Fakes, Frauds and Hoaxes… Or are they?

As a discipline, Archaeology has been faced with numerous hoaxes and fakes throughout the years. There is a certain amount of wild romanticism that surrounds our field- it is one of the last disciplines that deals with unknown territory, exploration of unknown lands, and the discovery of unknown peoples. Archaeological discoveries reveal what an amazing and diverse place our world is, and how very different people across the globe are. Due to this, however, there is a desire to find the weird, to make completely new discoveries, and find the most unique cultural artifacts. It is because of this desire that fictional heroes like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have become so popular. It also has led to the production of fake artifacts and fraudulent claims. We do find some truly odd and unique burials, like the individuals who have turned to soap, but its important that we carefully examine all the evidence before we jump to a very exciting conclusion. Here we are going to look at some of the top hoaxes relating to mortuary archaeology, as well as a known fake which turned out to be real!

Cardiff Giant

Cardiff giant excavation, via Devils Right Hand

Cardiff giant excavation, via Devils Right Hand

The Cardiff Giant is one of the most famous hoaxes in United States history. In the 1850’s, there were a number of newspaper stories that told of petrified humans being found across the world. None of these claims were substantiated. However, in October 1869, two men digging a well on the Newell farm in Cardiff, NY found what appeared to be the first real petrified human. The man was a giant- 10 feet tall, and 21 inch feet, and a weight of 2,990 pounds.

The petrified man was removed from the ground, and Newell charged 25 cents for visitors to see the man- two days later he added a tent over the spectacle and raised the price to 50 cents. Eventually, the giant was sold for $23,000, and shipped to Syracuse, NY where it became part of a larger exhibit. The giant drew massive crowds and P.T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the individuals (he was turned down and created a fake version of the giant for his own show).

In 1870, it was revealed that both the Newell giant and P.T. Barnum’s giant were fakes. The true story was soon revealed: Newell’s cousin, William Hull, had the giant made in secret and then buried it on the Newell Farm in 1968- then they purposefully asked for a well to be excavated in that location. Throughout the hoax, archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists were highly aware that the giant wasn’t real, however their scientific facts were overruled by the greater public interest in the spectacle. 

The Cardiff Giant is still on display at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

Persian Mummy Princess


Persian Princess mummy under analysis, via Science Mag

Persian Princess mummy under analysis, via Science Mag

In October 2000, police in Pakistan seized an ornately carved mummy coffin that was being sold in the black market to art dealers for $11 million. The coffin had a golden plaque with an Old Persian cuneiform inscription that announced that it contained the 2600-year-old remains of a daughter of King Xerxes. The mummy had been wrapped in Ancient Egyptian style, and the coffin was highly decorated. It was the first time that a mummy like this had been discovered outside of Egypt. In November, it was displayed in a museum in Pakistan.

However, an archaeologist named Oscar Muscarella had been contacted previously about a similar case, when an antiquities dealer in Pakistan tried to sell a Persian Princess mummy to him. He had a section of the coffin taken back to the United States, and radiocarbon dating revealed it was only 250 years old. When Muscarella realized that the fake mummy was now on display in a museum, he contacted the authorities. 

Further problems were revealed when professor Ahmad Dani noted that the mummy was newer than the coffin and that the mat underneath could have only been five years old. Further analysis of the inscription revealed that it was written with Greek, not Persian names, and were written in poor formatting- suggesting either the individual who wrote it had limited language skills or that it was faked by non-experts.

This is where it gets a little creepy- the x-ray and cat scan of the mummy revealed that many of the ligaments and tendons were still present- in ancient mummies these are dried or absent due to decay. The “Persian princess” was in fact a modern woman about 21–25 years of age, who had died in 1996 and likely had been killed with a blunt instrument. Following this, her teeth were removed, her body was badly damaged, and she was given a fake mummification.  Police began to investigate a possible murder and arrested a number of suspects. 

The princess was given a proper burial in 2008 after it was confirmed that the entire spectacle was a hoax. For more details, check out the BBC special episode.

Swansea Egyptian Coffin

Close shot of the small mummy head, via Past Horizons

Close shot of the small mummy head, via Past Horizons

In 1971, a small hand painted mummy coffin was brought to the Swansea Museum in Wales, and became part of the Wellcome Collection. The mummy case was thought to belong to a small child given its size. It was made out of cartonnage, which consists of layers of linen and plaster. While the painting style fits with the 26th Dynasty (dating to 600 BCE), the inscriptions on the front and back are meaningless. Given the popularity of Egyptian artifacts, especially mummies throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, it was assumed that this coffin was a modern fake meant to be sold to vulnerable tourists. Its authenticity was doubted, and it remained at the museum.

Last week, the small mummy coffin was taken out of storage and was finally subjected to CT scans that revealed something amazing- it actually does contain human remains and is from the 26th Dynasty. Inside the coffin is a fetus wrapped in linen and fabric. The individual was only 12-16 weeks old, and was still in its placenta sac. Not only does this prove that its real, but it shows how tragic the loss of a child was in this period. It has often been argued that people became hardened against the death of children because infant mortality was so high- the effort that went into this disproves that.

For more details, check out the Past Horizons story.

8 responses to “Fakes, Frauds and Hoaxes… Or are they?

    • That’s really fun! Thanks for sharing. I think hoaxes are often just as interesting as the real thing- the fakes have a life history of their own and really speak to the desire to see the unknown.

  1. Don’t forget pilt-down man. Also Dr Richard Stamps at Oakland university debunked the famed Scottford-Soper-Savage tablet mystery.

  2. I personally believe that at least some of those giant skeletons found have to be true. I wrote about it on my site




    There is a rather viral TED Talk Shelburne Falls by the former mason (stone builder) Jim Vieira which was taken down. I am not saying that there is some crazy global government cover-up about the existence of giants in history past but it is not that hard to believe that in some cultures and tribes in human history, selection mating by woman of that tribe reached to an eugenic level where maybe height was prized to the point that after a few generations, some tribes ended up hitting the level of those giant gigantolopethecus.

  3. Yes, the real Cardiff giant is in Cooperstown, but there’s also a fake Cardiff giant on display in Fort Dodge, Iowa (where the gypsum for the real giant came from). So what became of Barnum’s giant?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s