Saturday, January 13, 2024

In the Age of the Piltdown Man

Paleontology has a long and checkered history, with lots of mistakes and false assumptions littering its legacy. Among the more amusing ones is the story of the Piltdown Man. 

The above image shows the so-called Piltdown Gang, the academics and enthusiasts who launched the Piltdown Man into public awareness and created a sensation. The man standing directly to the left of the lab-coated sitting fellow is Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist who claimed to have found the fossil remains of the "first Englishman" in an East Sussex Piltdown gravel pit in 1912. It took many researchers 41 years to figure out that the bits of a skull and jaw that were found were nothing more than a hoax, and a fairly obvious one at that. The skull was apparently human, while the jaw came from an Ourangutan. It seemed that Dawson created the hoax to fool and ridicule the academics who had dismissed him and his various amateur theories.

41 years is a long time and a lot happened concerning the Piltdown Man skull during those years. Among other things, the "first Englishman" was given a proper scientific name, "Eoanthropus dawsoni" (Dawson's dawn-age man), and several engaging illustrations were produced, showing him stalking through prehistoric Britain. Dawson was not idle during the years following his great "discovery." Perhaps he got cold feet, for as interest in his find grew and more people flocked to the Sussex gravel pit to hunt for more fossils, Dawson started to put things into the pit which would eventually convince the academics that they were dealing with a big prank. He even put a bit of wood into the excavation site, suspiciously similar to a Cricket bat, to illuminate the true nature of the Piltdown Man joke, but to no avail.

I always thought it would be fun to make a story about the Piltdown Man and what a fictional version of prehistoric England might look like. I sculpted four Piltdown Men since my initial idea was to have two Cricket teams with two on each. In the end, I just used two of these characters.

The eyes were simple plastic pearls, with painted irises covered with a clear coat of gloss lacquer.

I did cast four latex skins from a single plaster mold covering all four sculptures. I may use the two discarded skins for other characters eventually.

The inside of the head part was lined with a mix of latex and cotton to create a sturdy, leathery quality. After the latex/cotton mix had dried, it was covered with thermoplastic to create a skull of sorts. The eyes were embedded in silicone clay sockets held in place with the thermoplastic. A single 2 mm aluminum wire animates the jaw. Bits of polyurethane foam soaked in latex were stuffed into the chest area to help maintain its shape.

The armatures for my two Piltdown Men were very simple. The feet have threaded bolts for tie-down, and the rump has another threaded bolt for attaching my flying rig for certain scenes. The feet were also sculpted and cast in latex, but they were, in fact, made years ago for another puppet project

I spent quite a bit of time building up foam bits over the armatures to create subtle shapes of fat and muscles.

When the foam build-up was finished I attached the latex chest- and head piece to the armature, and added small patches of tinted latex skin to cover the foam. I have a rubber texture stamp with a very subtle texture imitating pores into which I added thin layers of latex.

The puppet was then given a unifying coat of tinted latex, which was sponged on in thin layers.

The finished Piltdown Men (just one shown here) were augmented with dashes of acrylic paint, and of course, a handsome coat of bodily hair. The hair used was crepé hair (sheep's wool) glued on using liquid latex. Teeth were made from tissue paper and latex. The Cricket bat was cut from a strip of wood painted with watercolors.

I thought it'd be fun to have my very own Piltdown Man skull, so I made one from a discarded human skull I cast years ago (I never throw away anything). To change it into the established reconstruction of the Sussex fossils, I added new parts made from epoxy putty. I used a dark grey variety, which I think was called chemical metal, or something similar, and when I ran out of that I turned to a yellow putty used by model makers.

The skull was then spray-painted with two layers of car paint and touched up with acrylic airbrush paints. The brown parts are a water-based hobby paint applied with a brush. They signify the actual fossil parts found.
I wanted to add a few examples of prehistoric fauna to my caveman epic and felt that these animals ought to be on par with the Piltdown Man. Today we all know what a Stegosaurus looks like, but back when the original fossils were found several ideas were floating around. The above illustration is the creation of French artist Auguste-Michel Jobin and dates to 1884. Not only have the spikes and plates switched places, but the animal is now a biped. Eventually, American paleontologist Charles Othniel Marsh would figure out what the animal looked like, and with slight corrections, his version is what we still go with today.

Isn't this a cool picture? Jobin's Stegosaurus is taking in the sights in a (then) modern city to show the scale of the animal. All it reminds me of is, of course, modern Kaiju movies. This critter would certainly make a very nice stop-motion puppet.

My favorite movie dinosaur of all time is the 1933 "King Kong" Stegosaurus, built by Marcel Delgado and based on paintings of the animal made by Charles Knight. However you look at it I stole his designs or was inspired by them when sculpting my Victorian Stegosaur head. I also created a sculpture of knobbly, scaly skin similar to the hide on Delgado's monster. My head sculpture was quite small, just a bit over an inch and a half long, but I still managed to pack quite a bit of detail in there. The eyes are tiny doll's eyes and made by a seller on eBay, where I bought them years ago. 

Another one of my usual aluminum wire armatures, here with the head cast in latex attached.

Lots of soft polyurethane foam muscles were glued over the armature using flexible contact cement. I used a speculative reconstruction of dinosaur muscles as a guide.

That knobbly skin is being applied, using liquid latex as a glue. I really like a good texture on a puppet. It monumentally adds to the character.

Here's the whole puppet covered with skin, cast with tinted latex in a texture mold from my skin sculpture.

The finished puppet is dry-brushed with tinted latex, with various subtle colors in layer over layer. The plates are bits of EVA foam covered with cotton and latex. The spikes are tissue paper and latex. The tiny teeth are just drops of latex tinted white. Small bits of latex skin were also attached to the edges of the mouth. I don't know if dinosaurs had that, but I've seen it in alligators and various lizards. The puppet is about 17 inches from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail.

The second animal I chose to inhabit this undefined era-Britain was an incorrectly reconstructed Uintatherium; a herbivore described by American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (bitter enemy of Charles Othniel Marsh, by the way.) Cope called his animal Loxolophodon, and figured it was something like a small elephant or tapir with antlers, for some reason. The correct version of this animal (as far as we know) was provided by Marsh, and the genus Uintatherium was coined by Marsh's colleague Joseph Leidy. Anyway, Cope's reconstruction cried out to be animated, and so it was.

I sculpted most of the head for this puppet, not including the antlers and the trunk.

I forgot to snap any photos of the armature, but it's as basic as can be. Again, I used a muscle diagram to place the foam muscles in a believable way. I used a drawing of rhino muscles for this one.

The wrinkly elephantine skin came from a couple of well-used texture molds I made years ago. Lots of my puppets have been draped in these skin textures. The antlers are made from stiff metal wires covered with tissue paper dipped in latex.

The finished Uintatherium was dry-brushed with tinted latex using a sponge. The tusks were made from thermoplastic, and the bristles on the neck and the end of the tail were created with crepé hair.

Of course, this film was the perfect opportunity to finally do a Ray Harryhausen-inspired battle between two prehistoric beasties. Harryhausen's monster fights are quite similar, with certain tropes lovingly repeated, like an actor knowing what his audience wants and giving it to them: The circling combatants before the fight, the biting of horns, the foot on the fallen opponent -I included all of it in my animation. The only difference is that this fight is a draw. The monsters back off and live to fight another day.

A word about the backgrounds. I picked up a bunch of photos of the Hoh rainforest in Washington state, found on the Depositphotos collection, to which I subscribe. I felt that the drooping mosses and the glowing greens could represent a lush prehistoric England. The various marked-out walkways were removed in Photoshop.

The exploding volcano is a bit of stock CGI animation found on

To research the animation for the Cricket play I actually watched actor Peter Davison perform a perfect bowl in the Doctor Who episode "Black Orchid."

The end credits are adorned by a rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "He Is An Englishman", sung by Harry Dearth in a 1907 recording. It's the only public domain recording I could find, but the crackling, ancient sound sort of fits in with the rest of the film.