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Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726)

Beringer title plate
Idealised version of Mount Eivelstadt where all of Beringer's 'iconoliths' were found, from 'Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726). Click to enlarge

The name of Johann Beringer is synonymous with a practical joke played at his expense, but which was unfortunately immortalised in print in his book, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis which was first published in 1726.

Mount Eivelstadt, 1725

Sometime before the fateful year of 1725, Dr Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667-1740), eminent senior professor and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg in Germany, and also Advisor and Chief Physician to the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, had been interesting himself in the study of ‘fossils’. The term ‘fossil’ had a far looser meaning up until the early 19th century, broadly interpreted as things which were dug up from the earth and included fossils in the modern sense, as well as minerals, ores and interesting rocks. He had amassed a collection of these natural wonders and oddities from ‘nearly all the shores of Europe’ but disappointingly the collection was sorely lacking in specimens from his own country. True, the vicinity around Würzburg was abundant in ammonites and shells but these were so commonplace that Beringer considered them unworthy of further study.

Of particular interest to Beringer were ‘lapides figurati’ or ‘figured stones’, that is stones which were naturally formed into recognisable images or shapes. On 31 May 1725, three youths employed by Beringer to look for such stones, came across three remarkable specimens. Christian Zänger (aged 17) and brothers Niklaus & Valentin Hehn (aged 18 & 14 respectively) claimed to have found them on the slopes of the nearby Mount Eivelstadt. They were unlike any other figured stones that Beringer had seen before and he was convinced that he had been specially chosen by God to find them.

Beringer stars
Celestial objects, fish and mermaids and birds from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726). Click to enlarge

“Here representing all the kingdoms of Nature...are small birds with wings either spread or folded, butterflies, pearls and small coins, beetles in flight and at rest, bees and wasps (some clinging to flowers, other in their nests), hornets, flies, tortoises from the sea and stream, fishes of all sorts, worms, snakes, leeches from the sea and swamp, lice, oysters, marine crabs, pungers, frogs, toads, lizards, canderworms, scorpions, spiders, crickets, ants, locusts, snails, shell-bearing fishes, and countless rare and exotic figures of insects obviously from other regions...Here were clear depictions of the sun and the moon, of stars, and of comets with fiery tails. And lastly, as the supreme prodigy commanding the reverent admiration of myself and of my fellow examiners, were magnificent tablets engraved in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew characters with the ineffable name of Jehovah.” Extract from the introduction to ‘Lithographiae Wirceburgensis’ (1726).

The Author of Nature

Iconoliths with Hebrew text from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726). Click to enlarge
Johann Beringer’s understanding of nature and the world was, like many during this period, viewed through the prism of religion. Geology as a science was in its infancy and the origin of objects such as fossils [then termed ‘petrefactions’] was unclear. Petrefactions bore similarities to organisms, but not only were they made from stone but confusingly were found within the rocks themselves. Additionally there were many which looked like no living organism. In theological terms, God’s creation of the Earth was perfect. Extinction of species would imply a mistake. How then were petrefactions created?

After closely studying his newly acquired treasures, Beringer considered a number of the pre-existing theories put forward by his academic predecessors. These included their spontaneous formation through the ‘plastic power’ of the earth’s salts, or vapours from the sea dispersing ‘seed’ from marine organisms which would fall into fissures and grow into the surrounding rocks. The most accepted theory was the notion that they were relics of Noah’s Flood which scattered animal and plant remains throughout the globe which then gradually turned to stone.

These explanations did not fit with Beringer’s unique stones, or as he called them ‘iconoliths’. He therefore devised his own. Beringer hypothesised that his iconoliths had been formed by the action of light which he believed to be a corporeal substance. Just as light forms images in a camera obscura, magic lantern, in mirrors or in the pupil of the eye, this same action could also impress images onto stone. He reasoned that celestial objects appeared on his stones because the sun, moon and stars shone at night. It also could explain the Hebrew writing—light reflecting from the headstones of the ancient Jewish cemetery nearby.

Publication, 1726

Beringer title page
The rather grand title page from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726). Click to enlarge
Over the next six months Johann Beringer estimated that he had acquired around 2,000 of these iconoliths, expending a great deal of money in the process—mainly through paying his diggers higher wages to work in all weathers in his desire to find more specimens. He also wasted no time in putting pen to paper with his theories on the origins of the iconoliths, but when the work was all but completed rumours began to circulate that the stones were a fraud.

The source of the rumours was two of Beringer’s academic colleagues, J Ignatz Roderick, Professor of Geography, Algebra & Analysis at the University of Würzburg and the Honorable Georg von Eckhart, Privy Councillor and Librarian to the Court and University, who were attempting to dissuade him from going into print. The two men even went so far as demonstrating how to manufacture such stones but Beringer refused to believe them. Some of the stones might be false, but why should the men have waited until he was just about to publish? Clearly it was this attempted unmasking which was the fraud, not the stones themselves.

“The work, they say, must be suppressed, lest outsiders greet it with derision, and charge the indiscreet author with either supine ignorance or brazen imposture….their clever efforts might have succeeded, had not my vigilance, thanks to God, discovered the deceit and throttled it at birth.” Extract from Chapter XII of ‘Lithographiae Wirceburgensis’ (1726).

Convinced that right was on his side, Beringer published his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis during the first months of 1726.

Beringer insect
  “The figures expressed on these stones, especially those of insects, are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor. For there is scarcely one in which the dimensions of the figure are not commonly commensurate to the length and breadth of the tablet.” Extract from Chapter II of ‘Lithographiae Wirceburgensis’ (1726).
One of the many iconoliths showing creatures in the act of copulation, from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726).

Fraud Exposed, April 1726

It is unclear the circumstances under which Johann Beringer finally realised that he had been a victim of a cruel hoax, but on 13 April 1726 judicial proceedings commenced at his request. Beringer had been accused of fraudulently making the stones himself, and the proceedings were held for the purpose of saving his honour.

As the source for virtually all of the stones, the youths employed as his diggers were interrogated during three hearings held between April-June 1726. One of the boys, Christian Zänger, admitted he had been party to the fraud but the two main culprits were indeed Beringer’s academic colleagues — J Ignatz Roderick and the Georg von Eckhart. Roderick it seems had undertaken most of the carving, some of which was witnessed by Zänger who was also employed to polish the results. (Zänger even requested that the court help him obtain eight days’ wages owing to him for the stone polishing.)

Fearing discovery, Roderick and Eckhart accused Beringer of falsifying the stones himself because “[Beringer] was so arrogant and despised them all”, but they also attempted to bribe Zänger to push the blame onto the innocent brothers Niklaus & Valentin Hehn.

Within four years Eckhart was dead. Roderick had to leave Würzburg with his reputation in tatters. Beringer, on the other hand, lived for another fourteen years with his honour (temporarily) restored.

Iconolith with amphibians, eggs, shells, lobster and invertebrates from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis' (1726).