An archaeologist who claimed that he had discovered the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion went on trial this week for forging ancient artifacts. Eliseo Gil and two associates appeared in court in Vitoria-Gasteiz and stand accused of forging graffiti on hundreds of pieces of Roman-era artifacts. Gil had claimed that these artifacts “rewrote the history books” and demonstrated previously unknown ties between the Roman presence in Iruña-Veleia (in Spain’s Basque country) and the Basque language. Among his showiest discoveries was a drawing of three crosses on a piece of third-century pottery.
Very quickly, however, other historians and archaeologists began to identify problems with the discoveries. Many of the words in the graffiti, which was supposed to date from the second to fifth centuries CE, used spellings and grammatical stylistic markers like commas that wouldn’t be in use until hundreds of years later. A reference on one item to the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti was suspicious given that ancient Spaniards and Romans didn’t know about her existence at all (she was rediscovered in the early 20th century). One of the pieces of graffiti was the same as a motto created in 1913. And the most famous discovery—the image of the crucifixion—uses iconography that wouldn’t be in vogue until hundreds of years later. This is pretty damning evidence: A skeptic might say that these weren’t even very well-researched forgeries.
In 2008, a scientific commission ruled that 476 of the items discovered at Iruña-Veleia were forgeries of one kind or another. The report blamed Gil and his colleagues. In an article published in the journal Zephyrus, Rodríguez Temiño points out that Gil was able to amass millions of dollars of sponsorship and grants for promoting ideas about Basque language and Christianization that feed into and support Basque nationalism.
If the allegations turn out to be true this is hardly the first time that forgers have used their skills to capitalize on the religious and political commitments of others for financial gain, and to promote a particular ideological agenda.
In the 19th century, Moses Shapira, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer, attempted to sell what he claimed was an ancient scroll written on 15 leather strips to the British Museum for £1 million—then a huge sum. He said that he had discovered these leather strips somewhere near the Dead Sea. The reason for the high price-tag was that he claimed the scrolls contained an “eleventh commandment” which read “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: I am God, thy God.” Though there are hundreds of laws in the first five books of the Bible, Christians tend to fetishize the Ten Commandments the most. The idea that there is another commandment, especially one that sounds a lot like Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, generated a lot of attention. Shapira himself had converted to Christianity from Judaism and it seemed all too convenient that he had discovered something that made ancient Judaism sound more like Christianity.
While the British Museum decided whether to purchase the strips, Shapira allowed the museum to place two of the strips on display. Several prominent academics who visited the exhibition denounced them as forgeries. One suggested that the 11th commandment had been written on a strip of leather cut from the margin of a scroll that Shapira has already sold to the British Museum. At this juncture the story takes a tragic turn: A humiliated Shapira fled to Rotterdam and committed suicide six months later. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, in the same area that Shapira said he discovered the leather strips, might lend some credibility to his story. Unfortunately, we will never know. The Shapira strips sold at auction at Sotheby’s for 10 guineas and were likely destroyed in a fire in 1899. That said this incident was not Shapira’s only involvement with forgeries: He once sold 1,700 fake figurines to a Berlin museum. Some of his forgeries are still on display today.
In the 1980s, Mark Hofman, a one-time LDS church member in Utah, made $2 million selling forged documents relating to Latter Day Saint history to the Mormon church. These documents, which included texts associated with Joseph Smith, flooded the market in the early ’80s. The most distinctive is the “Salamander letter” which implied that Joseph Smith had engaged in magical practices and claimed that the entity that appeared to Smith was not an angel (as Smith had originally said and the Church taught) but a “white salamander.” Many authenticators and officials were fooled by the letters and Mormon theologians put considerable effort into reconciling the differences between the content of Hofman’s discoveries and church teachings. Hofman was eventually unmasked because a pipe bomb that he intended to use to murder a suspected whistleblower blew up Hofman’s car.
Arguably the most diverse modern forgers are the Greenhalgh family of Lancashire, England who were active between 1986 and 2006. With the help of his parents and brother, Shaun Greenhalgh, an unsuccessful British artist, sold fake objects to museums, auction houses, and private collectors. What was remarkable about Greenhalgh was the diversity and range of objects he was able to create. He created the “Amarna Princess” a 52-cm-high statue that was supposed to show one of the daughters of the Pharaoh Akhenatan. According to the investigation, Greenhalgh created his copy in three weeks in his garden shed using “basic DIY tools.” The object fooled both the auction house Christie’s and the British Museum and sold for £439,767. Greenhalgh also forged Assyrian reliefs, Roman art, and reliquaries. Interestingly, when police raided their home they found that the Greenhalghs lived a very simple lifestyle. They drove a Ford Focus, watched TV from a battered sofa, and lived in publicly funded housing.
In 2002, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan announced the discovery of a first-century limestone ossuary (a box used to bury bones) that bore the suggestive inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” At the time it was hailed as the first archeological tie to Jesus and elicited great excitement among both academics and Christians. The following year, however, the Israeli Antiquities Authority published a report in which it stated that the inscription (though not the box itself) was a modern forgery. It claimed that someone had used a chalk solution to make the inscription appear old. The academic jury is still out on this one: Some claim the box is authentic, while others argue that it is a clear forgery. At least part of the problem is that the box was not discovered in the context of an excavation and so there’s no proof that the inscription was on the ossuary when it came out of the ground. In 2012, Golan was acquitted of forgery but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. The judge in the case stated that the outcome of the trial “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago.”
More recently, in 2012 a fragment of a previously unknown ancient Christian text made headlines because it bore with the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…” The story sounded like something out of a Dan Brown novel and many people were excited by the idea that Jesus might have been married and had children. For the Roman Catholic church, which hangs its demands for clerical celibacy on the example set by Jesus, this was a controversial and problematic discovery that was quickly denounced. Though many scholars were skeptical of its authenticity, it was the work of the investigative journalist Ariel Sabar for The Atlantic that revealed that the papyrus fragment was the work of Walter Fritz, a one-time Florida pornographer who had studied Egyptology in his youth in Germany.
Some of these forgers are true believers who believe they are advancing a specific cause, but in many of these cases forgers exploit the appetites and interests of their immediate “mark’” and the general public. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, many forged examples have entered the antiquities market. Coincidentally the contents of these fraudulent texts address the particular interests of the evangelicals who buy them. Walter Fritz’s “Gospel of Jesus Wife” speaks to the egalitarian interests of modern people; the Shapira scroll actually inserted Christian ethics into the Hebrew Bible; and the Amarna Princess addressed the perennial fascination that people have with ancient Egypt. Interestingly, when caught, these forgers tend to be exposed by one of three things: anachronistic details in forged texts and inscriptions, spelling mistakes, and a poorly researched ownership story. In many cases it was historians and archaeologists that unmasked the deceptions, proving that the humanities are just as useful as STEM.