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.

Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

Original image
Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
Original image

Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios