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Glozel: the fraud or find of the 20th century?

From 1924 to 1938, a total of some 3,000 artefacts, variously dated to Neolithic, Iron Age and Medieval times were unearthed from Glozel, a hamlet some 17 km from the French spa town of Vichy. For some, it is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever; for others, it is one of the most notorious hoaxes.

Philip Coppens

If one word should be used to describe Glozel, it should be “controversial”. Émile Fradin, a young man of 17 years old, together with his grandfather Claude Fradin stepped into history on March 1, 1924. They were working in a field known as “Duranthon”, which has since been renamed as “le Champ des Morts”, or “the Field of the Dead”. Émile was holding the handles of a plough when one of the cows pulling it stuck her foot in a cavity. Freeing the cow, the Fradins uncovered an underground structure with walls of clay bricks and 16 clay floor tiles, containing human bones and ceramic fragments. So far, this could have been just any usual archaeological discovery, of which some are made every week. But that soon changed…
It is said that the neighbours began to arrive the following day and not only found, but also took some of the objects they found with them. Adrienne Picandet, a local teacher, visited the Fradin's farm that same month and decided to inform the Minister of Education. On July 9, Benoit Clément, another teacher, this time from the neighbouring village and representing the Societé d'Emulation du Bourbonnais, visited the site and later returned with a man called Viple. Clément and Viple used pickaxes to break down the remaining walls, which they took away with them. Some weeks later, Émile Fradin received a letter from Viple identifying the site as Gallo-Roman. He added that he felt it to be of little interest and advised to recommence the cultivation of the field – which is what the Fradin family did.

A not too ominous start therefore. The January 1925 issue of the Bulletin de la Societé d'Emulation du Bourbonnais reported on the findings, specifically focusing on a stone that carried inscriptions. Despite having stated that the site was of little interest, Clément requested 50 francs from the organisation so that more organised excavations could occur, but the bulletin reported that this request had been denied.
The report brought the story to the attention of Antonin Morlet, a Vichy physician and amateur archaeologist. Morlet visited Clément and was intrigued by the findings. Morlet was an “amateur specialist” in the Gallo-Roman period and believed that the objects from Glozel were older. He believed that some might even date from the Magdalenian period (12,000-9500 BC), as they involved bone harpoons and depictions of reindeer, though to be extinct since 10,000 BC.
Both men visited the farm and the field on April 26, 1925, Morlet offering the Fradins 200 francs per year to be allowed to complete the excavation. He began his excavations on May 24, discovering tablets, idols, bone and flint tools and engraved stones. He published his “Nouvelle Station Néolithique” in September 1925, listing Émile Fradin as co-author, arguing that the site was, as the title of the report states, Neolithic in nature. The book came to the attention of the media and the first newspaper articles on the site featured in Le Matin in October and in Le Mercure de France in December.

Though Morlet dated it as Neolithic, he was not blind to see that the site contained objects from various epochs. He still upheld his belief that some artefacts appeared to be older, belonging to the Magdalenian period, but added that the techniques that had been used appeared to be Neolithic. As such, he identified Glozel as a transition site between both eras, even though it was known that the two eras were separated by several millennia.
Certain objects were indeed anachronistic: one stone showed a reindeer, accompanied by letters that appeared to be an alphabet. As mentioned, reindeer were believed to have vanished from the region around 10,000 BC, yet the earliest known form of writing was then established at 3300 BC, and that was in the Middle East. The general consensus was that locally, one would have to wait a further three millennia before the introduction of writing. Worse, the script appeared to be comparable with the Phoenician alphabet, dated to ca. 1000 BC, or to the Iberian script, which was derived from it. But – of course – it was “known” that no Phoenician colony could have been located in Glozel.
No wonder therefore that French archaeological academia were dismissive of Morlet's report; after all, it was published by an amateur – a doctor – and a peasant boy – who could perhaps not even write properly? The amateurism dripped off their conclusion, for it challenged their carefully established and vociferously defended dogma on several levels: prehistoric writing? A cross-over between a Palaeolithic and Neolithic civilisation? Nonsense!

Unfortunately for French academic circles, Morlet was not one to lay down easily and today, his ghost continues to watch – if not hang – over Glozel. Morlet invited a number of archaeologists to visit the site during 1926, including Salomon Reinach, curator of the National Museum of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, who spent three days excavating. Reinach confirmed the authenticity of the site in a communication to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres. But even higher academic circles descended on the site: the famous archaeologist Abbé Breuil excavated with Morlet and was impressed with the site, but on October 2 Breuil wrote that "everything is false except the stoneware pottery" – doing a remarkable turn-around. What had happened? Breuil worked together with André Vayson de Pradenne and the latter argued that he had found, in a popular magazine, images of prehistoric engravings that were similar to those discovered by Fradin. This led him to conclude that Fradin had created artefacts conform to the images in the magazine.
Despite such allegations, Morlet unearthed thousands of objects over a period of two years, all of varied forms and shape, including a hundred tablets carrying signs and approximately fifteen tablets carrying the imprints of human hands. Other discoveries were sexual idols, polished stones, dressed stones, ceramics, glass, bones, etc. How Fradin could possibly have made thousands of objects, the likes of Vayson de Pradenne never explained…

Furthermore, two other tombs were uncovered in June 1927. One contained 67, the other 121 objects and human remains. It seemed that Glozel was soon to be accepted as a major archaeological discovery. At the meeting of the International Institute of Anthropology in Amsterdam, held in September 1927, Glozel was therefore the subject of heated debate. A commission was appointed to do further investigations and arrived in Glozel on November 5, 1927. During their three day excavation, the archaeologists uncovered various artefacts, but in their report of December 1927, the commission declared everything, with the exception of a few pieces of flint axes and stone ware, as fake. It was then that the worst of all accusations was levelled against Fradin and it came from the highest circle of academia: René Dussaud, curator at the Louvre and a famous epigrapher, accused Émile Fradin of forgery. In a move that seems to have been a few decades ahead of his time, on January 10, 1927, Fradin then filed suit for defamation against Dussaud.
That move delineated the two camps: on the one hand, Fradin and Morlet; on the other side, the academia, led by Dussaud… and any academic who felt he had, should or better should stand next to this juggernaut. No surprise therefore to see the president of the French Prehistoric Society Felix Regnault visit Glozel on February 24, and after the briefest of visits to the small museum, filing a complaint against X –i.e. Fradin. The accusation was that the cost of 4 francs of admission charges was excessive to see objects which in his opinion were fake. The police searched the museum the next day, destroyed glass display cases and confiscated three cases of artefacts. On February 28, the suit against Dussaud was postponed due to Regnault's pending indictment against Fradin – the criminal case of fraud taking priority over the civil action suit.

A new group of neutral archaeologists, called the Committee of Studies, was appointed by scholars who were uncomfortable with the legal indictment slinging between the two camps as well as the Commission that had been set up during the Amsterdam conference. They excavated from 12 to 14 April 1928 and also found artefacts. Their report spoke out for the authenticity of the site, which they identified as Neolithic. It seemed that Morlet had been vindicated, but the conclusion was soon shrunk in importance when Gaston-Edmond Bayle, chief of the Criminal Records Office in Paris analysed the confiscated artefacts and in May 1929 identified them as recent forgeries.
Bayle argued that he could detect fragments of what might have been grass and an apple stem in some of the Glozellian clay tablets. As grass obviously could not have withstood thousands of years, it was a recent forgery. The argument is very unconvincing, for the excavations were obviously not done as a forensic crime scene would be treated. Most likely, the vast majority of these artefacts were placed on grass or elsewhere after they were dug up from the pit – a practice that continues on most of today’s archaeological excavations; archaeology is, at this level, not a forensic science. Furthermore, it is known that some of the objects were actually heated in the oven of Fradin’s home, to dry them. Bizarrely, a few months later, Bayle was assassinated in an unrelated event; his assassin accused him of having made a fraudulent report against him! Still, his subordinates continued his work and they too were critical of the site, as was a report on the artefacts produced by Champion, a technician at the Museé de St. Germain-en-Laye.
As a consequence of Bayle’s report, on June 4, 1929, Émile Fradin was indicted for fraud, but the judge eventually dismissed the case in April 1931. This meant that the defamation charge against Dussaud could and did come to trial in March 1932; Dussaud was found guilty of defamation. Everyone will agree that all of this had very little to do with archaeology and a lot to do with ego.

Morlet excavated the site from 1925 to June 1938. During this decade of research, he discovered tables, figurines, silex and bone utensils, engraved stones, etc. During the 1950s, Dr. Morlet made two attempts to have Glozel bones dated by the new carbon-dating technique, once in France and once in the United States. He died in 1965 without achieving the authentication for which he had fought so hard. The last time Fradin saw Morlet, the doctor told him: "You mustn't give up, you know. The truth will come out before long."
So: fraud or genuine? Perhaps the best evidence that the site is genuine is Emile Fradin himself: a boy of 17 years of age, not very well educated, who would have spent thousands of man-hours to create something he never sold? It seems unlikely. Indeed, Fradin always refused to sell his objects. Furthermore, all the experts in the field of prehistory initially recognised the site as authentic; it were non-scientific considerations that persuaded Capitan and to some extent Breuil to switch sides: Morlet refused to name either as co-authors in his report, whereas Vayson de Pradenne was upset because Fradin refused to sell him his collection. As to Dussaud, the man who rallied the troops around him: he too had an ulterior motive, for in a recent article, he had proposed that our alphabet was a Phoenician invention. Morlet on the other hand argued that writing was known in Europe millennia before. If Morlet and Glozel were right and genuine, Dussaud’s theory would have been discredited. In retrospect, neither his academic theories nor his character are fondly remembered.

After 1942, a new law outlawed private excavations and the site remained untouched until the Ministry of Culture re-opened excavations in 1983. A full report was never published, but a 13 page summary appeared in 1995. This “official report” infuriated many, for the authors suggested that the site was medieval, possibly containing some Iron Age objects, but was likely enriched by forgeries. It therefore reinforced the earlier position of the leading French archaeologists. But on June 16, 1990, Emile Fradin received the “Palmes Académiques”, suggesting that the French academic circles had accepted him as making a legitimate discovery – and that he was not a forger.
As late as 1990, Glozel thus continued to be controversial and not at all straightforward. The official report states that glass found at Glozel shows it is indeed from the medieval period. Furthermore, in 1995, Alice and Sam Gerard, together with Robert Liris, dated two bone tubes found in Tomb II to the 13th century. So there is a medieval dimension to Glozel. If medieval, it would not be the spectacular discovery that many have given it, but it would also confirm that Fradin did not create the site. But that is not the total “truth”. Thermoluminescence dating of 27 artefacts revealed three distinct periods: the first between 300 BC and 300 AD (Celtic and Roman Gaul, as the earliest report on Glozel had indicated), the second medieval (13th century), and the third, rather remarkably, recent, suggesting these could potentially be frauds mixed with genuine artefacts. And though carbon-dating of bone fragments have ranged from the 13th to the 20th century, one human femur was actually dated to the 5th century.
So, it seems, Morlet was wrong and Glozel was not a Neolithic site. What was it then? The central “Fosse Ovale” is now known to have been a glass kiln which was then converted, in the 13th century, into a tomb. Tomb I and II seem to have been Gallo-Roman tombs, though a skull found in Tomb I was dated to the 19th century and three human skulls from Tomb II to the 13-14th century. The “hard” evidence therefore suggests that there is no Neolithic dimension to the site and that it is at best Gallo-Roman, to which burials were added in the 13th century.
Morlet had been convinced of its Neolithic origins because of the artefacts uncovered at the site. The depiction of reindeer had pushed it to 10,000 BC, though it is now known that reindeer survived in isolated locations in Europe and may have been known as late as Gallo-Roman if not medieval times. Whereas some have argued the depictions of reindeer are actually red deer, qualified zoologists (rather than archaeologists) have identified the engravings as reindeer, not red deer as the archaeologists prefer to label them.

By far the most captivating, and controversial aspect of the site are the so-called “Glozel tablets”. Some 100 ceramic tablets bearing inscriptions have been found. The inscriptions are on average on six or seven lines, mostly on a single side, although some specimens are inscribed on both faces. If these had been Neolithic, Glozel would have been evidence that our Neolithic ancestors had a script and would have caused a scientific reappraisal of our forefather’s knowledge. Are they?
The tablet inscriptions are reminiscent of the Phoenician alphabet and for some are precisely that. Over the years, there have been numerous claims of decipherment, including identification of the language of the inscriptions as Basque, Chaldean, Eteocretan, Hebrew, Iberian, Latin, Berber, Ligurian, Turkic and the already mentioned Phoenician. Amongst the various attempts, one stands out: the suggestion from Hans-Rudolf Hitz, who suggested a Celtic origin for the script and dated the inscriptions to between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD – a timeframe that would be acceptable by academics, as it sits within the three periods identified via thermoluminescence and carbon-dating, and which conforms to Clément’s conclusion. Hitz created an alphabet of 25 signs, augmented by some sixty variations and ligatures and believed that it was influenced by the Lepontic alphabet of Lugano, itself descended from the Etruscan alphabet, reading some Lepontic proper names like Setu (Lepontic Setu-pokios), Attec (Lepontic Ati, Atecua), Uenit (Lepontic Uenia), Tepu (Lepontic Atepu). Hitz even claims discovery of the toponym Glozel itself, as nemu chlausei "in the sacred place of Glozel" (comparing nemu to Gaulish nemeton). Still, Hitz also argues that there are some inscriptions that do not make any sense whatsoever and these nonsensical artefacts have been dated by other means to the 13th century; it is believed that those who used the site as a cemetery in the 13th century tried to copy some of the older artefacts found on site, but as they were obviously unable to understand the script, tried to imitate the signs seen on the stones and urns, ending up with nonsense, but a nevertheless aesthetically pleasing offering for their deceased.

Though Fradin continues to believe Morlet and the site’s Neolithic nature, few now support it, seeing that the “hard dating” techniques have provided far more recent dates. Furthermore, Glozel is not as important as its notoriety has made it appear. It has been described as the “Dreyfus Affair” of French archaeology. In early 1999, Guy Lesec described Glozel as a Rorschach test.
Despite all of that, the possibility of a Neolithic dimension was reopened in 1993, when a megalithic alignment made up out of 111 stones between the field and Glozel was discovered. The alignment sits along an old road and leads up to the brow of the hill, where there is a half circle with a large boulder in the centre. The megalithic alignment was partially destroyed in the early 20th century, but it is known to have been about 100 metres long and roughly orientated north-south, in the direction of Field of Death. This is evidence that Glozel as a whole had a Neolithic component.
Finally, Glozel is not as unique as many believe. After the initial discovery had been made, Claude Fradin remembered that the Guillonet family, the tenant farmers who lived there before them, had found a vase with a mysterious inscription around it in the same field. In January 1928, the Mercier family, who owned Chez Guerrier, the farm next to Glozel, found a stone inscribed with 21 letters and a horse. He got in touch with Morlet, who found more artefacts on the site. Other sites in area added to the treasure chest. The site of Puyravel, 2.5 km from Glozel, yielded 13 stone artefacts, some engraved with animals and letters. Artefacts were also found at Palissard, 500 metres from Glozel, and Moulin-Piat, 2.5 km from the site. It suggests that the entire area was of some importance to our forefathers, where vases and other materials were either buried together with dead, or where these artefacts were offered, perhaps because the area was sacred to a specific deity. But the shadow of Glozel’s controversy is so strong and controversial that the true history of the region may never be illuminated… and our understanding of history is the biggest victim in an affaire that should since long have progressed from the fake-no fake debate.

For a good introduction to Glozel, its controversy and its archaeology, see Alice Gerard's Bones of Contention in the Amazon Store on this site.

This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets, hors série 2 (2007).