A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Psst!... Hey buddy, wanna buy a falcon?
For generations, vendors on Luxor's west bank, near the Valley of the Kings, have offered fake antiquities to tourists, who are warned by guides to bargain vigorously. It is all harmless fun. When the price of a carved pharaoh's head blackened with shoe polish drops from $200 to $20, everyone is happy. The traveler has his souvenir along with a good story to tell, and the seller has still made a huge profit. Forging Egyptian objects was also an ancient practice, a multi-million dollar industry in its time.
My first experience with ancient fakes came 20 years ago during a seminar that I was teaching on mummies. At the time, animal mummies were plentiful and could be legally taken out of Egypt. My classes would unwrap and perform an autopsy on a fish or bird mummy. One year, we unwrapped a falcon, or so we thought from its shape. A beak had been formed on the outside with a bit of resin, and a falcon's eyes had been painted on the wrappings. The X ray, however, revealed a jumble of bones. When the class unwrapped the mummy, it became clear that something was very wrong. The head was missing and there were not enough bones to make up a complete skeleton. Animal mummification was a big business in ancient Egypt, and it seems as though a large portion of it was fraudulent.
Bob Brier is a professor of philosophy at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Brookville, New York. He described the experimental mummification of a human cadaver in "A Thoroughly Modern Mummy" (January/February 2001).