The Fakery of Artifactery

by Scott Jones

During my years in the U.S. Air Force, I was a technician in the field of electronic countermeasures, also known in typical military acronymic style as “ECM.” As the name suggests, I worked on avionics equipment designed to either foul, befuddle or mimic normal “electronic measures” in enemy radar, navigation, and communications equipment. Because this was during the Cold War, the data employed created an air of secrecy around the job. Veiled in even greater secrecy, though, was the obscure field of electronic counter-countermeasures. The job of ECCM operators was to find ways around the previously countered measures.

Now don’t get me wrong—apart from training missions, USAF technicians and pilots weren’t perpetrating measures, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures upon their own kind. The Soviets were out there doing similar things, and our technology was aimed at their equipment. Our reconnaissance was geared towards ferreting out as much electronic information as possible about every radar site and missile guidance system in the Soviet arsenal so we could jam it, and they were doing the same to us. Once jammed, though, the challenge becomes obvious: Un-jam the signal, expose the deception, and parse out the original signal. This was the responsibility of the electronic counter-countermeasures troops. And while we sometimes joked that in some murky lab at NORAD headquarters in the heart of Cheyenne Mountain there was probably an electronic counter-counter-countermeasures shop, the point is clear: When one finds oneself in a clearly advantageous position, some one—somewhere—will seek to exploit that position, and often the exploiter find himself further exploited.

Such is the case for the modern market for Indian artifacts. While this shift from gee-whiz electronic technology the Stone Age may seem a bit abrupt, it’s the technology, not the relative sophistication of that technology, under consideration here. When I parted ways with the USAF, I left one kind of technology behind, and began to pursue another. I went from the high-tech world of avionics to the equally amazing yet simpler technology of the past. Though radically different in many ways, the human processes for tool production retain many similarities through time. It is from this background that I draw analogies between electronic warfare and the sale of artifacts.

The perceived opportunity is thus: An ancient artifact, free for the finding, diving, or looting, may be sold for a seemingly exorbitant sum. Easy money, right? That is, barring the potential risks involved with trespassing and desecration of burials—but similar risks are the norm for other “easy money” scams, like embezzlement, burglary and growing marijuana. But as soon as you’ve got your pristine artifact—a projectile point, for instance—out there on the Internet offered for a three-figure sum, the first question arises: Is it real? These disparaging doubts are put forth by both sincere potential buyers wishing to establish authenticity as well as by those who wish to discredit that authenticity in an effort to lower the price. Jammed! What to do?

Call in the “experts,” that’s what. With your artifact now “authenticated” by the counter-countermeasures folks, you may proceed unimpeded with your sale. Wow! That was easy, minus a small commission to the authenticator.

So the next time you’re perusing the Internet or attending an artifact show, you’re better able to fully appreciate all those “authenticated” artifacts, right? After all, the experts have passed unanimous judgment on them. They must be real. Besides, who could fake such articles of ancient beauty? The precise knowledge of chipping flint passed from our knowledge eons ago, didn’t it? And that perfect arrowhead, doubtless thousands of years old and priced at just a few hundred dollars, must be a real bargain! Right? Not so fast there, Axel!

Before you delve into the market for Indian artifacts, let’s dig up (pun intended) a few more facts. Let’s begin with the process of authentication. Depending upon a number of factors, the desired level of authentication about an artifact or group of artifacts is highly variable. I’ve thwarted the sale of artifacts by pointing out to potential buyers the presence of remnant lapidary saw marks, copper tool residues, gross discrepancies in the temporal range of “caches”of blades, and the presence of currently popular types of stone. Even those familiar with artifacts from a particular area can only offer an opinion, or at best, an educated guess as to the authenticity of an item.

As for the artifacts themselves, clues to authenticity range from the aforementioned saw marks and copper residues to more subtle characteristics such as weathering and the polish-like patina imparted by immersion in water. To rediscover the techniques for making such items in one thing, but to actually make it look convincingly ancient must be virtually impossible! Wrong again. As we shall see, flintknapping (the art of making flaked stone tools) is an ever-expanding field of recreational and professional interest, and there are many who are very clever about bestowing the “correct” look to thoroughly modern fakes. Remember the “easy money” aspect to the marketing of artifacts mentioned earlier? These guys are bypassing the time spent looking for artifacts, and are simply making and marketing them as authentic. With tools and chemicals ranging from acids, potassium permanganate, rock tumblers, and electrolysis gear, an experienced artifact faker can fool the best.

Take, for example, the sale of a cache of Paleoindian points recently sold to renowned collector of Paleoindian artifacts, Forrest Fenn (owner of the famous Fenn Cache). Mr. Fenn was prepared to purchase the collection (12 points) from Woody Blackwell, a highly skilled flintknapper, for a sum of approximately $90,000. They were “authenticated” by a number of well-known archaeologists (among them George Frison and Rob Bonnichsen, both highly reputable and respectable in their field). The sale went through, but a final mineralogical analysis showed one of the points to be made of Brazilian quartz crystal. Busted, Woody ‘fessed up to making the fakes and returned the money, and no charges were filed (Preston, 1999; Wescott, 2000). While on one level this tale supports the case for highly technical authentication; on another, it shows how easily fakes can—and do—slip by the experts.

So there are a few flintknappers out there producing fakes. Big deal. How many of them can there be? The answer to this question is simple: A lot. Let’s first consider the estimated number of people in the U.S. engaged in any sort of flintknapping, whether recreational, academic, or commercial. According to Whittaker and Stafford (1999), there are currently over 5,000 active, non-academic knappers, each producing an average of 25 points per month. This adds up to about 1.5 million points a year! This figure excludes another estimated 300-500 academic knappers who are also breaking rocks and making points. Many of these knappers have worked hard to cultivate their skills and defiantly defend their work as their own art, but many others are less scrupulous. While much of the non-educational flintknapping is geared towards recreational and legitimate pursuits (such as the commercial trade in modern stone knives), it may be correctly stated that a considerable portion of this work is headed for the artifact market. Of the few artifact shows I’ve attended, I will venture to say that fully half of the material offered for sale is fake.

While flintknapping is one of the more high-profile prehistoric technologies, other skills are also vulnerable to exploitation by way of fakery. Most skills that employ organic materials (such as fibercraft and woodworking) are more or less exempt from the temptations of fakery, but pottery and groundstone tools are frequently misrepresented as authentic.

And what about the flintknappers who work as archaeologists and educators? Despite their efforts to mark their work (often with a diamond-tipped stylus), pieces can inadvertently slip away into the artifact market. Because many education-oriented knappers use traditional methods, avoiding lapidary-sawn slabs, copper flaking tools, and other modern appurtenances, their work is often even more convincingly “real” than some of the intended fakery. Careful study of systematic procedures for the production of a particular tool type, the use of hammerstones, antler and wood billets, and antler pressure flaking tools applied to familiar local materials yield a wealth of information about past technologies. But it also yields a damned convincing tool.

So where does that leave archaeologists, casual collectors, and potential buyers of artifacts? In my estimation, we’re all in about the same place. Once out of the ground or river, they lack any reliable context for interpretation. We trust the information derived from legitimate, ethical endeavors. A point on the market touted as having been found in such-and-such county is of diminishing use to the archaeologist, first because this information is not documented, and secondly because of the increasing likelihood that the artifact itself may be counterfeit.

My point is this: The amount of fakery in the artifact market calls into serious question the geographical and geological veracity of artifacts in that market. The value in surface artifacts lies in the knowledge that they came from a particular area. With the monetary incentive that the sale of artifacts provides, there also follows an incentive to falsify the provenience of real artifacts as well as to produce marketable fakes. This is no place better illustrated than by the following anecdote: About 1993 a drainage canal was opened in downtown Albany, GA, and a mother-lode of the distinctive honey-caramel Flint River chert was exposed. There were folks from all over the southeast as well as a few from the Midwest at the ditch for several months– mostly commercial knappers and suppliers. It wasn’t long before the better grades of Flint River chert were wiped out, and Flint River "Paleo" material began to show up in collections all over the place! Needless to say, much of this material was counterfeit.

For archaeologists, though, this issue has another side. In an artifact-rich area, a synergistic momentum may develop. If collectors, divers, or looters begin to find large numbers of artifacts that end up for sale, an increased demand then ensues. This encourages further looting, and if the market is lucrative enough, it encourages the production of fakes. This continues until the market is loaded with authentic artifacts and fakes, creating a highly suspect market. The most damaging result is that sites are often picked clean and are never documented in any meaningful way for future use.

For the casual collector who surface hunts with the landowner’s permission, the confusion of the artifact trade presents no real problem. These collectors know where their artifacts come from, and if they are so inclined they can contribute positively to archaeological research by recording sites at the Georgia Archaeological Site Files ( If you’re not active in the trade, you don’t have to worry about what’s happening in the trade.

For the artifact buyers and sellers, though, it’s a different matter. By ascribing a monetary value to artifacts as art objects, the “easy money” aspect fosters looting, intentional fakery, and the greed and suspicion that follow. Attempts to sanitize and legitimize the trade in artifacts are a smokescreen for the information lost in the destruction of sites. While the presence of fakes in the artifact market is a problem for archaeologists, it’s even more troublesome for collectors. If an archaeologist happens to be conducting a survey of collected artifacts, he may choose to ignore suspicious items. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The buyer/collector, however, may have many hundreds, even thousands of dollars “invested” in an artifact. This breeds a gnawing doubt about a suspected fake, and the defense of an artifact as genuine often intensifies with the growing fear that the artifact is fake.

As a concluding remark, I have to say that, while archaeologists are essentially on the same side of the fence here, there are different approaches to the problem and the possible solutions. Some are in favor of flooding the market with fakes and ignoring artifacts that have been bought or sold, while others decry the sale of artifacts altogether. Apart from the central theme of fakery I’ve pursued so far, the subjects of flintknapping, ethics, and responsibility require further comment.

Modern flintknapping is a reality. Whether it passes from popularity or continues to grow, it has been for several decades an increasingly visible pastime, commercial pursuit, and academic study. Some archaeologists worry that the late 20th Century “Stone Age” has muddled (or will continue to muddle) the archaeological record. And for good reason. There are hundreds, probably thousands of “sites” that are the result of contemporary flintknapping. Though many academic knappers are scrupulous in their efforts to retrieve every flake and fragment, some are not. Many of the hobby and commercial knappers seldom consider the effects of their actions the archaeological record. The resulting lithic scatters (sometimes piles—sensu Harwood, 2001) are the “sites” of modern stoneworking.

Unlike ancient peoples who would be mystified at our efforts to unravel their random leavings, we modern folk are answerable to a different level of responsibility. Our sense of cause and effect make us aware that we can seriously muck up the archaeological record. And archaeology has placed on flintknappers the responsibility for corralling their knapping debris and not muddling up the past. But as mentioned above, flintknapping has occurred, and will likely continue, at the hands of both the responsible and the irresponsible, leaving innumerable scatters in yards, vacant lots, deer camps, and other unlikely areas (Jones, 2001a). Many raw material outcrops also show considerable evidence of modern quarrying activity as well. Regardless of one’s philosophical position on the issue of modern knapping, the results exist.

The field of flintknapping itself may hold the solution to the potential dilemma here. Having emerged from obscurity into mainstream archaeology, flintknapping (and by extension, all of primitive technology) represents a new phase of archaeology that can recognize and interpret such modern activities. Those of us among the professional ranks can’t condone the creation of modern lithic sites. Yet if archaeology will share the responsibility and recognize that modern knapping sites exist and are interpretable, these sites will be no more problematical than prehistorically salvaged and re-used artifacts or mixed sherds in mound fill.

In the mean time, the trade in artifacts is brisk, and it remains a thorn in the side of archaeologists (and Native Americans, Jones, 2001b). All of this, though, has yet another side. After reviewing several websites featuring artifacts for sale along with considerable emphasis on authenticity, I began to comprehend that a fundamental underlying fear of fakery exists within the artifact market. Consider this next time you consider buying that point on-line or anywhere else: It could be mine, or any one of the million and a half points produced each year.

Jones, Scott 2001a. Caught Knapping: A modern flintknapping station in Greene County, Georgia. Unpublished manuscript prepared for Southeastern Archaeological Services, Athens, GA.

Jones, Scott 2001b. An Introduction to the Prehistory of the Southeast or, “They were Shootin ‘em as Fast as They Could Make ‘em…” and Other Popular Misconceptions about the Precolumbian Southeast. Early Georgia 29(1): 35-44.

Harwood, Joyce Ann 2001. The Gray Ghosts of Gustine. Bulletin of Primitive Technology 21:12-16.

Preston, Douglas 1999. Woody’s Dream. The New Yorker, November 15: 80-81.

Wescott, David 2000. Letter to the Editor. Bulletin of Primitive Technology 19: 6.

Whittaker, John C. and Michael Stafford 1999. Replicas, Fakes, and Art: the Twentieth Century Stone Age and its Effects on Archaeology. American Anitquity 64(2): 203-214.