If you’ve ever thought of creating some elaborate archaeological hoax to make your millions and set yourself up for an early retirement think again. The forgery detectives will get you in the end…

Friday Five Archaeology Hoaxes

1. The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff giant is one of the biggest hoaxes in US history, in more ways than one. Standing at 10 foot tall, the same height as a standard basketball hoop, the Giant was created by George ‘one-bean-short-of-a-beanstalk’ Hull in 1968. He’d been arguing with a local Methodist Minister about the Bible’s claim that Giants once roamed the Earth, and hoped his ‘discovery’ would ultimately prove him right.  He would have got away with it too… if it wasn’t for those pesky archaeologists, who declared the giant as fake, carved from a gypsum block, then treated with acid and beaten with steel knitting needles to create a weathered effect.

Cardiff Giant

2. The Persian Princess

With a plot thicker than Miss Marple’s knitting needles, the whodunit forgery of a 2,500-year-old Persian mummy first descended into an international diplomatic ‘incident’, followed by a full-blown murder mystery. The mummy, believed to be a Persian princess daughter of king Xerxes, was found in a house in Pakistan about to be flogged on the black market. It sparked ownership arguments between Pakistan and Iran – dropped pretty quickly when bad Persian grammar and a 250-year-old coffin hinted that the mummy was fake (if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating a fake mummy and inscribing its breastplate with Persian, at least invest in spellcheck!). Quite unfortunately, the Persian Princess turned out to be a modern woman aged 21-25 who died in about 1996 possibly by a blunt instrument to the neck.

3. Tiara of Saitaferne

As one of the world’s largest museums you would expect the Louvre to do some quality checks before spending 200,000 French francs (about £25,600) on an artefact. It seems the Tiara of Saitaferne must have slipped through the net. Purchased in 1896 the gold tiara supposedly belonged to the Scythian king Saitapharnes and had a Greek inscription reading “The council and citizens of Olbia honour the great and invincible King Saitapharnes.” The tiara’s pristine condition should’ve been a tip off but the Louvre did not want to believe experts who suggested it might be a fake. They were still adamant even when the goldsmith, who made it, previously unaware of the fate of his creation, confessed that it had been commissioned as a gift for an archaeologist. They went so far as to make him reproduce part of the tiara to prove it was his workmanship… #awkward!

4. Calaveras Skull

In 1866 a skull was presented to the state geologist of California Josiah Whitney. Already a firm believer that humans, mastodons (extinct relatives of elephants) and elephants co-existed, the skull believed to be Pliocene (and therefore oldest on the continent) proved his theory right and validated the whole paper he had just published on it! Or not… The skull’s suspicious similarity to Native American skulls caused doubts from experts, but Whitney was so convinced that he refused to believe it even when a miner actually told a minister that the skull had been a practical joke.

5. Piltdown Man

Saving the best until last, we come to Piltdown Man, possibly the greatest hoax in the history of science. In 1912 Piltdown Man became a household name; discovered in a gravel pit, he was a previously unknown human species.  The missing link between apes and humans had been found in East Sussex, England! For 40 long years this story was believed until in 1953 new dating technologies allowed the bones to be fluorine tested revealing a rather disappointing outcome. They were dated to less than 50,000 years old, far too recent for their monkey like features. The truth was more patchwork than prehistory, a cut and shut job with the skull of a modern human crania and the jawbone an orangutan. The perpetrator of the Piltdown monkey business still remains a mystery today, though the longevity of its belief gives it the hoax crown, it very nearly had us fooled.

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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