Famous Hoaxes in Archaeology
While archaeology can tell us a lot of information about our world before us, there is a lot of guesswork involved when it comes to dating artifacts. Because of this, archaeology is especially susceptible to hoaxes. Everything from the artifacts themselves to the locations in which they were found to the stories behind the discoveries can potentially be faked. There have been several cases of hoaxes in archaeology across time and space that include artifacts, petrified remains, and more. This sample essay, one of the many features offered by Ultius, explores logical explanations to numerous archaeological hoaxes throughout history.
Shinichi Fujimura and his discoveries from “the stone age”
Shinichi Fujimara is a Japanese man who developed an interest in Japanese pre-history and taught himself archaeology. By the time Fujimara was fifty years old, he had established himself as one of the leading archeologists in Japan by making many incredible finds that captured the world’s attention. His first discovery was in 1981, when he uncovered stoneware that dated back over forty thousand years, making it the oldest stoneware to ever be found in Japan (“The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimara”). In the following years, he worked on almost two hundred archeological projects in various places in Japan and he continued to find artifacts dated further and further back. His discoveries challenged the limits of Japan’s known pre-history and he developed a reputation for having “divine hands.” His career was furthered by the popularity of archaeology across Japan, where book stores have entire sections dedicated to the Japanese Stone Age and discoveries are often printed on the front page of newspapers. School children learned about Fujimara’s work and textbooks were filled with pictures of artifacts he had discovered.
A hoax caught in the act
Fujimara was working on a dig in 2000 near Tsukidate, Japan in the Miyagi Prefecture when a number of important discoveries were made. The site attracted lots of tourism and the town changed its slogan to “The town with the same skies viewed by early man” (“The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimara”). Fujimara and his team discovered a number of stone artifacts that were believed to be the work of primitive humans in addition to several holes that were believed to be important parts of primitive civilizations and evidence of social behavior. The team believed that the pieces were over six hundred thousand years old, making them one of the oldest signs of human habitation to ever be discovered. Naturally, this discovery garnered international attention. Less than two weeks after this discovery, however, a Japanese news outlet published pictures of Fujimara digging holes in the site and burying the artifacts he would ‘discover’ later. He hung his head in shame and stated at a press conference,
“I was tempted by the Devil. I don’t know how I can apologise for what I did… I wanted to be known as the person who excavated the oldest stoneware in Japan” (“The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimara”).
Fujimura admitted that he planted almost every piece found at the site and that he planted all twenty nine pieces that were found earlier in the year in northern Japan.
Hoax suspicions confirmed
His confession raised questions of how he could have gotten away with it for as long as he did. He was able to do this, in part, because of how difficult it is to date stone implements. They are only able to be dated by the stratum (soil, rocks, and other material) in which they are found, making it extremely difficult to distinguish real artifacts from ones that have been planted there (Romey). Other researchers claimed that they noticed that there was something off about the staining of Fujimara’s artifacts but were reluctant to challenge him and his widely-respected reputation. Fujimara was dismissed from his role as the senior researcher at the Tohoku Paleolithic Institute and textbook publishers worked to remove him and his artifacts from their editions.
The petrified man
In early October of 1862, a Nevada newspaper announced the discovery of a petrified human body. It was determined that the mummy was about a century old and was perfectly intact. The body was in a sitting position with its hands over its face. After examining the body, it was resolved that the man died from “protracted exposure,” according to the article (Walsh 133). When villagers tried to move him, they found that the water that dripped for years from the rocks above him had deposited limestone sediment that effectively cemented him to his stone seat. The man attracted many visitors, the article claimed, as people traveled from hundreds of miles away to see him.
Mark Twain’s satirical hoax
The story developed and many other newspapers reprinted it. Unfortunately though, the tale was a complete farce. It had been written by a man named Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, a new employee at the Territorial Enterprise, the publication that first printed the original story. He later admitted that he was quite shocked at how many people were fooled by his article, considering it a “string of roaring absurdities;” later, once he realized how many people had believed him, he admitted to feeling a “soothing secret satisfaction” (Walsh 141). Twain stated that his intention was to make fun of what he felt was an influx of petrification stories that were popular at the time. Though he intended the article to be satirical, the vast majority of those who read the article did not recognize it as such. Twain later wrote that he was,
“stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with, and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the lists of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced” (Walsh 140).
He also admitted that he wanted to mock a judge, Judge Sewall, whom he mentioned in the article as payback for a recent falling out they had had. Twain admitted,
“I did it for spite, not for fun” (Walsh 141).
The hoax spread for months and appeared in countless newspapers around the world, even making it all the way to London. Every newspaper that printed the story was mailed by Twain to Judge Sewall. The article was circled in every paper and for almost a year, the judge received a large number of newspapers in his mail almost every day.
The Pine River petrified baby
In October of the year 1875, the finding of a small stone man was reported by two hunters. It was found on the bank of Pine River in Michigan and some newspapers called it a “petrified baby.” The discovery was approximately four feet tall with a wide, flat forehead.
“The right arm is bent. The forearm is lying across the body; the other is bent below the elbow. The eyes are well defined and very broad… Nose, small, sharp; nostrils open; lips very thin, flat; mouth well defined- curve of the lips perfectly natural; chin square” (“The Pine River Petrified Baby”).
There also appeared to be slight depressions over the breast bone and on the arms where they meet the ribs. Its skin was smooth and many claimed that it was a petrified child that had been deformed by some kind of pressure. It was soon discovered that the petrified baby was a hoax. It had been manufactured by a man from Thornton, Michigan named William Ruddock. He claimed to have used a picture of an Icelandic effigy made of hardened lava that he had seen in Harper’s Magazine as a model for his creation. He had hoped to turn a profit by charging the public to see the petrified baby but was unable to make enough money to cover his costs. He later sold it to a side show.
The hoax of King Tut’s curse
In November of 1922, Howard Carter reportedly located the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb a pharaoh who ruled 1300 years before Cleopatra. He and his team unsealed the door of the Burial Chamber by February. That April, though, Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s sponsor, died in his hotel room from a bacterial infection he contracted from a mosquito bite (“King Tut’s Curse”). Almost immediately, the media speculated that Lord Carnarvon had fallen victim to the curse of King Tut. Supposedly, the curse guaranteed death to anyone who violated King Tut’s tomb. Many media outlets added their own fantastic details to the story of Carnarvon’s death, including claiming that the lights in Cairo dimmed at the moment of his death.
Death shall come…
Other members of the expedition continued to die over the next decade. Each new death brought renewed media speculation and attention, fulfilling the fantasy of King Tut’s Curse. However, as scientist Herbert Winlock pointed out, the deaths were nothing outside of what was to be expected, statistically, as only six of the twenty-two people present for the opening of the tomb had died by the year 1934 (“King Tut’s Curse”). Newspapers also reported that the archeological team had ignored a grave warning placed above King Tut’s tomb that read,
“Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of a Pharaoh.” (“King Tut’s Curse”).
Funerary archaeology has always been of great interest in the field. It is believed that this rumor stemmed from a creative translation of an inscription found on a statue of a goddess from King Tut’s tomb. The inscription, though, was actually a spell from The Book of the Dead that was intended to ensure the Pharoah’s eternal life.
Finally, in the year 2002, a study was published in the British Medical Journal regarding the curse of King Tut’s tomb. The study found no measurable difference in the rate of survival for those who were exposed to the curse and people who were not present upon the tomb’s opening. The man who made the discovery, and thus should have been most affected by the curse, Howard Carter, was completely unaffected by the so-called curse and died in 1939 at the age of sixty-four.
The Cerne Abbas giant
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a giant chalk figure of a naked man carrying a club what was found carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. It is only one of a number of assumed ancient hill figures and unexplained constructs like Stonehenge that can be found across the English countryside, including the White Horse of Uffington and the Long Man of Wilmington. What distinguishes the Cerne Abbas Giant from the other, though, is its enormous and erect phallus. English folklore suggests that the Giant is an ancient fertility god who can help childless women become pregnant. His picture is the only image of a naked man that is accepted by the British post office. In recent years, however, some historians have suggested that the Giant may not be as old as was once thought and that his creation might have been a prank.
Real? Hoax? Does it matter?
During a mock trial in 1996 to settle the question of the Giant’s age, the case for the Giant’s authenticity stated their case first. Proponents of its antiquity pointed out the antiquity of the tradition of hill-carving and the pagan, pre-Christian symbolism (“The Cerne Abbas Giant”). Next, historian Ronald Hutton made a case for a more modern Giant. His witnesses noted that the first mention of the Giant did not come until 1694 (Carr-Gomm). While records of earlier hill-carvings do exist, the Giant is not mentioned in any of them. More specific, though, was the case that argued that the Giant was created by a local landowner during the English Civil War named Denzil Holles. Historians argued that Holles sought to satirize the puritan commander, who was usually depicted welding a club. They suggested that Holles made the carving to mock the opposing armies. In the end, half of the jury decided to stick with the ancient-origin story, 35% decided on a more modern Giant, and the rest felt that its age is unimportant (“The Cerne Abbas Giant”). We may never know the truth for sure.
Hoaxes and archaeology seem to go hand in hand. A sort of conspiracy theory seems to permeate the field, like a dusty UFO myth. Archaeology, both ancient and modern, is a valuable science that can provide a lot of information we might never be able to obtain any other way. However, because of its delicate nature, it can be easy to fake, and therefore hard to authenticate. In the past, there have been several archeological hoaxes that have fooled the world until they were exposed. As long as archaeology and its fruits continue to be as valuable as they are, it is likely that there will be those who seek to fake it.
Carr-Gomm, Philip. “The Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset.” The Order of Bards, Ovates, & Druids. Web Development Sussex, 2015. Web. 19 May 2016. .
Romey, Kristin. “God’s Hands Did the Devil’s Work.” Archaeology Archive. Archaeology Testing Website, January 2001. Web. 19 May 2016. .
“The Cerne Abbas Giant”. The Museum of Hoaxes. Alex Boese, 2015. Web. 19 May 2016. .
“The Petrified Baby of Pine River.” The Museum of Hoaxes. Alex Boese, 2015. Web. 19 May 2016. .
“The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimara.” The Museum of Hoaxes. Alex Boese, 2015. Web. 19 May 2016. .
Walsh, Lynda. Sins Against Science: The Scientific Media Hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and Others. New York: SUNY Press, 2016. Print.