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The 5 Best Archaeological Pranks and Hoaxes

Lara Croft circe 1996. Don’t point those boobies at me, madam… (Image credit: Unknown)

Over the years, April Fool’s pranks have become a fun way for journalists and archaeologists to keep their readers on their toes on April 1st. Whether they publish fictitious articles that claim Noah’s Ark or the Holy Grail have finally been found or perpetrate elaborate hoaxes that fool even the savviest of anthropologists, there’s certainly no shortage of pranksters within the scientific community.

Here are my 5 favourite archaeological pranks and hoaxes in no particular order.

1) Discovery of Asterix’s home village in France In 1993, the Independent published a story recounting how an Anglo-French team of archaeologists had found the remains of Asterix’s Iron Age settlement at Le Yaudet, Brittany. An obvious prank but a delightful one for fans of the popular French comic series.

2) Swedish archaeologists find Thor’s hammer This is my personal favourite. Last year, The Local’s Swedish edition claimed that a group of engineers had stumbled upon an ancient Norse hammer buried in the granite bedrock under Södermalm island in Stockholm. Reportedly engraved with intricate Norse runes and thought to be a replica of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, this hammer was sadly just a figment of the writer’s imagination.

3) Plans to turn Stonehenge into a prehistoric billboardNot to be outdone by a story on Thor’s hammer, the Daily Mail managed to enrage heritage enthusiasts when it revealed plans to beam advertisements onto Stonehenge’s stone circle in a bid to generate extra revenue. Concerned readers were able to breathe a sigh of relief when the online paper admitted there were no such plans.

4) Mithraic temple discovered beneath Heathrow’s Terminal 5 At first glance, the discovery of a Mithraic temple complex in southern England doesn’t seem like an obvious hoax. Archaeologists have found numerous temples dedicated to the god Mithras across the United Kingdom, including one in the very centre of London. But when you read an article mentioning a Roman god called Valigia and baggage conveyor belts by a “Professor Avril Buffon”, you just know something fishy is going on…

5) Piltdown Man Perhaps one of the greatest scientific hoaxes of the twentieth century, the Piltdown Man fossils caused a storm within anthropological circles when the amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed he had found the “missing link”, an ancient human ancestor that exhibited both human and ape features. Although the remains were first discovered in the 1910s, the Piltdown Man fossils weren’t exposed as an elaborate hoax until 1953, when scientists discovered that the Piltdown skull was composed of fragments of a medieval human skull, an orangutan’s lower jaw and some chimpanzee teeth. The identity of the forger remains a mystery to this day but the most likely candidates are Charles Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (one of the diggers on Dawson’s team), and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Tomb Raider Store’s “Post-Adventure” collection
Image credit: Tomb Raider Blog.

And although it isn’t really archaeological in nature, I thought Crystal Dynamics deserve an honourable mention for their April Fool’s prank last year, when they announced their Tomb Raider Store would soon offer an ultra-limited “Post-Adventure” line of clothing featuring unique items that had been worn by real adventurers and “appropriately soiled with dirt, mud, and blood from unknown donors”. Which Tomb Raider fan wouldn’t want to add *that* to their collection?

So, remember, folks. If something seems too good or too weird to be true, it most probably is. Don’t be an April Fool. 😉

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What are your favourite archaeological and/or historical April Fool’s pranks? Have you ever fallen for one? Are there any other April Fool’s stories that should have been on the list?