A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A fake figurine and a charlatan's vision inspire a doomed search for Atlantis in the jungles of Brazil
Few fakes have had the personal or, soon, the public impact as the "idol" of British explorer and surveyor Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 carried it into the Brazilian jungle on an ill-fated search for a remnant of Atlantis. With him were his son Jack and his son's best friend. None returned. Their pathetic story is now set to be a Hollywood film starring screen idol Brad Pitt.
The 10-inch tall basalt figure was given to Fawcett by H. Rider Haggard, author of such novels about ancient treasures and lost races as King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887). Haggard "obtained it from Brazil, and I firmly believe that it came from one of the lost cities" (Fawcett, in Exploration Fawcett, an account of his travels through 1924). However and wherever Haggard got the thing, it's a fake.
One glance at an illustration of the idol is enough to raise suspicions. It depicts a bearded male wearing a hat or crown and holding a tablet at chest level with four columns of glyphs. The figure's costume and writing are on par with something from the prop department of "Hercules Conquers Atlantis" and have no parallels in real artifacts. Fawcett took it to the British Museum, where, he noted, experts "were unable to tell me anything about the idol's origin. 'If not a fake,' I was told, 'it's quite beyond our experience!'"
Undaunted, Fawcett sought to learn the "secret of the stone image" by having a medium hold the figure in complete darkness and write down any impressions. The "psychometrist" saw a large continent between Africa and South America "long prior to the rise of Egypt." There were "elaborate temples" with "beautifully carved columns" and "processions of what look like priests" including "a high priest or leader...wearing a breastplate similar to the one on the figure." Then disaster struck: "volcanoes in violent eruption, flaming lava pouring down their sides, and the whole land shakes with a mighty rumbling sound. The sea rises as in a hurricane, and a huge portion of land on both east and west sides disappears under the water."
Fawcett, who published a number of articles in The Occult Review, believed in the existence of Atlantis and was convinced that he could find a remnant of its advanced population. After all, the psychometrist saw the high priest take the very idol Fawcett possessed "and hand it to another priest, with instructions to retain it carefully, and in due course deliver it to an appointed one, who in turn must pass it on until at length it comes into the possession of a reincarnation of the personage it portrays [a high-ranking priest], when numerous forgotten things will through its influence be elucidated." Did Fawcett believe himself to be the reincarnation?
The tale of Fawcett and his idol has many bizarre later additions. For example, if the British Museum curators were baffled (or polite), Barry Fell of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology wasn't. Fell maintained in America B.C. (1976), Saga America (1980), and Bronze Age America (1982) that Egyptians, Phoenicians, Celts, and others visited, traded with, or colonized the New World before Columbus ever arrived. Self-proclaimed "rogue archaeologist" David Childress in Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of South America (1986) reports: "According to Barry Fell...the statue is an image of a priest of Baal advertising his temple that was dedicated to Hercules (Melgart, son of Baal and Tanitte.) Fell concluded the language was Creole Minoan-Hittite and read: 'To ask the Gods for a lucky omen of the future, invoke Melgart and...bring a propriation for him.'" Why the Late Bronze Age Minoan and Hittite cultures would come together in dedicating something to the Iron Age Phoenician and Punic deities Baal, Melqart, and Tanit is left unexplained by Fell.
The idol is a fake, pure and simple. Whoever created it and passed it off on Haggard is unknown. They could have had no idea it would land on such fertile ground as Percy Fawcett, inspiring him to undertake his doomed search for Atlantis in Brazil. A believer himself, he was easily taken in, both by the object and the charlatan of a psychometrist. As a word of caution to Brad Pitt, the psychometrist told Fawcett "it is a maleficient possession to those not in affinity with it, and I should say it is dangerous to laugh at it..."