A current exhibition in Neuchâtel, Switzerland features the most outrageous frauds from the world of archeology, from fake skulls to dragons made from the remains of sting rays. It also reveals that people have been making fake artifacts for thousands of years.
In 1563, the servants of Anton Waldbott von Bassenheim, a German imperial knight, went into his lavish vineyards to cultivate the vines. Suddenly one of the workers stumbled across a Roman gravesite. It contained coins and a black urn filled with bones. The urn itself wasn't enough for the nobleman, who had it embellished with a silver rim. Afterwards, he boasted that the urn was real.
Which it no longer was.
The urn is now part of an exhibition in the Swiss city of Neuchâtel that features astonishing forgeries from various periods of history. The show at the Laténium archeology museum includes busts of pharaohs produced in the winding alleys of Cairo, imitation Etruscan vases and gilded druid sickles, all made with the intention to deceive.
"L'âge du Faux" ("The Age of Forgeries") brings one into a shadowy world of criminal artists, dealers in stolen goods and scientists so filled with ambition that they quickly allowed themselves to be fooled.
This also applies to the people from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, who purchased an Aztec skull made of rock crystal that was allegedly more than 500 years old. Unfortunately, as a recent study revealed, it was made with a milling machine. The piece probably came from the western German city of Idar-Oberstein, a key gem-processing center, where it was made around 1890.
A Long History of Deceit
But, as they say, mundus vult decipi -- the world wants to be deceived. Homo sapiens were already copying seashells some 35,000 years ago. A necklace from the Neolithic Age consists of 118 real deer teeth and 65 copies carved from bones.
The world can look back on a long tradition of art forgery. Fake versions of jewels supposedly owned by Helen of Troy made the rounds in ancient Greece. And a Neolithic hatchet, discovered by a Roman in antiquity, was interpreted as being "Jupiter's Lightning Beam."
In the modern era, forgers also set their sights on science. They made unicorn skulls, and in 1822 the citizens of London were able to admire a "mermaid." The exhibition in Neuchâtel includes a "dragon" -- composed of the shriveled remains of a ray.
The fact that such rubbish made its way into public collections has to do with the imperialist fever that shook the major powers at the end of the 19th century, as they competed with one another in a race to uncover the treasures of the past.
Forgers had an easy job of it, especially when their forgeries served national ambitions.
For example, in 1866 Napoleon III exhibited a fake vase from the Celtic age crowned with a Gallic rooster -- as if to suggest that the French heraldic animal had already been worshiped in Celtic times.
The British Museum, in turn, proudly announced the discovery of a skull that was believed to be at least 200,000 years old. Curators there claimed that this "Earliest Englishman" was the long-sought missing link between apes and humans.
In reality, a prankster had combined the lower jaw of an orangutan with the remains of modern skulls, and added the teeth of a chimpanzee before hiding it in a gravel pit near London.
A Golden Fake