5 Outrageous Archaeological Hoaxes That Fooled the Experts
Ever since we realized that there's more to life than sitting in a tree making frat boy noises and picking fleas off each other, our species has been defined by a profound curiosity about the world around us. Sadly, the fact that our stupid brains are still unable to fully comprehend the vastness of the universe (or even our own planet, for that matter) means that many of our scientific fields are, at best, mostly guesswork. Take archaeology: Despite its bull whip-swinging reputation in popular culture, the field is largely slow-paced "What the hell is this shit?" guesswork, where even the foremost experts can make hilarious mistakes by mislabeling a single bone. Then, years later, some other guy points out the mistake, and BOOM! Half the stuff you've ever read about dinosaurs is obsolete.
As one would expect, the unpredictability of such fields has been noticed by people who indulge in the third human base need -- the desire to get an assload of money without working for it too hard. Which is why history is teeming with stupid forgeries such as ...
Remember that time you needed to make a fast profit and, for reasons that made perfect sense at the time (say, you were staring too hard at the pile of ribs you ordered while getting wasted on tequila), your chosen method of monetary advancement was to create a straight-up archaeological forgery? Don't be ashamed, man -- we've all been there. The point is that whatever hoaxing method you chose, chances are skulls weren't even on the list. They're not exactly easy to fake -- in the time it takes to gain the necessary skill set to manufacture a convincing one, you can sew herring tails on dozens of monkey carcasses and P.T. Barnum your way into drunken glory, or at least a number of interesting watch lists.
Calling your Fiji Mermaid "Carny Aquaman" probably didn't help matters.
Still, there are plenty of people who are fully prepared to give forgin' face bones a go, judging by how often they pop up in the annals of accurate-ish archaeology. Some of these fakes, like crystal skulls and the Piltdown Man, have been decent enough to fool people for a while.
And then there is the Calaveras skull.
Brought to light in 1866 by Josiah Whitney, a well-respected Californian geologist, this significant head bone was found buried beneath million-year-old volcanic layers by gold miners. When presented with the skull, Whitney realized it could belong to the oldest known human being at the time and immediately started writing all the academic papers. The scientific community promptly shat a brick, as they are wont to do in such situations, and set out to investigate further ... only to find out that the skull actually belonged to a very specific creature called "just some random fucking dude." It was an old, fossilized Native American skull that had been planted in the mine as a practical joke.
"And then we sold him one of those mermaids Butch is always making."
Gold Rush California was a tough place, with way too few PS4s and other sources of entertainment to go around. To occupy their time, a bunch of dudes developed an equally hard sense of humor and devised a complicated prank at the expense of Whitney (whom I strongly suspect had been sleeping with someone's wife to deserve such an Ocean's Eleven treatment). The skull was planted in the mine, and a miner "found" it and presented it to Whitney. Add some friendly nudges in the right direction by shopkeepers and academics who were also in on the joke, and voila -- Whitney was soon called out and thoroughly shamed by the scientific community.
A note to all aspiring academics: Although your Wild West survival instinct is correct in not contesting the words of a man emerging from underground waving a pickax and screaming about ancient skulls, please realize that this doesn't mean you should instantly publicize everything he says.
Etruscan Terracotta Warriors
The Etruscan people manned the Italian peninsula before the Roman Empire came along, and while they did leave archaeological proof of their existence, a whole bunch of the remainders of their culture is almost completely covered in vomitoriums, aqueducts, and wine jugs with pictures of orgies. This is why the three Etruscan terracotta statues the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired between 1915 and 1921 were such a big deal. Not only were all three in excellent condition, but their location and certain other circumstances seemed to cast suspicion on large chunks of what we knew about Roman history at the time.
So of course they were fake as balls.
"What, this? Just, uh, just experimenting with a clay pizza."
The statues that would eventually be known as the Etruscan Terracotta Warriors were actually crafted by Pio and Alfonso Riccardi, two notable Italian art forgers who specialized in Etruscan techniques. Through their art dealer accomplice, they had already littered the world with an impressive amount of fake historical artifacts, including a massive "Etruscan" bronze chariot they managed to sell to the British Museum. Then they grew greedier and enlisted the help of a sculptor friend to create the Etruscan warriors.
When several valuable, near-pristine artifacts from an extinct culture that has been almost completely covered in a heaping helping of the motherfucking Roman Empire emerge in the span of a few years and the same guys are selling each and every one of them, most people would immediately call bullshit. To the credit of archaeologist John Marshall, the Met's liaison in Rome, the thought did occur to him. Largely thanks to Marshall, the pieces were subjected to a thorough investigation (the museum was bonering over the statues so hard, they wanted to exhibit them right away). Too bad said investigation presumably consisted of a bunch of dudes looking at the statues real hard and saying: "Yep, those are statues, all right," since in 1933 they were eventually put up on exhibit anyway.
"Don't blame us. They were all very clearly stamped 'Made in Italy.'"
It wasn't until the 1960s, following three straight decades of constant screams of "Fake!" by art historians, that someone noticed that the chemical composition in the glaze of the statues wasn't accurate, and shenanigans were called.
Quick: If someone tells you there used to be an ancient Roman-era colony in Tucson, Arizona, what is your immediate reaction?
Yep, you turn into a large, bald man and scoff at their madness.
But what if they had physical evidence to back up their claim?
Such was the case in 1924, when one Charles Manier stumbled into a pair of ancient-looking heavy lead crosses, stuck together by a glob of petroleum wax and weighing over 60 pounds. Intrigued, Manier hauled his find home and contacted Karl Ruppert of the Arizona State Museum. The men returned to the site and found another artifact, a piece of inscribed caliche dated A.D. 800. Soon, a friend of Manier's joined the party and acquired the land, and the two started digging. They uncovered a total of 31 objects: In addition to the crosses, there were lead swords, spear tips, and batons, most with strange, crude inscriptions in Hebrew and Latin. One item even bore a fairly accurate picture of a goddamn diplodocus, which you may recognize as a dinosaur that probably didn't live during Roman times ... unless that's what it wants us to think.
I'm on to you, fucker.
According to the initial translations of the inscriptions, the artifacts had indeed been left behind by Roman-era Jews who had lived in Arizona around A.D. 775 to 900 for whatever reason. However, experts (who found the whole "random Romans on American soil" thing slightly iffy) soon noticed that they were absurdly bad fakes. The "messages" were actually random sentences that had been lifted verbatim from textbooks of the era, and evidence suggested that they had been planted in pre-dug holes in the gravel. Although there's no hard evidence as to the identity of the culprit, it is worth noting that around the time the first solid reports of forgery emerged, Manier and his friend were in the process of selling the Tucson artifacts to the University of Arizona for a fairly large sum of money, thus proving that even pictures of dinosaurs on Roman-era artifacts can't keep a good university down (from believing in bullshit).
Hey, speaking of dinosaurs ...
Heyyyy! Who's a pretty dinosaur? Who's a cute, stupid, chicken-looking dinosaur? Aw, let me just tickle you behind your ea- AAARGH IT'S GOT MY FINGER!!!
As silly as that picture looks, it's at least scientifically silly. At this point, science has established dinosaurs' relationship with birds (they're the grumpy old great-uncle who hogs all the meat at family dinners) so firmly, everyone but the staunchest of creationists probably at least recognizes the concept. This li'l guy came to light as the "missing link" between birds and dinosaurs, with its adorable birdy wings and slightly less adorable raptor-y murder appendages.
That would be fine and all if it wasn't for the fact that there are no missing links, or rather there are lots and lots of them. Evolution likes to work slowly, with tiny changes over long periods of time. It definitely doesn't decide to slap some wings on a motherfucker between generations -- if it worked like that, maternity wards would witness even more interesting discussions than they already do.
"Look, honey -- either you've been boning Nick from the basement floor, or we're
up to our ears in some seriously creepy X-Men shit."
Still, for the sake of argument, let's dissect what we know about the Archaeoraptor fossil. We know it was introduced in 1999. We know it is purported proof of a missing link species, settling once and for all the then hot-potato subject of the relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Oh, and we know it's from China, a country so noted for its creative counterfeiting that it's borderline impossible to order beef there and not wind up with a horror-stew of bat and fox meat summoning demons in your belly. Oh, and this groundbreaking discovery was also randomly found by some farmer guy, who made a good profit out of it.
Soon after its emergence and the obligatory "Holy shit, a new thing!" knee-jerk reaction from the scientific community, an international team of American, Canadian, and Chinese researchers found that the Archaeoraptor was actually a mosaic built from up to five separate species. Luckily, the members of the scientific community who had swallowed this "appropriate for ages 4 and up" level jigsaw fraud were soon able to swap their shame for barely contained rage, as it emerged that two of the fossils the fraudster had used in his puzzle turned out to be extremely valuable ... although they were damn near ruined by the forgery process.
The Solid Muldoon
It is unlikely that the Solid Muldoon of the 1870s fooled many people in the scientific community. Hell, Charles Darwin himself was known to throw skeptical comments in its direction. Still, its sheer audacity makes it the only possible #1 candidate for this particular list.
The man behind the Solid Muldoon was George Hull: entrepreneur, trickster, and infamous creator of the Cardiff Giant, a "petrified giant" that had been making profitable sideshow rounds a few years earlier until someone pointed out that it was in fact just a stone statue. The Solid Muldoon was his second attempt at nude stone giants, and this time, it was personal. Hull wanted his new fake XXXL corpse to be as realistic as possible, so he commissioned an artist to fashion it from mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood, and actual meat, all kiln-baked to create that exact "petrified man" experience. Am ... am I the only one who's getting serial killer vibes from this?
A man who commissions a 7-foot man-shaped sausage and lures people to see it is a man with a fridge full of faces.
Using different middlemen and securing endorsements from influential newspapers and bullshitter extraordinaire P.T. Barnum alike, Hull managed to convince the public that the Solid Muldoon was not only worth seeing, but totally the real deal, unlike that stupid Cardiff Giant hoax some absolute asshat had been scamming people with lately. According to some accounts, Hull even managed to fool scientists with his creation, because he had hidden a real skeleton and other human bits inside it. This, if true, raises a good few questions that will in no way haunt your dreams tonight.
"You can tell by my halo that I barely ever murder anyone and hide their corpses inside giant mortar monsters."
The figure gained its nickname after a popular tune of the same name. It quickly rose from the talk of the town to the talk of half the country, to the point where P.T. Barnum himself started throwing money at Hull in order to acquire his 7-foot license to print money. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, whether it was because the meat in Solid Muldoon finally went too vile to handle or because Hull's business partner snapped and revealed the Muldoon as a hoax. Public interest waned, and that was that. In a totally-not-creepy-at-all move (considering that some suspect it actually contained human parts), the Muldoon was buried in a roadside grave in Beulah Valley, Colorado.
As for Hull, its creator, a man who built petrified part-meat puppets for fun and profit: He disappeared from the annals of show business history. He may have returned to his day job, or he may have continued his experiments in fusing stone and flesh into one never-quite-alive, never-quite-dead mass of anguish. Hell, he may even have tried the trick on himself, turning into an immortal stone-clay-flesh creature, hell-bent on increasing his ever-growing underground army of Solid Muldoons. But he's definitely not hiding behind your couch right now, slowly stirring a pot of mortar and ready to pounce. Ha, that would be insane.
Say, what was that sound?
Pauli Poisuo is probably not a forgery. Follow him on Twitter.