7 Antique Forgeries Made in Antiquity

Forgery of art and antiquities is far from a modern phenomenon. Thousands of years ago, devotional objects, trendy artworks, and popular collectibles were ginned up on the quick and sold as ancient to a large market of thirsty marks. Here are seven fakes that were made in antiquity. The surviving ones are ancient artifacts now, but they were only pretending back then.

1. THE BLACK CRUCIFORM STONE FROM THE TEMPLE OF SHAMASH 

In 1881, British Museum archaeologists found a black cruciform stone covered in inscriptions during the excavation of the temple of Shamash, in Sippar (modern-day Iraq). They discovered it in the Neo-Babylonian layer (7th to 6th century BCE), but according to the inscription, it was created during the reign of Manishtushu, King of Akkad (circa 2276 to 2261 BCE). The voluble inscription covers all 12 sides of the monument with a glowing report of how the king had showered the temple with gifts and privileges and funded an extensive renovation. The last line of the inscription insists that "this is not a lie, it is indeed the truth ... He who will damage this document let Enki fill up his canals with slime ..."

This is not the truth. It is indeed a lie, a forgery likely produced by the priests of the temple to put the official seal of approval of antiquity and royalty on the many privileges and large income they enjoyed. It's the kind of forgery known as a pious fraud, when an artifact or document is created to deceive for the good of the faith, in this case the good of the faith meaning the good of the priests' wallets. It's like the Donation of Constantine, only carved on stone in fake archaic cuneiform instead of ink on papyrus.

2. THE SCEPTER OF AGAMEMNON

Starting in the Hellenistic era and continuing for centuries, the prized artifacts in ancient Greece were of purported Homeric origin. They weren't just valued for their literary or historic significance; these objects were venerated, religious relics donated to and collected by temples. Many of them were believed to have been dedicated to the temples by the living Homeric heroes themselves.

The imperial era Roman author Lucius Ampelius lists the Homeric offerings in the temple of Apollo at Sicyon among the "miracles of the world": the shield and sword of Agamemnon, Odysseus's cloak and breastplate, Teucer's bow and arrows, and Penelope's loom. Homeric devotional objects appear in Description of Greece by 2nd century geographer Pausanias, as well, with one in particular getting the most attention: the scepter of Agamemnon, forged by the very hand of the god Hephaestus.

Of the gods, the people of Chaeroneia honor most the scepter which Homer says Hephaestus made for Zeus, Hermes received from Zeus and gave to Pelops, Pelops left to Atreus, Atreus to Thyestes, and Agamemnon had from Thyestes. This scepter, then, they worship, calling it Spear. That there is something peculiarly divine about this scepter is most clearly shown by the fame it brings to the Chaeroneans.

They say that it was discovered on the border of their own country and of Panopeus in Phocis, that with it the Phocians discovered gold, and that they were glad themselves to get the scepter instead of the gold. I am of opinion that it was brought to Phocis by Agamemnon's daughter Electra. It has no public temple made for it, but its priest keeps the scepter for one year in a house. Sacrifices are offered to it every day, and by its side stands a table full of meats and cakes of all sorts.

There were other temple artifacts purported to have been made by Hephaestus, but Pausanias dismissed them all as fakes because they were bronze which, according to him, was first smelted in the 6th century by Theodorus of Samos. Apparently Hephaestus's godhead was not sufficient to put him ahead of the curve of human ingenuity. The scepter proved itself authentic to Pausanias because it was gold, as Homer said it was, it made its keepers famous, and, most importantly, its ownership history could be traced from the heroes of Troy all the way back to the god. Ownership history remains a key element of authentication, although nowadays the owners have to be real people rather than mythological heroes and deities to qualify.

3. THE JOURNAL OF DICTYS

Purportedly the personal diary of Dictys, companion of Idomeneus, the commander of Crete's forces fighting against Troy, the Journal of the Trojan War is an eye-witness account of the war. It pitches its own authenticity in the introduction and preface in the form of several favored postmodern literary tropes—the found manuscript, the translation of a translation, the dead author—which also happen to have been very popular with ancient forgers. The description was tailor-made to persuade an ancient audience that they were reading a real diary from the Trojan War. According to the preface,

In the thirteenth year of Nero’s reign an earthquake struck at Cnossos and, in the course of its devastation, laid open the tomb of Dictys in such a way that people, as they passed, could see the little box. And so shepherds who had seen it as they passed stole it from the tomb, thinking it was treasure. But when they opened it and found the linden tablets inscribed with characters unknown to them, they took this find to their master. Their master, whose name was Eupraxides, recognized the characters, and presented the books to Rutilius Rufus, who was at that time governor of the island. Since Rufus, when the books had been presented to him, thought they contained certain mysteries, he, along with Eupraxides himself, carried them to Nero. Nero, having received the tablets and having noticed that they were written in the Phoenician alphabet, ordered his Phoenician philologists to come and decipher whatever was written. When this had been done, since he realized that these were the records of an ancient man who had been at Troy, he had them translated into Greek; thus a more accurate text of the Trojan War was made known to all. Then he bestowed gifts and Roman citizenship upon Eupraxides, and sent him home.

Whoever wrote this book (hint: not Dictys) made this find seem plausible by keeping it as unanachronistic as possible. Greeks believed Cadmus had introduced the Phoenician alphabet to Greece, so it makes sense that a book so old would be written in Phoenician. The reference to linden tablets is another nod to his audience's understanding of history. Wood predated paper or papyrus as a writing medium. Nine volumes is a lot of wooden tablets to haul around, but these were the hallmarks of genuine antiquity, immediately recognizable as such to an educated Greek reader.

4. THE APOLLO OF PIOMBINO

So few ancient Greek bronzes have survived that when a bronze kouros, a male nude ostensibly from the Archaic period (late 6th century BCE), was found off the coast of Tuscany near the town of Piombino in 1832, it caused a sensation. The Louvre snapped it up, and the Apollo of Piombino, as the statue became known, soon graced the pages of every art history tome.

But there were some weird things about the Apollo. His dadbod torso, the incised waves of his hair, the flat affect instead of the Archaic smile, and the shape of the letters on the inscription on his left foot dedicating him to Athena were not typical of the Archaic style. Then a restoration in 1842 found a lead tablet inside the bronze that named the two sculptors who made it. They were from Tyre and Rhodes and lived in the 1st century BCE. That tablet is now lost.

The Louvre held on as long as possible, redating the bronze to the 5th century and classifying it not as Archaic but as an example of the "severe style." Eventually even they had to admit this was no Greek original. It's a pastiche of Greek styles deliberately passed off as an original for the Roman market. Genuine Greek bronzes were rare even then, and forgers stepped up to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

5. THE RICHELIEU VENUS

Genuine marbles by the great Hellenistic sculptors were rare too, and your less scrupulous Roman artists made a booming business of passing off copies as the originals. A Greek signature by "Praxiteles" or "Lyssipus" could give even inferior works the cachet of masterpieces. The 1st century Roman fabulist Phaedrus referred to the practice in Book V of his Fables, Latin verse versions of Aesop's fables.

If Esop's name at any time
I bring into this measured rhyme,
To whom I've paid whate'er I owe,
Let all men by these presents know.
I with th' old fabulist make free,
To strengthen my authority.
As certain sculptors of the age,
The more attention to engage,
And raise their price, the curious please,
By forging of Praxiteles.

The sculptor of the Richelieu Venus did just that. Now in the Louvre, the statue of a clothed Venus and Cupid dates to the 2nd century CE and has a signature of no less a luminary than 4th century BCE Greek master Praxiteles engraved on the sweet spot of the plinth. While some art historians believe the inscription was added a few hundred years ago before the statue was acquired by the 17th century collector, statesman, and power behind the throne Cardinal Richelieu, the forms and letters of the Greek are characteristic of the middle imperial period when the statue was made.

6. THE SHABAKA STONE

The Shabaka Stone is a motivational opposite of the temple of Shamash stone. This time it was the king making up stuff to ingratiate himself to the priests, and he used the same trick pseudoDictys used to do it. The rectangular basalt slab is inscribed in hieroglyphs that identify the king who commissioned it—Nubian Pharaoh Shabaka (ca. 716-702 BCE)—and why—to preserve an important religious text whose only known copy was falling apart. The text, a creation myth crediting the god Ptah with creating all the other gods, itself follows, although significant portions were eroded away when the stele was reused centuries later as a millstone.

There was no tattered papyrus. As a Nubian outsider, Shabaka needed to suck up to the priests at the temple of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt's first capital. He had recently conquered the city and wasn't exactly welcomed as a liberator. A nice inscribed slab kissing Memphis' ancient ass would please both priests and populace. He really made an effort, too. The inscription has all kinds of archaic touches in the layout, grammar and spelling making it seem like it could legitimately come from the mysterious ancient text.

7. THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF FAKE MUMMIES

The mummies of animals were essential devotional objects for the rituals of animal cult worship in ancient Egypt. Devotees would purchase mummies from the temples as votive offerings to the gods. The scale of this market was so huge that cats, dogs, ibises, baboons, bulls, and other animals were farmed to satisfy demand. In just one of more than 30 centers of animal cult worship, the necropolis of Saqqara, archaeologists found 8 million animal mummies (mostly dogs) that had been interred in catacombs from the 30th Dynasty (380 to 343 BCE) through to the Roman period. The estimated combined body count for all the animal cult centers is a mind-boggling 70 million.

Egyptians' voracious appetite for embalmed beasts could not be sated even by the most prolific puppy/kitten/baboon mills. In 2015, researchers at the University of Manchester examined more than 800 mummies from the Manchester Museum collection to see what was inside the bundles. X-rays and CT scans revealed that a third of them had intact animals, as advertised, another third had partial remains, and the last third were empty. The linen wrappers were filled with whatever was lying around—mud, sticks, eggshells—much like the brain the Wizard of Oz scared up for Scarecrow.

Even when the era of Egyptian animal cult worship was over and the fraud was no longer pious, mummies were still so prized that people kept cranking out fakes. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern era, mummies were believed to have medicinal properties. They were ground up into powder and sold in tinctures. They were also ground up into powder by artists to make a prized brown pigment.

Then, in the 19th century, Egyptomania exploded after the discoveries made during Napoleon's 1798 Egyptian expedition. Mummies were a must-have fashion accessory for the wealthy, and the production of fakes followed with alacrity. Two small mummies in the Vatican's collection thought to be of children or animals were recently found to be Egyptomaniacal forgeries. CT scans, X-rays, and DNA tests found that inside genuine Egyptian linen bandages were a random jumble of medieval human bones and one 19th century nail. And thus the expert antiquarians of the Vatican were deceived just as surely as the ancient faithful had been thousands of years earlier.

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Explore Two of Pompeii’s Excavated Homes in This Virtual Tour

A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 2000 years since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius decimated Pompeii in 79 C.E., and archaeologists are still uncovering secrets about life in the ancient Roman city. As Smithsonian reports, they’ve recently excavated two homes in Regio V, a 54-acre area just north of the Pompeii Archaeological Park—and you can see the findings for yourself in a virtual tour published by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

The 7.5-minute video comprises drone footage of the houses and surrounding ruins, along with commentary by park director Massimo Osanna that explains what exactly you’re looking at and what types of people once lived there. Osanna’s commentary is in Italian, but you can read the English translation here.

The homes, both modest private residences that probably housed middle-class families, border the Vicolo dei Balconi, or “Alley of the Balconies.” The first is fittingly named “House With the Garden” because excavators discovered that one of its larger rooms was, in fact, a garden. Excavators pinpointed the outlines of flowerbeds and even made casts of plant roots, which paleobotanists will use to try to identify what grew there. In addition to the garden and vibrant paintings that feature classic ancient deities like Venus, Adonis, and Hercules, “House With the Garden” also preserved the remains of its occupants: 11 victims, mostly women and children, who likely took shelter within the home while the men searched for a means of escape.

Across the street is “House of Orion,” named for two mosaics that depict the story of Orion, a huntsman in Greek mythology whom the gods transformed into the constellation that bears his name today.

“The owner of the house must have been greatly attracted to this myth, considering it features in two different rooms in which two different scenes of the myth are depicted,” Osanna says. “It is a small house which has proved to be an extraordinary treasure chest of art."

To see what Pompeian houses would’ve looked like before Mount Vesuvius had its fiery fit, check out this 3D reconstruction.

[h/t Smithsonian]