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Humans have been fakers for a long time

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Alan Greenspan, American economist and former Chair of the Federal Reserve of the United States, once said: “Corruption, embezzlement, fraud; these are all characteristics which exist everywhere. It is regrettably the way human nature functions, whether we like it or not. What successful economies do is keep it to a minimum. No one has ever eliminated any of that stuff.”

He was more accurate in this assessment than he knew. New research has found that forgery has been happening for thousands of years.

Six beads found in two Spanish Bronze Age burial sites were discovered to be fake amber. Amber was relatively rare and of high value at the time, so there would have been a good reason for the forgeries. High-tech analysis established that the beads were carved from shell and seeds before being coated in layers of gold-coloured resin from a pine tree. This resin coating would have made them appear to be legitimate amber beads.

In fact, the beads looked so much like the real thing that the researchers didn’t notice they were fake until a chemical analysis revealed the truth. “Indeed, these beads resemble amber so well that we got first confused when [the analysis] did not match an amber pattern. At that moment, we got very excited about the possibility of having found an amber fake. This is the first time that the imitation of a very valuable material is recorded in European Prehistory,” Carlos Odriozola, an archaeologist at the University of Seville in Spain, and one of the authors of the research, says.

The beads from the first site had a mollusk shell core, covered by a multi-layered coating made up of tree resins. The beads from the other site were also composed of a core covered by an amber-like resin, but in this case it was a seed.

The discovery of the fake beads has resulted in three theories as to why they were forged. The first plays on the fact that amber is rare. It’s possible a shortage of real amber inspired the creation of imitations. Alternatively, the production of a low-cost product that serves the same social function as amber for members of society who could not afford the real gems is plausible. But the third possibility appears the most likely: Traders who could not acquire the valuable and rare items developed counterfeits to sell as the real thing and cheat their clients.

The researchers say this last option might have been the case in Cova del Gegant, where the four resin-covered beads were found alongside two genuine amber beads that are nearly identical in size and shape. Visually, the authentic beads and the counterfeits look exactly the same.

The authors remarked that it curious that “exotic materials” were found in both tomb sites, suggesting the dead were wealthy enough to afford rare goods and genuine amber. Both tomb sites contained ivory, gold and cinnabar, which only the wealthy could afford at the time. According to Odriozola, this study should encourage experts to reconsider whether valuable prehistoric items really are what they appear to be.

This is not the first time that archaeologists have found fakes. There have been cases where decorative items dating back to Aurignacian culture, which was around some 43 000 to 37 000 years ago, was found to not be the real deal. At this time, shiny white seashells and animal teeth were made into necklaces and sewn onto clothing, but seashells were a rare commodity with most people living inland. Some wouldn’t have had the resources to get the shell and teeth beads, but still wanted the look, so replicas were made out of common local raw materials. Replica seashells as well as red deer, fox and horse teeth carved out of mammoth ivory and soft white stone have been found at a number of sites throughout Europe and the Near East.

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