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Johann Beringer

Professor Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer of the faculty of medicine of Würtzburg was the victim of a famous early 18th century hoax, perpetuated on him by his colleagues J. Ignatz Roderick, professor of geography and mathematics, and Johann Georg von Eckhart, privy counsellor and university librarian, apparently in retaliation for Beringer's habitual arrogance. The hoaxers carved limestone into the shapes of animals such as lizards, frogs, spiders on their webs, and the Hebrew name of God in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew characters, and planted them on Mount Eibelstadt where Beringer frequently went to find fossils.

The mechanism by which fossils were formed was not known at the time, and so despite the fantastical nature of these fakes Beringer took them seriously and published a book describing them. To his credit, Beringer took a relatively rigorous and scientific approach to the matter; he proposed several possible explanations for the fossils in addition to his own preferred interpretation, that while some few of these stones might be dead animals (fossils) most were just "capricious fabrications of God" hidden to test mankind's faith. He even considered the possibility that they were the carvings of prehistoric pagans, but he had to rule this out since pagans wouldn't know the name of God.

Even before publication of Beringer's book, critics had pointed out that some of the stones showed evidence of chisel marks. Beringer had noticed this too, and said in his book:

...the figures...are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor...[and they] seem to bear unmistakable indications of the sculptor's knife... One would swear that he discerned in many of them the strokes of a knife gone awry, and superfluous gouges in several directions.

However, this evidence of sculpting only convinced him more strongly that the chisel was wielded by the hand of God.

Roderick and Eckart continued planting progressively more outrageous fakes, but eventually decided that the hoax was getting out of hand and tried to convince Beringer that the stones were a fraud without admitting that they were the hoaxers. Beringer rejected their attempt, writing of "two men, perhaps best described as a pair of antagonists who tried to discredit the stones." Beringer brought Eckert and Roderick to court, to "save his honor." Some of the court transcript still exists, and in the testimony the hoaxers make clear that they did indeed want to discredit Beringer, because, they said, "he was so arrogant and despised us all."

The scandal not only discredited Beringer, it ruined the reputations of Eckart and Roderick. Roderick had to leave Wrzburg. Eckart lost his post and privileges to use the library and archives. This hampered his own historical researches, which were left unfinished at his death. The stones became known as lügensteine, "lying stones." Some of the stones have survived and are in the University Museum, Oxford. It is said that once the hoax finally became clear, Beringer attempted to buy up all copies of his book and ruined himself financially in the process; it is not clear whether this is true or merely a legend. He died in 1740, and a second printing of his book was produced in 1767.