The Archaeological Hoax

Unfortunately in the world of archaeology you cannot trust everything you hear. In order to mislead the public for some purpose, archaeologists (or usually people posing as archaeologists) will manipulate and fake archaeological data. This faking of data for some purpose is known as an archaeological hoax. Fake data can mislead actual scientists, contaminate the archaeological record and skew people’s understanding of the past. When considering archaeological hoaxes, questions arise: what are the purposes behind these hoaxes? How are the hoaxers able to make the public believe them? It is important to be aware that archaeological hoaxes exist, and not to let them distort your historical view.

There can be many purposes behind an archaeological hoax. The hoaxer may be prompted by personal reasons such as fame and money. There may be religious reasons behind a hoax, such as trying to validate a religious story. In Frauds, Myths and Mysteries by Kenneth L. Feder, Feder discusses how in 1869 a giant “petrified” man was found buried on a farm in Cardiff, NY, who became known as the Cardiff Giant. Until this find was determined to be a hoax (a statue planted in the ground only about a year before it was “found”), the petrified man validated biblical stories of giants such as David and Goliath.

Cardiff Giant

Nationalism can also prompt a hoax, for instance when a country seeks to have the “oldest” of something. In the case of the Piltdown Man, fragments of a human skull and ape-like jaw bone were found in England in 1912. Because the bones seemed to go together, it was thought for the next 40 years that an early human ancestor had been discovered. Fossils of Neanderthals had already been discovered in France and Germany, so it brought England great pride that they could now also claim to have played a part in human evolution. However, in the late 1940s after dating techniques had been developed it was determined that the Piltdown Man skull and jaw were neither ancient nor from the same species, the skull being human and the jaw from an orangutan, and that it had all been a hoax (Bartlett).

People believe hoaxes because they convey ideas that people want to believe, especially regarding religion or nationalism. They are not immediately called into question because people want them to be true. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing until the year 2000, an amateur prehistorian named Shinichi Fujimura was planting ancient artifacts from other Asian countries in Japanese sites to make it seem that Japan had a more extensive prehistory. Because of Japan’s national pride in these discoveries, no one questioned the validity of the finds as they accumulated for twenty years.

Shinichi Fugimura planting artifacts

After the truth came out about Fujimura’s hoax the legitimacy of the approximately 180 sites he had worked on vanished (Feder). In scientific fields such as archaeology it is important to disregard the desire to immediately believe discoveries and their interpretations and question everything. Only through questioning and retesting can hoaxes be discovered and eliminated from the archaeological record.

For a list of archaeological hoaxes see:

One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure

The idiom entitling this post is the literal truth in the field of archaeology, and it perfectly articulates how worthless items from past societies can offer valuable information to today’s archeologists. When hearing the word artifact, items that immediately come to mind are golden idols and jewelry, pottery, and arrow heads. Though it is true that these items are all artifacts, they represent the stereotype that an artifact has to be something ancient, valuable, and either buried in the ground or hidden in a booby-trapped cave. There is also the misconception that the point of finding an artifact is to get money and put it in a museum. In reality, the point of finding an artifact is not the artifact itself, but what it can tell you about the culture it came from. When found in context, artifacts can relate important information especially about the date of a site. A variety of techniques can be used to determine an artifact’s relative date, for example radiocarbon dating. Also a set of artifacts can often be put into a chronological sequence based on their style and frequency. This technique can help archaeologists observe changes and patterns in human behavior over time. Artifacts are not necessarily ancient either; any item from any past time period can potentially be an artifact depending on what is being studied.

In class this past week my professor and a couple of classmates discussed surveying a site at the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Though they did not dig at all, they found numerous artifacts on the site that provided a lot of information about the past people who had been there. Most of the so-called artifacts were just beer cans and old glass bottles.The general public would consider these items trash and probably not realize their archaeological relevance. However, this litter actually contained a lot of information about the past society of the site. The beer cans, due to the style of can and brand, made the site easily datable and provided insight into what kind of people were there.

The fact that so much can be learned from the discarded trash of the past is amazing. There are archeologists who focus solely on the study of landfills and garbage to discern the past. For example, archeologist William L. Rathje, once a professor at the University of Arizona, conducted a project beginning in 1973 known as the Garbage Project.

William L. Rathje in the Field

He studied the waste of residents of Tucson, Arizona in order to observe patterns in human consumption (Harrison). Items of garbage hold some of the most reliable information about what past cultures were really like. Sure a golden idol is pretty cool, but how much can that idol alone tell you about the daily life of a population?  Think about all the litter seen every day and how much information it could relate to future generations. I am not in support of littering, but if you ever do litter and someone calls you out on it you can just tell them that you are actually providing future archaeologists with artifacts.