The Vermaning Affair – archaeological forgeries in Drenthe

Tjerk Vermaning, Havelte, 13 mei 1975, foto: Rob Bogaerts, Nationaal Archief: collectie ANEFO

Tjerk Vermaning was a Dutch amateur archaeologist and, at first, a well-respected collector of fossils and prehistoric artefacts. Indeed in 1966 he received the Drenthe Cultural Prize for his contributions towards raising understanding of the prehistoric heritage of the province. Today, however, he is best remembered for his trial on a charge of forging archaeological finds.

Vermaning (1929–1987) first became interested in archaeology at an early age. When he was in his 30’s, after seeing a hand axe which had been found in Wijnjeterp, he became obsessed with the Neanderthals and their flint tools. He made a number of successful discoveries and worked closely with archaeologists from the Drents Museum in Assen.

Hand axe from Wijnjeterp, Friesland, photo: Frans de Vries

Exciting times for Dutch archaeology

In 1965 he announced an archaeological discovery which turned him overnight into the most famous amateur archaeologist in the Netherlands. According to Vermaning he had found more than 120 stone tools made by Neanderthals around 50,000 years ago. The tools were found in a field close to the television transmitter aerial in Hoogersmilde, where Vermaning had identified traces of a Neanderthal encampment.

The news appeared in all the papers and scientists were enthusiastic about the exciting new finds. Indeed the discovery was the beginning of a sensational period in Dutch archaeology. Vermaning sold the stone tools to the province of Drenthe for 10,000 guilders, sharing the proceeds with the landowner. In the years that followed Vermaning announced several large finds from other Drenthe sites in Hijken and Ravenswoud.

Genuine? Or forgeries?

Then in 1975, a scientific report unmasked his finds as forgeries. The news was a great sensation, both in Drenthe and in the wider archaeological community. Vermaning was charged with fraud and in 1977 he was found guilty by a court in Assen and sentenced to one month in jail. However, Vermaning appealed and a year later the Court of Appeal in Leeuwarden reversed the decision. In the opinion of the appeal judge, it had not been proved that Vermaning had made the artefacts himself.

The court did not make any judgement as to whether the artefacts were genuine or false, and the Vermaning Affair is still a source of great controversy to this day.

Tjerk Vermaning died in October 1987, aged 58. His ashes were scattered near the transmitter mast in Hoogersmilde.

Tjerk Vermaning, July 1977, photo collection: provincie Drenthe

Text                 Alun Harvey


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