Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Heworth Hoax (NZ289617)

During a spot of routine gravedigging in Heworth churchyard in late 1812 a group of unsuspecting workmen found a little clay pot filled with 20-odd ancient looking coins. They dutifully handed them to their boss, the Reverend John Hodgson, who also happened to be Northumberland’s famous historian and antiquarian.

Hodgson was well pleased, and the following year saw fit to go public with the discovery by way of his colleagues at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The coins were cleaned – several being discarded due to their advanced state of decay – and, after much headscratching by the experts of the day, Hodgson declared them to be stycas from the reign of King Ecgfrith, who ruled Northumbria during 670-685AD. This was a rare find indeed.

Ecgfrith was a significant ruler of ancient Northumbria, being responsible for the founding of the famous St.Paul’s monastery in Jarrow (as well as St.Peter’s, Wearmouth). Historian Hodgson was intrigued with this possible link between Heworth and neighbouring Jarrow, and set about developing a theory for the ancient origins of the former being entwined with the well-known roots of the latter. When he concluded the construction of his new chapel at Heworth in 1822 he even placed a dedication stone above the south door claiming that his little religious site was originally founded in the reign of Ecgfrith.

Other historians had their doubts both at the time and in the years and decades that followed. Turns out, in fact, that the little pot and its curious contents were a hoax, conducted by perpetrators unknown – possibly to fool poor old Hodgson. The scam came to light as late as the 1980s when, with the church’s 1,300th anniversary approaching, the relics were subjected to scientific analysis. The pot, it was said, was medieval at best (and probably much younger) - and as for the coins, well, they were fashioned from Georgian copper.

No evidence has ever been found which may point to the identity of the hoaxer. All that can be said is that it was a very clever ruse and must have taken an expert hand to execute.

More discussion and analysis of this extraordinary story can be found here (and click on ‘Church Tales’).

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