The best historical pranks and hoaxes

Emperor Constantine had a splendid sense of humour for a Roman, but he couldn't stand criticism. When in the fifth century one of his court jesters boasted that fools and jesters of the court could rule the empire better than the Emperor himself, Constantine decreed that the fools would get their chance at proving this claim.

The ruler set aside one day in the year upon which a fool would reign the great Roman empire. The first year, Constantine appointed a jester named Kugel as rule, who immediately ordained that only the absurd would be allowed on that day. This yearly tradition of celebrating of all what is ludicrous, nonsensical and utterly derisory was a huge success, and so the tradition of April Fools' Day was born. Or was it?

Actually, the Ancient Roman origins of April Fools' Day is actually a prank itself, and a very successful one. Pitched in 1983 to a journalist by Professor Joseph Boskin, the story was released on the Associated Press news wires and followed up by many reputable news outlets. A few weeks later, Boskin admitted that the whole story was a hoax.

Boskin’s prank is just one of many to have fooled archaeological scholars and museums over the years. In fact The Independent had its own archaeological prank on April 1st 1993 when the newspaper announced the discovery of the 3000-year old village of cartoon heroes Asterix and Obelix, complete with Asterix-period pottery and Iron Age standing stones. The village, said to be 3000 years old, was reportedly found at Le Yaudet, near Lannion, France - almost exactly where author Rene Goscinny placed it in his books. Professor Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University and Dr. Patrick Galliou of the University of Brest were credited with its finding.

Not all hoaxes are as playful as these examples; the antiquities market is plagued with fakes and forgeries. It can be difficult even for experts to determine whether an artefact is genuine, as the ongoing debate over the authenticity of the Bust of Nefertiti can attest, and if an artefact is deemed genuine, it has the potential to command a high price.

One of the most successful hoaxers was British was Shaun Greenhalgh. His Amarna Princess sculpture - named after the Egyptian capital under the reign of Akhenaton - is the most famous 'fake' in Britain. The 52cm alabaster statue was believed to be that of an Egyptian princess related to King Tut. Considered a rare find when offered for sale (the Amarna art style was only practiced during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton) the Princess fetched £440,000 and was put on display at Bolton Museum. The museum later said the rarity of the item made it more difficult to identify the statue as a fake and added that experts at the British Museum also believed it to be genuine.

Other 'ancient' forgeries by Greenhalgh included the Rizley Park Lanx (a serving plate that he created by melting down genuine Roman coins) which was accepted as genuine for years, and a 10th century brooch. Greenhalgh's run of good luck came to an end when in 2005 he and his father tried to sell three faked Assyrian reliefs to the British Museum. He was caught out by spelling errors in the cuneiform inscriptions and what appeared to be 20th century harnesses on the horses. Scotland Yard was called and before long Greenhalgh was exposed.

Other remarkable hoaxes include a report published by Biblical Archaeology Review in 2002 that claimed an amazing discovery: a stone box with a contemporary inscription confirming the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and his brother, James the Just. If authentic, the ossuary would have been the first archaeological evidence that Jesus existed aside from the manuscript tradition. In 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority published a report concluding that although the ossuary and the first half of the inscription were genuine, the second half was a poor forgery. Specifically, it appears that the inscription was added recently and made to look old by addition of a chalk solution. The owner, Oded Golan, has since been arrested, and his forgery equipment and partially completed forgeries have been recovered.

In the US, a number of remarkable quartz crystal skulls, apparently Mayan or Aztec in origin, were recently in circulation. Although several are now housed in museums, including the British Museum, none of the skulls come from well-documented, official excavations and it is now generally agreed that these skulls are 19th century forgeries. Although skull iconography is found in Mesoamerican art, some of the anomalies that give the skulls away as fakes are the rigid linearity of features representing the teeth (contrasting with the more precise execution of teeth on pre-Columbian artefacts) as well as the way these features were carved. Also, a cutting wheel - not introduced until after the Spanish conquest - must have been used in the producting of this skull, ruling out the possibility that they were manufactured during the Aztec period.

The British Museum has decided to hold onto its forged skulls, and it seems that there is a role for forged artefacts in the world’s top museums. Royal Ontario Museum curator Paul Denis claims that, of the hundreds of ancient Zapotec artefacts in the museum, about half of them are fake. Some museums will even go to great lengths to have hoaxes on display. When Peter Dance's book Animal Fakes and Frauds made the hair-covered ‘fur-bearing trout’ famous, National Museum of Scotland’s taxidermist tracked down some rabbit fur and created one to go on display.

Shaun Greenhaugh’s famous fakes

Curator Paul Denis on Forgeries in Museums

Construct your own Pyramidiot theory and put it to the test



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

    Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us