Carbon Dating Just Revealed The ‘Oldest’ British Skull To Be Much Younger — And Possibly A Hoax

Published November 2, 2021

Anthropologists initially declared that the skull, called 'Greta,' was 10,000 years old, but radiocarbon dating shows that it actually came from a woman who died between 1041 and 1163.

Greta Skull

David Adkins“Greta” was long assumed to be prehistoric but she’s actually medieval.

For decades, “Greta” the skull has reigned as the “Eve of England.” Since her discovery in 1943, anthropologists have believed that she was at least 10,000 years old and one of the world’s oldest human female remains. But radiocarbon dating says that Greta is, in fact, less than 1,000 years old.

Now, some wonder if her discovery was a hoax.

“It was a bit like being hit in the face with a snowball – only to find it was a snowball full of diamonds,” said David Adkins, an archeology enthusiast who “rediscovered” Greta after she mysteriously disappeared for 40 years.

“It was surprising to find the carbon dating did not show Greta was Mesolithic or even prehistoric – but that she was much more recent and dated from around the time of the [Norman] Conquest.”

Though Adkins once believed that Greta could be as old as 14,000 years old, radiocarbon dating has offered an exact — and surprising — age. According to experts from Durham and Oxford Universities and the Francis Crick Institute in London, Greta died between 1041 and 1163, possibly during the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Her story is full of twists and turns. Workers first came across the skull in the Branston Gravel Pits, near Burton, England, in 1943. At that point, the acclaimed anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith examined Greta and estimated that she’d died 10,000 years earlier. A mammoth tooth found nearby seemed to back up his research.

David Adkins Greta On Table

David AdkinsAnthropologist David Adkins with Greta on his research table.

But then Greta vanished. She was initially displayed at the Burton Museum but disappeared when the museum closed in the 1980s. Adkins came across her decades later at the Stoke-on-Trent Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

He then offered an even more dramatic estimate of her age. Based on the mammoth tooth, Adkins guessed that the skull dated back some 14,000 years.

“If the tooth was one of the grave goods in Greta’s grave, she could be over 14,000 years old, pushing her back in time to the Palaeolithic or Early Stone Age,” Adkins explained at the time.

The skull was then sent to the Francis Crick Institute, which offered the most recent estimate of Greta’s age — obliterating Keith and Adkin’s earlier estimates.

“So, far from being a prehistoric hunter-gatherer, Greta was almost certainly an Anglo-Norman living a life recognizable to us today,” Adkins explained.

“She would have probably witnessed the Conquest – if she was British – and we can possibly speculate that the healed depression fracture above her left eye was caused by the skirmishes of 1066.”

The Crick Institute’s claim that Greta died in the 11th or 12th century has brought new scrutiny to Sir Arthur Keith’s original estimate. Was Keith mistaken? Or did he perpetrate a hoax?

“The circumstances surrounding the burial were not typical for the medieval period,” insisted Adkins. “It just didn’t seem to add up – all the evidence pointed to Greta being prehistoric.”

Sir Arthur Keith

Wikimedia CommonsSir Arthur Keith, who originally declared Greta to be at least 10,000 years old.

However, he added, “The more I considered the carbon date for Greta against the circumstances of her discovery, the more I saw a likeness to the infamous Piltdown Man case.”

The Piltdown Man case involved bone fragments found by Charles Dawson in 1912. Then, Dawson claimed that the bones were around 500,000 years old and provided a crucial link between the evolution of apes and humans.

Though the bones were later discovered to be fakes, Dawson’s claim was supported by none other than Sir Arthur Keith. Plus, both the Piltdown Man bones and Greta’s skull appear to have been stained, perhaps to give them the appearance of old age.

“Now that we know Sir Arthur Keith was heavily involved with both Greta and Piltdown Man, does it add any weight to the belief that he was indeed responsible for the Piltdown hoax?” Adkins asked.

“In fact, does Project Greta finally prove that Sir Arthur Keith was indeed the Piltdown hoaxer?”

Adkins also pointed to the fact that Keith’s letters and notes from both the Piltdown Man bones and Greta’s skull have both mysteriously disappeared. “Even the papers that were due for publication vanished,” he said.

As such, Greta the skull is not what she initially appeared to be. In fact, she might be the “face” of a larger anthropological hoax. But her discovery remains a sensational one — and offers a hint at the violence of the Norman Conquest.

After reading about Greta the skull, learn about the crystal skulls that turned out to be a Victorian hoax. Or, discover the truth behind the cuneiform cell phone hoax.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Adam Farley
Adam Farley is an Assistant Editor at All That's Interesting. He was previously content director of and deputy editor of Irish America magazine. He holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from the University of Washington.