Fakes and Controversy on the River Clyde: The Case of Dumbuck Crannog
In 1898 the eccentric artist and archaeology enthusiast William Donnelly (1847 – 1905) discovered the Dumbuck Crannog site on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland. Its excavation proved fruitful, with the unearthing of 27 ancient stumps placed 7 feet (2.13 meters) apart to form a circular pattern, a 32-foot long (9.75 meters) dugout canoe, piles of bones, and several intriguing artifacts resembling nothing ever seen before. This ancient treasure trove of artifacts unearthed at Dumbuck Crannog, which Donnelly claimed dated back to the 2 nd century BC, became the subject of heated debate in archaeological circles when he was accused of forgery and his findings were dubbed fakes.
Controversy Surrounding the Dumbuck Crannog Discoveries
Accusations of conspiracy and controversy ensued. Since 1899, the prominent archaeologist Robert Munro (1835 – 1920) adamantly promoted that the Dumbuck Crannog artifacts were elaborate forgeries placed by a team of well-educated artists and con men trying to make a mockery of archaeology. Though Munro claimed the wooden platform itself to be genuine, everything else, at least in his mind, was an elaborate hoax. Munro's harsh attacks on the authenticity of the find generated a lot of challenges to Donnelly’s reputation. Donnelly was outraged by Munro's comments, along with his eventual 400-page book Archaeology and False Antiquities outlining the inauthenticity of the Dumbuck artifacts.
Most of the discussion relating to this controversy has been explored in depth through Dr. Alex Hale's book Controversy on the Clyde regarding the controversial fallout of this site. In his works, he has reflected the perspectives of both Donnelly and Munro. But even in Hale's work, the question remains as to why Munro felt so adamantly the need to disprove Donnelly and paint him as the perpetrator.
Was Munro driven by prejudice against an individual he felt was too creative to participate in the field of archaeology? Or was Munro acting with the best of intentions to prevent Donnelly and others from misinterpreting anomalies that did not fit the known parameters for artifacts of the 2 nd century BC? After all, in the world of academia, one's reputation is everything, and it’s important to protect oneself from association with anyone who carries unprecedented hubris in fear of unforeseen liability. To truly understand Munro's motives, it is crucial to understand the background of who Donnelly was and how the findings were discovered.
William Donnelly was at the center of the controversy, and his reputation as an archaeologist was damaged forever. He can be seen here posing with one of his sketchbooks. ( Historic Environment Scotland )
William Donnelly and his Incursions into Archaeology
Before becoming an archaeologist, William Donnelly enjoyed a prolific career as a Scottish correspondent and an artist best known for his newspaper illustrations. In Donnelly's later years, he developed a passion for archaeology and found himself becoming a significant member of the Helensburgh Naturalist and Antiquarian Society (HNAS). His association with the HNAS gained him access to active archaeological excavations throughout Scotland.
Due to the reputation that he built in assisting in excavating and illustrating the sites in Sheep Hill, Auchentorlie (1894), and Dumbowie (1895), it provided a reputation for Donnelly to be an enthusiastic and trusted archaeologist among the HNAS. Due to his assistance in the Dumbowie excavation, Donnelly was led to believe that the Clyde shoreline contained other ancient river settlements awaiting to be discovered. This hunch is one of the reasons why he took to early morning walks by the Clyde.
As stated by Dr. Hale, on the morning of Sunday July 31 1898, the Dumbuck Crannog site was discovered by the artist William Donnelly during an early walk along the water channel shore. Due to the low tide, Donnelly made out a faint oval outlined by warn vertical stakes encircling the horizontal plank platform. Donnelly gained both financial and emotional support from the Helensburgh Naturalist and Antiquarian society (HNAS) to begin excavation at the site in August. Donnelly was assisted by the HNAS committee members Adam Miller and John Bruce in directing the excavation. Due to Donnelly's prior experience and good standing with popular newspapers, Donnelly was willing to use his abilities for illustration and promotion to gain more popularity over the site's findings.
The Dumbuck Crannog can be seen here from the air. It is the circular shape just above the straight line of stones. ( Historic Environment Scotland )
The Popularity of Excavations at Dumbuck Crannog
Thanks to several written newspaper articles and his illustrations, Donnelly was able to amass a large group of volunteers, hired hands, and fellow HNAS history enthusiasts to participate in excavations at Dumbuck. The results produced the discovery of the ancient 27-post circular platform that was 49.21 feet (15 m) in diameter. The platform also contained evidence of a fire pit at its center. Along with these findings, a 36-foot-long (11 m) dugout canoe was discovered in proximity to the platform. Further excavations in the vicinity revealed immense amounts of animal bone remains and shellfish that indicated long term occupation.
Although the wooden platforms and boats were remarkable in their preservation and age, the plethora of unearthed artifacts created intense interest due to their unique craftsmanship. The surfaces of the smooth stone artifacts were grooved with circles and lines, creating a human likeness. They were simplistic, smooth, and unlike anything that had been seen before. No other area near the Clyde, except for Dumbowie excavation in 1895, provided any artifacts that appeared similar in design or execution to what was found in Dumbuck Crannog.
The popularity of Donnelly's finds was brought to Dr. Robert Munro MD, a former physician who became an archaeologist and honorary secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SAS). During the 1890s, Munro was considered the leading authority for all artifacts and ancient Crannog settlements and was curious how Donnelly came to his findings. The day Munro visited the site on October 12th 1898, was the day the Dumbuck site became shrouded in a controversy that would last thirty years and change Donnelly's life forever.
The shale artifacts discovered were questioned by Munro and were unlike anything discovered before in the area. ( Historic Environment Scotland )
War of Words: Heated Debate About the Dumbuck Crannog Discoveries
Munro was impressed with what Donnelly had found at Dumbuck. Munro was also a fan of Donnelly's previous work and success in previous excavations for the HNAS. And so when he was given a chance to come and see the findings, Munro made haste. However, shortly after seeing the artifacts, his excitement grew into concern. The only thing that impressed him was the circular wooden platform at the site. His opinion on the artifacts, however, was grossly different. It was on January 7 and January 16 1899 that Munro published his review of the Dumbuck Findings in the Glasgow Herald :
"The stone weapons and other relics in the case I ignore them altogether… They were not the productions of the people who constructed and inhabited this strange place… I did not think it right to reserve to myself the impression that some of the objects shown to me […] were products of the 19 th century… Whether as a joke or for the satisfaction of bewildering so-called experts, I know not…". (Hale and Rob 2005)
Being the leading expert in the archaeology of ancient Crannog settlements, his feelings were that the artifacts were too simplistic and obscure to match any of the other findings he had excavated. In his opinion, there were no familiar markings or relatable designs which could place or relate the Dumbuck artifacts to any ancient group of that region. Although many had brought to his attention that the 1895 Dumbowie site had produced similar findings, Munro used the Dumbowie artifacts as further evidence of the hoax he believed was occurring.
Munro believed that the artifacts from both sites were forgeries created by the same artist, and that the only correlation that existed was William Donnelly. Munro made efforts to further distance himself from any association to the Dumbowie and Dumbuck findings in later events. There were further discussions through published articles and letters. Donnelly's friend, Adam Miller, wrote a letter to the Glasgow Herald to address Munro's accusations by stating that the reputation of Donnelly, Miller, and everyone involved in the excavation was being tarnished due to Munro's slander.
It was Donnelly himself, who, along with Miller, wrote separate letters to address what was said by Munro and pled their case for the artifacts. As Donnelly mentioned, “I have tried as an artist, not as an antiquary, to give a faithful record of all I saw with both pen and pencil, to protect at all costs the discovery and finds from destruction" (Hale and Rob 2005).
But, Were the Dumbuck Crannog Artifacts Really Fake?
The debates and discussion continued to cause division among the antiquarian community and ended any further excavation in the region. In 1900 Adam Miller passed away. By 1905, Munro released his book titled Archaeology and False Antiquities in which he justified his beliefs as to why Dumbuck's artifacts were fabrications. Munro continued to defend his position which brought continued distress to Donnelly. In December 1905 he died a broken man while Munro’s book enjoyed success at the expense of his reputation.
By 1906, further discussions regarding the Dumbruck Crannog had come to an end with its archaeological excavation boarded up and the HNAS deciding to put the discrepancies to the side before further division occurred. However, in 1932, the discussion resurfaced thanks to Ludovic Mann and his application of a newly discovered method called the metric test, a method that depended on the precise comparative measurements of similar artifacts from similar eras.
Mann wished to test the artifacts found from Dumbuck to see if their size and weight matched similar artifacts from different sites in Scotland. Mann's results revealed that the precision of the weight and size of the Dumbuck artifacts were almost exactly the same as similar items found at other sites and that no forgery by any artist could be so knowledgeable of such detail. Mann proposed that Donnelly and his team were innocent, and they could not have created such forgeries. The debate was reignited, forcing Munro to challenge the findings once again.
Why is it that more recent excavations have unearthed similar artifacts at Dumbuck Crannog? ( Lairich Rig )
Dumbuck Crannog in the Context of Recent Discoveries
The Dumbuck artifacts are considered forgeries by most archaeologists today due to the uniqueness of their designs. But it is peculiar that recent excavations around the crannog have revealed further artifacts resembling those found at Dumbuck and Dumbowie. Why is it that these artifacts continue to be unearthed in the area? And, if they really are forgeries, how many were strategically buried in the region?
With such detail and elaborate planning, it would mean that the crafty artists planned ahead, knowing exactly where to place them to ensure their eventual discovery. Over the years, many have claimed that Donnelly and his excavators planted these artifacts based on his prior life as an artist and association with eccentric tradesmen. But if Donnelly was indeed behind this elaborate hoax and these forged artifacts at Dumbuck Crannog, what was his motivation?
Donnelly was already a prominent archaeologist with the HNAS and needed no further boost to his reputation. Until the day he died, he continued to defend his innocence along with his fellow excavators who were tainted by Munro's accusations. Donnelly was said to be passionate about archaeology, and to this day, his excavation record-keeping remains renowned. Donnelly's illustrations reflect his love for the field and his conviction that his findings were real.
With Munro's continued pursuit to disprove Donnelly, could there have been an element of envy due to Donnelly’s continued success in multiple fields? Maybe Munro saw Donnelly as nothing more than a showman seeking further attention in the archaeological arena. As a prominent figure who had published numerous articles related to the Crannog settlements, could Munro have been motivated by the need to remain the leading expert in his field? Donnelly was already known as an artist and journalist. By finding a potentially unique culture, he could be an academic threat to Munro.
Could There Be Another Explanation?
Perhaps there is another explanation. In Hale and Robb's book, they allude to the fact that it could have been unseen and unchecked volunteers who planted the forgeries since so many people were brought in to help in Donnelly's excavations. In that case it would have been someone with a sophisticated knowledge of tides in that region along with an understanding of 19 th-century archaeological procedures in identification. If this were the case, then it would have to be either a group or an individual that held a grudge against the HNAS, as well as all other archaeological societies. The result was chaos, with members turning against each other. But who would hold a such a strong grudge?
The Dumbuck Crannog controversy parallels that of the Piltdown hoax . In Sussex, the Piltdown Man was discovered by Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, who claimed it to be evidence of a new species of ancient humans. In later years, however, it proved to be nothing but a hoax. Although, in this instance, both Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward were suspected of fraud, an interesting development revealed the possibility that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, may have been the actual culprit. This rumor was based on historical accounts revealing his hatred of Woodward. If this was true, then Conan Doyle had the last laugh in successfully ruining Dawson and Woodward's reputation.
Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the case of the Piltdown Man. Were the artifacts found at Dumbuck Crannog in Scotland really part of a hoax? Could there be an argument for renewed investigation into the Dumbuck Crannog archaeological site? In this particular case, Robert Munro appears to have hated Donnelly, wishing to destroy his reputation, along with that of his entire team. After all, as I have noted, in the world of academia, reputation is everything.
Top image: William Donnelly was not just an archaeologist, but an artist as well, producing gorgeous sketches at Dumbuck Crannog. Source: Historic Environment Scotland
By B.B. Wagner
Yates, D. 2 October 2014. “Faking the Past: When Archaeologists commit Fraud” in Anonymous Swiss Collector . Available at: http://www.anonymousswisscollector.com/2014/10/faking-the-past-when-archaeologists-manufacture-illicit-antiquities.html
Hale, A. 28 February 2018. “Victorian Era Fake News in the Firth of Clyde!” in Historic Environment Scotland . Available at: https://blog.historicenvironment.scot/2018/02/victorian-era-fake-news-firth-clyde/
Hale, A. and Sands, R. 2000. “Archaeology Notes” in Canmore National Record of the Historic Environment . Available at: https://canmore.org.uk/event/702649
Hale, A. and Sands, R. 2005. Controversy on the Clyde, Archaeologists, Fakes and Forgers: The Excavation of Dumbuck Crannog . Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Kelly, D. 9 May 2016. “10 Controversial Artifacts That Could Have Changed History” in ListVerse. Available at: https://listverse.com/2016/05/09/10-controversial-artifacts-that-could-have-changed-history/
The Newsroom. 8 October 2005. “'Queer things' afoot on banks of Clyde” in The Scotsman . Available at: https://www.scotsman.com/news/queer-things-afoot-banks-clyde-2458929
Szalay, J. 30 September 2016. “Piltdown Man: Infamous Fake Fossil” in LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/56327-piltdown-man-hoax.html
The Dumbuck Crannog controversy covered by B B Wagner (Feb 2021) above is a very complex story, and a lot of the evidence is unpublished or little known, but it is immensely difficult to find platforms for differing perspectives. It is also addressed in a book “Fake Heritage – solving mysteries” Tom Welsh (on Amazon) published January 2022, in Chapter 15. Robert Munro was publishing a high profile book in which he put forward a new and controversial theory about sea-level changes, which found him a lot of enemies. Unfortunately just at that point Donnelly discovered the crannog in the intertidal area which potentially exposed serious flaws in Munro’s new theory. Because of this Munro was sceptical on his visits, but when it was widely publicised that he had agreed with the interpretation of the crannog (which he had not intended), he became vociferously opposed. He perceived the strange objects as an attempt to make a fool of him, hence his extreme animosity. This resulted in an extraordinary public debate through letters-to-the-editor in the Glasgow Herald from January 1899. Strangely only letters reproduced in Munro’s books are discussed by other writers. For example Donnelly replied twice to Munro, not once as claimed, and a lot of the correspondence was about Munro’s sea level theories, and about possible origins for the objects. This leaves a puzzle over the strange objects claimed to be fakes and the timing of letters elsewhere leading up to the row over misrepresentation. Whether intentionally or otherwise Donnelly seems to have fueled the controversy. Because everyone else was making sensible suggestions, Munro looked bad, but was he being provoked? The objects may not have been as strange as is claimed, merely that they were later contamination and suggestions were made about this at the time. I do feel it is far harder to justify the fakes claim. I couldn’t get such high level publicity for my research, and it struggles to be seen at all via the book. But often there just is not a level playing field for such discussions. There is a lot more to the Dumbuck affair and it deserves to be heard. But I fear it never will.
I think it has been pretty conclusively shown that Dawson was the fraudster behind Piltdown Man.