Cuneiform Tablets in the Ancient Word Catalogue

In this post, Forging Antiquity Team member and Macquarie University PhD Richard Bott examines a catalogue of antiquities recently offered for sale.

In early March, Roberta Mazza shared via her blog and Twitter two brochures, titled The Ancient Word, featuring a collection of manuscripts and inscribed antiquities offered for sale by a Brandon Witt. According to the final page of the larger brochure (and seemingly the first to have been produced) the collection, comprised of 30 antiquities, has an estimated value of $45 million (presumably USD). As will be unsurprising to those familiar with the antiquities trade, the antiquities offered in these two catalogues are largely unprovenanced (lacking prior ownership information) and when provenance is offered it is lacking to say the least.

Screenshot of catalogue entry for cuneiform tablets

When flicking through the larger of the two brochures, my curiosity was captured immediately by two cuneiform tablets, placed under the inviting heading “Artifacts from the Origins of Writing.” Now I would like to preface this piece by noting that I am not an Assyriologist; I do not possess the required expertise to comment on the inscriptions of these tablets (for example, the first of the tablets appears to be orientated incorrectly, but I can’t be certain) nor their authenticity. Instead, I wish here to draw attention to the presentation of these two tablets.

After a few sentences highlighting very briefly the importance of cuneiform inscribed antiquities, the reader is informed that both of these tablets have supposedly been “Examined and Identified by an Acclaimed Scholar.” This reference to the involvement of an “Acclaimed Scholar” is a common trope in market parlance and offers problematic antiquities a façade of legitimacy. The association of an esteemed academic with antiquities offered for sale serves two functions. First, it implies that an object is authentic. Antiquities that have been looted, or otherwise removed from their archaeological context without any record, typically have no clear indicators that they are authentic. Associating such a piece with an academic suggests to a buyer that the antiquity must be authentic—after all, an “Acclaimed Scholar” has examined it. Secondly, the association of an academic with an object suggests it must be morally okay for someone to buy said object. Academics, by virtue of their profession, are viewed as trustworthy people. Thus, the logic suggests, if they were willing to interact with an antiquity, it must also be okay for a collector to purchase it.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the scholar said to have examined these tablets was none other than Wilfred Lambert (1926-2011). Lambert is rather notorious for his engagement with unprovenanced antiquities. Neil Brodie (2011, 129) has reported that almost two-thirds of the antiquities featuring cuneiform inscriptions—many of which were unprovenanced—that were offered for sale online in 2008 had been translated and authenticated by Lambert. Further, in an interview with the New York Times in 2003, Lambert conceded that, when authenticating objects for dealers, he does not “necessarily know where it comes from or how long it’s been coming.” There is, however, no real proof the Lambert ever actually examined these pieces. Within the catalogue the dealer includes a handwritten note, supposedly produced by Lambert, as evidence of Lambert’s involvement. However, there is no name, no signature, nor even a date on this note to support this claim (and establish that these pieces left their country of origin legally). This is not to say that Lambert did not examine these pieces, and his willingness to work with the market and his prolific output certainly make this a possibility, only that it is difficult to confirm the veracity of this claim. I would, however, like to draw attention here to the handwriting of the note. Following his death, eight of Lambert’s notebooks were scanned and made freely available online. The handwriting within these notebooks appears to differ rather significantly from what is found in the note supposedly also produced by Lambert. Perhaps most notably, the handwriting in the notebooks is largely cursive with multiple ligatures, while the handwriting of the note appears printed with very few ligatures or cursive characteristics. There are also serval distinct differences in the letterforms. Finally, and this perhaps may mean nothing, it is noted in the catalogue that the “handwritten notes that were, per his custom, affixed to the objects with rubber bands.” However, in the biography of Lambert, written by Andrew George (2015, 354), it is stated that Lambert’s estate “contained 10,000+ typewritten descriptions for dealers, many kept as very faded carbon copies” (emphasis mine). While I have been unable to investigate this further, this may suggest that when studying an object for someone else, Lambert tended to type, not write, his descriptions of the objects. It is possible that the dealer has confused Lambert’s tendency to produce hand drawn facsimiles of the tablets he worked on, although someone with more familiarity with Lambert’s work will be in a better position to comment here.

Noticeably, although unsurprisingly, absent in the description of the cuneiform tablets is any provenance (ownership history). This, of course, is problematic. Cuneiform objects are typically found in Iraq and following the Gulf War substantial quantities were looted from archaeological sites, or stolen from museums, and smuggled out of Iraq. Without provenance demonstrating these tablets left their country of origin legally, the prevailing assumption (assuming authenticity) must be that they were likely looted.

Finally, it is worth noting here that there are several factual mistakes in the description of these tablets. It is claimed that Lambert dated one tablet to the reign of “Su-Sin” (a variant spelling of Shu-Sin) who was the “king of Sumer and Akkad, and last ruler of the Ur III dynasty” (emphasis mine). This seems odd, here, given that Su-Sin, or Shu-Sin, was actually the penultimate ruler of the Ur III dynasty—a fact unlikely to have been forgotten by Lambert. Witt also claims that Lambert was a “renowned Assyriologist of the British Museum.” Although Lambert was indeed a “renowned Assyriologist,” and his research interests meant he was a frequent visitor of the museum (even contributing to the Museum’s catalogue of Near Eastern seals), he was not an employee of the British Museum as is implied here (the British Museum even features a short bibliography for Lambert, linked to the objects he donated, and there is no mention of him ever being an employee of the Museum. For more information about Lambert, see George’s biography). This reference to a famous institution like the British Museum, like referencing a famous scholar helps to further cement the supposed legitimacy and legality of the featured antiquities in the minds of potential buyers.

These two tablets are conspicuously absent from the second, smaller catalogue—which has been whittled down from 30 objects to seven. While it is unclear why exactly these objects have been removed, it is not unfair to assume they have been sold. After all, Wilfred Lambert is still listed as one of the “Prominent Scholars Who Have Examined and Studied Items in this Collection” on the back page. If these tablets have indeed been purchased, then one hopes their owner did not fall for the clichéd ‘market speak’ found throughout this listing and performed their due diligence. Unfortunately, however, history has shown us that this is unlikely, and until evidence is provided to the contrary these tablets are (to put it lightly) problematic.

Richard Bott

Malcolm Choat, ‘A Forger, his models, methods, and motives: The papyri of Constantine Simonides’: FORVM ANTIKE seminar

On Wednesday 9th December, at 7 pm Australian Eastern Daylight time (Sydney) = 9 am Central European time (Vienna) = 8 am GMT (London) = 10 am Egypt (and very early morning in the US and Canada…) Malcolm Choat will give a paper in the FORVM ANTIKE online seminar series hosted by the Department of Ancient History and the Department of Numismatics at the University of Vienna, on the topic ‘A Forger, his models, methods, and motives: The papyri of Constantine Simonides’.

This online paper will be hosted on the Collaborate platform, and the session may be joined at this link. Please join us online to hear about the Forging Antiquity team’s latest research on Simonides and his papyri!

Mareile Pfannebecker: “Malemployed Desire: online work and play under digital capitalism”

This Tuesday, 24 November, 2020, we invite you to a special online talk hosted by Markers of Authenticity and the Platform Intimacies Research Initiative through the Faculty of Arts, Macquarie University, by Dr Mariele Pfannebecker, from Manchester.

Her paper will discuss how digitally managed desire structures the lives we lead working and not working online. In her talk, she wants to look at how forms of online posting that blur the line between work and play – like that of internet celebrity – function paradigmatically to show how the material and psychological structure of employment is changing in ways that affect all workers. Second, she’ll discuss how internet platforms’ algorithmic putting to work of what we want, from search engines to social media, suffers from a pre-Freudian theory of desire that fails to anticipate the effects of a digitalised pleasure principle.

This paper will draw on ideas from Mareile and James Smith’s book, Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism (Zed, 2020).

The talk will be moderated by Dr Chris Muller from the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Literature and Language.

Join us via zoom:

Tuesday 24th of November, 2020, 19:30 (Sydney) / 8:30 (UK) / 9:30 (CET) Password: 686581

2019 Interns on the Forging Antiquity Project

In the second semester of 2019, the Forging Antiquity team were joined by a number of undergraduate interns working on a range of topics from the early history of scientific testing through to the range of ethics policies related to antiquities in place at Australian institutions today.


Two of our interns have subsequently joined the Forging Antiquities team (Evie Handby and George Topalidis as MRes thesis candidate and Research Assistant respectively).

Fake Jewish and Christian Manuscripts – Evie Handby

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 11.24.27 am

I’m currently completing a Master of Research in the Department of Ancient History. My research interests focus on the reception history of the Hebrew Bible and the intersection of social media and the illicit antiquities trade.

In 2019, I interned with Forging Antiquity on a project that sought to examine how a series of fake Jewish and Christian manuscripts surfacing in Turkey are represented in the news media.

Seizure of Fake Bibles from Ankara, January, 2020. Source: Kılıç, R. (2020). “Jandarma alıcı kılığına girdi, 6 tarihi eser kaçakçısı yakalandı”. TRT Haber, 15 January. 

The nature of this project meant that I was able to develop and strengthen a variety of Internet research skills, especially those relating to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of open source data. As an extension of this project, the aim of my Master’s thesis is to explore further the relationship between social media and the illicit antiquities trade by investigating how the manuscripts are advertised and sold on YouTube.


Konstantine Simonides in his own words  – George Topalidis

thumbnail_IMG-3428I am a second-year Masters of Research student in Macquarie University’s Department of Ancient History. My fields of interest include ancient Greek religion and the Greek language both ancient and modern.

One of the projects of my internship included translating the writings of the elusive Konstantinos Simonides, a notorious Greek forger of the 19th century. My primary focus was on Simonides’ letter to the fictitious monk Kallinikos, purporting to demonstrate the ‘correct’ reading of Egyptian hieroglyphs in opposition to that of Champollion. Throughout this year, I have the privilege of continuing my work on Simonides as a Research Assistant, transcribing and translating the letters between him and his once good friend John Eliot Hodgkin.

In translating Simonides’ writings – both his forgeries and personal letters – I became intimately familiar with the aims and authenticating techniques of a forger. Simonides frequently employed forged ‘ancient’ authorities to enforce the authenticity of his arguments, while at the same time attempted to de-authenticate his opponents. Through his writings, it became clear to me that authenticity and the struggle to present oneself – or something else – as authentic lie at the heart of issues regarding forgeries, cultural heritage, and the reconstruction of the past. I hope that my work will contribute to the greater discourse surrounding authenticity, and bring focus upon Simonides’ work within the context of 19th century Greek history and identity.

Markers of Authenticity in 2019

Having run some 12 events, including a major international conference and a showcase event in 2018, and feeling at once somewhat burnt out and that we were not making enough time for research and writing, the Markers of Authenticity team pulled back a little in 2019, restricting ourselves to three seminars and an event showcasing our own research, all of which were generously sponsored by the newly inaugurated Macquarie University Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and the Environment. The slimmer program of events notwithstanding, we were nevertheless pleased with what we were able to put on, which focussed as always on putting representatives of different disciplines in dialogue around the themes of the research stream.

MemoryImageIn our opening seminar for the year, we asked how collaborative memory works in practice, inviting family historian A/Prof. Tanya Evans to talk about her research on family historians’ work with memory, and educational psychologist A/Prof. Penny van Bergen to discuss her work how showing how reminiscing with mothers and others supports young children’s memory and emotional development. We were overjoyed that bringing these two researchers into dialogue resulted in a new collaborative research project between them, and look forward to hearing about the results of that work in the future.

In May we asked Renaissance historian Dr Nic Baker, and Dr John Selby, an expert onRiskImage technology and internet fraud from the Macquarie Business School, to discuss the
Authenticity of Risk. From them we learned about financial speculation in sixteenth century Italy, through the lens of diverse attitudes to gambling, and the threats posed to authentic online interactions by cyber crime.

In August, we held our final seminar in the regular series, in which we were privileged to be able to host Dr Crystal Abidin from Curtin University, who spoke with A/Prof. Hsu-Ming Teo, Head of English at Macquarie, on Authentic Selves. In this fascinating seminar Dr Abidin talked us through her work on Asian online influencers, from ‘calibrated amateurism’ to ‘porous authenticity’, while SelfDraftA/Prof. Teo gave us a preview of forthcoming work on the ways in which the cultural authenticity of Asian families is constructed in romance novels. The 40-strong audience spoke to the pulling power of the speakers and the research on display, and Dr Abidin generously made time to talk to ECRs and students in the team.

For our final event of the year, the team working on the ARC funded project ‘Forging Antiquity’ held a afternoon seminar entitled ‘Deviant Expertise and Malicious Thievery’ to showcase their research in the project to date. Graduate students, project staff, and student interns talked an audience of c. 50 people though their findings on forgery, ethics, and provenance in papers and posters.


Along the way in 2019, the Forging Antiquity project hosted five student interns in the second half of the year, who worked on a diverse set of topics related to the ARC funded projects under the team’s aegis. They all did fantastic work, some of which we’llTeam showcase further in the future. We were very pleased that Evie Handby, who undertook an internship collecting information on the fake Hebrew and Syriac bibles which have been showing up in Turkey during the last decade, will start a Masters of Research thesis on this topic in 2020.

During the year, Markers of Authenticity was also renewed as a Faculty of Arts Research Stream at Macquarie University, and will soon have an internet presence on the Faculty’s research pages. We look forward to taking part in the program of events to mark the opening of Macquarie new Arts precinct in 2020, in what will be the fifth year of the seminar. Best wishes from us all for a happy new year, and see your in 2020!

The Markers of Authenticity team

Authentic Selves

For our third Markers of Authenticity seminar for 2019, we’re going to consider the ways in which the self is projected, constructed, and created,  from internet culture to literature. Join us on Friday 30th August, 4–6pm, for an interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by the Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and the Environment in the Australian Hearing Hub, Level 3, Rm 202 (the ‘Recreation room’: note change from usual venue).


Influencers and Cultures of Authenticity-making

Dr Crystal Abidin, Senior Research Fellow & ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies, Curtin University / Affiliate Researcher with the Media Management and Transformation Centre, Jönköping University.

In the earliest days of Influencer commerce, the allure was premised on the diary-like reportage of people’s everyday lives, in the rhetoric of confessional documentaries. The regularity and frequency of their updates mirrored the daily rhythms of a teenager’s social life and attracted followers: Their blogs became a means for other girls to learn how to be social through consumption, within their modest spending power. Today, these pioneers are among the most seasoned veterans in influencer culture, innovating with new disclosure strategies to sustain followers over their decade-long careers. Drawing from research on regional Influencer cultures since 2008, in this seminar I will provide a brief overview of the concepts ‘Perceived interconnectedness’, ‘Relatability’, ‘Calibrated amateurism’, and ‘Porous authenticity’ for discussion in relation to cultures of authenticity-making.

Cultural Authenticity, the Family, and East Asian Romance Novels

Associate Professor Hsu-Ming Teo, Department of English, Macquarie University.

In 2018 the film Crazy Rich Asians was released to much fanfare and publicity, earning nominations at the Golden Globes and other awards, and grossing $174,532,921 in the United States and $238,532,921 worldwide. Although criticized within Asian markets, especially in Singapore, for its erasure of non-ethnically Chinese characters from the romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians was lauded in the US for its all-Asian cast – something seldom seen in Hollywood. Romance stories featuring Asian protagonists are still few and far between, leading writers, readers, and bloggers with an Asian background to establish websites that compile lists of Asian-themed romances, as well as frustrated blogs that ask “Are Asian Men Not Sexy?” and “Where the Hell Are All the Asians?”.

The demand by bloggers and readers on such websites for “sexy Asians” raises an intriguing question: what exactly is it about a romance novel that makes it “Asian”? Protagonists who are from the dizzying diversity of “Asian” backgrounds? Is “Asianness” a term from race or the process of racialization? Or ethnic variations within a racialized category? Or do national origins – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, Thailand, South Korea, India, the Philippines, and so on – contribute more to particular types of Asianness? And what about Asian-American romances – the most substantial contemporary genre in which protagonists of Asian backgrounds are currently found. Are fully assimilated American romantic protagonists of Asian background, who wear their cultural difference lightly and whose Asianness is virtually invisible, sufficient to make a romance Asian? Or must Asian difference be emphasized no matter how many generations the Asian-American protagonist’s family has been in the United States?

This paper considers how Asianness is created as an example of Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism”, and through strategies of what Stanley Fish calls “strong” and “weak” multiculturalism. It looks at how history, culture, and, above all, a certain notion of the oppressive Asian family are used to create a sense of authentic Asianness in the contemporary romance genre.

Authenticity of Risk

For our second Markers of Authenticity seminar for 2019, we’ll turn our attention to the concept of risk and how risk is made meaningful to us from Renaissance Italy through to the cyber security frontlines of today. Join us on Friday 24th May, 4–6pm, for a cross-faculty seminar sponsored by the Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and the Environment in the Australian Hearing Hub, Level 5, Rm 212.

How Unknown was the Unknown Future? Cheats and Frauds in Renaissance Italy

Dr Nicholas Baker, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations.

According to the sixteenth-century Church, gambling was problematic because it was immoral and sinful; but according to most other Renaissance sources the real problem with gambling was not metaphysical but rather the fact that  frequently the odds were not equal but rigged through deception, fraud, or cheating. I will reflect on how sixteenth-century Italians thought about risk in relation to financial speculation on apparently unknown future outcomes.

Trust, Authenticity and Cybersecurity Risks

Dr John Selby, Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance

Since the widespread adoption of the Internet in the 1990s, government, businesses and society have all become exposed to significant and growing cybersecurity risks which undermine our concepts of trust and authenticity. Cyber-criminals have sought to exploit our trust in other humans so as to steal money through a variety of scams, such as romance fraud, phishing, whaling and business email compromises. Businesses have sought to exploit our desire for “free” services and authentic social interactions so as to engage in surveillance capitalism. Governments have struggled to accurately identify these criminal attackers, creating an attribution problem which threatens the viability of the cyber-insurance industry. This presentation will give a very brief introduction to these complex problems with the goal of stimulating an interdisciplinary discussion of how we might better study, understand and solve them.

Authenticity of Memory

For our first Markers of Authenticity seminar for 2019, we’ll be considering how collaborative memory works in practice. Join us on Friday 12th April 4–6 pm for a special seminar presented in conjunction with the Centre for Applied History and sponsored by the Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and the Environment in the Australian Hearing Hub, Level 5, Rm 212.


How do family historians work with memory?

A/Prof. Tanya Evans (Department of Modern History, Politics, and International Relations, Macquarie University; Director, Centre for Applied History)

Drawing on survey data and oral history interviews undertaken with family historians in Australia, England and Canada this talk will explore the ways in which family historians construct memories using diverse sources in their research. It will show how they utilise oral history, archival documents, material culture and explorations of space to construct and reconstruct family stories and to make meaning of the past. It will ask whether they undertake critical readings of these sources when piecing together their families’ stories and reveal the impact of that work on individual subjectivities, the construction of historical consciousness and the broader social value of family history scholarship. Global family history challenges the patriarchal, nation-focussed, state-driven historical scholarship we discover so easily in our formal archives and libraries. How might family historians reshape our knowledge on memory and the history of the family in the 21st century?

“Remember when…?” How reminiscing with mothers and others supports young children’s memory and emotion development

A/Prof. Penny Van Bergen (SFHEA, Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University; Director, Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World)

Memory is a critically important aspect of our lives. We share memories with one another multiple times a day: building emotional bonds, eliciting sympathy or empathy, and problem solving for the future. As parents and teachers, we also scaffold and support young children’s emerging memory narratives. I extend on this past research in two ways. First, I consider implications for emotion development. I show how reminiscing about emotional past events (e.g. fights with friends, getting in trouble) may be a particularly rich forum for developing emotion competence. Next, I extend from mothers to others. Working with teachers, fathers, and other children, I show how a range of socialising agents support children’s memory.

My Internship on the Forging Antiquity Project for 2018

Last year I had the opportunity to work as a research intern on the ARC Discovery Project, ‘Forging Antiquity: Authenticity, forgery and fake papyri’ through the Macquarie University PACE program with A/Prof. Malcolm Choat and Dr. Rachel Yuen-Collingridge. This internship exposed me to a wide range of forged manuscripts and allowed me to develop new and existing research skills.

The first forgeries I examined were papyri from the University of Michigan collection. They appeared to be in Greek, but I struggled to make any sense of them. I was relieved to learn soon after that these particular texts were nonsensical and were made to only superficially resemble Greek documents. I learned that many forgeries of this kind were produced and included in auction lots of papyri in Egypt during the 19th and early 20th centuries to enhance their perceived value. I spent much of my time working on the database squinting at high resolution images of papyri, observing fibre direction and searching for traces of ancient ink. I had to consult a wide range of printed and digital papyrological media (occasionally written in Italian, French, Russian or German). By the end of the internship, research assistant Vanessa Mawby and I had collected data for 180 forgeries. Among these were compositions and copied texts written on a variety of materials in Greek, Demotic, Hieratic and Coptic.

Database meeting

My second task was to transcribe one of Constantine Simonides’ forged biblical manuscripts. While Simonides’ hand was relatively easy to read, the text was severely worn or missing in many places. Simonides often misjudges the size of lacunae, including or omitting too much of the text. This was an excellent opportunity, and indeed my first, to study a manuscript in detail, taking into consideration its paleography, materiality and layout.

My final task was to prepare a display and catalogue description for a suspected forgery in the Macquarie collection for the exhibition ‘Faking It: Forgeries and artefacts in dialogue.’ MU2893 is a marble votive tabula ansata commemorating the thanksgiving of a certain Marcus Valerius Parthenius to Urania. If authentic, it likely dates to the third or fourth century CE. In addition to producing arguments for and against its authenticity, I investigated its acquisition and publication history and the market history of tabulae ansatae more generally. Finally, I considered the ethical implications of the item’s purchase on the antiquities market.

As an intern with the project, it was my great pleasure to attend the conference ‘Manuscripts from the Margins: How to edit a forgery’ and the subsequent public day of lectures ‘Faking It’ (Sept. 20–22, 2018). I was pleased to learn more about the increasingly sophisticated methods of today’s forgers, namely their recycling and simulation of ancient mediums. I was inspired by the argument that unprovenanced texts should be flagged as potential forgeries in future editions and avoided by scholars in the formulation of historical arguments.

Of all the lessons I took away from the internship, the most important one was the (often-overlooked) cultural value of forgeries. The finest examples are works of great skill, knowledge and creativity. More importantly, they often offer fascinating insight into how learned individuals and/or their communities have imagined the distant past.

Mark Matic

Student Internships on the ‘Forging Antiquity’ Project

In Session 2 2019, five research internships will be offered to Bachelor of Philosophy (Masters of Research year 1) students at Macquarie University on two research projects based in the Department of Ancient History. Four internships are being offered on the Australian Research council project “Forging Antiquity: Authenticity, forgery and fake papyri“, and one in the new ARC project “Ancient Egyptian papyri: unlocking secrets to the history of writing“.

In each of these internships, students will work as part of the Forging Antiquity team investigating an aspect of the history of the forgery of ancient artefacts, especially papyri an other manuscripts.

Internships are being offered in the following aspects of the project:

Interns will work one day a week with the team, undertaking research on a project which will contribute to the larger project goals. Descriptions of the tasks to be undertaken, the goals, and the expected outcomes for each internship may be found in the links above. For some internships we are seeking specific skills (such as knowledge of particular languages), but for the most part they are open to students across the Faculty of Arts and indeed the University. We love diverse teams of researchers with different skills and backgrounds, so if you’re interested in working with us, please do contact us.

Further information can be found at the links above. Applications close on the 14th of June 2019, but interested students should contact A/Prof. Malcolm Choat (email, phone 9850 7561) as soon as possible.