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When archaeologists make mistakes

Torsten Landsberg als
December 27, 2018

Archaeology explores the history of mankind. In the search for material heritage, however, scientists' urge to explore and their vanity can transfigure their interpretation of finds, as an exhibition in Hildesheim shows.

Mistakes in Archaeology exhibition poser shows a man with a magnifying glass and top hat
Image: Museum der Archäologie Herne/LWL/ J. Mühlenbrock

Science should help us to understand connections. So it is up to archaeologists to investigate the cultural development of mankind: Where are our origins, how did our ancestors live, work, fight? How did they travel? Some aspects of our history are already well researched, yet new sensational finds keep popping up.

Read more: 'Restless times' exhibition features Germany's latest archaeological finds

A skeleton with a crown in a bowl
What was believed to be a crown ...Image: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek/Museum der Archäologie Herne

In some cases, researchers were so eager to prove a theory that their negligence led to errors — allowing archaeologists to claim they had found unicorn remains or traces allegedly left by the mythical Greek poet Homer.

Just how much imagination can play a trick on you if you want to believe strongly enough that an object is a true discovery is evident in one find: a piece of iron with decorative fittings, a loop design and copper alloy. Researchers quickly came to the conclusion: it had to be a crown.

As it turned out later, it was actually the fitting from a bucket from the 6th century AD.

an ancient bucket
... was actually part of a bucketImage: Museum der Archäologie Herne/LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn

Ambition, vanity, business acumen

Beyond the honest mistakes made by researchers in the past, in some cases spectacular artifacts were directly forged for financial gain. Radiocarbon dating methods were not available to test the authenticity of artifacts a century ago, so it's easier to understand how a reputed institution like the Louvre Museum could have fallen for a fake gold crown than how modern-day hoaxes have managed to dupe so many people.

In an exhibition titled "Fake & Facts — Wrong Tracks in Archaeology," on show until May 26, 2019, the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim is revisiting popular but outdated assumptions about past eras as well as some of the most infamous and expensive cases of forgery.

Click through our picture gallery to find out which mistakes the archaeologists made and what the search for a unicorn has to do with it.