The Harm of Fraudulent Archaeology

Introduction (what’s the harm?)

As a professional archaeologist, one of my hobbies is writing about archaeology. So far, that means a blog I’ve been running for a few years now called A Hot Cup of Joe, which I’m transitioning to Archaeology Review. There I often blog about news in archaeology, write reviews of archaeological media (usually books), and review fringe, fake, and fraudulent claims about archaeology. In fact, this last part is a large focus on Archaeology Review for two reasons: 1) I really enjoy investigating these claims, learning about the core subject, then revealing the truth about them in public, and 2) I think it’s a duty to educate the public on what’s really going on.

Ever since I became interested in archaeology, I’ve had a passion for sharing it with the public, and public outreach and involvement is a big part of my normal job. So writing about fraudulent archaeology has been a natural niche for me to find myself in. But I often get asked, “what’s the harm? Why shouldn’t people just be allowed to have fun and believe what they want about Pumapunku, ancient Egyptians, and ancient aliens?”

And this is a valid question. One I hope to answer in this blog post for the Day in Archaeology.

Let’s take a look at a few fraudulent claims in archaeology and how they are having an adverse affect on archaeology, historic narratives, and indigenous peoples.

Fake mummies in Peru

From Salas-Gismondi. In this image, note the use of phalanges one either side of metacarpals along with infant long bones in place of metacarpals

Recently, several videos have been circulating YouTube that depict one or more mummies discovered in the Peruvian desert. At least one of these was alleged to have been entombed in Nazca. The videos and still photographs on the internet show a white, plastered-appearing humanoid with three fingers and an elongated skull with unusual eye sockets.

At least one of the videos originated from Jaime Maussan, a well-known television personality in Latin America. Perhaps partly because of Maussan’s fame, perhaps partly because of the success of nonsense shows like Ancient Aliens, the videos and the photographs took fringe groups on Facebook and fringe sites on the internet by storm.

You can read a bit more detail at my post here, which describes the anatomical discrepancies that reveal the “mummies” to be frauds. But the short explanation is that whoever fabricated the mummies used odd combinations of phalanges, metacarpals, and even tibias from sub-adults to create the “three-finger” look on the mummy. A recent posting on Facebook by Stop, Science reveals that at least one of the the skulls is that of a cat, the back of which was carved to look like a face.

At first glance, this all seems comical. People were definitely fooled (they still are!). But nobody has yet said, “ha ha! gotcha!”

And, if they do, shame on them. Because these aren’t aliens. Nor are they just stray cats that exhausted their ninth. It was estimated that one of these mummies might include the remains of at least three individuals, one of them an infant! These are human remains, probably ancient, probably looted and desecrated from one or more genuine Peruvian cemeteries, and then glued together for someone’s idea to make money.

Let me say it again: these are human remains desecrated for the sake of profit.

Their descendants still live in and around the very cemeteries where they were originally looted from.

Fake Decalogue in Ohio

Decalogue Stone and it’s sandstone box. Photo courtesy of Ohio State University.

The Ohio Decalogue Stone is an infamous example of fraudulent archaeology. Part of a set of stones often referred to as the Newark Holy Stones, it was “discovered” by David Wyrick in 1860 along with a stone bowl, a stone box, and another stone artifact known as the Keystone, which was actually the first he allegedly “discovered.”

The Keystone was supposedly excavated by Wyrick in June of 1860 from one of the Newark Earthworks. Shaped like a keystone (or some would say a Jewish dreidel), it was inscribed with Hebrew phrases on each of the four sides. Then, in Novemeber, Wyrick excavated a sandstone box that contained a limestone rock, also inscribed with Hebrew text, which turned out to be the Ten Commandments.

As it turns out, the Hebrew text on the Keystone was poorly done and criticized for not actually being the antiquated version of Hebrew that would have been used for the time the Keystone was supposed to be from–Wyrick wanted people to believe this was an artifact of the “Lost Tribe of Israel.” When the Decalogue stone was found, it’s Ten Commandments were written in an archaic form of Hebrew. It was, as Kenneth Feder likes to point out, as if someone was learning from their mistakes as they continued to create fraudulent works.

The problem is, the Decalogue stone’s archaic Hebrew wasn’t pre-Exilic. In other words, it was a text style in use only after the alleged Exodus of Moses and the Isrealites from Egypt. If they were truly of the Lost Tribe of Israel, they would have written in a much older version of Hebrew.

So what’s the harm?

First, the implication for Wyrick was that these mounds and Earthworks in Ohio and perhaps elsewhere were not built by Native Americans. Instead, they were built by white people in the form of the Lost Tribe of Israel, who arrived before the Exodus from Egypt.

Second, even if it wasn’t a fraud being perpetrated by Wyrick, it may be that he was the victim of a hoax/fraud which had political or economic goals. A Lost Tribe of Israel explanation helps to justify claims on the lands and to colonize and evangelize Christianity in the Americas. Either way, there is an apparent effort to remove the Native American construction of mounds and earthworks from the narrative and suggest a lineage more religiously and ethnocentrically aligned with white colonizers.

Fake pyramids in Bosnia

Visočica hill near Visoko, Bosnia. Often referred to erroneously as the Bosnian Pyramid. Photo by TheBIHLover.

In Bosnia, just over 10 years ago, Semir Osmanagić claimed that 3 hills in the small town of Visoko, just northwest of Sarajevo, were actually the oldest and largest man-made pyramids in the world!

Osmanagić has suggested ages of these pyramids to variously be 12,000 to 34,000 years old. And, though his claims have been thoroughly debunked by many and condemned as a “cruel hoax” by the European Association of Archaeologists, Osmanagić has continued his efforts to “excavate” the sites even today.

The evidence Osmanagić leans on are natural jointing and fracturing of layers of mudstone and limestone which appear to many to be “paving stones” due to the regularity and the orthogonal nature of their fractures and joints. Such geologic processes are not uncommon, particularly with thin layers of sedimentary rock, and are often associated with faceted spurs of anticlines like Visočica Hill. Most visiting geologists and archaeologists quickly identify these and other tell-tale features, and even point out that the ripples of the mudstone when it dried extend across the sections of “pavement”, indicating that they were there before the layer was stressed to fracture.

The town of Visoko has had increased tourism and the economic revenue that comes with it, so what’s the harm?

If that was all there was too it, it might not be so bad. But there are other considerations. First, the fact that local–and to some extent the national–government supports Osmanagić, it creates a nationalist narrative that is replacing the truth. While it is no doubt good for a nation to be proud, and it’s hard to deny this town it’s share of pride and patriotism following so many years of bloody conflict that came with the Bosnian War, it simply isn’t the truth. In fact, the real history of the region could be as much a source of pride even without the “oldest” and “biggest” pyramids. Some of the most fascinating Neolithic settlements were in this region (such as the Butmir Culture) which were rich in artistic traditions that show up in the archaeological record in the form of delicate but beautiful terracotta pottery and figurines.

Which brings us to a second point of harm: Osmanagić’s “excavations” are no doubt destroying the genuine archaeology as he uses heavy machinery to expose the top surfaces of bedrock in long strips he calls “ancient man-made roads” and digs tunnels throughout the hillside he claims are also ancient. Oddly, professionals who have visited are unable to distinguish the difference between the removed matrix and the walls of the tunnels. It all appears to be the same alluvial breccia.

Neolithic, Roman, and medieval sites are known to be in and around Osmanagić’s area of potential effect as he callously digs and scrapes away. Who knows what genuine artifacts and features of significant, legitimate academic value have been forever removed or destroyed from their contexts as Osmanagić and his followers continue to perpetrate a fraud on the people of Visoko.

What’s the Harm?

As you can see, the harm is there. It comes in the form of desecration of human remains, disrespecting descendant populations, hijacking the historic narratives of indigenous peoples in favor of a potentially racist or ethnocentric replacement, and at the cost of destroying forever the legitimate archaeological assemblages of past cultures while literally inventing a fake one from whole cloth.

This is my Day in Archaeology.

Carl T. Feagans