The London Specimen of Archaeopteryx

''Archaeopteryx is in the news again. This time there is a "flap" on about its feathers. Were they imprinted at the same time as the bony skeleton impressions? Or were they fabricated after the fossil was found by man?''

A Technical Examination of the Feather Imprints

''Archaeopteryx is in the news again. This time there is a "flap" on about its feathers. Were they imprinted at the same time as the bony skeleton impressions? Or were they fabricated after the fossil was found by man?'' That is the issue and a lot more is at stake. In the past, scientists have questioned certain aspects of the feathers of Archaeopteryx such as their orientation, number and symmetry. They have also commented upon their perfect structure and whether or not the wings displayed aquinto-cubitalism (alternatively termed diastataxy) in their arrangement. However, never has the genuineness of the fossil imprints been formally questioned until July of 1980. That was when Dr. Lee M. Spetner addressed orthodox Jewish scientists who met in Jerusalem.

The first that I learned about the allegation that the feather imprints on "the most impressive evidence of the fact of organic evolution" was a fake, was in a letter from Dr. Moshe Trop published in September 1983. He reported upon the work of Dr. Spetner, who had examined the London specimen very carefully using a magnifying glass and a binocular microscope. Spetner suspected that someone had gouged out a thin layer of the limestone in the tail and wing regions and then filled them in with cement before carefully carving feather marks which were then allowed to harden.

Spetner's evidence is twofold. Firstly, the suspect feather imprints on the main slab are more sunken than the surrounding rock level, especially in the tail region. Secondly, on the counter slab there is a small blob of apparently hardened cement. That blob is away from the wing and tail regions and yet bears an imprint of a feather vane. However, there is no corresponding dimple in the main slab.

Next, my attention was drawn to an article by Dr. Spetner and five other co-authors at the University College in Cardiff. They reiterated some of Spetner's evidence which I have already mentioned. But the most telling extra information was that the feathery tail (which they erroneously named the "tail-feather") was sunken about two millimetres from the surrounding surface of the main slab. Also, no corresponding elevation was found on the counter slab.

The rest of their evidence was at best circumstantial and at worst merely insinuating. For instance, suspicions were raised on the grounds that both feathered specimens of Archaeopteryx were supplied by members of the same family for financial gain. Dr. Karl Haberlein supplied the London museum and his son Dr. Ernst Haberlein supplied the Berlin museum. It was also pointed out that the discovery of the first feathered Archaeopteryx was soon after the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. Moreover, the timing of the appearance of the first feathered fossil was shortly after its existence had been predicted in a sketch by T. H. Huxley. Furthermore, it was reckoned to be significant that Archaeopteryx represents the only unquestionable case of a fossil showing a transition between two vertebrate classes.

Before assessing Spetner's evidence, let us consider the stages necessary to execute the alleged forgery. Perhaps the following list is close to what the forger could have done:

1. Acquire a fossilised skeleton of an appropriate reptile.

2. Obtain fresh feathers from an extant bird (leaving the primaries and secondaries in place whilst removing most of the other wing feathers).

3. Gouge out the limestone matrix in the region of the desired feathery wings and tail.

4. Mix the cement.

5. Place the cement onto the prepared sunken areas on the main slab and also on the corresponding areas on the counter slab.

6. Imprint the feathers onto the wet cement.

7A. Either: cover the main slab with the counter slab whilst the fresh feathers were sandwiched between and the cement was firm enough not to drip.

7B. Or: after removing the feathers from the main slab, imprint their other surface onto the counter slab.

8. Lift off the fresh feathers from the cemented areas.

9. Compare the alignment of the feather imprints on the main slab with those on the counter slab.

10. If not satisfied, then try again from stage 6 or an even earlier stage.

In view of the method of the forger as envisaged above, the following questions could provide answers to illuminate the truth about those feather imprints of Archaeopteryx.

  1. Would there have been a perfect fit between the main slab and the counter slab if the feather imprints were genuine?
  2. Although a tell-tale gap would be inevitable if stage 7A had been implemented, would the mismatch between the slab surface have been detectable if stage 7B was the alternative used by the forger?
  3. Do any of the feathery imprinted regions show extra pressure that could be interpreted as being caused by the fingertips of the forger pressing down on the fresh feathers when the cement was wet?
  4. What sort of cement was available in Bavaria during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and how well does it match with the colour and grain size in the regions of the feathers close to where the tips of the third and fourth primaries of the right wing border the original main slab and the original counter slab? (An examination in those places with a scanning electron microscope could allay the cement accusation once and for all time, but it would not detect an etching forgery.)
  5. How could the forger have gouged out the boundary around the caudal vertebrae and later skilfully matched the lower quill ends to convincingly simulate the connecting ligaments as reported by Sir Gavin De Beer?
  6. Being set into lithographic limestone, was there a better and more sophisticated method known to the forger so that he either etched onto the rock without spoiling the bony impressions or had he a method that etched onto cement?

But suppose for one moment that the feathery imprints on the fossil were artificial. Where does that leave the genus Archaeopteryx? Could it easily slip back into the reptile class when it has the following birdlike features in its non-feathery skeletal parts?

  1. The brain is definitely birdlike
  2. The furcula is hypertrophied.
  3. The pubes are long and backwardly directed.
  4. The 3rd metacarpal is fused with the carpus.
  5. The hallux is opposable to other toe digits.

Also, with which order of the subclass of Archosaurian reptiles could Archaeopteryx be classified if it was proved to be no longer a bird? The most favoured option is for Archaeopteryx to be derived from Coelurosaurian theropods belonging to the order Saurischia. However, there are several objections to this evolutionary link.

  1. The pelvic girdles of Archaeopteryx and birds are opisthropubic, whereas those of ceolurosaurian saurischian reptiles are propubic.
  2. Archaeopteryx possesses a reflexed opposable hallux, whereas the proposed ancestors do not.
  3. The pretibial bones of Archaeopteryx and birds are not homologous with the astragalus bones of theropods.
  4. The brain of Archaeopteryx resembles that of birds and only crocodilian reptiles.
  5. Experts such as Ostrom maintain that theropods possess only digits 1, 2 and 3 in each hand, whereas bird embryos have only digits 2, 3 and 4 in each wing.

Finally, in my monograph, it was pointed out that Ornitharhynchus anatinus (better known as the Duckbilled Platypus) has elements of not two vertebrate classes, like Archaeopteryx, but three vertebrate classes. Yet Platypus made scientists distrust that extant species in the same way that doubt is falling on Archaeopteryx. Whereas the feathers of Archaeopteryx have been reckoned by some orthodox Jews to be graven images, the first stuffed specimen of a Platypus that was examined in Europe was declared "a taxidermist's fraud"!

by Gerald Haddon Duffett

Source: 'Bible Science Newsletter: Contrast', July-August 1986