10 Fake Archaeological Finds

1. The James Ossuary

Paradiso [English Wikipedia], Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

This limestone coffin was discovered in Israel in 2002 and was thought to be the ossuary of Jesus' (the Jesus) brother James. The ossuary itself dates back to the first century, but the carving on it that claimed that the remains were the brother of Jesus is a modern forgery made to look old by the addition of a chalk solution.

2. The "oldest" star map

In 1999, a disc depicting the stars and planets was found by two amateur metal detectors in Germany. They claimed it was 3,600 years old and tried to sell it to German museums. A professor examined the disc and pronounced it no more than two or three hundred years old.

3. The Calaveras Skull

William Henry Holmes, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In February, 1866, some miners in California found a human skull buried beneath a layer of lava. It fell into the hands the State Geologist of California, who said the skull proved that humans, mastodons and elephants had coexisted at some point in time in California. However, tests conducted at Harvard showed that the skull was of recent origin and one of the original miners admitted the whole thing was a hoax.

4. Etruscan terracotta warriors

The poor Metropolitan Museum of Art got taken several times by the Ricardis, a family of art forgers. In 1915, the family sold a statue called Old Warrior to the Met. In 1916, they sold a work called the Colossal Head, which "experts" decided had been part of a seven-meter (about 23 feet) statue. The Big Warrior was sold to the Met in 1918 for $40,000. It wasn't until 1960 that tests showed manganese in the glaze, an ingredient that had never been used by the Etruscans. A sculptor who had been involved in the forgeries then came forward and signed a confession that the pieces were all fakes.

5. Forged Persian Princess

In 2000, a mummy was discovered in Pakistani Baluchistan that was apparently Rhodugune, a daughter of King Xerxes I of Persia. The mummy was displayed at the National Museum of Pakistan in November 2000. Studies eventually showed that the coffin was maybe 250 years old, the mat underneath the body was at most five years old and the woman had died only two years before. The body remains unidentified and unburied to this day.

6. Piltdown Man

In 1912, pieces of a skull and a jawbone were found at Piltdown near Uckfield, East Sussex, England. They were thought to belong to a form of early man, but by 1953 scientists agreed that the specimen was actually the skull of a man with the jawbone of an orangutan.

7. Tiara of Saitaphernes

Israël Rouchomovsky, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This regal artifact was bought by the Louvre in 1896 because they believed it had belonged to Scythian King Saitapharnes. Experts at the museum declared it to be somewhere between late third-century B.C. or early second-century B.C., but quite a few experts challenged those dates. It turned out that a skilled goldsmith had been commissioned to make the tiara for an archaeologist friend. The goldsmith was so good that it passed muster. The museum was extremely embarrassed when they learned the truth and hid the tiara away for years.

8. Mississippi State Capital Forgery

In the 1920s, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History bought a collection of Native American artifacts. Oddly, included in this grouping was an Egyptian mummy. In 1969, a medical student asked the museum for human remains to study and the museum allowed him to study the mummy. He discovered that it was mostly made of papier-mâché, with a few animal rib bones thrown in to make it appear authentic. Whoops.

9. Cardiff Giant

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This 10-foot-tall petrified "man" was "discovered" in 1869 by workers digging a well in Cardiff, N.Y. The giant was made from a block of gypsum and shipped to a farm in Cardiff, where it was buried for a year before being "discovered" by the well builders. P.T. Barnum offered to buy it and was turned down, so he had his own built and claimed his was real and the Cardiff Giant was a fake. They were both proved fake on February 2, 1870.

10. Michigan Relics

The Michigan Relics were found by James Scotford in 1890. The relics included a clay cup with symbols and carved tablets. Scotford and Michigan's Secretary of State, Daniel Soper, showed thousands of objects "found" in 16 counties of Michigan. The Detroit News even reported that they have found copies of Noah's diary. Archaeologists agree that the artifacts were made with contemporary tools, and, oddly, no more were found after Scotford and Soper died.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]