"I heard shrieks, and saw the whisk of a garment of a female, who had rushed through an inner door; the room was empty; the ghastly head at my feet. I seized it and retreated, wrapping it in my cloak. I suppose I must have closed the door after me, but I never stopped till I reached the surgery."


This account illustrates Richard Owen's youthful dedication for which he was eventually rewarded by becoming England's foremost anatomist, palaeontologist, and leading spokesman for science. His formal medical education at Edinburgh medical school had taught him Cuvier's theory of multiple floods, which was an early attempt to reconcile geology with the Book of Genesis. He remained faithful to this theory throughout his long and influential career. However, other forces were at work in England in opposition to Cuvier's theory. The situation came to a head with the publication of Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection' in 1859.

Owen was perhaps typical of many influential men. Even a cursory glance at the literature shows that his personal ambition drove him to the point of being ruthless and even dishonest. Thomas Huxley, who later served as Darwin's mouthpiece, said of Owen in 1851, "I am as grateful towards [him] as it is possible to be towards a man with whom I feel it necessary to be always on my guard... it is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred Owen is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries..."

Albert Gunther, in a biography of the directors of the British NaturalHistory Museum during its first hundred years, has given a rather explicit portrait of Richard Owen, who was the iron-handed museum director from 1856 until he retired in 1884 at the age of 80. Gunther records that Hugh Falconer, a palaeontologist and botanist, warned Darwin that Owen was "not only envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest." Darwin eventually came to see the truth of this assessment, which he repeats in his autobiography along with the comment, "After the publication of the 'Origin of Species', he [Owen] became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success."

Challenge to Owen

Gideon Mantell, the Sussex palaeontologist who discovered and named the first Iguanodon fossil, said of Owen: "It is to be deeply deplored that this highly eminent and gifted man can never act with candour and liberality." Owen reissued other people's papers as his own and republished his own papers several times in different places to make his output of scientific papers appear greater. To any modern reader who has worked in an academic or research environment, all this may sound familiar. But there was yet a further reason for Owen to be antagonistic towards Darwin.

The coming of Darwinism had seriously challenged Owen's overweening reputation. Huxley appeared on the public stage about the same time as Darwin's 'Origin', and since everything Huxley said was cogent, witty and interesting (and since everything Owen said was verbose, humourless, and often incomprehensible), Huxley soon took over Owen's role as the voice of science in England.

Owen's authority began to decline from about 1860. With this rather lengthy background to Richard Owen, we turn to Darwin, the fossils... and Archaeopteryx.

Forgers at Work

FossilThe 1877 Berlin specimen is widely shown in textbooks as confirming evidence of evolution. When it came to evidence for his theory, Darwin lamented that none had yet been discovered. Writing in 1859 he said, "...the number of intermediate varieties [i.e. transitions], which have formerly existed on the earth, [should] be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against the theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record."

To this day this is still the most widely accepted explanation.

An unintended side-effect from the publication of Darwin's 'Origin' was that by bewailing the absence of transitional fossils it provided a charter for fossil forgers. Darwinian enthusiasts, such as Thomas Huxley, began to speculate on what some of these transitions should have looked like. Of particular interest was the alleged transition between reptiles and birds. This belief was based on the fact that the bone structure of certain extinct dinosaurs and that of birds have some familiar features.

Our story now takes us to an area west of Munich in the south of Germany, where fossils had been forged and sold to museums since the previous century. Indeed, it was a minor "industry", and the forgers had become expert at their craft.

Within months after the publication of the 'Origin', palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer came into possession of the fossil of a single feather about 2.5 inches [6.5 centimetres] long. The two halves of the limestone slab containing the fossil were supposed to have been found in the Sölnhofen quarry in a stratum of the Jurassic period. But adequate details of its background were never given.

Meyer named the specimen 'Archaeopteryx lithographica', which means "ancient wing from lithographic stone," and the two halves went their separate ways to the Berlin Museum and the Munich Museum respectively.

Unusual Actions

In the first place the specimen made news because, although the feather looked perfectly modern, it was supposed to be 150 million years old. This meant that birds would have evolved far earlier than anyone had expected, and was a severe blow to Cuvier's theory.

Second, selling the two halves to separate museums was a procedure unheard of - they must always be kept together. The procedure makes sense only if the fossil was a poor forgery. Sir Fred Hoyle has recently obtained photographs of the two halves, which show a marked difference in the background texture of the rock suggesting that this is indeed the case. This then is the 1860 'Archaeopteryx' which was sold to the museums by Dr. Karl Häberlein, the district health officer of Pappenheim.

By the next year, 1861, Häberlein had another specimen for sale. This time it was of the entire creature except for its head. Again, it was said to have been discovered in a stratum of the Jurassic period at the Sölnhofen quarry. But this time the two halves, slab and counter-slab, were kept together. Häberlein invited museum representatives to see it, but they were not permitted to make notes or drawings. And by refusing each offer, he effectively drove up the price.

The plan was foiled however, by Alfred Goppel, a palaeontologist with an excellent visual memory who was from the Munich Museum. Goppel visited Häberlein several times, compiled an accurate drawing, and took it to Professor Andreas Wagner, who happened to have discovered and named a small dinosaur called 'Compsognathus'. Wagner saw in the drawing a creature about as big as a pigeon which looked very much like his 'Compsognathus' except for the feathers. He thought it was a strange reptile, and called it 'Griphosaurus problematicus', "the problematical griffin-lizard."

Suspicions of Fraud

Shortly after he published his description of this find based on Goppel's drawing, Wagner died suddenly. Nevertheless, from the wording of his article this highly respected expert had left no doubt that he suspected this fossil was not genuine. Häberlein would naturally have been angry at Wagner's paper and determined to unload the fossil at the next offer. He did not have to wait long. While the Germans argued "real or forgery" among themselves, the offer came from England.

Richard Owen, by now in charge of the Natural History Museum in London, read Wagner's description and immediately sent geologist George Waterhouse to Pappenheim, where the specimen changed hands for £600. The dispute now shifted to England. Owen published his description and an accurate engraving of just the slab, not the counter-slab, in 1864. One of the odd features of this pigeon-sized creature was that it had a long lizard-like tail with feathers emerging throughout its length. Long-tailed birds today do not have bones in their tail, but a stump and long feathers.

There were also little "fingers", or claws, on the wings which added to the general appearance of its being a reptile with feathers. However, the fact that it had fully developed feathers classified it as a bird. There were speculations as to whether the head would have had teeth or not; having teeth would place it more centrally between a reptile and a bird, and thus would be excellent confirmation of Darwin's theory. Sure enough, 16 years later another Archaeopteryx turned up, complete with head. And it had teeth!

This was the 1877 'Archaeopteryx'. Again, this specimen was claimed to have been found in the Sölnhofen quarry and passed through the same family. Ernst Häberlein, who had taken over from his father, had demanded the enormous sum of 36,000 gold marks for the prize. This eventually became the Berlin specimen, as it was bought by the Berlin Museum. It is the specimen shown in virtually every biology textbook today as confirming evidence of evolution.

 No More Feathers

The Eichstaett Archaeopteryx (1951) shows no obvious feather impressions. For more than 20 years it was labelled as 'Compsognathus', a coelurosaur. Textbooks sometimes speak of "many other examples", and by this is meant the 1855 Teyler Museum specimen, which merely has been reassigned, the 1951 Eichstätt specimen, which was genuinely found near Sölnhofen; and the 1956 specimen which is in such poor condition that little can be said of it.

It is to be emphasised however, that none of these last three specimens shows indisputable feather impressions. As Hoyle points out, the feather impressions in these specimens are "visible only to the eye of faith."

The great bird expert Professor Ostrom writes, "If feather impressions had not been preserved in the London and Berlin specimens, they [the 1855, 1951 and 1956 specimens] would never have been identified as birds... notice [they] were all misidentified at first, and the Eichstätt specimen for 20 years was thought to be... Compsognathus."

We return to the London specimen and ask this: Why did Owen go to the trouble and expense, even offering to pay from his own pocket to obtain a fossil which was of doubtful validity and which proved Darwin right and Cuvier wrong? Hoyle has shown fairly convincingly that this only makes sense if Owen knew the fossil was a forgery and planned to expose it as such after the Darwinians had accepted it.

This would masterfully sabotage the entire theory of evolution. Unfortunately, neither Darwin nor Huxley accepted it as convincing evidence and so it sat in the Natural History Museum collecting dust until Owen retired. Huxley expressed his opinion of the 1861 London specimen to the Royal Society in 1868. He said it was nothing more than a bird and, even if a specimen with a head having teeth were found, "it will not the more to my mind, cease to be a bird." Huxley presented a paper to the Royal Institution only a month later titled, 'On the Animals Which Are Most Nearly Intermediate Between Birds and Reptiles', and did not even mention the Archaeopteryx. Darwin waited until the sixth edition of his 'Origin' (1872) before he mentioned the Archaeopteryx - and dismissed it as "a strange bird."

It's still not Transitional!

BirdArchaeopteryx Even if Archaeopteryx proved not to be a fossil forgery, it is important to realise that it is not, and never has been, an example of a 'transitional' kind of creature between reptile and bird.

Archaeopteryx does not have part legs/part wings, part scales/part feathers, or any feature part-way 'evolving'. The feathers are even 'modern' in appearance, so the problem of feather evolution is still a huge headache for those who think birds and feathers were not created complete from the beginning.

So it appears that the high priests of Darwinism refused to accept the precious fossil as the much needed evidence for their theory.

By 1895, Darwin, Huxley and Owen were dead. In the absence of any more specimens of Archaeopteryx, followers of the faith convinced themselves that the London specimen was, in fact, genuine. At least, only a little judicious application of the hammer and chisel would have been necessary to make it more convincing.

Alterations Made

From a photograph of the London specimen made in 1895 it is evident that several alterations had been made at the museum some time between 1861 and 1895. The alterations were probably made so the slab and counter-slab fitted together better and thus the forgery would be less evident.

Indeed, other changes in ideas about this specimen have taken place since then to fit the wisdom of the day. At first, the fossil was thought to be a bird with reptilian features. Today, it is thought to be a reptile with avian features, namely the feathers.

Following the investigation and exposure of this alleged fraud by Hoyle and others in 1986, the British Natural History Museum set up a display of the Archaeopteryx. They gave arguments for its being genuine against those for its being fraudulent. Naturally, the human background given in this paper was not mentioned, and the public was left to believe that the museum officials were being very "up-front" about their much maligned prize. This exercise in bolstering public confidence in the museum was carried out in the early months of 1988. Since then the fossil has been returned to the vault with adamant refusal by the authorities to allow further investigation by outside interests.

It is sufficient to say that the alleged fraudulent Archaeopteryx fossils were believed to have been made by adding the impressions of feathers to a genuine fossil of the extinct reptile Compsognathus. The bottom line however, is that genuine indisputable feather impressions have never been found in other Archaeopteryx fossils either before or since the 1860-1877 period. The discoveries at Sölnhofen were unique, while all three specimens passed through the hands of the Häberlein family.

This alone should be cause for suspicion, as indeed most scientists of the past century were suspicious. However, without another example of the transitional creature in the fossil record, it is evident that the museum authorities consider it better to bear the burden of proof on the back of tradition rather than confess to yet another fraud. After the Piltdown affair at the same museum, the cost of losing public confidence and support for Darwin's theory would clearly be too great.


In February 1988 a fossil feather was found in Spain but was in isolation and, unlike the "Häberlein" specimens, was in a very poor state of preservation.

From time to time the popular press announces that "another Archaeopteryx has been found in Bavaria..." leading the reader to believe that beautifully preserved transitions are in abundance. These rumours all relate to the Maxberg specimen discovered in 1956, described by Heller in 1959 and again by Ostrom in 1976, while Ostrom's photograph was issued by Feduccia in 1980.

Following the example of Häberlein, the private owner of the Maxberg specimen seemingly hopes to drive up the price by refusing to allow public inspection. It has not been seen since 1975.

(Look for further information in future editions of Creation magazine.)

Source: 'Creation Ex-Nihilo', Vol.10, No.4