The Most Embarrassing Archaeological Blunders


In the past, we have taken a look at some of the most horrifying discoveries ever made by archaeologists, but now we examine the opposite side of the same coin. These next finds were either fraudulent or simply wrong and they caused quite a bit of embarrassment, leaving people who supposedly knew what they were talking about with egg on their face.

10. The Runamo Runes

As far back as the 12th century, there were mentions from Scandinavian scholars about Runamo, a dike in Sweden which was said to contain a runic inscription carved by Vikings into the rock. However, even back then, it was established that the so-called runes were too worn down and no longer legible. Therefore, their contents seemed destined to remain a mystery.

For hundreds of years, the Runamo Runes were left ignored, but there was a renewed interest in them during the 18th and 19th centuries. Scholars wanted to inspect the carvings once again, hoping they might see something their ancestors missed. One of those scholars was Finnur Magnússon, an Icelandic archaeologist who taught at the University of Copenhagen. Back then, he was considered one of the leading European experts on Old Norse literature and runes. Therefore, in 1834, he convinced the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters to fund a research expedition to study the Runamo Runes. 

Afterwards, Magnússon made the boldest proclamation – he had deciphered the runes. He claimed they were a poem, praising King Harald Wartooth for his bravery at the Battle of Bråvalla. 

Magnússon’s interpretation was accepted and heralded all throughout Europe as a triumph of antiquarianism and the restoration of a glorious part of history. A couple of years later, though, preeminent Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius decided to inspect the inscription for himself and he arrived at a shocking conclusion. The carvings were not a rune, at all. They were actually just natural cracks and fissures in the rock. Magnússon’s reputation never recovered from the scandal.

9. The Holly Oak Pendant

In 1889, an American archaeologist named Hilborne T. Cresson presented an interesting artifact – it was an ancient pendant made out of a piece of shell, which featured an engraving of a mammoth. Considering that mammoths had been extinct in North America for over 10,000 years, it would have been a unique and priceless item. 

Immediately, there were suspicions cast upon the authenticity of the artifact. For starters, Cresson had claimed that he found the pendant 25 years earlier, near the Delaware River. He couldn’t really explain why he waited so long before coming forward with it, other than claiming that he didn’t realize its value which, for an archaeologist, seemed unlikely. Then there was Cresson himself who wasn’t exactly what you might call a person of high moral fiber. He was fired from his position for stealing artifacts from a dig and selling them to private collectors. Eventually, the Holly Oak pendant was dismissed as a likely forgery, but this could not be conclusively proven in the 19th century so, instead, the item was simply thrown away in a drawer somewhere and forgotten about.

This should have been the end of the Holly Oak pendant but it drew renewed interest during the 1970s and was even featured on the cover of the May 1976 issue of Science. For some reason, people started thinking that it could be genuine again. One article speculated that the artifact could be up to 40,000 years old. 

Again, science was not ready yet to disprove the notion, but it would be a decade later. In 1988, radiocarbon tests dated the shell to approximately 885 AD, making it only 1,100 old.

8. The Golden Tiara of Saitaphernes

The Louvre holds one of the greatest collections of artifacts ever assembled, but even they are prone to embarrassing gaffes. The most foolish one occurred over a hundred years ago and it’s probably one they would rather forget.

Fittingly, this blunder started on April Fool’s Day – April 1, 1896 – when the Louvre announced the addition of a spectacular artifact they had just purchased. They called it the Tiara of Saitaphernes or Saitapharnes and it was purported to be a gold sheet crown that once belonged to a Scythian king from the 3rd century BC. 

As one of the most successful museums in the world, the Louvre had an extensive staff of experts who examined the tiara and proclaimed it the real thing. The fact that the British Museum in London and the Imperial Court Museum in Vienna both turned down the opportunity to buy it did not raise any red flags so the Louvre paid 200,000 francs for the crown.

As you might expect, the tiara was a fake. Almost immediately, outside experts raised suspicions. One of the first was a German professor named Adolf Furtwängler, but the Louvre doubled down on their decision and even accused critics like Furtwängler of spite and xenophobia against the French. 

For six long years, the museum stubbornly refused to admit defeat. Eventually, word of the scandal reached Odessa. Specifically, it reached Israel Rouchomovski, the man who actually made the forgery. He came forward, saying that he was commissioned to manufacture the item as a gift “for an archaeologist friend” and never knew it would be presented as genuine. Finally, the Louvre admitted their mistake. 

7. The Calaveras Skull

Josiah Whitney was one of the greatest American geologists in history. He taught geology at Harvard University, and served as Chief of the California Geological Survey. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, is named in his honor, as is Whitney Glacier. All of that being said, Whitney was not an anthropologist or an archaeologist. Therefore, when he came upon an ancient hominin skull, he probably should have asked for a more informed opinion.

He didn’t, though. When Whitney was given a skull which, allegedly, was discovered by miners under a layer of lava, 130 feet below ground, he became convinced it was genuine. Dubbed the Calaveras Skull, Whitney first presented it to the world on July 18, 1866. He claimed that it was a million years old which, at the time, would have made it the oldest human remains ever uncovered. 

Obviously, there were doubts, both from experts and from the media, but Whitney also had his supporters. For whatever reason, it took almost three decades before an archaeologist managed to get a good look at the Calaveras Skull. It was William H. Holmes from the Smithsonian Institution, who dismissed it as a hoax because the skull features were too modern. Subsequent investigations revealed that the skull was put in its place by miners who wanted to play a joke on Whitney. The final nail in the coffin occurred in 1992 when the Calaveras Skull was carbon dated and shown to be only 1,000 years old.

6. Drake’s Plate of Brass

Between 1577 and 1580, British explorer Sir Francis Drake performed the second circumnavigation of the globe. During his voyage, he landed in North America, in what is now Point Reyes, California, and claimed that land for England. According to the journal of one of his sailors, Drake also left behind a plate of brass to mark the occasion and, ever since then, this long-lost artifact has been somewhat of a Holy Grail for historians who focus on the early colonization of America.

One of these scholars was Herbert Eugene Boltonwho spent most of his career teaching and researching Spanish American history at Berkeley. He was not only convinced that Drake’s plate existed but, in 1937, he thought that he had found it. 

The artifact in question had been unearthed a few years prior. As soon as Bolton saw it, he became convinced that it was the genuine article and persuaded fellow members of the California Historical Society to donate $3,500 to purchase the plate and donate it to Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. 

Right away, there was skepticism, mostly caused by the language used on the plate’s inscription which detractors said was too modern. However, Bolton and his compatriots would hear none of it. To their credit, they had the plate authenticated by an electrochemistry professor who concluded it was genuine so, for the next 40 years, Drake’s plate of brass was seen as one of California’s most significant historical artifacts.

Then, in the late 1970s, new tests showed that it was a modern fake. Even so, the mystery still remained as to who made it and why. It would be another three decades before other historians managed to piece together what had happened.

As it turned out, the fake plate of brass was a practical joke at Bolton’s expense that got way out of hand really fast. Bolton was a member of a historical fraternity called E Clampus Vitus or ECV, as was a man named Ezra Dane, allegedly the architect behind the hoax. Dane and his accomplices even wrote the letters ECV on the back of the plate in fluorescent paint, but apparently nobody thought to check for that. Once Bolton went public with his findings, it was too late for them to simply admit their deed without damaging their reputations. Their story only started getting out decades later after most of the conspirators had died.

5. The Persian Princess

In 2000, Pakistani authorities came into possession of a unique artifact that had been put on sale on the black market – a Persian mummy. Just days after its recovery, Pakistani archaeologists held a press conference where they presented the thrilling find, claiming it was an Egyptian-style female mummy dated to approximately 600 BC, placed in a wooden coffin with cuneiform writing and images of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda. To add to the excitement, there was speculation that the mummy was a daughter of King Xerxes I.

The value and magnitude of the discovery was so grand that it immediately started an international argument between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan over who was the rightful owner of the mummy. But then enough time passed that some actual examinations could be done to verify its authenticity.

First, tests revealed that the wood from the coffin was only 250 years old so, just like that, the “Persian princess” was revealed to be a fake. But, in a disturbing twist, the mummy itself turned out to be much younger than that. In fact, it belonged to a woman in her early 20s who had been killed just a few years prior. Therefore, the recovery of an ancient mummified princess turned into the investigation of a modern murder victim.

4. Piltdown Man

At the start of the 20th century, anthropologists and archaeologists were eagerly searching for a “missing link,” a previously-undiscovered species that would bridge the gap between ape and man. Understandably, the scientific world became extremely excited in 1912 when British amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed to have found this link – skull fragments of an early human dubbed Piltdown Man.

Dawson enlisted the help of a preeminent paleontologist named Arthur Smith Woodward who helped reconstruct the skull. They then presented their findings to their peers at the Geological Society of London, proclaiming that the fossils belonged to a human ancestor from 500,000 years ago which they named Eoanthropus dawsoni or “Dawson’s dawn-man.”

Over the following decades, Piltdown Man lost some of its luster because scientists kept discovering fossils from other ancient humans. However, it wasn’t until 40 years later in 1953 that Piltdown Man was actually proven to be a fake, made by carefully combining bones from humans and apes. It was a severe black eye for the scientific world and still serves as a warning about the fallibility of archaeology even now, a hundred years later.

As to the culprit behind the hoax, their identity still remains a mystery, although recent research into the topic suggests that it was Charles Dawson himself who orchestrated the deception.

3. The Sarcophagus of Tarragona

This semi-obscure archaeological bunkum is somewhat unique as it fooled people once, then was dismissed as a hoax and, decades later, fooled them again.

It started all the way back in 1850 when workers in Tarragona, Spain, uncovered a marble sarcophagus with unusual inscriptions on it that appeared to show a giant man breaking apart two boulders as many other people approached him from all directions. A local antiquarian and archaeologist named Bonaventura Hernández i Sanahuja claimed it depicted the story of Hercules opening the Strait of Gibraltar. 

This would have been fine by itself, except that Sanahuja concluded that the procession of people on the inscription were coming from Egypt. He was of the opinion that around 3,600 years ago, the Egyptians overthrew the Hyksos people and pursued them all the way into Spain. Sanahuja believed this Egyptian tomb found in Tarragona was evidence of this. Not a lot of other scholars agreed with this notion, most of them dismissing the sarcophagus as a hoax, although whether it was perpetrated by Sanahuja himself or somebody else was never established.

This should have been the end, were it not for a strange moment that occurred almost 60 years later courtesy of American archaeologist Arthur Frothingham, co-founder of the American Journal of Archaeology. In a 1916 issue, he talked about Phoenician iconography and used a fragment from the images on the sarcophagus. He was seemingly unaware of its true origins as he dubbed it the “Phoenician Tablet of Tarragona” and presented it as genuine. It wasn’t until five years later that a French historian named Pierre Paris spotted his gaffe and, once again, dismissed the sarcophagus as a parody of Egyptian art.

2. The Piltdown Bird

This is a reminder that archaeological mistakes done out of haste or inexperience are not a thing of the past. Back in 1999, the National Geographic Society made a bold proclamation about a newly-discovered feathered species found in China. They had exclusive access to this prehistoric fossil and, after weeks of tests, they named it Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, a supposed link between dinosaurs and birds.

Presented in National Geographic, the senior editor wrote that “Its long arms and small body scream ‘bird!’ Its long, stiff tail…screams ‘Dinosaur!’” Just a few weeks later, the magazine had to publish an embarrassing retraction, admitting that the animal was a fake. One of the largest scientific organizations in the world had been duped by a few Chinese farmers who put together pieces from different animals. 

Retroactively, the creature became known as the Piltdown Bird as the situation reminded everyone of the fossil forgery from a century ago.

1. Nebraska Man

Finally, we take a look at a case similar to that of Piltdown Man, except this one took place in the United States of America. In 1917, a rancher from Nebraska named Harold Cook found an old tooth which appeared human. Five years later, he sent it to Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and one of the country’s leading paleontologists. After examination, Osborn proclaimed it to be a hominin tooth which belonged to the newly-named Hesperopithecus haroldcookii, the first anthropoid ape discovered in North America.

Because that name was a bit long-winded, the new species became known as Nebraska Man in 1922. Since it had been identified from a single tooth, there were doubts in the scientific community right from the outset. In just a few years, continued digs at the site found other parts of the skeleton and confirmed that the tooth did not, in fact, belong to any kind of hominin. It actually came from an extinct species of a pig-like mammal called a peccary. By 1927, the existence of Nebraska Man had officially been debunked.

Unlike Piltdown Man, this was a case of genuine human error, not a hoax. Also unlike Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man was only around for a few years and never fully convinced the scientific world of its authenticity. And yet it did far more damage to its credibility thanks to the time and location of the discovery. 

Nebraska Man became a topic of conversation around the time of the Scopes Trial which brought evolution under fire in America. In fact, Osborn himself regularly engaged in debates defending evolution, including against William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer who led the prosecution in the Scopes Trial. Nebraska Man being a mistake gave a lot of ammunition to creationists and others who rallied against evolution.

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