Trunks of Fake Artifacts from the Middle East Seized at Heathrow
Sent from the underworld of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the sovereign state in the Persian Gulf, to a private address in the U.K., the stash of apparently ancient, but in reality, fake artifacts, included 190 tablets covered in modern recreations of ancient Middle Eastern script.
Bubble wrapped and stuffed into two trunks, customs officials seized the illegal consignment at Heathrow airport on July 1 2019 and subsequently the collection of inscribed clay tablets, fired figurines, cylinder seals and animal-shaped pots, posing as having ancient Middle Eastern origins, were all identified as hoaxes by archaeologists in the British Museum’s Department of the Middle East .
A Terrible Attempt at Artifact Hoaxing
A report in The Telegraph describes cushion-shaped school texts designed to be comfortably held in one hand, prism and cylinder shaped items designed for burials, as well as building inscriptions and administrative texts. There were also inscribed dedicatory wall cones, votive mace-heads, a royal inscription referring to the late Assyrian king Adadnirari, “a mathematical tablet,” and an inscribed amulet resembling another recovered from the Assyrian capital of Nimrud.
However, many of the hoax cuneiform inscriptions were described by the British Museum specialists as “a jumble of signs, some invented and others upside-down, which made no sense when read.” Further determining the artifacts as hoaxes, analysis showed that they had all been crafted from a similar clay type, which “would be impossible for genuine articles,” according to the British Museum.
Fake artifacts (cuneiform tablets) in their wrapping. ( Trustees of the British Museum )
What’s more, all of the pieces had been fired consistently to a high temperature in a modern kiln, with no signs of having been sun dried, as authentic Middle Eastern artifacts would have been. Additionally, the measured thicknesses of the inscribed tablets didn’t match those of the originals, which the British Museum staff said “is a common error of a forger working from photographs in a book.”
Combatting the Grey Market of Fake Artifacts Crime
Where did this collection of fake artifacts come from and where were they going? When asked this question Richard Nixon, senior Border Force officer at Heathrow, told The Telegraph that organized “crime gangs” usually drive the counterfeit trade and he added that this particular seizure has taken a substantial amount of money out of the hands of criminals.
Fake artifacts (cuneiform tablets) unwrapped for assessment. ( Trustees of the British Museum )
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And perhaps more important than the immediate harm caused to criminal organizations, according to Mr. Nixon, new links have now been forged between customs officers and experts at the British Museum, which “were a vital part of this case,” and they will continue to work together “as law enforcement partners, to stop counterfeit goods.”
And never before has such an artifact smuggling crime fighting unit been required according to John Simpson, curator at the British Museum, who told The Telegraph : “these seizures confirm an emerging trend: capitalizing on interest in the purchase of antiquities, unscrupulous traders are faking Middle Eastern objects for sale.” And he also said the seizure of such illegal consignments confirm the importance of “vigilance on the part of our law enforcement agencies and the role that museums need to play in the identification of these objects.”
Archaeology as “Arts,” Might be One of the Problems
You would imagine that two trunks of fake artifacts would be swiped off the customs officers and British Museum staffs’ tables into the nearest trash can, but that would be wasting a great opportunity for learning, and this collection of crude fakes will now be used for teaching and training purposes within the museum and among U.K. customs teams, while a selection of the fakes will be displayed at the British Museum when it reopens later this year.
While the international trade of illegal antiquities, original and fake, has thrived in the U.K. since at least the sixteenth century, it greatly expanded during the last decades of the twentieth century and has recently exploded in scope as more and more of the archaeology associated with ancient cultures is being discovered and subsequently interpreted as “art.” And with all arts, come buyers, most often with no emotional connection to the pieces they wheel and deal, never mind a care for the cultural destruction that the theft and illegal trade of heritage items causes.
Top image: A collection of fake artifacts (figurines) seized by customs at Heathrow. Source: Trustees of the British Museum
By Ashley Cowie