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I work for Resource, a UK government body responsible for museums, among other things. A colleague forwarded me the letter below, with an accompanying note, apparently from another member of the same body. My first instinct was to trust the letter. No, my first instinct was to laugh a lot. My second instinct was to trust the letter, because I've received enquiries myself that seemed not much less odd. But on a hunch, I Googled for 'spiff-arino' and found a welter of items. Adding 'hoax' to the search terms revealed what I was looking for. An article at http://www.channel4.com/history/timeteam/archonweb10.html traces the history of the 'Newport Man' back to a rec.humor.funny post in November 1995. The letter originated in spring 1994 when Harvey Rowe, a graduate student in South Carolina, wrote it to amuse his friends, who copied it and passed it on. The names used have since varied a bit, but the version below seems to be the original. The preamble appears fairly standardised too.

A little further research of my own into the archives of the Council for British Archaeology's Britarch mailing list (www.britarch.ac.uk) provided further points. One reader back in early 2001 had linked the spiff-arino hoax to a Calvin and Hobbes gag about a Calvinosaurus skeleton consisting of a Coke bottle, a fork, and (you guessed it) a bit of Barbie doll. 'Spiff' is also a Calvin-ism, if you see what I mean. A museum curator from Gloucester reported that he'd had personal experience with a member of the public who claimed that a toilet cistern chain was a "Roman royal princess' necklace", and that a resin replica of a Lewis chessman was a walrus-ivory original. Apparently there was also something about ammonites... An excavator reported a famous archaeologist mistaking fragments of 20th-century municipal junk for a Roman incense burner, not to mention occasions in post-war East Germany where unexploded ordnance was often taken for older and safer material. Bombing was also to blame for "a very clear ring-ditch cropmark" which turned out to be the impact site of an off-course incendiary. The 'incense-burner' story amused me especially because of a very similar event in the 'Jennings' boarding school novels of Anthony Buckeridge, where the two 11-year-old heroes bring a rusty iron wheel to the local museum under the impression that the 'BC' on it is a date, rather than the initials of the local Borough Council. Here is the letter, with its usual preamble:

The story behind the letter below is an odd fellow in Newport, RI named Scott Williams who digs things out of his backyard and sends the stuff he finds to the Smithsonian Institution, labeling them with scientific names, and insisting that they are actual archaeological finds. This man really exists and does this in his spare time. Below is the actual response from the Smithsonian Institution. Bear this in mind next time you think you are challenged in your duty to respond to difficult or bizarre letter writers...

Smithsonian Institution
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Mr. Williams:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled "93211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post...Hominid skull." We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.

It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings.

However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to its modern origin:

  1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.
  2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-homonids.
  3. The dentition pattern evident on the skull is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
    A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
    B. Clams don't have teeth.

It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon-dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal operation, and partly due to carbon-dating's notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon-dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results.

Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name Australopithecus spiff-arino. Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might be Latin.

However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a Hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your Newport back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it.

We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,
Harvey Rowe
Chief Curator - Antiquities

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