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Are There Forgeries At The Museum? Yes, And BYU Researchers Aren’t Surprised

Student researcher Chloe Burkey and Paul Stavast, Director of BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures, examine artifacts from the Mesoamerican collection.
Jaren Wilkey
Student researcher Chloe Burkey and Paul Stavast, Director of BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures, examine artifacts from the Mesoamerican collection.

As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, Chloe Burkey spent hundreds of hours poured over a microscope examining ancient artifacts.

Her table was filled with bright green fluorescent cards, rustic Mesoamerican figurines, her laptop, a couple of notebooks and a big white microscope. Beside her desk are boxes of artifacts from the university’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

She was looking for forgeries among axes, beads and figurines.

As part of her work, she helped to create a cost effective way for museums to authenticate items in their own collections.

Instead of using a traditional scanning electron microscope — an expensive piece of equipment not many museums have access to — Burkey used a stereo microscope and other tools like a X-ray fluorescence gun to examine the chemical makeup of objects.

Burkey was studying anthropology with a focus on archaeology, but had no prior training. She had to learn how to look for the marks that distinguish a fake object. She examined around 190 artifacts.

 A photo of ancient artifacts.
Jaren Wilkey
Burkey said most of the artifacts she examined are thought to be Olmec. She said the figurines have a face that sometimes is referred to as "baby jaguar scowl."

“We were looking for tool marks, polishing, the ways the holes were drilled,” she said. “Just anything that could give us a tip on whether they were using prehistoric, pre-Hispanic tools or modern tools.”

She said the Mesoamerican collection was acquired through several donations to the school prior to the 1970s. That’s when it became illegal to take artifacts from Mexico. For years the objects had been sitting in boxes at the museum.

Burkey said there is value though to the fake objects. She said they can be used as an important tool for historians and archaeologists.

“Forgery has been part of human history since Egyptian time,” she said. “It's always been an aspect of humanity that we can learn about. We have a lot to learn from the forgers because a lot of them understand the methods a lot better than archeologists do.”

Dr. Marion Forest, a BYU postdoctoral fellow at the time of the research, helped lead the project. Both Forest and Burkey collaborated with a colleague in Mexico.

Forest said fake artifacts aren’t uncommon, and they aren’t surprising. Tracing an object’s origin is difficult and authentication methods can be limited and expensive.

She said forgery of ancient objects occurs because the public is fascinated with them.

“The more the culture is popular,” she said, “the more you expect forgeries and black market pieces, going on and moving across the world.”

Forest said a lot of taboo still exists for curators when they discover they have fake artifacts, but she doesn’t think that it should. She said it’s part of a larger conversation about repatriation and appropriation that the archaeology community is having.

“It's ok,” she said. “It's another story for those artifacts. It’s just another story line in the history of museums. So museums should be aware of that and be interested and not just put the things under the rug.”

The final count of fake artifacts in the BYU collection is expected in January.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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