10 Archaeological Frauds You Didn't Know About
1The Fiji Mermaid: A Monkey's Torso Sewn to the Back Half of a Fish and Covered in Papier-mâché (1842)
Soon after this, the showman P.T. Barnum tried to convince Dr. Griffin to display the mermaid at his museum. Dr. Griffin agreed to exhibit it for a week at Concert Hall on Broadway. Barnum distributed ten thousand copies of a pamphlet about seductive mermaids throughout the city. In August 1842, huge crowds showed up for the exhibit.
Throughout all of this, the deception of the public had been two-fold. First, Dr. Griffin was a fraud. He was no English gentleman. In fact, there was no such thing as the British Lyceum of Natural History. Griffin's real name was Levi Lyman. He was Barnum's accomplice and this had all been done to give the mermaid an appearance of scientific respectability. Second, the famous mermaid was constructed with half of the skeleton of a monkey (torso and head) sewn to the back half of a fish and then covered in papier-mâché, and Barnum knew it.
According to one theory, the Fiji mermaid was destroyed when Barnum's museum burned down in 1865. But this is unlikely, since she should have been at Kimball's Boston museum at that time. More likely, she perished when Kimball's museum burned down in the early 1880s.
There is no accurate information about how this fraud was finally discovered, but the Fiji mermaid will be present in the top 10 cryptozoology frauds.
2The Piltdown Chicken: The Supposed "Missing Link Fossil" that was Created by Using Bird and Dinosaur Skeletons (1999)
Sometime later, Xu Xing, a Chinese scientist who had initially helped to identify the fossil, found a second fossil containing an exact mirror-image duplicate of the Archaeoraptor's tail, but it was attached to the body of a different fossil. Immediately, he realized that the Archaeoraptor was a fraud.
Following thorough research, Xing came to the conclusion that the bottom portion of the "Archaeoraptor" composite came from a legitimate feathered dromaeosaurid now known as Microraptor, and the upper portion came from a previously-known primitive bird called Yanornis.
Archaeoraptor actually “evolved” in a Chinese farmhouse where homemade paste was used to glue together two completely different fossils. The result was the now-famous “missing link” that allegedly had the body of a primitive bird with the teeth and the tail of a terrestrial dinosaur.
National Geographic published an admission of its mistake in March 2000 and a fuller analysis of how it had been duped in October of that year.
U.S. News & World Report was the first to refer to the Archaeoraptor Liaoningensis forgery as the case of the Piltdown Chicken, alluding to the infamous Piltdown Man hoax of 1912.
3Piltdown Man: The "Missing Link" Between Apes and Humans that was Created by Using a Human Skull and an Orangutan's Jaw (1912)
The findings during excavations at Piltdown, England included a piece of a thick human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds, a jawbone with two teeth, and a variety of animal fossils and primitive stone tools.
Believing the skull fragments and jawbone to be from the same individual, Smith Woodward made a reconstruction. It suggested an early human with a large brain, indicating a level of intelligence that set it clearly apart from the apes. The jawbone, ape-like but with human-looking teeth, linked the skull with its supposed evolutionary ancestors. So, they decided that the evidence added up to an early human relative who lived about 500,000 years ago.
In the 40 years since the original 1912 announcement of Piltdown Man, increasing numbers of ancient human fossils have been discovered, most notably from Africa, China, and Indonesia, but also from Asia and Europe. However, none of these discoveries showed the large brain and ape-like jaw of Piltdown Man. Instead, they suggested that the jaw and teeth became human-like before the evolution of a large brain.
As the discrepancies became too many to ignore and as new dating technology emerged, investigations on the Piltdown fossils recommenced.
At the Natural History Museum in the late 1940s, Kenneth Oakley ran a series of fluorine tests that made use of fluorine's tendency to accumulate in calcium-containing organic matter such as bones and teeth. Oakley discovered that the fossils were probably less than 50,000 years old, not nearly old enough to be from a species with such ape-like features.
Further research proved that the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, a human and an ape, probably an orangutan. Scratches on the surface of the teeth, visible under the microscope, revealed that the teeth had been filed down to make them look human. Also, it discovered that most of the finds from the Piltdown site had been artificially stained to match the local gravel.
In November 1953, Piltdown Man hit the headlines again, this time to be revealed as a hoax. The so-called "missing link" between humans and apes now became a sensation as a sophisticated and infamous scientific fraud. But who did it, and why? Many people have been suspected but no one really knows the answer.
4The Ancient Persian Princess: Possibly a Mummified Murder Victim Offered on the Black Market for US$6 Million (2000)
It was started in November 2000, when the international press reported an amazing find: a mummy, which was claimed to be that of an ancient Persian princess, over 2,600 years old. The mummy was encased in a carved stone coffin inside a wooden sarcophagus and was wearing a golden crown and mask. Of course, the Persian princess was immediately hailed as a major archaeological discovery.
The princess was wrapped in ancient Egyptian style. All of the internal organs had been taken out of her body in the same way that the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead. Her cloth-bound body was dressed with golden artifacts, with an inscription on the golden chest plate that read, "I am the daughter of the great King Xerxes, I am Rhodugune." The situation led archaeologists to speculate that she might have been an Egyptian princess married to a Persian prince, or a daughter of Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. However, mummification had been primarily an Egyptian practice, and mummies had never been found in Persia before.
When the curator from the Karachi National Museum, Dr. Asma Ibrahim, began her investigation into the mummy, a different story began to emerge. There were some strange puzzles about this ancient princess. The inscriptions on the mummy's breastplate had some grammatical errors, and there were peculiarities in the way she had been mummified. Several detailed operations common to Egyptian mummification had been omitted. It began to look like the mummy was not the princess she was supposed to be; perhaps she was a more ordinary ancient mummy dressed up to be a Persian princess by forgers trying to increase her value. So, forensic experts all over the globe analyzed the mummy and her magnificent trappings and discovered that she is an elaborate fake.
Sadly, this mummy had an even darker history. Computerized tomography scans and X-ray photographs of the body inside the mummy revealed that this was no ancient corpse but a woman who had died in the recent past, and that her neck was broken. An autopsy confirmed that this young woman may indeed have been murdered to provide a body for the fakers to mummify, a body that they intended to pass off as an ancient mummy for millions of dollars on the international art black market.
5Saitaphernes' Golden Tiara: The "Royal" Hoax Purchased for 200,000 Gold French Francs (1896)
At 7 inches in height and weighing a little more than a pound in solid gold, the pointed dome-like tira was decorated with a lower, narrower band that shows genre scenes of Scythian daily life; an upper, wider band shows episodes from The Iliad, including Agamemnon and Achilles quarreling over Briseis.
Shortly after the Louvre exhibited the tiara, a number of experts challenged its authenticity. Among them was the German archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler, who noted stylistic problems with the tiara's design and questioned the lack of aging apparent on the artifact. For several years, the Louvre defended the authenticity of its treasure. Eventually, news of the story reached Odessa.
Almost immediately, questions about its origins arose, and the crown's amazing state of preservation was the key clue.
In 1903, a Russian jeweler from a small town near Odessa, Israel named Rouchomovski told the Louvre's researchers that he made the tiara per order for a certain Mr. Hochmann, who gave him books showing Greco-Scythian artifacts on which to base the work. It was a gift "for an archaeologist friend."
Taken by the desire to acquire the tiara, the Louvre had missed warning signs that could have saved them considerable embarrassment. The tiara was flawed; there were traces of modern tools, there was modern soldering (though cleverly concealed), and an inscription was raised in relief.
The Louvre still owns the Tiara of Saitaphernes. In 1954, the museum included it in its "Salon of Fakes," along with eight Mona Lisas.
6Basque Calvary of Iruña-Veleia: The Biggest "Holy" Fraud in the History of the Iberian Peninsula
In 2006, a series of sensational findings at Iruña-Veleia were announced to the press by the director of the archaeological mission, Eliseo Gil. These included what would have been the oldest non-onomastical texts in Basque, which were hailed as the first evidence of written Basque.
Also, it was announced that there had been the discovery of a series of inscriptions and drawings on pottery fragments, some of which refer to Egyptian history and are even written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Finally, it was announced that the earliest representation of the Calvary anywhere to date had been found.
The Basque Calvary is a ceramic fragment of about 10 cm which had represented the scene of Jesus crucified on Golgotha with Dimas and Jestas thieves, accompanied by two figures that seemed to correspond with the Virgin and St. John. In the engraving, the epitaph that appears on top of the cross of Christ is RIP (requiescat in pace = rest in peace), when it should be INRI, meaning RIP for the death of Christ, which is contrary to the faith and doctrine of Christianity. The Calvary was dated in the third century by the excavation team led by Eliseo Gil, which would make it three centuries older than the Calvary that was found in the catacombs of Rome, which dates from the sixth century and, until 2006, was considered the world's oldest depiction of Jesus' crucifiction. However, in Veleia there also appeared other drawings of crucifixions of pagan gods and Christian texts such as the Pater Noster.
Eventually, all these inscriptions turned out to be a fabrication, as concluded by the 26 experts who analyzed the data for almost 10 months and went public on November 19, 2008. The texts were described as crude manipulation and incoherent, having texts and words both incorrect and non-existent, and as being so obviously false as to be almost comical. The case was dubbed by some as the "biggest archaeological fraud in the history of the Iberian Peninsula" and "the product of an elaborate hoax."
The regional government of Alava pursued legal action against the fraud perpetrators. The sponsors of the project also brought charges against the archaeological team, but the case was filed, and only the lawsuit which was opened by the regional government of Alava remains open.
7Mississippi Mummy: An Egyptian Mummy Created by Using Animal Ribs, Nails, and Papier-mâché ('20s)
In 1969, Gentry Yeatman, a medical student with an interest in archaeology, asked the museum for human remains to study for evidence of disease. Permission was granted to remove the mummy and for it to be sent to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for an autopsy. Radiological examination showed a few animal ribs and several square nails holding together a wooden frame.
Upon closer examination it was found to be primarily composed of papier-mâché. German newsprint was found as well as an 1898 issue of the Milwaukee Journal. The fake mummy has now become more famous than ever and transformed into a prized possession linked deeply to the folk history of Mississippi.
The mummy now resides in storage at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson.
8Shapira's Artifacts: The Fake Biblical Artifacts which were Treated to Sell for a Million Pounds (1883)
In 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer (and purveyor of fake Biblical artifacts), presented what is now known as the Shapira Strips, which were fragments of supposedly ancient parchment that he claimed to have found near the Dead Sea.
Their inscriptions of ancient Semitic script hinted at a different version of the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy. Shapira sought to sell them to the British Museum for a million pounds (US$1.6 million).
Shapira also proceeded to create many fake Moabite artifacts including clay figurines, large human heads, clay vessels, and erotic pieces with inscriptions that had been copied from a real Moabite ancient stone called Mesha Stele. For this purpose, he was associated with a Christian Arab potter named Salim al-Kari.
In 1873, Berlin's Altes Museum bought 1700 artifacts at the cost of 22,000 thalers. Other private collectors followed suit.
Still, various people, including a French scholar and diplomat named Charles Clermont-Ganneau, had their doubts. Clermont-Ganneau suspected Salim al-Kari, questioned him, and found people who supplied him with clay. Shapira defended his collection vigorously until his rivals presented more evidence against him. He made Salim al-Kari the scapegoat, played the role of innocent victim, and continued to engage in considerable trade, especially in Hebrew manuscripts from Yemen.
Regarding the strips of Shapira, after close examination Clermont-Ganneau and the British biblical scholar Christian David Ginsburg came to the same conclusion: the parchment of the Deuteronomy scroll was cut out of a genuine Yemenite scroll that Shapira had also sold to the museum.
Shapira left London and wandered around Europe for months. The shame brought about by accusations that he was involved in the forging of ancient biblical texts drove him to suicide. He shot himself to death in the Hotel Bloemendaal in Rotterdam on March 9, 1884.
The Shapira Scrolls disappeared and then reappeared a couple of years later in an auction. In 1887, they were possibly destroyed in a fire at the house of the final owner, Sir Charles Nicholson.
9The Etruscan Terracotta Warriors: A US$40,000 Entertaining and Sobering Lesson about Fake Busting (1915 - 1921)
The first great work of the Ricardis was a large bronze chariot, which was ordered by Roman art dealer Domenico Fuschini in 1908. Fuschini informed the British Museum that the chariot had been found in the old Etruscan fort near Orvieto. The British Museum bought the chariot and published the find in 1912.
The Riccardis enlisted the aid of sculptor Alfredo Fioravanti and created a statue, later known as the Old Warrior. It was 202 cm tall and was naked from the waist down. It was also missing its left thumb and right arm. In 1915, they sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also bought their next work, the Colossal Head, in 1916. Experts decided that it must have been part of a seven-meter statue.
The third piece of “Etruscan art” was designed by Pio's eldest son, Ricardo. In 1918, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it for $40,000 and published the find as the Big Warrior in 1921.
The three warrior statues were first exhibited together in 1933. In the following years, various art historians presented their suspicions that, based on stylistic and artistic grounds alone, the statues might be forgeries, but there was no forensic proof to support the allegations.
In 1960, chemical tests of the statue glazes showed the presence of manganese, an ingredient that Etruscans had never used. The statues had been sculpted, painted with glaze, then toppled while in an unfired, green state to produce fragments. All this was confirmed by Alfredo Fioravanti, who, on January 5, 1961, entered the US consulate in Rome and signed a confession. The forgers had lacked the skills – and the very large kiln – required to make such large pieces. The fragments had been fired, "discovered," and sold, or re-assembled ("restored") then sold. As proof, Fioravanti presented the Old Warrior's missing thumb, which he had kept as a memento.
Today the statues are stored far away from prying eyes, but they still provide an entertaining and sobering lesson about fake busting.
10Shinichi Fujimura's Discoveries: More than 60 Artifacts Planted (2000)
After this success, he participated in 180 archaeological digs in northern Japan and almost always found artifacts, with their age becoming increasingly older. Based on his discoveries the history of the Japanese Paleolithic period was extended to about 30,000 years. Most of the archaeologists did not question Fujimura's work and this discovery was written about in history textbooks. Later, he gained a position as a deputy director at the private NGO group Tohoku Paleolithic Institute.
Despite the acquiescence from the archeologists, some geologists and anthropologists claimed that the discovery was dubious and lacked consistency with the geologic analysis of the sites.
On October 23, 2000, Fujimura and his team announced another finding at the Kamitakamori site near the town of Tsukidate. The finds were estimated to be 570,000 years old.
On November 5, 2000, the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun published pictures of Fujimura digging holes and burying the artifacts which his team later found. The pictures had been taken one day before the finding was announced. Fujimura admitted his forgery in an interview with the newspaper.
Fujimura confessed and apologized on the same day in a press conference. He said that he had been "possessed by an uncontrollable urge." He had planted the artifacts from his own collection in strata that would have indicated earlier dates. In Kamitakamori he had planted 61 of 65 artifacts, and had earlier planted all of the stonework in the Soshin Fudozaka site in Hokkaidō. He claimed that these were the only times he had planted artifacts.
The Japanese Archaeological Association disaffiliated Fujimura from its members. A special investigation team of the Association revealed that almost all of the artifacts which he had found were fabricated.
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