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A collection of fake artifacts (figurines) seized by customs at Heathrow.         Source: Trustees of the British Museum

Trunks of Fake Artifacts from the Middle East Seized at Heathrow

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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)

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



Magico: When making fakes, the most valuable and most-rare artifacts attract the most scrutiny and arouse the most suspicion so most often the in-between less sensational items less likely to attract professional interest but which could fetch a good price are faked.

Carbon dating would not apply to items like this unless they had some organic materials in sufficient quantity to test. In any event, the analysis states these items were likely fired in modern kilns rather than baked in the sun, thus the method of manufacture reveals they are not ancient.

Finally, the obvious errors in the texts and the dimensions of the objects suggest to me they may have been intended to be sold as replicas rather than fakes. Fakes imply fraud. These look like the sort of things that would be sold to those with casual interest, or perhaps tourists. 

Incidentally, I would never buy anything purporting to be ancient or genuine for a high price; such things are not usually available to novice collectors, and anyway even the experts get fooled – generally the more an expert wants to believe the easier they are to fool. There have been many multi-million dollar lessons learned in such cases. A well-made replica gives the same impression and satisfaction and at least you know you haven’t been defrauded and wasted your money.



Well there ARE forgeries, of course, but as a forger you want to make money, so they will forge what is valuable and easyly recognizable. It just makes NO SENSE to forge something very uncommon like the Glozel-finds for example.
Regarding the cuneiform tablets of this article the question is, wheter this was worth to forge if the museum says it is not readable to them??? this makes no sense because a forger would at least copy a text readable, probably changing it a bit!
But what makes me most suspicious of all is: why was there no scientific measurement of the age of these tablets? why just argue about the thickness?? what ?? there could be an other place making thicker tablets as those yet known to science! Why no carbon or other dating method applied? please?

1: There is a video about the Nefertiti bust embedded in this article which I will comment on. I respect the opinion of Shaun about the bust being fake, and his arguments are convincing. Others have had the same opinion and have stated that the bust was created some time after the excavations at Amarna and after Borchardt had returned to Germany. The problem is that there are original on-site photos taken about the time of discovery showing the bust and mention of it is recorded in the daily diary kept during the excavation. The bust, though not made to Royal standards of workmanship could well be a control copy used to standardise manufactures images of Nefertiti and thus not intended to be presented to the Royal family. Other busts were found in the same workshop location though not in the same condition. It is amazing it survived all those years in a city that had been levelled and seemingly picked clean, but it is also amazing that a pot full of gold objects was found in another part of the city after all those years too. I still view the bust with suspicion, but there is that problem about the original photo of the discovery, which matches the present object. 

2: About the shipment of fakes from Bahrain, and ancient artifacts in general, fakes (or honest replicas) have been made all through history. Some studies have demonstrated that up to 90% of objects in museums and in very large private collections, there can be almost 100% fakes. When considering the population of the ancient world and the distribution of wealth, how many people could actually have owned all these artifacts and sculptures? And why is it that today, with the population of the world perhaps 50 times what it was then and with much more wealth today to purchase these things, we never seem to run out? During the 19th and 20th centuries there were fakes made on an industrial scale of ancient sculptures and objects, of paintings, antique furniture, parchment, etc. Even things that were seemingly discovered in situ had been planted there. Just recently most of a museum of ‘ancient’ parchments, even Dead Sea Scrolls, were determined to be fakes.

I propose that with insufficient provenance (though even forged provenance is a whole aspect of fakery!), almost everything claimed to be ancient, or just antique, should be viewed with suspicion.

Even the experts are fooled, some willingly, or at least easily convinced, in their eagerness to obtain sensational objects to attract traffic to their museums.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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