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Posts Tagged ‘dragon hoaxes’

My husband stumbled across a documentary on Netflix a few weeks ago. The Wreck of the Unbelievable detailed the discovery of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. Among the items recovered were several statues encrusted with barnacles, coral, and other sea life. The one that caught my attention was a monumental six-headed dragon squaring off to battle an equally large warrior.

I love ruins and relics, so this drew me right in. The film went on to detail conflicts among the crew, the danger of storms at sea, and even African villagers saying how curious they were about what those foreigners were doing out there on their ship.

However, a part of my brain was whispering doubts. Items under water since the 1st Century shouldn’t be so clean. And didn’t that one look sort of like Mickey Mouse? So I went to do a little research. I found out my eyes were wrong while my brain got it right.

The Wreck of the Unbelievable was actually a mockumentary created to build excitement around an exhibition by the British artist Damien Hirst. The “treasures” recovered from the “wreck” were contemporary art, sea life and all. That includes the six-headed dragon and warrior sculptures. It all appeared in a Venetian museum in 2017. You can read arts coverage here.

Now, I have no special grudge against Hirst for creating a mockumentary. As a writer, I spend a certain amount of time trying to build excitement around my own books. Still, this is something of a cautionary tale. I’m glad I did that follow-up on the film I saw. Otherwise, I could have passed off fiction as fact just like any rube who saw a side show at the circus.


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Here’s a teasing video from YouTube. “Do you believe this baby dragon is real?” the videographer asks.

I believe it is a real resin casting with lovely paint, and I wish he’d said where you can buy these!


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Perhaps the most famous dragon hoax is that of the Loch Ness Monster. Legends of lake monsters had been circulating around the Scottish loch for centuries, but they spiked with a series of reports in 1933 and ’34. Among the most notable and controversial evidence is the so-called Surgeon’s Photograph.

A London physician, Robert Kenneth Wilson, allegedly photographed Nessie at play in April of 1934. He reported that he had been viewing the loch and noticed the creature, whereupon he started taking pictures. There were four exposures, but only two were clear enough to be published. Because the photographer didn’t wish to be associated with such a topic, the best shot was published as “the Surgeon’s Photograph.” It’s the archetypal Nessie image: turbulent waters, a long neck with tiny head, and suggestions of a humped back behind.

Its publication in The Daily Mail created a sensation and firmly fixed this image in the public mind. There were skeptics from the outset, however. Dozens of theories have been floated in the decades since: a submerged log, a bird, an otter, a large fish or eel, even an elephant from a passing circus. Some said the physician innocently took photos of an object without knowing what it was. Others believed the newspaper created the hoax to sell copies, and that was why Dr. Wilson would have no part of it.

During the same decades, technology for analyzing photos has also improved. Since the mid-1990s, the Surgeon’s Photograph has been known as a fake. Analysis showed that the photo had been cropped to make “Nessie” appear much larger, and the ripples surrounding her were also consistent with a small object. A 1999 book, Nessie — the Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed, related a complicated plot.

According to the author, a reporter named Marmaduke Wetherell had been duped by a hoax of alleged Nessie footprints. He was publicly mocked when he tried to sell pictures to The Daily Mail and set out to get revenge. Together with his co-conspirators, he build the Nessie model from a child’s toy submarine and wood putty. Dr. Wilson was another friend who agreed to sell the photos to The Daily Mail, so the editors wouldn’t know Wetherell was involved.

Despite this apparent resolution, claims and counter-claims have continued to surface. New science, such as sonar, is periodically employed to investigate the famous lake. Each adds a new ripple to the mystery of Loch Ness.

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The discovery of a pickled dragon fetus created a sensation in late 2003. According to the claim, David Hart found this item in a box in his garage in Oxforshire. Supposedly his grandfather once worked at the Natural History Museum in London, and had left the box in the garage decades before.

The find consisted of a 30-inch tall glass jar full of formaldehyde, and within it the floating reptilian fetus. Hart related that this unusual object had been donated to the Natural History Museum in the late 19th Century by a group of German scientists. Their nefarious plan? That the Natural History Museum would become an object of ridicule after displaying such an object as if it were real. But, the story went, Museum officials were not fooled and put the object in the trash. From there it was salvaged by Dear Old Grandad, who kept it as a curiosity.

Well, if there actually had been such a donation by German scientists, the Natural History Museum would have been quite correct to dispose of it. The “fetus” and the story behind it were created by Hart and amplified by his marketing guy, Allistair Mitchell. It seems Hart had written a dark fantasy/thriller novel with dragons returning to terrorize modern Britain, and he hoped to create some buzz about the project. The “dragon fetus” was a model, created by the same company that provided props for the BBC’s famed Walking With Dinosaurs series. The “antique jar” was also a custom commission.

Did Hart’s scheme work? Well, he did get a publishing deal. Waterstones published his novel in 2004. I’ve glimpsed information that it was supposed to be first in a series, but I didn’t write the title down and now I can’t find any more on it or any other books in the series. So the “pickled dragon” hoax may have been partly effective, but ultimately it seems that you cannot really fake your way to success.

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From the moment a technology develops, it seems that some enterprising soul finds a way to use it in perpetuating some sort of hoax or scam.

Modern taxidermy allowed the creation of Feejee Mermaids, which were widely displayed in circus sideshows. Actually, they were created when the upper half of a small monkey was sewn together with the back half of a suitably sized fish.

Photography has spawned any number of hoax techniques. Double exposures appeared to show ghostly visitations, and paper props allegedly captured fairy visits. Pie plates were passed off as UFOs. As photography evolved into primarily a digital form, and the Internet flourishes, new and better hoaxes can be passed around with the speed of a mouse-click.

For some reason, Tibet has emerged as a hotbed of dragon hoaxes. In 2004, a photographer in an airplane over the Tibetan Himalayas claimed to have captured images of two dragons flying. In the most widely circulated photo, you can see what are claimed to be the dragons’ tails. Although evocative, these objects may have been cloud formations, or a glacier seen from above.

Then, just last month, a video went viral. It claimed to show a dragon that had fallen from the sky in Tibet. Cool! But, a hoax. The dragon was a realistic sculpture created for a Spanish television show. Cuarto Milenio is a reality show/documentary hybrid that attempts to explain various mysteries and legends. Apparently, they did an episode on dragon lore and someone got clever with the props.

Despite the hoax, I would totally watch that show on Netflix… if only I understood Spanish.

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