As our love of the first three Indiana Jones movies proves, the world has kind of a love affair with archaeology, with all its sparkly treasures, dangerous expeditions and bullwhips. But as enchanted as we are with the search for Holy Grail-esque treasures, every so often a discovery comes along that excites us so much that we forget to ask whether it might be bullshit.
#5. Drake's Plate of Brass
Sometime in 1579, British sailor Sir Francis Drake landed in California and declared it the property of Queen Elizabeth, to the bemusement of the people who already lived there. Since then, archaeologists have figured it would be really cool to find something he left behind. UC Berkeley professor Eugene Bolton was particularly obsessed with the legend of a brass plate that Drake apparently minted, and he frequently bored his colleagues with this during pub sessions with a club known as the Ancient Order of E Clampus Vitus, who described themselves variously as "a historical drinking society" or "a drinking historical society."
World-renowned experts on the study of barroom floors and the bottoms of pint glasses.
In 1936, someone dug up a brass plate signed by Drake in the California mud, and Bolton immediately lost his shit over the discovery. Before anyone could sit him down and sober him up, he'd shelled out thousands of dollars for the hunk of metal and told the world how it was all sorts of really real. And if Bolton's fangirlish squealing, shaking and crying wasn't a convincing enough declaration, the word of the California Historical Society's president and directors seemed to do the trick. The plate was displayed at the Smithsonian, Golden Gate International Exposition and Bancroft Library. When Bolton eventually kicked the brassy bucket, he did so with the knowledge that his life's goal had not been a failure, and that's where the story ends.
Later, Uncharted immortalized Bolton by having him jump off a 400-foot cliff while drunk.
But Wait ...
It took until 1977 before the truth about Drake's plate of brass came to light -- it was a cruel prank on Bolton by his drinking buddies.
Those wacky professors of Clampus Vitus became so exhausted by Bolton's obsession that they decided to make his dreams come true, and then set them on fire. Together, they forged an insanely detailed replica of the missing plate, buried it in the ground and waited for the fun to begin. Of course, they did leave a sign that the plate was a forgery -- they painted the club's logo on it, in fluorescent paint that can be seen under a black light.
The only problem was that when the plate was dug up, nobody bothered analyzing it for secret black light messages, because why the hell would they? That's when things began to spiral out of control. It turns out that the Clampus club had created such an awesome forgery that it went on to fool every expert that they had hoped would uncover their prank, laugh and buy them a round of beers. Very soon, it had gone so far that the club members presumably spat in their hands and vowed never to talk about it, thus wasting everyone's time for the next 40 years.
"We'll tell him the truth on his deathbed. It'll be hysterical."
#4. The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, two men digging a well on New York farmland hit something they thought was rock but turned out to be something much more unusual -- an 11-foot-tall man made of stone. Despite the bizarreness of the find -- the statue was lying down and appeared to be in agony, like a real dying person, and Native Americans aren't known for their statue carving anyway -- the discovery proceeded to ring exactly zero warning bells for the men who went on to sell tickets to the public to come and see the thing.
"See the amazing giant man! Jump on his corpse! Spit in his eye!"
The farm owner, William Newall, and his cousin, George Hull, claimed that the statue was actually a petrified, fossilized giant from Bible times, possibly a friend or relative of Goliath. The public thought, sure, why not? They'd know, they were farmers.
"When you eat potatoes, you eat the poop of God."
But Wait ...
Obviously it wasn't a real giant, but it wasn't even a real artifact. Turns out it was all part of George Hull's scheme to mess with religious people's heads and make them give him all their money. After getting his cousin and a small number of men on board with the hoax, he obtained an 11-foot block of gypsum stone under the pretense that he was commissioning a statue of Abe Lincoln, then they carved and buried the "giant" and spent a year practicing their surprised faces.
"I pledge allegiance ... to this giant stone corpse ... we found underneath the herb garden ..."
Apparently, nobody involved in selling Hull an 11-foot hunk of stone thought it was suspicious that the same man would claim a year later to have accidentally found an 11-foot stone statue. The hoax became one of the most successful in American history before it fell apart thanks to P.T. Barnum, the world-famous bullshit peddler who didn't fancy being upstaged. He declared the Cardiff Giant to be a hoax, and Hull sued him over it. Before accepting the case, the judge demanded that Hull state under oath that the giant was not, in fact, a hoax. Perhaps seeing a prison cell in his near future, Hull wisely declined to do so.
Later, as most things do, the affair became the inspiration for a Simpsons episode.
Turns out it was an elaborate advertisement for sweet corn.
#3. The AVM Runestone
The Kensington Runestone has been one of the biggest and most hotly debated archaeological finds in U.S. history. Discovered by a Swedish farmer named Olof Ohman in 1898 in Minnesota, the runestone is written in an ancient Viking language and suggests that medieval Swedish settlers lived in Minnesota centuries before Columbus made his voyage.
We know what you're thinking. This article is about archaeological hoaxes, and this is a story about a guy who happened to be Swedish "finding" an ancient Swedish artifact just lying around. Bullshit, right?
Minnesota was a hell of a long way to travel just to carve "VIkiNGs WaZ HeRE" into the landscape.
Actually, no. Despite the coincidences, Ohman was not responsible for the runestone, and its authenticity continues to be debated.
Instead, we're focusing on the second runestone that turned up over a hundred years later in the same area. In 2001, a professional stone carver named Janey Westin found what came to be called the AVM stone, another rock covered in Viking runes that everyone figured was proof of the Kensington stone's authenticity.
We still know what you're thinking. A professional stone carver just happened to stumble upon an amazing artifact that happened to be a carved stone. Bullshit?
Haha, no. Amazingly, Westin is also legit.
But Wait ...
Oh, but the runestones are still bullshit.
In the case of the AVM stone, what really happened was far more embarrassing. A museum run by runestone experts was fooled by the cunning skills of a few spring breakers.
And to think we wasted our time forging IDs.
Like all college students, Germanic philology majors Kari Ellen Gade and Jana Schulman were looking for a good time during their time off; unlike all college students, they thought carving Norse invocations on a big-ass rock made for a crazy night. Drunk on knowledge, they invited their friends to get "totally hammered," broke out the chiseling supplies and headed to a field to reenact Girls Gone Wild: Archaeological Hoax Edition.
Swedish National Heritage Board
Check out those boulders!
When they owned up to their hilarious pranking years later, Gade and Schulman said they'd been conducting a little experiment to prove how gullible those Kensington folks were, and it totally worked.
As for the original Kensington stone? Scholars are starting to think that's probably also fake.