Are there any counterfeits at the museum? Yes, and BYU researchers aren’t surprised


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

His table was filled with bright green fluorescent cards, rustic Mesoamerican figurines, his laptop, a few notebooks, and a large white microscope. Next to his desk are boxes of artifacts from the University’s Peoples and Cultures Museum.

She was looking for scythes among the axes, the pearls and the figurines.

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

Instead of using a traditional scanning electron microscope – expensive equipment that few museums have access to – Burkey used a stereo microscope and other tools like an X-ray fluorescence gun to examine the chemical composition of the objects.

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

Jaren wilkey

Burkey said most of the artifacts she looked at would be Olmec. She said the figures had a face sometimes referred to as a “scowling baby jaguar”.

“We were looking for tool marks, polishing, how the holes were drilled,” she said. “Just anything that could give us any advice as to whether they were using prehistoric, pre-Hispanic, or modern tools.”

She said the Mesoamerican collection was acquired through several donations to the school prior to the 1970s. This is when he became illegal to take artifacts from Mexico. For years, the objects had remained in boxes at the museum.

Burkey said the fake items are valuable. She said they can be used as an important tool for historians and archaeologists.

“Counterfeiting has been part of human history since Egyptian times,” she said. “This has always been an aspect of humanity that we can learn from. We have a lot to learn from counterfeiters because many of them understand the methods much better than archaeologists.

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

Forest said fake artifacts are not uncommon and not surprisingly. Tracing the origin of an object is difficult, and authentication methods can be limited and expensive.

She said that counterfeiting of antique items occurs because the public is fascinated by them.

“The more popular the culture,” she said, “the more you would expect counterfeits and black market parts, which continue and move around the world.”

Forest said a lot of taboos still exist for Tories when they find out they have fake artifacts, but she doesn’t think it should. She said it’s part of a larger conversation about repatriation and appropriation that the archaeological community has.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s a different story for these artifacts. It’s just another story in the history of museums. Museums must therefore be aware of this and take an interest in it and not just put things under the rug. “

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

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