When a museum acquires a large collection of donated antiquities it is not unusual for curators to find that at least a few of them are fake. While the forgery of artifacts is commonplace there are some forgeries that have become extremely famous, often because their authenticity would have had history-changing results. From crystal skulls claimed to be from the lost city of Atlantis (or aliens) to a runestone said to have been carved by Vikings and even a “missing link” hoax, here are six artifacts, widely believed to be forgeries, which could have changed history.
Donation of Constantine
A forged document, the Donation of Constantine has been copied and recopied since the eighth century. The original is lost but the documents that survive today claim that Roman emperor Constantine I gave Pope Sylvester I, and all of his successors, ultimate authority over lands controlled by the Roman Empire. “We-giving over to the oft-mentioned most blessed pontiff, our father Sylvester the universal pope, as well our palace, as has been said, as also the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions; and relinquishing them, by our inviolable gift, to the power and sway of himself or the pontiffs his successors-do decree,” the Latin document says (translation by Ernest F. Henderson).
When exactly the forgery was created is a matter of debate. But, during the Middle Ages, it was used as evidence that the pope held authority over the rulers of Europe, aiding the pope in political negotiations. In the 15th century Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla denounced the document, publishing a lengthy discourse on why it is a forgery.
Valla knew that he was running a risk in doing so. “How they will rage against me, and if opportunity is afforded how eagerly and how quickly they will drag me to punishment!” he wrote at the start of his book (translation by Christopher B. Coleman). However he found support from rulers in Europe who were tired of the pope using the document as a reason to interfere in their affairs.