Fake history: BYU student develops technique to detect forged artifacts in museum collection

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Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

feedingamerica

PROVO (ABC4) – When many people think of an archeologist, the image of Harrison Ford’s iconic character, Indiana Jones comes to mind.

Over the course of four major motion pictures, Jones captivated film audiences with his adventures as a globe-trotting archaeology professor on exploits to recover and preserve legendary artifacts such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Ford, who has played several other popular movie figures in his career, painted a vivid picture as an archeologist, dressed to the nines in beige-colored button-ups with a few top buttons undone to expose the chest area, an outback-style fedora, and a bullwhip to complete the look.

23-year-old BYU graduate Chloe Burkey, with short blonde hair, an absence of dirt on her clothing, and a collection of homemade necklaces made of pressed flowers doesn’t resemble anything like the kind of archeologist that would enter the Temple of Doom with Jones.

She laughs that she never learned to crack a whip in her archeology classes at BYU.

What she did learn – and help to innovate – was a method of analysis and inspection to help distinguish authentic artifacts from forgeries in the university’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

Some of the forged articles – supposedly from the Olmec era of the Mesoamerica region – were better than others, she found.

“You laugh when you get a piece that’s like, they didn’t even try to cover up that it’s a forgery,” she explains to ABC4.com. “And then you are in awe when you find one where it fooled you.”

Working with her supervisor Dr. Marion Forest, a postdoctoral fellow at BYU, Burkey analyzed 191 different artifacts that had come into the museum’s collection from private donors. With little information relating to most of the items, the museum’s director, Paul Stavast, had a hunch that many of them were not the real deal.

“They would not have come from an archaeological context or if they had the collectors could pick them up anywhere, an auction house or a trading post kind of place,” Stavast says of the artifacts inspected by Burkey and Forest. “So they didn’t have any good context for where they came from, and that’s often where we see imitation and forgery slipped into the marketplace.”

Typically, when an art conservator inspects an artifact to learn more about it, including its age and authenticity, the process involves using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) which can be quite large, expensive, and not easily found in most museums. However, wanting to develop a new approach that could be adapted with much more commonly used equipment, the two came up with an exhausting, multi-layered approach.

Burkey says their method would take an inexperienced observer 3-5 hours to find a determination on a perplexing greenstone artifact.

Of course, some of the artifacts she looked at took much less time than that to conclude that it was merely a gift shop trinket or so. Others were more difficult.

“If you just look at them you can see tool marks all over it,” she explains. “They didn’t even try to hide it, they have modern marks with tool marks all over it. But there are other ones that are made really close to how they would have made it in prehistoric times.”

Knowing what to look for in an authentic greenstone artifact that could be hundreds or even a thousand years old, has increased her appreciation of the ancient artists’ work.

Even the ones that are a close knock-off can also be impressive to Burkey.

“Forgery has been around since Egyptian times, it’s always been a part of human history,” she states. “So we get to understand more how history looks through the forger’s eye or understand the techniques they use because a lot of times they know how to make these artifacts better than the archaeologists do.”

Stavast says he isn’t upset that some of the collection undoubtedly will be proven to be phony when the complete findings come back from a lab. He doesn’t plan on throwing out the forgeries either. Having them in the collection can still be beneficial to future wanna-be Indiana Joneses.

“We’re a teaching institution and if our students aren’t exposed to both the real thing and imitation, then they won’t be able to distinguish that in the future,” he says.

Now that the heavy lifting of her analysis with Dr. Forest is complete, Burkey has begun to create her own artifacts, in the form of handmade necklaces, adorned with the Victorian Language of Flowers.

As for whether she can imagine a future archeology student analyzing her artist creations hundreds of years from now, she laughs and says she’s not sure.

“I don’t know I guess anything’s possible, right? They might even be looking at graffiti on the side of a train and think it’s such amazing art. Who knows, right?”

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