Archaeology and the sciences at large are no stranger to less than savory individuals looking for their 15 minutes of fame or, worse, looking to bend history to their worldview or fringe beliefs.
People in the 1800s were cut from a different cloth and seemed to be particularly fond of messing with their fellow citizens.
From ancient, fossilized giants, papier-mache mummies, to forgeries of ancient tablets, here are ten of the weirdest pseudo-archaeological claims.
10. The Calaveras Skull
In July of 1866, workers at a local mine on Bald Mountain in Calaveras County, California, claimed to have found a human skull in the depths of the mine. The skull had allegedly been located 130 feet beneath the surface, below a layer of solidified magma. James Mattison, the owner of the mine, presented the skull to a local merchant, who gave it to a local physician, and eventually, it ended up in the hands of JD Whitney, the State Geologist of California and Professor at Harvard University. Whitney determined that the skull belonged to a Pliocene age man and he would continue to believe this even as doubts were raised about the authenticity of the skull’s origin.
Even JD Whitney’s successor refused to admit the skull to be a fake, and it took many years before it was officially discredited as a hoax.
Those who examined the skull determined that it was too modern in character to be from the Pliocene age, and the sediment covering it could not have been from the mine, suggesting that it had been planted there.
As early as 1869, a San Francisco newspaper declared the skull to be a hoax after interviewing a local minister. The minister had overheard miners going on about how they had planted the skull as a joke on Professor Whitney.
9. The Davenport Tablets
In 1877 and 1878 Lutheran clergyman and Swiss immigrant, Jacob Gass discovered a series of three tablets inside a Native American burial mound at the Cook Farm in Davenport, Iowa. The tablets depicted scenes of cremation, hunting, an astronomical table, and featured a host of different languages. Initially, prominent scholars like Spencer Bird, of the Smithsonian Institution lauded the tablets as the missing link between Native Americans and those living in the old-world, proving that their mounds had been built by an older, culture of advanced settlers.
They were later discovered to be complete forgeries, and Jacob Gass’s status as a reputable archaeologist came into question.
It’s been argued that Gass himself didn’t perpetuate the forgeries, but was rather the victim of a xenophobic effort to ostracize him from the Davenport Academy by jealous colleagues who didn’t like the idea of a foreigner being part of their institution. This line of thinking was later challenged by the discovery that Gass often traded in counterfeit Native American pipes, though it has been argued that Gass never knew about the illegitimate pipes and that his own relatives perpetuated the hoax, persuading him to take the fakes.
8. The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, after a seething theological debate with a revivalist preacher, cigar maker, and staunch atheist George Hull would set in motion one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. Hull returned home, claiming to have become “flabbergasted” by the preacher’s claims that giants walked the Earth in Biblical times, and in an effort to undermine his religion, would embark to create a giant of his own. The elaborate ruse cost Hull two years of his life and $3000 and involved forging partnerships with a Chicago marble dealer and a farmer in Cardiff, New York, named William “Stub” Newell.
Newell and Hull buried the statue on the premises of Newell’s home and later Newell would call unsuspecting workers to dig a well, where they would discover the alleged body of a fossilized 10-foot-tall man. It didn’t take long for news of the “discovery” to travel, and hundreds of amateur archaeologists and spectators flocked to the scene. Viewers of the statue were invited to draw their own conclusions, and many were moved by the possibility that it might have been real, despite the statue’s obvious poorly quality.
Eventually, Hull’s petrified giant attracted the attention of PT Barnum who was a notorious huckster. After Hull and Newell refused to sell him their statue, Barnum would forge his own and begin showing it as if it were the real deal. Hilariously, Hull and Newell would attempt to sue Barnum for creating the forgery, but a savvy judge offered them to bring their statues to court and whoever’s was determined to be the real thing would be granted their injunction. Of course, both statues were fakes, and Hull would later admit to the hoax.
7. The Dummy Mummy
In the early 1920s, the Mississippi Department of Archives was the recipient of a few generous archaeological finds which included various Native American pieces and what appeared to be a “bonafide” Egyptian mummy.
The mummy was small, many suggesting that it must have been a child and would go on display until 1967 when a medical student named Gentry Yeatman petitioned the museum to let him examine it for a research project. When his request was granted, Yeatman discovered that the mummy was a fraud.
To Yeatman, the first sign that something wasn’t quite right about this mummy was the frayed newspaper fragments sticking to its back. The student went on to x-ray the piece and found it to be constructed on a wooden frame, held together with nails, animal bones, and covered in papier-mache.
The forgery wasn’t even done well, as evidenced by the two newspapers with print still visible on their pages. One of them was from a German-language newspaper, and the other, the Milwaukee Daily Journal dating back to 1898.
6. The Crystal Skulls
In the 1860s a form of skull carving, made from polished quartz began circulating in the art market. These skulls, claimed to have been crafted before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, graced the art collections of institutions as renowned as the British Museum in London, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institution.
The skulls were later discovered to be absolute forgeries, though experts expressed their doubts as to the authenticity of the skulls as far back as the 1930s. Using scientific instruments, they showed that the skulls were undoubtedly from post-Columbian times.
But if you believe Dan Aykroyd on the subject of the crystal skulls, who has gone so far as to create a vodka product contained with a glass bottle in the shape of one of the skulls, then you probably believe that these mysterious artifacts are genuinely 5,000 to 35,000 years old. Aykroyd, when interviewed on the subject claimed that, though the origins of the skulls were controversial, everyone agrees that they’re powerful symbols of enlightenment and hope for a better future, and further went on to claim that the skulls bear no mark from carving tools and took hundreds of years to finish.
Well, at least he was great in Ghostbusters, right?
5. The Case of the Terracotta Warriors
Between the years of 1915 and 1921, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was proud to show off a recently acquired archaeological marvel, three statues depicting Terracotta warriors thought to have been created by the Etruscan civilization in the 5th century. Unknown to the museum (whose curator was quite proud of the statues) the whole collection was composed of less than elaborate fakes.
The hoaxers were two young men named Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti. These two men were skilled Italian visual artists. Though Riccardo’s father and brothers were experts in creating pottery forgeries, Riccardo was the most skilled of his brothers.
With his partner Alfredo, Riccardo would create the first statue; but the statue would prove to be too large for their kiln, and they would break its arm off thanks to a positioning dispute between the two artists. After successfully duping the museum into buying their statue, the pair began working on a giant Terracotta warrior head using the description offered by ancient writer Pliny as a basis. Pliny’s writing described a 25-foot-tall statue of the god Jupiter from an ancient Roman temple. Riccardo and Alfredo made the head stand four and a half feet high.
The museum didn’t suspect a thing, and the two began planning their biggest hoax yet, an immense 8-foot-tall Terracotta warrior; but tragedy would strike after Riccardo was thrown from his horse, ending his life.
Riccardo would be replaced by two of his cousins in order to finish the 8-foot-tall Terracotta warrior. In 1921 the Met. purchased the statue for a price rumored to approach $5 million when accounting for inflation. Something was wrong with this statue’s genitals, however. Many of the local Italian ladies recognized them as Riccardo’s, and it turns out that the forger had modeled the genitals after his own.
Despite this, it would be decades before the statues were proved to be forgeries. In 1960 a series of chemical tests would reveal that within the glazes of the statues were chemicals not used before the 17th century.
4. The Ancient Grand Canyon Egyptian Colony
Today if someone claimed to have discovered proof that ancient Egyptians had existed in the United States thousands of years ago, they would be met with plenty of skepticism (well, maybe not, considering there are of people who still think the Earth is flat), but in 1909 two Smithsonian-funded archaeologists claimed just that. The April 5 edition of the Arizona Gazette reported that two archaeologists, Professor SA Jordan and GE Kinkaid, claimed to have found evidence of an ancient Egyptian colony inside the Grand Canyon.
Among the supposed evidence, the two claimed to have found a series of strange caves carved with human hands, and tablets with Egyptian hieroglyphs which the duo suggested proved the settlement dated back to Ramses.
The specific region where the two claimed to have found these items is a particularly dangerous part of the Grand Canyon, but that didn’t stop private collectors and academics from making expeditions to the area. But Kincaid and his partner never presented any photographs or artifacts as evidence, just a tall tale for the folks at the Arizona Gazette to chew on.
The Smithsonian doesn’t have any record of Kinkaid or his partner, let alone an alleged discovery of this magnitude. Though, if you ask conspiracy theorists, they will claim the Smithsonian covered the whole thing up and the Egyptian colony is still there. The reptilians just won’t let us near them.
3. Japanese Paleolithic Hoax
The news broke early on November 5, 2000 that an amateur archaeologist named Fujimura Shin’ichi had been caught on camera planting fake artifacts at an archaeological site. At the time, the Kami Takamori site was known as the oldest Early Paleolithic site on Earth, beating out sites in Europe and the cradle of civilization itself, Africa.
If the artifacts they had contained had been proven to be real, they would have rewritten human history. This wasn’t the case, however, and once the video evidence of Fujimura’s acts got out, doubt was cast at every dig site in Japan which he was involved with.
It’s been suggested that Fujimura planted over 180 artifacts from the years 1976 to 2000, and because of this, the existence of humans in Japan was widely accepted to date back to more than half a million years ago. Fujimura’s hoax muddies the waters there, setting archaeology in Japan back quite a bit. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that humans had any presence in Paleolithic Japan, though evidence does show a presence in China and land bridges did connect to the island of Japan at least twice within the last 700,000 years.
2. Grave Creek Stone
In 1838 a polished sandstone pebble was discovered in a 2,000-year-old burial mound in West Virginia. When analyzed by scholars, they suggested that of the 25 characters carved into the pebble four of the markings seemed to come from Ancient Greek, four Etruscan, five runic, six ancient Gallic, seven old Erse, 10 Phoenician, 14 old British, 16 Celtiberic, and some of the markings bore resemblance to Hebrew as well. And in the 1870s physician, RJ Farquharson came up with three wildly different translations for the inscription on the stone.
“Thy orders are laws, thou shines in thy impetuous clan, and rapid as the chamois.”
“The chief of emigration who reached these places (or island), has fixed these decrees forever.”
“The grave of one who was murdered here; to revenge him may God strike his murderer, suddenly taking away his existence.”
But at the same time, antiquarian MC Reed commissioned a law student, a pharmacist, and a college professor to each draw 20 or more characters not resembling any alphabet or symbols that they could easily recall. The result was that each person’s presented characters resembled Old World alphabets, and from this study, Reed concluded that the Grave Creek Stone couldn’t be anything other than a forgery.
1. The Persian Princess
In October 2000, Pakistani police interrogated a man attempting to sell a mummy on the black market for $11 million dollars. When pressed, the man claimed to have gotten the mummy from an Iranian man who had discovered it after an earthquake.
It was claimed that the mummy had been a Persian Princess. She was discovered inside a wooden sarcophagus with cuneiform inscriptions claiming her to be related to the great King Xerxes. The “discovery” caused brief tensions between Iran and Pakistan, as both countries claimed ownership, but this wouldn’t last.
Eventually, Pakistani authorities delivered the mummy to the National Museum in Karachi, where it underwent extensive tests to prove its authenticity. After CT-scans, analysis of the ancient Persian script, and carbon dating, the mummy was revealed to be a forgery, and what’s worse, was how old the body was.
The body belonged to a 4-foot-7 woman who likely died in 1996 and was over the age of 21. Authorities believed the woman to be the victim of a murder, but after re-interrogating the two men who had been attempting to sell the mummy, they determined that the men most likely had obtained the corpse from illegal grave robbers and removed her internal organs.
The case remains unsolved to this day.