Historical forgery

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One of the Davenport Tablets, fake artifacts found in Iowa.
Fiction over fact
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How it didn't happen

Historical forgery denotes one of two types of forgeries:

  • A genuine item — however mundane — from the relevant time period, which has been tampered with long afterwards.
  • An item from the wrong time period (ranging all the way up to having been made from scratch just recently) that is presented as a genuine original dating from a certain time period.

Historical forgeries are typically used either to back up otherwise outlandish fringe theories, or to turn a fast buck being sold as authentic to museums or collectors. In both cases, the confidence men behind the forgeries are leading the public (and sometimes academia) astray in exchange for ill-gotten fame and/or fortune.

Forgery as propaganda[edit]

Even after the development of the printing press in the West (c. 1440), forgeries were relatively easy to pull off, as the ability to cross check information was difficult.

In ancient times, it was even easier, as even at the best of times, overall literacy was well below 50%.[1][2][3]

The best way to make something "important" is to say some famous (or infamous) figure said it... preferably after anyone who could contradict you was dead and gone. We see this with George Washington's vision and a "quote" by Abraham Lincoln. In ancient Egypt, they took the practice to the next level, totally eliminating leaders they felt were an "embarrassment" from official public records (for example, Akhenaten, Hatshepsut, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamen, and Ay are not listed in the Abydos King List) and crediting more suitable rulers with their contributions.

Since records of that time were hand-written, they were limited both in the number of copies and in circulation, making forgery even easier, as the means to determine a forgery was extremely limited. For instance, it wasn't until the time of Desiderius ErasmusWikipedia (1466-1536), a Renaissance scholar, that the material that showed the Donation of ConstantineWikipedia was a crude forgery was able to be consolidated and checked (based on the mangled Latin in the document that nobody even remotely close to Constantine's court would have written, but that a semi-literate medieval forger would have).

Of course, this lends itself to its own woo, with ad hoc claims such as the notion that none of the Pauline epistlesWikipedia were composed before 180 C.E.[4] In reality, we can't say that the whole Pauline corpus is a forgery, only parts of it.


The laws of Numa Pompilius[edit]

The Roman author Livy recounted that, on the land of public clerk Lucius Petilius, when farmers (quote):[5]

...were digging up the ground to a greater depth than usual, two stone chests were found, each about eight feet long and four broad, with the lids fastened with lead.

Each chest had an inscription, in Latin and Greek letters: one to the effect that Numa Pompilius, the son of Pompo, king of the Romans, was buried there, the other, that the books of Numa Pompilius were inside. [...] The books were shown to other people and the fact became public.

Praetor Q. Petilius, who was friends with L. Petilius, requested them, found them very dangerous to religion and told Lucius he would have them burnt.

Somehow, the Romans were skeptical about the archeological finding because the double-ancient Romans knew a thing or two about quality (the book looked brand new) and because the opinions of the dead king were kind of close to those of the Pythagoreans.[6]

Sibylline Oracles[edit]

The so-called Sibylline Oracles are a collection of Greek verses attributed to the Sibyl of Cumæ. According to tradition, the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, was offered a set of nine books containing prophecies of the future of Rome by the Sibyl at Cumæ. The Sibyl first offered to Tarquinius nine books of these prophecies. The king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded. So she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquinius at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquinius then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price.[7]

The extant Sibylline Books or Oracles are not these costly oracular texts. They are, instead, a hodgepodge of Jewish and Hellenistic apocalypses, with thinly veiled references to historical figures such as Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. They are generally accepted to be a Christian imposture of the sixth century CE. They were, however, occasionally referenced by Christian writers of the early middle ages, and were acknowledged by Thomas of Celano in his poem Dies irae.[8][9]

Shroud of Turin[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Shroud of Turin

The first undoubted attestation of the existence of the Shroud of Turin was in 1390 CE when Bishop Pierre d'Arcis wrote to Antipope Clement VII, stating that the shroud was a forgery and that the artist had confessed.[10][11]

Pauline letters[edit]

Paul, one of the inventors of Christianity, who people used to say wrote half of the New Testament, actually wrote about a fourth of it. The rest? Forgeries — aka pseudepigrapha (nice word, don't you think?).[12]

Paul himself warned the reader that there was a veritable cottage industry of people who wrote stuff in his name. Ironically, these warnings appear both in the letters believed to be written by him and by forgers.

Fake Bible books[edit]

Various people have attempted to justify their interpretations of Christianity by coming up with additional books of the Bible that they supposedly just found lying around, or obtained from mysterious sources. This includes Jacob Ilive,Wikipedia who faked the "lost" Biblical text the Book of Jasher in the mid 18th century to justify his own eccentric religious beliefs. Early in the Church's history, it seems someone faked or "reassembled" the lost Epistle to the Laodiceans,Wikipedia although this seems to have been a sincere attempt to recreate something known from fragments, rather than a forgery intended to distort church doctrine. It's probably safer to copy Joseph Smith and have your lost books mysteriously disappear after you "translated" them, so nobody can analyse the actual document.

Prester John's letter[edit]

A missive from mythical Christian monarch Prester John appeared in the 12th century to give legitimacy and support to the Crusades. Full of fantastical tales and promises of victory against the Infidel, it was enormously popular as literature, such that most people believed it until around the 17th century when it became very clear that Prester John had never existed. It is now believed to be a forgery by a mid-12th century west European (possibly an Italian) with some experience of the Crusader lands.[13]

Ossuary of James[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Ossuary of James

Hitler diaries[edit]

Adolf Hitler's diaries were notoriously faked in the 1980s by Konrad Kujau, a seller of Nazi memorabilia who had run out of genuine things to sell; Hitler never kept diaries.[14]

Michigan relics[edit]

The Michigan relicsWikipedia are supposedly evidence of ancient near-eastern people visiting Michigan. Even Mormon scientist James E. Talmage concluded they were fake.[15]

The History of Crowland[edit]

A fake historical document created by the monks of Crowland Abbey in England to bolster a land claim, and accepted for hundreds of years as a legitimate historical record.[16]

The Kinderhook Plates[edit]

Brass plates with mysterious inscriptions that were apparently created to scam Joseph Smith, who had prior history with ancient plates.[17][18]

Oera Linda Book[edit]

Purportedly a document giving the history of northern Europe from 2194 BCE to 803 CE, written at various times from 2194 BCE to 1256 CE in the Old Frisian language and revealed to the world in 1867 by Cornelis Over de Linden who claimed it was a family heirloom. It gives the supposed history of a matriarchal society worshiping the Germanic goddess Frya, which managed to invent the alphabet well before anyone in the Middle East, and it describes the destruction of an Atlantis-like civilization called Atland in something like the Noachian Great Flood. Most legitimate linguists and historians consider it a hoax, but it has been influential in Nazi occultism and a variety of eccentric theories about a far-northern utopia; historian and NSDAP member Herman Wirth called it the "Nordic Bible".[19]

Privilegium Maius[edit]

Rudolf IV, Hapsburg Duke of Austria 1358–1365, used a collection of forged documents collectively known as Privilegium Maius to enhance the power and influence of his family and his lands and make the Duchy an Archduchy and its ruler an elector of the Holy Roman Empire. The forgeries included decrees supposedly from Julius Caesar and Nero granting autonomy to Noricum (the Roman province approximately covering Austria). The poet Petrarch, working as an advisor for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, recognised they were forgeries, but many people were unwilling to challenge Rudolf; the Hapsburgs had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing and bribery, but eventually their claims were generally accepted.[20][21]

The Situation of Britain[edit]

Or The Description of Britain or De Situ Britanniae, a fake history of Roman Britain supposedly written in the 15th century by Richard of Westminster (and later attributed to the better-known Richard of CirencesterWikipedia) but actually by an 18th century teacher and antiquarian, Charles Bertram.Wikipedia It was popularised and translated by William Stukeley, an eccentric pioneer of archaeology who studied Stonehenge and believed the druids followed an early form of Christianity (the trilithons symbolize the Trinity, of course). Bertram's forgery influenced Edward Gibbon and other reputable historians. Through the 19th century, doubts increased, with John Hodgson in the 1820s pointing out the improbable handwriting and strange Latin style, and Karl Wex in 1846 finding it included erroneous passages copied from mistakes made by Venetian printers after Richard's time. Yet some falsehoods were still propagated in the 20th century.[22][23]

Vestiarium Scoticum[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Scotland § Tartan myths

A fake history of Scottish tartan by John Sobieski Stuart, who also claimed to be related to the Jacobite pretenders to the throne of Britain. Its made-up claims are still used today to sell kilts to gullible tourists.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Di Renzo, A (2000) "His master's voice: Tiro and the rise of the Roman secretarial class", Journal of technical writing and communication, vol. 30, (2) 155-168
  2. Dupont, Florence. (1989) Daily Life in Ancient Rome Tr. Christopher Woodall. Oxford: Blackwell; pg 223
  3. Millard, Alan (2003) Literacy in the Time of Jesus - Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime? Biblical Archaeology Review 29:04, Jul/Aug 2003.
  4. The Entire Pauline Corpus is a forgery: The Pauline Corpus was composed AFTER c 180 CE Oct 26, 2013 3:15 pm, RationalSkepticism.org.
  5. Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 40, Ch 29, Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University
  6. Literary Frauds among the Romans, Alfred Gudeman, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1869-1896), Vol. 25 (1894), 140-164, via JSTOR, pages 141-142
  7. Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae (I: 6)
  8. The Sibylline Oracles, sacred-texts.com
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Dies Irae.
  10. Les sources de l'histoire du linceul de Turin. Revue critique by Poulle, Emmanuel (December 2009). Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique 104(3-4):747–782. doi:10.1484/J.RHE.3.215.
  11. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings by Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, 1998, ISBN 9781573922722.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Authorship of the Pauline epistles.
  13. Review: PRESTER JOHN: THE LETTER AND THE LEGEND by V. Slessarev, Frend, W. H. C. History 46, no. 157 (1961): 132.
  14. See the Wikipedia article on Hitler Diaries.
  15. The Mysterious Michigan Relics, Michigan's Other Side
  16. The History of Crowland, Museum of Hoaxes
  17. The Kinderhook Plates, Museum of Hoaxes
  18. See the Wikipedia article on Kinderhook plates.
  19. See the Wikipedia article on Oera Linda Book.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Privilegium Maius.
  21. The Dwarves and the Onion Domes, Ferdinand Mount, London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 18 · 24 September 2020
  22. See the Wikipedia article on The Description of Britain.
  23. History in the making: a Roman map… and an 18th-century hoax, Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, 19 July 2013