Forgery, (de)authentication, and modes of expertise.

Rachel Yuen-Collingridge and I spent part of February and March as Visiting Research Fellows of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, an amazing institution which I strongly recommend visiting and working in if the opportunity arises – many thanks to our hosts for making our time there so profitable. While we were there we were working on our ARC-funded project on forged papyri as part of the HRC’s 2018 annual theme ‘Imagining Science and Technology 200 Years after Frankenstein’.

As part of my fellowship, I gave a paper in the HRC seminar series which I used to sketch out some ideas on how the HRC’s research theme of the humanities’ engagement with science and technology related to our work, by tracing some of the scientific and technological engagement with ancient manuscripts, and especially forged manuscripts and papyri. I also used this opportunity to think about the book that Rachel and I will write as part of the forgery project, which will focus on Constantine Simonides and what we might concentrate on within his huge, complicated, and fascinating story. The (still somewhat long) summary below necessarily skates over a number of important issues somewhat superficially, and there are many loose ends I need to chase up, paths I need to follow much further, and no doubt things I have not yet thought of; but I hope it serves as a spur to further conversation and is of some interest nonetheless.

Part of this discussion needs to be about the way different modes of academic expertise interact, and, importantly, how the public perceives, evaluates, and values these academic expertises. To have this discussion properly, we need to think about what is meant by ‘expertise’, both in the context of the mid-19th century, when the self-taught could rise to the top of their disciplines, and in the present day, when distrust of expertise and the rise of the internet as a means of propagating opinions has led to the ability to project arguments which are persuasive to various publics, who are inclined to accept claims that there are truths which are being hidden form them. Of course, we also need to think about precisely what we mean by ‘science’; what counts as scientific investigation; what it means to make the claim that one’s study is ‘scientific’; and the validity of the bases on which disciplines whose institutional or traditional home is within the arts and humanities make this claim. These days a lot of archaeological research presents itself as science, but what is it that makes it thus? And, of course, as we’re talking about authenticating artefacts, we have to think about what we mean by the malleable and multivalent concept of ‘authenticity’. These can be challenging questions, and investigating the history of science and its engagement with the humanities throws into relief how difficult they are to answer.

Rather than trying to define these concepts (‘authenticity’ in particular eludes definition and should be left fuzzy; the others would require posts in and of themselves), I want to reflect on the interaction of different modes of expertise, and different modes of viewing them, in the assessment of ancient artifacts. In the paper, I focused on two figures from the mid-nineteenth century, a forger and a chemist, whose echoes I looked for in the twenty-first century.

The first of the mid-nineteenth figures was the master forger Constantine Simonides (1820 or 1824 – 1867 or 1890, depending on who you believe), who needs little introduction.1 The other was the chemist Henry Deane, who is a little less known. Henry Deane (1807–1874) was a chemist who learnt on the job and through voracious reading, rising to be President in 1853–55 of the Pharmaceutical Society in which he remained a central figure in until his death in 1874, on which the Society commissioned a portrait of him which hangs in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum in London.

Wyburd, Francis John, 1826-1893; Henry Deane (1807-1874), President of the Pharmaceutical Society (1853-1855)
Francis John Wyburd, Henry Deane (1807-1874), President of the Pharmaceutical Society (1853-1855); Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum;

Alongside pharmacy, Deane had a second related legacy, microscopy, in which field he made important observations about microscopic fossils in chalk rock, discovered a genus of algae, and pioneered a technique for mounting slides with glycerine.

It was his expertise in microscopy which led to his paths crossing with Simonides; maybe not literally, as they may not actually have met, but Deane was drawn into the Simonides affair after Simonides arrived back in England in 1858, carrying a palimpsest manuscript in which Uranius’ History of Kings of Egypt was supposedly underlying a medieval ecclesiastical manuscript. This has been denounced as a forgery already in Berlin in 1856 (though not before Wilhelm Dindorf had published part of a – swiftly recalled – edition with Oxford University Press), but the controversy over the papyri Simonides ‘discovered’ in the Mayer collection in Liverpool led to a reopening of discussion over the authenticity of the Uranius. Deane was contacted by John Eliot Hodgkin, a Liverpudlian businessman and collector of antiquities, who was the chief supporter of Simonides and

Portrait of Francis Wenham, 1866. Source: Wikimedia Commons

defender of his manuscripts in England at this time. According to letters from Hodgkin to Deane now in the State Library of Victoria (which we had the opportunity to examine last year), Hodgkin asked Deane to engage ‘your most eminent collaborators in microscopical investigation in London’, in the task of examining the Uranius manuscript and some of the papyri, at which Deane called on the expertise of the optician and microscope maker Richard Beck, and the microscopist, aeronautical pioneer, and inventor of the wind tunnel Francis Wenham.

In the course of more than a year considering the Uranius and the papyri, Deane gave his opinion publically at a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature,2 and prepared a handwritten report, now in the State Library of Victoria. While he vacillated in his opinion on the issue of the Uranius’ authenticity – as a number of alarmed letters from Hodgkin demonstrate – at both the Royal Society meeting and in the report, he disagreed with Wenham, Beck, the naturalist and microscopist Freeman Roper, (whose opinion Deane mentions), and the German microscopropists who had already examined the Uranius, by declaring that his “full conviction that the uncial writing (i.e., the Uranius) is under the cursive or Ecclesiastical and moreover that if it is a forgery Simonides is not the author of it.” The following year, in 1865, Simonides left England, never to return. And Deane seems not to have interacted with manuscripts, forged or otherwise, again. His reputation certainly did not suffer among his fellow chemists and microscopists, all of which seem to have forgotten about the episode.

As mentioned above, by the time Deane saw the Uranius manuscript, it had already been subject to a full philological, textual, and historical examination by scholars in Germany, most prominently the Egyptologist Carl Richard Lepsius, the editor of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica Georg Heinrich Pertz, as well as Dindorf himself. However it had also received scrutiny in January 1856 by a trio of top German microscopists, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, and Gustav Magnus.

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, and Gustav Magnus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ehrenberg was the doyen of German microscopy in the period, and was Chief Secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1863 when he wrote a letter describing the examination that he and his colleagues had undertaken which was reproduced in the Royal Society of Literature’s Report of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature on some of the Mayer Papyri and the Palimpsest MS. of Uranius belonging to M. Simonides with Letters from MM. Pertz, Ehrenberg and Dindorf (London: John Murray, 1863).

As Ehrenberg explains there, Lepsius wanted more proof of forgery than his philological and historical analysis could provide: he needed ‘material proofs of forgery’ (materieller Beweise), and so turned to the microscopists, who adduced various proofs around the relationship of the uncial writing to the ruled guidelines for the 12 century ecclesiastical text (on which Pertz had also concentrated), and the 12 century script itself. During the debate over the Uranius in Berlin and Leipzig, a tincture was also applied to the manuscript which, it was believed by some made ancient but not modern ink turn blue. This procedure had been discovered by Charles Blagdan in the eighteenth century, who by testing a number of solutions on a number of medieval manuscripts (some of which caused the writing to be obliterated) found that a combination of a dilute acid and a phlogisticated alkali made the ink he was examining turn a brilliant blue.3 What Blagdan called ‘phlogisticated alkali’ we call Potassium ferrocyanide (K4Fe(CN)6 . 3H2O), but Deane (who used the same procedure) and his fellow nineteenth century chemists called Prussiate of potash. Yet as noted by Alexander Lykurgos, a Greek who at first unwittingly aided Simonides in constructing the Uranius before writing a long work denouncing him, this procedure was not so much a test of authenticity as a reading aid, which is indeed what Blagdan had proposed it for.4

The examination of the Uranius initiated a new phase in the use of microscopy for studying manuscripts, but also raised the public profile of microscopy. The Evening Mail reported on 3 March 1856 that ‘Professor Ehrenberg’s microscope, which did such good service in procuring undeniable proof of the Simonides fraud, has been made use of again, to detect the thief that stole a barrel of specie, which had been purloined on one of the railways’. (Italics mine). In the case of the ‘Perkins folio’ of Shakespeare, in which the authenticity of the corrections and marginal additions on the manuscript was disputed, Nevil Maskelyne, Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum, ‘suggested the use of an instrument which has already done good service in an analagous case (that of the Simonides Uranius) – the microscope’, as he reported in a letter to the Times in 1859.5 And it was no doubt the role the microscope had played in the deauthentication of the Uranius which led Hodgkin to seek out British microscopists to examine the Uranius, to try to overturn the earlier opinions formed on the same basis.

It was during the 19th century that microscopes emerged as guarantors of authentic reproduction within science, as zoologists not only gained ever increasing ability to see the natural world at the microscopic scale, but also, by using a machine, to gain what they asserted was a more objective and authentic view of this micro-world. Using a microscope still relies on human sight, but the machine was an essential component of the process. It is also to the nineteenth century that Daston and Galison date the development of the discourse of objectivity itself.6 It is in this context, within the development and propagation of concepts of mechanical objectivity that we see the recourse to the microscopists and chemists in attempts to prove both forgery and authenticity, to provide the definitive answer which, it seemed, observation of the language and script could not.

We might put the growth of microscopy’s engagement with studies of manuscripts into dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s observations some 80 years later, problematising the relationship between original and copy ‘in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, lamenting the loss of the aura of the original. And also with one of the other great technological advances of the 19th century which effected both manuscript studies and concepts of authenticity and originality, the development of photography.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, from the time of Mabillon, Montfaucaon, and before, discussions of authenticity had been based exclusively on the traditional methods of studying manuscripts. From that time until now, scientific engagement has advanced exponentially, to the point where now a wide array of techniques are used to study manuscripts which are under no suspicion of being fakes, and ones which are suspected of being that. The case of the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife’ provides an apposite recent case, where a battery of scientific techniques were used to test the papyri. In the present day – something this case also demonstrated –the collection history of an object has also come to occupy an increasingly central role in discussions of authenticity. Just as in the case of Simonides’ manuscripts, the debate over the ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife’ advanced the field, and led to new methods of ink-testing which made advances which may be very significant for the study of ancient inks.

So we could argue that forgery is a catalyst for disciplinary innovation; that such moments of crisis drive fields forward; and that in response to the vulnerabilities caused by uncertain data, new techniques are developed. We could partner this with reflections on the role of technological change in exposing the vulnerabilities of human systems, and increased anxiety about the status of information distributed in new forms of media, from changing book technologies in antiquity and the renaissance, to the new digital media of today. If we position the figure of the forger as an embodiment of these anxieties, someone who by appropriating traditional and novel ways of affirming authenticity exposes the flaws within systems of verification, we gain a very interesting insight into the interaction of different modes of expertise and how the public perceives them.

These various public evaluations of expertise were on display in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were even more evident recently, with the way the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ wife’ was reported in some sections of the media, with the scientific results highlighted; and received by some in the general public, as perusal of comments sections in traditional media (e.g. the New York Times, or Boston Globe) and online fora such as Reddit (e.g. here or here) shows. While many argued past each other on the basis of other debates and fault lines in American society, many were simply more receptive to the supposedly more objective scientific opinion, than the subjective, emotional, uncritical, and possibly biased judgment of humanities scholars. This is of course to some extent a simplification, but I think this tendency can be detected in public responses to media reporting of the case.

We might contextualise this public reaction to different modes of expertise by positioning it within developing relationship between academic disciplines, especially at points where not only their findings but their methodologies come into friction. We might compare here the recent unwillingness by Nassim Taleb and his online supporters to acknowledge that evidence used by ancient historians was acceptable data in his argument with Mary Beard over race in Roman Britain (or indeed the twitter debate between Taleb and US-based Iraqi intellectual Nibras Kazimi over the genetic history of Lebanon). And we can of course talk about this in relation to the rising distrust of ‘experts’ (or ‘so-called experts’ as some would call them) in public debates – climate change, Brexit, gun-control, vaccination, immigration. Yet against this suspicion of expertise, we could compare the use of scientists in advertisements for a range of products, to vouchsafe the reliability of the product. The classic examples were of course the smoking advertisements, but now – and more legally – scientists (or actors in white coats) appear in advertisements commenting on research (or perhaps ‘research’) on a whole range of products.

So as we look back at these cases of the interaction of the humanities and sciences in the assessment of forged manuscripts, we can ask ourselves a more general question about what we’re witnessing. Are the humanities here merely a staging ground for debates within science over who has the better techniques, instruments, reputation? Is it thus an opportunity for scientists to debate each other, or are they engaging with the humanities, and with the issues underlying the question of forgery and authenticity? When giving their opinion on manuscripts, scientists from Deane’s time until today are usually clear that they do not regard their findings as the last word. Yet the public often interpret them as if they were, or they’re being presented in this way by proponents of one view or another. So is this an issue of communication within the academy, or of the academy with the wider community?

There’s much more to explore here, and many more things for us to understand about the way authentication interacts with science and technology, modes of expertise, and the public gaze. Part of that will be explored by Rachel in her HRC seminar, ‘Negotiating Authenticity: Fakes in the Public and Private Worlds of Disciplinary Expertise’, to be delivered later in the year, so please stay tuned for further thoughts on this issue.

Malcolm Choat.


1. The wikipedia page for Simonides provides a very basic orientation; a bit more detail, though dated, is in chapter 3 of Literary Forgeries by Andrew Farrer. Among things not available freely online, I recommend A.E. Müller et al., Die getäuschte Wissenschaft. Ein Genie betrügt Europa – Konstantinos Simonides (Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2017), and on the time period I focus on here, especially the excellent chapter by Massimo Pinto, ‘Simonides in England: A Forger’s Progress’ (pp. 109–126) (partially visible in Google Books).
2. See The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art and Science, Feb. 14, 1863.
3. C. Blagden, ‘Some Observations on Ancient Inks, with the Proposal of a New Method of Recovering the Legibility of Decayed Writings’, Philosophical Transactions 77 (1787) 451–457.
4. Alexander Lykurgos, Enthüllungen über den Simonides-Dindorfschen Uranios (Leipzeig, 1856), 70, n. 1.
5. Reproduced in N. Hamilton, An inquiry into the genuineness of the manuscript corrections in Mr. J. Payne Collier’s annotated Shakspere, folio, 1632 : and of certain Shaksperian documents likewise published by Mr. Collier (London 1861) p. 142–146, at 143-144.
6. L. Daston‪ and P. Galison‬, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books. 2007), which should also be consulted on the rise of the microscope in the 19th century.

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