Bone fragment with supposed engravings, bearing in fact only taphonomic (natural) markings, from the Shiyu site, China, c. 33,000 years old.

A problem with the corpus of ‘Pleistocene art’, especially portable objects, is the existence of fakes. They occur also in rock art, but in mobiliary art they seem to be more common and harder to detect. Generally, fakes in archaeology can be divided into two basic types. The first are those made for economic gain. They are purported to be from many different periods and cultures, but rarely from the Pleistocene. In some parts of the world, these commercial fakes support whole local industries. Interestingly, in certain other regions no archaeological fakes at all seem to exist (e.g. in Australia).

The second type of fake is much more likely to be of purported Pleistocene antiquity. It is often not made for material gain, but merely to deceive. The motivation may be complex, and it appears relevant that such fakes seem to be limited entirely to Europe and North America. The majority of them concerns art objects. It would be fascinating to explore the reasons why people in these two regions have such a penchant for providing false evidence from this particular period. It seems to be linked to factors such as archaeological value judgments and the mechanisms of authenticating religious shrines (Bednarik 2001a). One might argue that such cases are common in south-western Europe because the palaeoart is also common there, but this is easily falsified. Pleistocene portable palaeoart is just as prominent in Russia and Siberia, yet not a single fake has ever been reported from that art region. On the other hand, Pleistocene art is almost entirely lacking in North America, yet a number of fakes or suspected fakes are known there. Hence there is no reason to assume that there is an inherent geographical correlation between fakes and find regions. The existence of fake Palaeolithic art is best explained in cultural and social terms. It seems to be related to the academic predisposition, in the same regions, of attributing Pleistocene antiquity to recent art corpora.

Many fakes have been recognised over the years in palaeoart, ranging from hundreds of Azilian painted cobbles to engraved plaques and to figurines carved from genuine mammoth ivory (for some examples see Bahn 1984, 1990, 1993; Bednarik 1998a). The probable existence of further fakes in Palaeolithic art continues to be a significant problem, because still undetected fakes would presumably be central in the perceived stylistic spectrum of this art. For a fake to be successful, the perpetrator must share with the authenticator certain perceptions of what constitutes the essence of Palaeolithic art. This means, in practical terms, that if there are still fakes among Palaeolithic art, they are likely to distort perceptions of what constitutes Palaeolithic style in favour of already shared biases, and so are likely to amplify these. This illustrates how precarious an understanding of ‘Palaeolithicity’ as a stylistic property really is.

While fake palaeoart objects are a phenomenon specifically of a few world regions, misidentifications of mobiliary art have been much more widespread. In Asia, for instance, fakes are virtually unknown, but there are hundreds of known erroneous claims in that continent alone. For instance, in China I have had to reject every one of the 600 ‘engraved’ bone fragments from the Shiyu wenhua site, after a microscopic examination revealed that all these objects bore surface markings derived from four different natural causes (see image above). Detailed iconographic interpretations of some of the markings had been published, such as the markings on a horse humerus fragment supposedly showing two separate hunting scenes (You 1984). In India I travelled widely to see all forty-six known ‘engraved’ ostrich eggshell fragments of the Palaeolithic, only to find that forty-five of them bear natural markings, while only one was actually engraved by human hand. My study of sometimes heavily marked ivory objects from Siberia produced similar results, and eventually led to understanding the natural process that produced the mysterious markings Marshack had first described from ancient bone surfaces in Spain. When he examined some of the claimed Mousterian engravings of Cueva Morín microscopically, Marshack (1991: 54) was ‘astonished’ to find that narrow grooves ‘dipped below the surface of the bone and then reappeared on the surface some millimetres ahead’. Similar markings are quite common on materials consisting primarily of calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate, such as ivory, bone, antler, ostrich eggshell, and even on marl or limestone. After becoming aware of this, I focused on Bronze Age mammoth ivory objects from Irkutsk and observed that their heavy marking was the result of mycorrhizal action (Bednarik 1992c). Numerous plant species have symbiotic associations of the mycelium of a fungus with their roots, which often extend to bacteria in the root systems of plants. The respiratory carbon dioxide of these micro-organisms reacts with moisture and dissolves carbonate locally (ivory is a dense form of dentine, which consists largely of CaCO3). Thus these grooves effectively trace the course of former tiny plant rootlets of specific species that are particularly effective in forming them. This is readily observable on the large ivory objects I examined, whereas the many objects that had been misidentified by archaeologists were usually tiny fragments on which the markings are perhaps more difficult to explain. However, a careful microscopic study can always clarify the status of such markings.
Fossil, collagen-free bone consists largely of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate, and it is therefore susceptible to the process just described. The previously mentioned numerous ‘engraved’ bone objects from the Shiyu site bear a rich body of surface markings. They are from the transition of Middle to Upper Palaeolithic industries and roughly 30 000 years old (Bednarik and You 1991). In this large collection of marked bone fragments they represent only a small proportion of the repertoire. Nearly all specimens bear abrasion marks, which are typically short and broad, consisting of numerous parallel striae, and are most numerous on prominent surface aspects. Occasionally there are gouge marks indicating taphonomic damage by stone points pressed against the bone surfaces. Finally, there are linear incision marks, randomly orientated, sometimes with a hooked end or stries parasites present near one of the ends. No instances were observed of intentionally engraved lines, on the hundreds of specimens. Since the site’s sediment is rich in stone implements, many of the incisions were quite probably caused taphonomically by the points of chert flakes.

In Australia, the six ‘engraved plaques’ from Devil’s Lair provide an example of yet another form of archaeological misidentification. Excavated in the mid-1970s, this series of marked pieces of soft aeolian limestone or marl has since been described numerous times as bearing noniconic Pleistocene engravings, together with a perforated object described as a stone pendant (Dortch 1976, 1984). However, doubts were expressed and to resolve the controversy the Museum of Western Australia asked me in 1997 to conduct a detailed study of the objects (Bednarik 1998a). I noted that the perforation in the pendant was fully natural, contrary to what archaeologists had reported. Despite this setback I was able to demonstrate that the object had indeed been used as a pendant. In examining such pieces for use or wear traces one focuses on the inside of their perforation, on the surface opposite the object’s centre of gravity. In precisely that location I detected four distinctive grooves that indicated that the pendant had been supported and worn on a string, and I was even able to estimate the approximate diameter of that string (Bednarik 1997b).

However, none of the six marked limestone pieces, two of which had been published as engraved plaques, were found to bear any intentional anthropic marks. The limestone fragments from Devil’s Lair exhibit a variety of taphonomic markings which present an initially confusing picture to the observer, but which can be untangled and analysed through detailed observation in combination with various replication experiments. Not a single marking on these objects can be attributed to a stone tool, and there is a complete lack of diagnostic characteristics of stone tool incisions, including longitudinal striations, stries parasites, sillons rectilignes and others (see e.g. d’Errico 1994; Bednarik 1992d, 1994c, 1995c, 1997c). Among the many hundreds of macroscopic and microscopic markings on the Devil’s Lair objects are kinetic markings caused by quartz sand grains or projections from other stones, minute solution pits and animal scratches of various species. Numerically they are dominated by the traces of various types of modern damage. This includes innumerable faint lines caused when the objects were cleaned with nylon toothbrushes. Many microscopic bristle fragments and shavings were found still attached to the surface. Visually the animal claw marks dominate, and those of two species of very different body sizes occur. One is about the size of a Tasmanian devil, the other about the size of a small mouse (Bednarik 1998a).


R. G. Bednarik, 2002

References for portable palaeoart