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Forgeries, Fakes and the Tucson Artifacts


Pope Hadrian, one of the authors of the Donation of Constantine. 


What do the Tucson Artifacts have to do with some of the most celebrated forgeries of all time—the Donation of Constantine, Ossian Poems, Gonon Venus, Kinderhook Plates, Burrows Cave artwork, Glozel Stones and Vinland Map? Very little, as it turns out. Donald Yates’ new book The Merchant Adventurer Kings of Rhoda: The Strange World of the Tucson Artifacts finds only authenticity. Six writing systems are used in these “puzzling relics.” Those writing systems are the Roman alphabet, Brythonic ogam and runes, Masoretic Hebrew, Chinese Tang-era seal script and a previously overlooked Mesoamerican glyph.

Good fakes are rare, and even the cleverest ones do not stand the test of time. To take the example of The Donation of Constantine, this was a rediscovered fourth century Roman imperial charter that purported to hand the Pope “supremacy over all the churches of God on earth.” Created in the monastic workshops of the Carolingians, it was accepted as a genuine edict of the Emperor Constantine until exposed by the humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457). It was the legal instrument that propped up the Pope’s ownership of a large part of Italy until 1870, the Papal States. It justified the Pope’s primacy over secular rulers, with the Roman pontiff outranking all kings, princes and lesser aristocrats in Europe. It also served as the basis for the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which began with the Pope crowning Charlemagne at St. Peter’s in Rome in 800.
The Donation of Constantine can thus lay claim to being the longest-standing, most profitable and most far-reaching forgery of all time. It is also the ultimate inside job.

Ossian Epic Cycle Concocted by James Macpherson

Turning to the literary world, an astonishing example of a forgery is the cycle of epic poems on Irish legends published by the Scotsman James Macpherson in 1760. Despite English critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson calling Macpherson “a mountebank, a liar and a fraud,” and arguing his work was “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with,” The Works of Ossian which Macpherson passed off as the writings of the ancient Scottish bard Ossian became all the rage during his lifetime and for long afterward. Proclaimed as the Celtic equivalent of Homer, the pathetic doggerel was translated into every conceivable language. Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson were admirers. Ossian inspired famous paintings, operas and song-cycles. The King of Norway named his son and heir after the Romantic hero. Ossian mania helped launch historical novels beginning with Sir Walter Scott and even aided in the “invention” of modern Scotland. Today, after two hundred and fifty years, Ossian and Fingal’s Cave are studied as linchpins of the Romantic Movement. Little notice is taken of the inconvenient fact that the whole corpus happens to be fake, an egotistical bid for fame by a bogus poet desperate to get published. One recent author terms Macpherson’s The Poems of Ossian “the most successful literary falsehood in modern history” (Thomas Curley).

A New Masterpiece of Ancient Statuary for the French Made in Italy

Perhaps one of the most celebrated hoaxes in recent times cropped up in France. It was also among the shortest lived. On May 2, 1937, a farmworker by the name of Gonon near the village of Brizet ploughed up a marble statue missing legs, one arm and nose. Specialists identified it as a first-century BCE Venus. The lucky Gonon was offered 250,000 francs. When Francesco Cremonese, an Italian sculptor, promptly confessed to having personally buried that Venus in that field, and to have created it as a demonstration of his work, French officials refused to believe him. They declared the statue a national treasure, a work of ancient art that should be protected from the calumny of scoundrels. They continued to reject the sculptor’s testimony even after he produced the missing parts, which matched. The matter was settled only after Cremonese hauled in a nightclub singer who had been his model—her limbs and features being examined to the Frenchmen’s full satisfaction.

Mormon and Anti-Mormon Controversy at Kinderhook, Illinois

A sinister chapter in the history of fakes concerns the Kinderhook Plates. A local merchant, Robert Wiley, allegedly unearthed this set of small bell-shaped brass plates with strange hieroglyphics in an Indian mound outside the town of Kinderhook, Illinois in April 1843. After being exhibited briefly and reported upon in the Quincy Whig, a newspaper, they were sent for authentication to Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Mormons, headquartered at this stage of their westward migrations in nearby Nauvoo. Smith translated a portion of the ancient characters and pronounced that the bells belonged to “a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” Smith noted the location where the Kinderhook Plates were brought to light on a map he drew of the angel Moroni’s journey to the hill of Cumorah in upstate New York, where he had previously found the gold plates he published as The Book of Mormon (later lost).

Although Wilbur Fugate, with Robert Wiley as an accomplice, confessed in 1879 to making and planting the Kinderhook Plates to fool their Mormon neighbors, Church officials continued to state that the artifacts were genuine until the 1980s. In 1984, Barry Fell, a Harvard professor and president of the Epigraphic Society, took a look at them and read a scrambled message in the inscriptions: “W Fugate Fakes. April Fools Day 1843 for Joseph Smith.” The bells were apparently intended as a wake-up call.

Riches and Ridicule in Burrows Cave, Location Unknown

Money rather than tomfoolery seems to be the motive behind fabrication of the laughably phony Burrows Cave artifacts. Here there is also a Mormon connection, and the Holy Grail chasers and Masons have jumped on the bandwagon. These smooth pieces of river shingle crudely etched with pictures of Egyptians and other ancient visitors to Illinois are sometimes “exhibited” on picnic tables at Mormon events. When the supply runs low, new purpose-made works of mind-bending ancient art surface from the secret cave.

Russell Burrows, the perpetrator of this hoax, claims to still have access to a hoard of Egyptian and Phoenician gold, but he is not revealing its exact whereabouts. Beginning in 1984, he released a few pictures of gold plates and sold gullible members of the Institute for the Study of American Culture coins made of gilded lead for amounts of money so embarrassing the victims of the scam would not disclose the prices. The only gold we can detect is that going into the pockets of Burrows and his partners.

The Glozel Cache, Not over Yet

Then there are the Glozel Stones. These Celtic artifacts comprise a unified assemblage or collection of objects that resembles the Tucson Artifacts in its date of discovery, controversial nature and ramifications. The Glozel story features many of the same elements of educated idiocy and professional stupidity. Seventeen-year-old Emile Fradin and his grandfather Claude Fradin were doing spring plowing on their farm near the tiny village of Glozel in central France on March 1, 1924, when one of their cows got her foot stuck. The ground collapsed and the poor animal was swallowed up by the earth. Emile Fradin literally stumbled upon one of the most bitterly contested archeological finds of the century. The underground chamber was walled with clay bricks and had a tiled floor. It contained a hoard more than 3,000 artifacts, including 100 inscribed clay tablets, idols, vases, glass, flint tools, stone objets d’art and human bones.

The French archeological establishment dismissed a local physician’s report that appeared the next year as an amateurish hoax founded on the testimony of a peasant boy. And then after professional excavations were undertaken, and following a communiqué sent to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the famous archeologist Abbé Breuil decided the site was genuine, but “everything is false except the stoneware pottery.” A commission appointed by the International Institute of Anthropology in Amsterdam carried out further excavations. It declared everything except for a few pieces of flint axes and stone fake. René Dussaud, a distinguished epigraphy expert at the Louvre, accused Emile Fradin of forgery. Fradin filed suit for defamation against him in 1928. The French Prehistoric Society that same year lodged an official complaint of fraud. The gendarmes raided and destroyed the site’s small museum, confiscating three cases of artifacts. These were soon determined to be forgeries at the Criminal Records Office in Paris, and on June 4, 1929, Emile Fradin was indicted and convicted for fraud in the courts of the French justice system.

Appealing the verdict, he was acquitted in April 1931, and the following year he won his defamation case against the Louvre’s expert Dussaud. Fradin lived to the ripe old age of 105, dying in 2010 after writing his amazing story as the discoverer and curator of the Glozel Artifacts in 1979.

Donal B. Buchanan has convincingly shown that the entire trove evinces Semitic inscriptions that have strong affinities with both Libyan Punic and Iberic and that the site “seems to have been some kind of bazaar or trading center (either seasonal or permanent) where Semitic merchants dealt with a predominantly Celtic agrarian population . . . perhaps sometime in the third or fourth century before the Common Era” (“A Preliminary Decipherment of the Glozel Inscriptions,” Migration and Diffusion 3/9, 2002).

If we narrow our vision to the field of archeology, the Tucson Artifacts share few earmarks with other cases of forgery, whether proved or only suspected. Their language or script is no guarantee against falsification, however. Several thousand of the 180,000 inscriptions catalogued by the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), the largest collection of its sort, are classified as being “in doubt.” This is a surprising proportion that works out to about three percent of the total. These so-called falsae are included in a separate section of the monumental undertaking that was begun by Theodor Mommsen in 1853, and that is still active today at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

From the Papacy and Glozel to Ogam and Chinese

As the Kinderhook Tablets and Gonon Venus illustrate, usually a fake consists of a single object or group of objects made to look old, mysterious and important. Few perpetrators set their goals on counterfeiting artifacts that are undecipherable or inconsequential. Normally we are confronted with a single type of manufacture, a spellbinding lapidarian decree or bronze coin with the image of a Caesar on it. The finds present a single language and single provenance. The Glozel and Tucson Artifacts stand in a class of their own. Both are “mixed bags,” completely novel, utterly unexpected. They are sui generis, one of a kind.

The most common forgeries and plants are brought to light right where one might expect them to be brought to light. They are often traced to the authorship of the local discoverer. In many cases, they are too perfect. Most are suspect from the “get-go.” We’ve not heard of many bogus artifacts that kept being alternately doubted and vindicated, that were in and out of the court of opinion for a long period of time. The shifting fortunes and inconclusive status of the Tucson Artifacts after a century of controversy are unusual in this respect.

After long study, I have reached a different conclusion about the Tucson Artifacts, those supposed forgeries recovered in Arizona in the years 1924-1929 now preserved in the Arizona Historical Society. They are verifiable and authentic metal objects bearing inscriptions in six Old and New World writing systems from the ninth century. The Latin of the main set of inscriptions has been recognized and is not particularly hard to read or understand. The Hebrew on the artifacts, one of them a Celtic cross with a brazen serpent, is also clear and of a classic, Masoretic purity. What no one has drawn attention to until now are several inscriptions in ogam and runes, plus a single Mesoamerican glyph.

Schrödinger’s Cat Is Alive and Well

Despite their checkered history, the Tucson Artifacts cannot be simultaneously admissible evidence and dismissible hoaxes, alive and dead at the same time like the famous philosophical paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. They are not fraudulent impositions in any sense but precious records belonging to world history. Oliver, son of Joseph, had the annals of the kings of Rhoda preserved and sealed in lead, gold and wax. This Breton soldier, son of a rabbi, intended them to endure like Horace’s poetry as “a monument more lasting than bronze.”

The Tucson Artifacts are lost-wax, cast-lead ceremonial objects inscribed with medieval Latin historical texts and memorials of leaders with names such as Jacob, Israel, Benjamin, Joseph, Saul, Isaac and Theodore. Some also contain Hebrew phrases like “eight divisions” and “a great nation,” while others display pictures of the commemorated leaders, ships, trademarks in Tang-era seal script, temples, a Mesoamerican glyph, Romanesque-style angels in glory and other drawings. Their iconography includes the Ten Commandments and cult objects like spice spoons, carpenter’s square, Frankish axes, snakes and braziers. There are also military anthems and mottos. A series of thick one-sided double crosses, joined like sealed albums (I-V), present what are clearly records signed by OL (Oliver), with dates ranging from 560 to 900 A.D. The overarching identity is self-described as Roman (Romani, monogram R). This claim to nationality is further divided into Levites (L) and Israelites (I). One of the stand-out emblems depicted is a triple tiara, a symbol of Jewish priesthood worn also by the Mesoamerican figure of Quetzalcoatl.

Six Writing Systems of the Tucson Artifacts

Although the writing has struck some modern viewers as ill-formed and crude, it is an easily recognized type of square Roman capitals used for edicts and other records housed in the depositories of antiquity, usually temples. Called scriptura monumentalis (script for writing on monuments), it was used on bronze panels and coins, and its presence always communicated romanitas, urbanity and officialdom.


Fragment of bronze Roman law tablet incised in square Roman capitals from 1st cent. B.C.E. (CIL I 22, 2925, private possession Cologne, see Peter Weiß, “Zu einem neuen Fragment einer tabula legis,” ZPE 77, 1989, pp. 145-49, IX b).


Ogam in the variety called Romesc Breas (Roman Breton) by Irish scribes labels the Romani colonists as Good (“da” in Old Cornish/Welsh/Breton), in the sense of Beaulande, the Land of Israel.

The Tucson Artifacts bear reliable dates in the Christian calendar (560, 705, 775, 800, 880, 885, 900). They preserve the annals and prosopography of a distinct geopolitical entity, a Roman-styled military kingdom in Toltec Mexico with Jewish leaders from Brittany, the Carolingian or Frankish heartland on the Seine, and Gaul, one that existed for over a century (890-900). They are straight-forwardly composed in Latin, the official language of records during the Middle Ages, and plainly written in a script intended for public scrutiny. The circumstances of their manufacture from local lead and recovery from the desert soil localize them to the place where they were excavated. Finally, they are perfectly preserved, complete, unaltered diplomatic documents, recognizable as being signed and sealed by a public notary (OL). With the exception of the ogam and runic writing, they do not have to be reconstructed, pieced together, deciphered or dated. Nor do they have to be doubted.

Donald Yates’ new book on the Tucson Artifacts is expected to appear this fall (2017).


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