Adam Curtis

A few weeks ago the man who held the key to one of the great mysteries of Western Europe died.

He was called Emile Fradin. He was a farmer in France in a village called Glozel near the town of Vichy. And he was 103 years old.

His story is extraordinary. Back in the 1920s Emile Fradin was working in a field when one of his cows stumbled into an underground chamber. It was full of strange objects - human bones with strange markings on them, human masks, hermaphrodite idols with phalluses on their head. And most mysterious of all - square clay tablets inscribed with an unknown language.

Here is a picture of a young Emile Fradin

Fradin then allowed anyone to come and dig in his field - and after a while everyone began to find more and more strange objects - thousand and thousands of them.

It caused a sensation. Some leading archaeologists said they were genuine artifacts from the Neolithic period. Other - equally eminent - archaeologists insisted that they were fake. Emile Fradin stuck to his story. He sued the head of the Louvre for defamation. The head of the French Prehistoric Society persuaded the police to raid Fradin's farmhouse. He was charged with fraud, but nothing was proved.

At the heart of the mystery was the strange language. If the clay tablets were really from the Neolithic period then they predated the Phoenician characters from which western alphabets are supposed to have come.

And that would mean that the cradle of human civilisation was not the Middle East as everyone supposed, but Glozel - Emile Fradin's village.

No-one knows whether the find was one of the greatest frauds ever. Or whether Emile Fradin's stumbling cow revealed that much of what we believe about our ancient past is wrong. And now the only person who knows the truth has died.

Here is part of a film made by the BBC in 1974 about the mystery.

The characters are like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. It is full of obsessive and strange people from the world of archaeology including Emile Fradin himself. But it is dominated by the wonderful figure of Dorothy Garrod. She was the world's leading archaeologist in the 1930s and the first woman professor in Cambridge. She spent her time in the 1920s and 30s leading expeditions through Palestine and Kurdistan.

Here she is in 1913.

I also love the way the film is made. It is a documentary style that is now completely lost to television (but it is beginning to re-emerge in some of the whimsical independent movies in Hollywood - like Wes Anderson). You could describe it as anti-style. Everyone is interviewed with a light firmly fixed in front of them, all the shots are completely functional and unstylised. I particularly love the shot of four eminent archaeologists arriving together in a 1970s car at Monsieur Fradin's farmhouse - all determined to destroy him (in their pompous archaeological way).

And to top it all there is some beautiful, obsolete 1970s technology.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by infoscientist

    on 17 Jun 2010 16:31

    In the 70s a BBC Chronicle programme covered Glozel and at the time it was considered pretty certainly to be a complete fraud. There is a chapter on this in the book accompanying the series - 'Chronicle' publ by the BBC 1978, ISBN 0563174838.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by GPWC

    on 31 May 2010 09:50

    No debate about mystery archaeology can be complete without mentioning Erich von Daniken - a must read for a certain type of 70s nerdy schoolboy.

    But seriously, the balance of probabilities - or improbabilities, if you like - is usually overlooked by documentaries (and much worse, news programmes). All you need to do in a documentary in order to make an instant mystery is put one expert up against another or one fact against another. The viewer who is passively watching does not have time to analyse or ask questions before the story moves on.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by the art teacher

    on 28 May 2010 21:11

    Thanks for the info Leeravitz, very interesting.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Lee Ravitz

    on 26 May 2010 23:27

    In regard to a minor point in The Art Teacher's comments which I missed on the first read-through: it is interesting to me that the newspaper argument brought in the Abbe Breuil as an authority. He was one of the most significant early analysts of the meaning of Paleolithic cave paintings in the 20th century, and was significantly involved in popularising the existence of paleolithic works at the sites of Altamira and Lascaux to the wider world (he also knew and worked with Teilhard de Chardin). Amongst other ideas, Breuil was the first to suggest that the cave paintings had once held power in the rituals of imitative hunting magic, that the recesses of the caves had served as symbolic (womblike) regions of (spiritual) rebirth for participants in ritual, and that evidence for shamanistic practice was clearly depicted on the cave walls. In course of time, many of Breuil's own ideas have been refined or repudiated by later paleontologists who have preferred to stress the ideas that the cave paintings are merely inventories of animal types, records of actual hunting expeditions, proto-linguistic usages (i.e. sign symbols designed to stand for reference to other objects) and so on, and downgraded the idea that the caves served as repositories of shamanistic magic. The debate continues.

    But I found it interesting as a reminder that even the supposedly mainstream archaeological findings of a Breuil (or, indeed, a Dorothy Garrod) might have been held to have been authoritative forty or fifty years ago, but would now be brought into question.

    Anyway, that's who Breuil was.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by doubleblind

    on 26 May 2010 12:32

    There's an obit of Fradin in the current issue of the ever-dependable Fortean Times.
    Although the chamber had some strange and old objects in when Fradin found it, most of the really weird stuff - cabbalistic signs, hermaphrodite idols, undecipherable tablets - only emerged after a local amateur archaeologist, Antonin Morlet, paid Fradin 200 francs to 'excavate' there. The Occam's razor solution is that Morlet introduced most of the baffling 'finds'.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Egoist

    on 25 May 2010 18:34

    The whole thing reeks of BS. Looking at the wiki article it said that by 1979 thermoluminescence dating had taken place on 27 of the artifacts. The dates of these objects are all over the place: 300BC to 300AD, 13th Century, and very recent. The carbon dating on the bone fragments is just as varied: 13th Century right up to the 20th. Little Émile Fradin is a hoaxer, methinks.

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Li

    on 24 May 2010 22:09

    I found it. It was not listed as such on Wikipedia, the only website listing the soundtrack. Which contributes to this being one of my favorite documentaries of all time, if not the one. It is "spiegel im spiegel" by arvo part.

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by Chris D

    on 24 May 2010 16:00

    Hi DerekMc…

    re your comment #6…

    As much as one admires the tenacious speed and findings on their projects The Time Team do have the advantage of extensive pre-production research before the start of filming. That is to say they more or less know what they are looking for in a short period of time to confirm or disprove or embellish existing knowledge of the historical record. I know you know this, but it is still worth a reminder since in our modern age there is an all too easy approach to problems, namely the "surely it's just a case of pressing the right button" answer....No Pejorative or supercilious critique intended.....

    I’m not sure what the French ‘will’ to finding out a modern solution is in this case but extensive and costly multi-disciplinary research, including detailed forensic and geographical analysis, is surely required to tie a story for our times together. Whether this is happening or not I have no idea. It will probably be up to wealthy and inquisitive Americans to pursue as it was with Shakespeare. However it is very very unlikely to alter what we do know about the modern homo sapien sapien scientific record since this is nailed down genetically and present in the migratory archaeological and fossil records. Though truth can be stranger than fiction there will be a factual answer to this ‘mystery’ - even if it does turn out to be a hoax which would be a staggering and interesting indictment to the story it certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened.

    I am reminded of the Piltdown Man hoax which began in 1912 and was solved in the early 1950s. Maybe ‘we’ just have a bigger, more pragmatic and longer lasting appetite for finding solutions to historical conundrums than the French do! Pardonnez-moi…. Messieurs et Mesdames…

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Lee Ravitz

    on 23 May 2010 22:06

    Fascinating stuff as ever. I believe that the Glozel Find was generally held to be quite significant in the field of 'mystery archaeology' in the 1970's, but has since faded from interest. I first read of it in Francis Hitching's World Atlas of Mysteries (publ. 1979), which belongs to a certain subgroup of late 70's era publications that followed in the footsteps of French writers like Charroux and Pauwels and Bergier who tended to combine instances of Fortean peculiarity with a certain degree of rational analysis of their subject matter. In the book (which doesn't, it must be said, make a great case for the find's authenticity), Glozel shares space with material that once seemed mysterious but has now been resolved more satisfactorily than could have been foreseen in the 70's (the disappearance of Col. Fawcett in South America, the decline of the Neanderthals, and, it almost goes without saying, the mysteries of Stonehenge, for instance), with material that remains controversial (the mystery of Kaspar Hauser, the identity - or otherwise - of King Arthur) and certain pieces that were clearly considered of great interest to the 70's audience but have not continued to exercise much interests amongst 'anomalous history' investigative types, such as the Soviet theory of the Earth being enclosed within a crystal latticework, and Velikovsky's redating of Ancient Egyptian history and Old Testament chronology on the basis of identifying global upheaval linked to Venus as a one - time rogue planet. In the book's defence, there are (even in the late 70's) already certain stories which it takes pains to debunk - these include such perennials as the mysteries of the Mary Celeste and the Bermuda Triangle. In that sense, the Glozel story is given the benefit of the doubt.

    Personally, I have always loved these particular kind of 70's era fascinations, which appear to me to be some kind of hangover from certain late 60's preoccupations with the transcendent and the extraterrestrial, later refracted further through 70's obsessions with the occult and early environmental awareness. Although we now live in a society that is awash with conspiracy theory and pseudo-archaeological thought, none of it quite posseses the innocency and yet, at the same time, academic respectability of much of this earlier material. I think it's worth remembering that one of the most widespread current conspiracy theories of the early 21st century (that enshrined in Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code') relating to the secret society The Priory of Sion and the hidden bloodline of Jesus's family, all derives ultimately from a programme made for the BBC Chronicle series by Henry Lincoln in the early 70's, with a very similar feel to the Glozel doc that Adam is showcasing here. Lincoln based his research on a small paperback of the Charroux variety published in France in the late 60's by one Gerard de Sede (who made a small industry out of these things) that he'd read when he'd been on holiday.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by Li

    on 23 May 2010 20:14

    And if my post is seen as inappropriate and removed, please be so kind as to tell me where I might direct my question in a more efficient manner. Thank you again.

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