Fake archaeological artefacts have flooded the marketplace. They can be so convincing that they are unknowingly displayed in museums, even the most respected collectors buy them, and they are often sold for thousands of times their value.
Some analysts believe that 90% of all the artefacts and coins sold on internet auctions as genuine are nothing but fakes. There are three kinds of objects in the world of archaeological artefacts.
Relic, Replica or Fake
Relic: This is the true original object that has survived in whole or in part from some time in the ancient past. It is an item of interest because it is an object made by or altered by ancient humans in the context of their daily lives.
Replica: This is a reproduction of the original relic in order to duplicate it for open and honest purposes. It is always named as a reproduction, replica, or duplicate. Such duplicates are made where the original is very rare and replacement is impossible. Reproductions of an ancient relic permit it to be displayed at more than one location or to be handled by the public.
Fake: Often referred to as an artefake, it is a replica of an original artefact made with the sole purpose of deceiving others into believing it to be an original relic. Fake artefacts usually have elaborate aging techniques performed on them to make them very difficult to detect.
Why Make Fakes?
Owning and collecting the artefacts of history has been a strong yearning for many people. The relative rarity of genuine relics makes the kudos of owning one even greater. Authentic items are scarce and very expensive. Forgers have taken advantage of the worldwide hunger for genuine artefacts by recreating them in every way as much like the original as possible so as to dupe buyers and make grand profits.
A good artefact forger is a professional craftsman as the skills required are sophisticated and exacting.
Original artefacts are carefully studied and if possible a mould or model may be made of it. In the case of bronze items, they will, after being cast, be deliberately aged to resemble originals. This might include altering the surface by applying chemicals and burying the object for a time in manure. This will create a patina that is often difficult to detect as being newly made.
Ancient coins are often reproduced, by the score, in moulds made from original coins. Wooden objects are covered with food and left out side for birds to peck at, then buried in termite nests to rapidly form ‘old borer holes’.
Flintstones are broken up in modern times by flint knappers who reproduce the same ‘ancient tools’ of the lithic period and pass them on as genuine.
Artefact forgers know that there are few collectors and even museums that can afford the costly testing required to prove that an artefact is genuine or not.
Experts who, for many years, have thoroughly studied original objects can often sense a forgery. However, not every counterfeit item can be detected by sight alone. Scientists have risen to the challenge of artefact authentication by developing more effective testing methods.
Apart from the great cost of having an object scientifically authenticated is the damage that it can do to the item itself. In many tests the method will require material from the artefact to be removed for analysis. Naturally, most collectors and museums do not want their valuable objects damaged or disfigured and they are never verified. Therefore, only highly important or very valuable objects are usually ever tested.
There are now a number of testing methods available to authenticate ancient relics:
- X-ray Diffraction. X-rays can see into the object and reveal what it is made of. The x-ray diffraction method sends high energy x-rays into the material that bounce off internal crystals in a particular pattern. By comparing these diffraction patterns to known patterns of genuine relics, analysts can determine an object’s authentic age.
- Pigment Analysis. The composition of the colours of paint used in ceramics, mosaics, paintings, writings and architecture have changed throughout history. An artefact cannot contain a pigment type that was not developed in its day and can therefore be exposed as fake.
- Radiocarbon Dating. This method can be used on organic materials or objects with organic residue or componentry. The technique requires some of the object to be destroyed in the testing process but relatively accurate ages can be established if the object has remained sound and dry.
- Atomic Absorption Spectrometry. Different elements burn with a different colour of flame. AAS testing uses this theory and scientists can observe the controlled burning of portions of the object. If a flame colour reveals that the object contains an element not found in original relics then the item can be discounted as a forgery.
Heinrick Schliemann is charged with manufacturing the famed golden Mask of Agamemnon. This mask is superior in quality to others found and has a peculiar nineteenth century looking moustache on what should be a four thousand year old relic.
A sophisticated forgery ring, including respected collectors and registered antiques dealers, made and sold hundreds of ‘ancient’ artefacts over the last twenty years that were not antiquities at all. They used refined methods to age items and convinced scholars, museums, and scientists across the world that their discoveries were genuine. Some of the forgeries included an ivory pomegranate said to be the only relic of the Solomonic era, a burial ossuary believed to have held the bones of James the brother of Jesus, and stone tablets that describe how the temple was to be maintained.
Amusingly, some collectors only want to collect fakes. There are even museums that display only ‘prize forgeries’ in their collections. However, it should be noted that these objects are displayed as items that were once fakes and their owners are not attempted to deceive anyone. Once a fake is exposed it is no longer a forgery but a known reproduction. The museums use these items for the educative purpose that replicas are meant for.
As long as there continues to be a desire to hold and own relics of antiquity there will be others equal to the task of forging them. If a 4000-year-old pottery jug starts selling at 50p on an internet auction, the chances are very high it is not genuine.