My article ‘Edward Kelley’s Danish treasure hoax and Elizabethan antiquarianism’ has just been published in Intellectual History Review. The article focusses on a single strange episode that occurred during the very strange partnership between Edward Kelley and John Dee, who collaborated together in what have become the best-known operations of ritual magic in sixteenth-century England. Treasure-hunting has always been a traditional pursuit of ritual magicians, and in spite of his aspirations to a purer and more exalted magic, Dee was no different. So in order to pander to Dee’s desire for buried treasure, in March 1583 Kelley returned from a winter spent in the Gloucestershire (then Worcestershire) village of Blockley, where he had family connections, with a vial of red powder, a scroll written in strange characters, and a book. Kelley claimed he had dug up these items on Northwick Hill, just above the village. The powder was the alchemical ‘powder of projection’ for which Dee had been searching, while the book was written by St Dunstan (popularly believed to have been a successful alchemist). The scroll took a while for Dee to decode, but it turned out to have been written in coded Latin by two Danish princes, who recorded in it where they had buried their treasure just before they were expelled from England.
That Kelley was hoaxing Dee is obvious, but the old view that Dee was an unusually gullible individual cynically exploited by Kelley is untenable. Kelley was forced to go to extraordinary lengths to deceive Dee, and nowhere more so than in the Danish treasure hoax, because Dee was one of the most learned men alive. Constructing the Danish treasure hoax pushed Kelley to the limits of his ingenuity. The article analyses the hoax, seeking to understand both why Dee was so willing to believe it and the likely sources from which Kelley constructed it. Ironically, the construction of a successful archaeological hoax must itself be a rigorous antiquarian exercise.
The article goes on to argue that archaeological hoaxes – both their construction and their unmasking – played a key role in the development of archaeology as a discipline, and that they remain valuable insofar as hoaxes help us to judge the limits of plausibility. Simply put, if we know the sort of thing that is likely to fool us then we can guard against deception. While some hoaxes are transparent as soon as professional archaeologists become involved, others (such as the infamous Piltdown Man hoax) had archaeologists fooled for years. Some suspected hoaxes, such as the ‘Venus’ figurine found at Grimes Graves in 1939, have never been definitively debunked for lack of evidence. Other hoaxes have been repeatedly debunked but nevertheless remain popular with the public (and, dare I say it, certain cable TV channels).
The Danish treasure hoax drew on the latest antiquarian research, local lore associated with the Blockley area, and folklore about St Dunstan and monastic experiments in alchemy. While I do not in any way intend to condone archaeological hoaxes, in the same way that hackers unintentionally help improve information security by showing what can and cannot be hacked successfully, so archaeological hoaxers show what can and cannot fool archaeologists and historians. In doing so they reveal flaws in human nature as well as in archaeological and historiographical methodologies. Ironically, the more archaeological hoaxes there are, the more carefully archaeologists will refine their methodologies and the harder it will become to hoax them. Studying the archaeological hoaxes of the past is especially revealing of the state of knowledge as it was at the time.
Ultimately, the Danish treasure hoax may have broken Dee; he seems to have remained convinced that he might find the treasure, even when he returned from his Bohemian adventure without Kelley and found himself excluded from Elizabeth’s court. Although he was appointed dean of the collegiate church in Manchester Dee died in penury, perhaps partly as a result of his penchant for dreaming up magical solutions to all his money worries. Kelley’s hoax was just too good, and Dee may never have seen through it.