The World's Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History

Khalid Elhassan - December 23, 2022

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
A medieval illustration of Pope Sylvester I healing Emperor Constantine the Great of leprosy with an icon of Saints Peter and Paul, whose basilicas Constantine built in Rome. Rome for Beginners

A Fake “Donation” that Played an Oversized Role in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages’ greatest fake was the so-called “Donation of Constantine“. It was a document that recorded a generous gift from the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. It supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. Such vast territories elevated the popes from mere priests and religious leaders, to independent princes and sovereign rulers in their own right. In reality, the Donation was fake, forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine the Great and Sylvester I were dead and buried.

The forged text describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine from leprosy. That convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. To demonstrate his gratitude, Constantine made the pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast estates were also granted for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire. The fake document had little impact when it was concocted. Centuries later, however, amidst a period of political upheavals, the Donation greatly influenced Europe.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
The Donation of Constantine, by Raphael. Wikimedia

For Centuries, Few Questioned the Legitimacy of This Obviously Fake Document

After the Donation of Constantine was forged, it was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then Pope Leo IX dusted it off in the mid-eleventh century, and cited it to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the fake document was widely accepted as authentic, and few questioned its legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation carried significant weight whenever a pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers. It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that its authenticity was finally challenged.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Text from research by Renaissance scholar Lorenzo Valla, demonstrating that he Donation of Constantine is a fake. Pinterest

With the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. The document used language and terms that did not exist in the fourth century, but only came into use hundreds of years later. It also contained dating errors that a person who wrote at the time could not have made. The popes did not officially renounce the Donation. From the mid-fifteenth century, however, they ceased to reference it in their Bulls and pronouncements.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
T.E. Lawrence, center, with a Hittite artifact he excavated before WWI. Photos of War

The Archaeologist Origins of a Romantic War Hero

Sir Thomas Chapman was a nineteenth century married baronet who left his family for his daughters’ governess. The couple assumed her surname, lived together, raised a family sans marriage as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, and had five illegitimate children. The second was Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia. They eventually settled in Oxford, were Thomas Edward, who preferred to go by his initials T.E., attended college. Lawrence was a history buff from early on, particularly interested in medieval and military architecture. He also loved to travel, and spent much of his youth exploring old churches and castles.

Lawrence travelled to France to study medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles. A thesis on the subject earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford, in 1910. He then secured a fellowship, and joined an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements on the Euphrates, from 1911 to 1914. On his free time, he travelled around the Middle East, and became familiar with the region and its peoples. The lands in which he worked and travelled was part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure. So Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, undertook reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories. The results proved valuable in World War I.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
T.E. Lawrence, right, during the Arab Revolt. Clio Visualizing History

From T.E. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia

When WWI began in 1914, T.E. Lawrence joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, tasked with preparing militarily useful maps of the Middle East. Sent to Cairo, his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable. He interviewed Turkish POWs and agents who operated behind enemy lines, and gained considerable knowledge of Turkish military positions and strengths. In 1916, he was sent to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, ruler of Mecca and its environs, rose in revolt against his Turkish overlords. Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and use their aspirations for independence to further the British war effort.

His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he morphed from T.E. Lawrence into Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force. It operated behind Turkish lines in hit and run attacks that blew up vital rail lines, destroyed bridges, and raided enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, discovered a knack for guerrilla warfare. He set an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, bribed their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, and kept the rebellion alive.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
T.E. Lawrence after WWI. The Vintagent

The Tragic End of a Romantic Hero

In November, 1917, Lawrence of Arabia was captured by the Turks as he spied on them in Arab garb. His captors flogged, tortured, and sodomized him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychic wound that never healed. It did not stop him from getting back into the fight, however. With his assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks. They tied down many of their soldiers behind the lines in security operations, and sped up the final Turkish defeat. After the war, the Allies betrayed the Arabs, reneged on their promises of independence, and carved up most of the Middle East amongst themselves.

Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which flew off the bookshelves, became an international best seller, and transformed Lawrence into a bona fide legend. To escape the public glare, he enlisted under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the RAF, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, planning an early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Herodotus. Library of Congress

“The Father of History” or Father of Lies?

The Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnasus (circa 484 – circa 425 BC) is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he is credited with writing the first great historical narrative of the ancient world. He travelled widely, or at least claimed to have done so – some significant errors in descriptions of placed he supposedly visited have given cause for doubt. Herodotus collected the stories he gathered from his own travels, or from the hearsay of other travelers, into The Histories.

That work records ancient politics, geography, and cultures, and is widely seen as Western literature’s first history book. However, Herodotus is also known to critics as “The Father of Lies”, because his writings included not only some wrong details, but some major whoppers, as well. Not only modern scholars, but even some of Herodotus’ contemporaries, scoffed at his claims. Today, many question whether Herodotus had ever traveled beyond Greece. He might have simply collected his stories from people he encountered at home.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Depiction of griffins, that Herodotus claimed inhabited northern Europe. Culture on Call

The Writings of Herodotus Were Full of Fake Accounts

Some of more far-fetched fake tales recounted by Herodotus explain why many saw and see him as “The Father of Lies”. A typical whopper was his narrative about a protracted struggle between giant one-eyed Cyclopes and half-eagle, half-lion, griffins, who inhabited northern Europe. Per Herodotus, the griffins roosted over and guarded stockpiles of gold, which were frequently raided by the one-eyed giants. Herodotus did not narrate this story as a myth, but as something he believed to be gospel truth.

Another tall tale was about giant, gold-digging ants. As he told it, fox-sized ants lived in the Persian Empire’s eastern provinces, in deserts whose sands abounded with gold dust. As they dug their anthills, mounds, and tunnels, they unearthed the gold dust, and the locals grew wealthy sifting through their excavations. Few if any Greeks had ever been to the faraway lands described by Herodotus. So for centuries, they treated Herodotus’ fake tales of weirdness in distant lands as literal truths.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
El Dorado morphed from tales about native chiefs covered in gold dust, to a city of gold. BBC

The Transformation of a Native American Myth Into a Widely-Accepted Fake Tale

The legend of El Dorado changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually altered with each retelling, until the final recipient hears something completely different. It began with the first Spaniards who came across the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard tales of chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, then rowed into Lake Guatavita, northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The first Spaniards to hear the tale named such chiefs El Hombre Dorado, Spanish for “the golden man”. Over the years and many retellings,El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold. Then it was a kingdom of gold. Finally, a legend grew of a fabulously wealthy empire, that had more gold than the rest of the world put together.

The fake story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered plenty of real life gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior. Many Spanish Conquistadores and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado narrative of a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. The lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city fueled various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
El Dorado. Warriors of Myth

Many Lost Their Lives in a Quest to Find This Fake City

Those who stuck with the original version of the Muisca story, about tribal chiefs who dropped golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than that partial success, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Pinterest

One jinxed search was carried out by the English courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, Raleigh was too enfeebled by age to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. It ended in disaster, and the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh. When he returned to England, King James I ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Atlantis. Quora

A Philosopher’s Fake City, That Many Came to Believe is Real

Plato kicked off the legend of Atlantis circa 360 BC, when he wrote in his Critias and Timaeus dialogues about a utopian, advanced, and dramatically lost country that vanished beneath the waves. In popular culture nowadays, Atlantis is presented as a peaceful and wise country, an idealized model of what humanity could be. That was not Plato’s Atlantis, though. He wrote about a rich, technologically advanced, and militarily powerful country that was corrupted by its power. It tried to conquer the world, and the good guys in Plato’s narrative were not the Alanteans, but Athens and her allies, who fought back. If Plato’s Atlantis existed today, it would be Wakanda’s evil sibling: rather than help the world, it would try to conquer and enslave us all.

That Atlantis, eventually sunk by the gods as punishment for its people’s hubris and moral decline, was fake – a fictional plot device to advance some philosophical points. Centuries later, many began to believe that Atlantis was real, and tried to prove its existence. The legend’s modern era revival and its transformation into popular pseudoscience can be traced back to a nineteenth century amateur historian and Congressman, Ignatius Donnelly. He wrote an 1882 book, The Antedeluvian World, in which he added new “facts” that became part of the Atlantis myth. He also theorized that all major human advances can be traced back to Plato’s sunken island.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
The legend of Atlantis. Documentary Tube

The Modern Era Quacks Who Popularized the Notion that Atlantis Was Real

Ignatius Donnelly’s claims were dismissed by serious scholars. However, some writers took his version of Atlantis, and ran with it. Most prominent among them were a mystic named Madame Blavatsky, and a famous psychic named Edgar Cayce. Cayce imparted a Christian spin to the story, and gave psychic readings in which he claimed that many of his clients had led past lives in Atlantis. He also predicted that Atlantis would be discovered in 1969. It was not, despite Plato’s specificity about its location. The philosopher wrote of an island bigger than Asia (what Greeks called Asia Minor back then) and Libya put together, situated in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, just past the Straits of Gibraltar.

Those who advocated that Atlantis was real and not a fake fictional account, argued that he was mistaken, or that for his own reasons, he sought to mislead. Over the years, there have been great advances in submarine, deep sea probe, oceanography, and ocean floor mapping technologies. Despite such progress, no evidence has emerged that Plato’s fable described a real place. Although the ocean deep is still full of mysteries, it is difficult to miss a submerged landmass bigger than Asia Minor and Libya. Nonetheless, the notion of a lost advanced civilization titillates people’s imaginations, so it is unlikely that the legend of Atlantis will die off anytime soon.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Unearthing the Cardiff Giant. Onondaga Historical Association

Archaeological Proof of the Biblical Accounts of Giant Men?

On October 16th, 1869, as workers dug a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York, they struck stone about three feet down. As they cleared the soil around the obstruction, a huge foot was revealed. The workers continued to dig, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a ten-foot-tall man. As news spread, archaeologists, scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm. He charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity, but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While it seemed to many observant people to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.

Skeptics had the right of it, as the Cardiff giant was actually a fake. It was a statue created by an atheist named George Hull after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the giants had once inhabited the earth. Hull bought a ten-foot block of Gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago. There, he swore a stonecutter to secrecy, and commissioned him to shape it into the likeness of a man. Chemicals were applied to give it an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface to make it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.

The World’s Most Impressive Fakes, Forgeries, and Finds that Made History
Suckers were hustled to view the Cardiff Giant. Messenger News

Calling a Fake a Fake is Not Grounds for a Lawsuit

Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fake and a fraud. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity. In the meantime, crowds of the curious and faithful came in ever greater numbers. George Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $60,000 in 2022 dollars, sold his share to a syndicate for about $600,000 in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever larger crowds.

Eventually, huckster PT Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City. He declared that his was the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, and gave rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants were fake, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Adams, Mark – Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City (2015)

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Troy

Ancient Origins – Questioning the Mycenaean Death Mask of Agamemnon

Archaeology Magazine, Volume 54, Number 1, January / February 2001 – “God’s Hands” Did the Devil’s Work

BBC – El Dorado: The Truth Behind the Myth

California History, Vol. 81, No. 2 (2002) – Who Made Drake’s Plate? Hint: It Wasn’t Francis Drake

Centre of Church Studies – The False Donation of Constantine

Classical Journal, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Oct., 1968) – Father of History or Father of Lies; the Reputation of Herodotus

Cracked – 15 Ancient Artifacts That Turned Out to be Worthless Garbage

Dolnick, Edward – The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (2008)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

Encyclopedia Britannica – Herodotus

Faulkner, Neil – Lawrence of Arabia’s War (2017)

Federer, Kenneth L. – Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walum Olum (2010)

Goodman, Matthew – The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Bat-Men in Nineteenth Century New York (2008)

Ha’artez, March 7th, 2013 – Con Artist: The True Story of a Master Forger

History Collection – 10 Examples of Fake News in American History

History Today, Volume 61, Issue 7, July, 2011 – The Discovery of Machu Picchu

Journal of the Society of the History of Discoveries, Volume 40, 2008, Issue 1 – Discovery as Autobiography: The Machu Picchu Case

Lawrence, T.E. – Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

Live Science – ‘Lost City’ of Atlantis: Facts & Fable

National Geographic – Atlantis

National Geographic – El Dorado

NPR – How Mediocre Dutch Artist Cast The Forger’s Spell

PBS – Lawrence of Arabia

Science Beat – Drake’s Plate: The End of the Mystery?

Science Magazine, November 7th, 2000 – Archaeologist Faked Important Discovery: Famous Amateur Admits Planting “Oldest” Stone Tools in Japan

Smithsonian Magazine, July 2nd, 2015 – The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time

Smithsonian Magazine, October 16th, 2017 – The Cardiff Giant Was Just a Big Hoax

Tribble, Scott – A Colossal Hoax: The Giant From Cardiff That Fooled America (2009)