What’s in a Name? Some thoughts on fakes, forgeries, replicas, the real thing, and archaeological experience by Stephen E. Nash.

Authentic. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary offers several definitions: “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to fact or reality”; “trustworthy”; “not imaginary, false, or imitation”; “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”

Visitors to museums, national parks, and world heritage sites seek authentic objects, features, and structures as a matter of course—why would one want to travel to see fakes, replicas, or forgeries, particularly in a digital age and perpetual connectivity when (doctored?) images are but a few clicks away?

Just as we take it for granted that the gallon of gasoline we pay for is, in fact, a gallon, many of us take it for granted that the “authorities,”—whether they be museum curators, park superintendents, or government agencies—present for our enjoyment and edification the “real” artifacts and “real” archaeological sites, unless otherwise noted. The recent reconstruction, construction, and even “Extreme Makeover” of the Akapana Pyramid, “in order to make it more attractive to tourists” has justifiably upset those in the heritage preservation community. The Akapana Pyramid’s status as a World Heritage Site is now threatened, perhaps justifiably, because (among other things) adobe, not stone, was used as construction material. That said, the episode begs the questions of what is, and is not, deemed “authentic” in our world. A few thought-provoking examples will suffice.

Mesa Verde National Park is a World Heritage Site, and it has enjoyed more than a century of professional (according to the standards of any given era, of course) archaeological research. It has also borne the brunt, arguably, of one of the longest and most sustained looting efforts of any archaeological region in North American. It has also suffered from nearly a century’s worth of well-intended, if at times misguided, reconstruction efforts, the results of which are not always obvious to the visitor. Sun Temple, for instance, was “reconstructed” in 1916 by Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution, and his “reconstruction” is still visible today, with Portland cement capping the stone masonry walls. Recent tree-ring dates from samples I collected in the western half of the site range from A.D. 1560 to 1909, indicating merely that Fewkes used deadwood in his reconstruction. (Or should we call it “construction”?) In short, the site as currently constructed may have little or no bearing on what the site looked like during thirteenth century. Should we be outraged, as people seem to be with the Akapana Pyramid?

Colorado is home to another, more egregious example—the Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings near Colorado Springs. These are “authentic” cliff dwellings in that the stones and (supposedly) the wooden beams used in their construction were taken from a real cliff dwelling in an undisclosed location in the 1930s. These construction materials were driven to a suitable looking cliff and reconstructed (again, constructed?) in a location closer to Denver and Colorado Springs, thereby relieving all but the most dedicated of tourists the then-arduous and still-long drive to Mesa Verde National Park. Should we be outraged?

Ten years ago, archaeologists and flint-knappers John Whittaker and Michael Stafford made the astonishing claim that “based on our knowledge of the knapping world and its history, we do not consider any non-archaeological [e.g. not professionally excavated] collection made after the 1930s to be surely uncontaminated” (see Replicas, Fakes, and Art: The Twentieth Century Stone Age and Its Affects on Archaeology” American Antiquity 64(2):203-214). If they are correct, collections in many, if not most, museums in North America are therefore tainted to an unknown, and unknowable, degree. To make matters worse, they calculate that flint knappers in North America alone make 1,500,000 new points each year. These have to go somewhere; many will one day be offered to museums as “authentic.” Where is the outrage?

In a counter-intuitive twist, it appears that internet technology may have led to diminished looting of archaeological sites and a vast increase in the production of fakes, including high-quality fakes. Charles Stanish recently made this case in Archaeology and cites an example from La Paz, Bolivia, in which one of the potters ingeniously uses well-preserved ancient grass as temper for the pottery, such that a radiocarbon date on organic residue in the newly manufactured vessel would yield an ancient date! He also makes the terrifying assertion that the fakes are so prevalent that supposed experts may now, in fact, be receiving their training on fakes! Where is the outrage?

Back to Akapana. The reconstruction (construction?) of the pyramid was initiated in a poorly conceived, poorly planned, and poorly executed, effort to make the site more attractive to tourists. Its status as a World Heritage Site should be reevaluated, but even if it is stripped of that status, will it really affect visitation to the site? We may hope that it will, but diminished visitation may have the unintended consequences of economic sanctions, decimating the local economy further and perhaps, we might guess, lead people to looting or manufacturing fakes.

We need to be careful not to cast stones too far. I am reminded of the recent reconstruction (construction?) of Soldier Field, in Chicago, which used to be on the National Register of Historical Places. The Chicago Bears football team, a private corporation, used millions in tax dollars to renovate the park. In essence, a completely new stadium, which looks like a flying saucer, was built (landed?) in the middle of the old stadium. In an appropriate if belated fit of pique, and in front of far fewer television cameras than are present on a normal game day (of which there are only 10 per year, sans playoffs) the National Park Service stripped the National Register plaque off the old stadium shortly after the new stadium was dedicated. Did anyone care? Where is the outrage? The point is that designations such as the National Register and World Heritage Sites are honorifics. Like merit badges on a boy scout who cannot afford shoes, they may miss the most important points.

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