Written by guest blogger Alice Parkin
From practical jokes to proving the existence of Jesus Christ himself, archaeological forgeries and fakes come in all shapes and sizes; and a well-timed hoax can make fortunes, ruin reputations, and send academics off in the wrong direction for decades.
Often, archaeological hoaxes are accepted because the information they provide is too tempting to risk denying. This is particularly the case in hoaxes related to the “missing link”, the ongoing (and probably ill-fated) attempt to find the point on the evolutionary tree where men and apes divided. The most famous of these is the Piltdown Man, named after the skeletal remains presented in 1912 to the Geological Society in London by the amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson. His finds were significant because they showed both ape-like and human-like features together in a single skull. The skeleton was accepted by the Natural History Museum in London and a new link, the Eoanthropus Dawsoni, was confirmed.
Dawson got away with it; he died in 1916 with his reputation intact. Thirty-seven years later, an article in Time magazine declared the Piltdown Man to be a fake, demonstrating that the skull was made up of fragments of human, chimpanzee, and orang-utan bones. The Natural History Museum was ridiculed in newspapers, and speculation swarmed as to the identity of the forger, with the Victorian novelist Arthur Conan Doyle among the accused. It is now generally thought that Dawson himself was responsible for the forgery, and a 2003 review of the rest of Dawson’s collection – which earned him considerable acclaim during his lifetime – found that at least 38 of them were also fakes. A memorial to the “Piltdown Man”, erected in 1938, still stands in the grounds of Barkham Manor, where the remains were ‘discovered’.
The speech made by Sir Arthur Keith on its erection still has an ironic relevance: “So long as man is interested in his long past history, in the vicissitudes which our early forerunners passed through, and the varying fare which overtook them, the name of Charles Dawson is certain of remembrance.”
Dawson is by no means an isolated case, and other academics have also sought to make their reputations through fraudulent archaeology. The career of the archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura, once senior director of the Tohoku Paleolithic Institute, had a profound effect on the study of Japanese history. He supposedly proved that the Palaeolithic period began in Japan much earlier than anywhere else in Asia. He was involved more than 180 sites throughout Japan , and all of this work came into question when in 2000 he was secretly photographed planting material at a dig site near Kurihara. Although he has now been dismissed from the Japanese Archaeological Association and publically exposed, his work has had a lasting effect on the discipline; Toshiaki Kamata, former chairman of the Tohoku Institute, said later that their work together was “as good as ruined”.
Other forgeries have had more sinister motives. The mummy of a Persian Princess which emerged in Pakistan in 2000 was later shown to be the body of a modern-day woman, murdered and placed in a gilded wooden coffin carved with a cuneiform inscription. Although the inscription identified her as an unknown daughter of Xerxes I, Rhodugune, the text was quickly identified as directly copying the Behistun Inscription and subsequent radiocarbon dating showed that the woman had died in around 1996. Before its seizure by Pakistani authorities, the mummy had been on the black market with a price of $11 million. In 2016, the Persian Princess was the subject of an art exhibition in Jerusalem by Hili Greenfeld, paying tribute to the unknown murder victim who made the forgery possible.
This isn’t the only instance of forgery offering a source of great wealth to the forger. The Cardiff Giant was the brainchild of the tobacconist George Hull, meant to prove a section of Genesis which claimed that giants had once walked the earth. Supposedly the colossal figure of one of these giants ‘uncovered’ in New York in October 1869, it was actually carved in Chicago by a German sculptor from a block of Iowan gypsum. The hoax cost Hull $2,600 to create (now roughly $46,000), but thousands of people came to see the find, and with an eventual ticket price of 50¢, Hull made a fortune. P. T. Barnum himself, the renowned American showman, was so impressed by the Giant that he had a copy made in plaster which he exhibited, claiming it to be the original. Hull eventually sold his share for $23,000 (nearly half a million dollars in today’s money). Hull confessed in 1870 that the Giant was a fraud, but the ‘original’ Giant is still on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
The James Ossuary is another example of using archaeology to prove religious fact. An ossuary is a simple chalk box used for the burial of bones, and this particular example has an Aramaic inscription reading “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. It may therefore directly prove the existence of Christ. The authenticity of the Ossuary is still the subject of dispute, and although its owner Oded Golan was charged with antiquities forgery, he was acquitted in 2012 following a seven-year trial. The presiding judge was highly critical of the Israeli authorities’ treatment of the case, concluding that the Ossuary had now likely been contaminated to the point where further scientific analysis would always be inconclusive.
The Ossuary is the perfect example of the problems facing archaeologists when reacting to new and groundbreaking material. Without definite context, it’s difficult to know who and what to trust, especially when an item is so inviting in what it suggests to be true. These bizarre and fascinating stories illustrate wonderfully two sides of human nature; the desire and delight in discovering revolutionary pieces of our past, and the darker motivations of greed, pride, and murder which can lead to such complex and duplicitous crimes.
ALICE PARKIN is a PhD student at Lincoln College, Oxford. She studies art and iconography in the Ancient Greek world, and is a regular behind-the-scenes volunteer at the Oxford University Museums, with an interest in digital accessibility and public outreach.