Çatalhöyük after initial excavations (photo by Omar Hoftun via Wikimedia)

No one wants to be fooled by a fake, but everyone loves hearing about those who are.

Recently, in an interview with LiveScience, Swiss geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger alleged that the prominent British archaeologist James Mellaart forged artifacts from the famous site Çatalhöyük, as well as numerous documents supposedly translated from Luwian, a written and spoken language in ancient Turkey.

Zangger claimed that, in a note found after his death, Mellaart encouraged colleagues to publish these translations and artifacts after his death — and said that anyone following through with Mellaart’s request was being duped and perpetrating archaeological fraud. “I feel abused,” Zangger told LiveScience. He said that Mellaart “had no scruples when it came to harming other people’s careers.”

These accusations are difficult to evaluate. Mellaart died in 2012, and Zangger, whose allegations have not appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, is cited as the only source in the story. Zangger did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement sent to Hyperallergic after publication, he said, “Publishing a peer reviewed article on this might have taken years, if a journal is at all willing to cover the subject.”

Eberhard Zangger during fieldwork at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece, in 1998 (photo by Thomas Petri via Wikimedia)

Stories of archaeological fakes are compelling, in part, because they are complicated and always evolving. They are rarely resolved, but are always at the ready to be dragged out and endlessly debated. (It’s hard to imagine how much ink and pixel space has been devoted to such salacious classics as the Piltdown hoax or the Shroud of Turin.) “Fakes are made for us. Fakers can appeal to the tastes of the modern era,” said Erin Thompson, an art crime historian. “Fakes are often bigger, more spectacular, more interesting, and more sexy than genuine antiquities.”

British archaeologist James Mellaart at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük (photo by Omar Hoftun via Wikimedia)

In November 1958, James Mellaart, David French, and Alan Hall discovered two expansive riverside mounds littered with obsidian stone tools, rising 65 feet above the Konya Plain. Between 1961 and 1963, according to his own published summary, Mellaart returned to Çatalhöyük for three field seasons. But in 1965, he was banned from working in Turkey after allegations of involvement in black market antiquities dealings. (He was later cleared of the allegations.) Mellaart’s exile brought a halt to excavations at Çatalhöyük, but not to the archaeological significance of what had already been dug up.

The 1960s excavations yielded several stunning murals, plaster reliefs, and craft technologies, with domestic structures that could have housed as many as 10,000 Neolithic inhabitants. Çatalhöyük was occupied more or less continuously from 7500 to 5000 BCE, making it one of the world’s oldest Neolithic sites, and a remnant of the transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to a more sedentary lifestyle. After Mellaart’s field seasons, the site lay dormant for almost 30 years before excavations were taken up in 1993, by the prominent British archaeologist Ian Hodder.

Çatalhöyük remains one of the most important Neolithic sites in the world. New research gains cultural cachet simply by being connected to the site. “Not only is Çatalhöyük a significant archaeological site,” said archaeologist Suzanne Pilaar Birch, “it’s also proof of what kinds of synthesis and understanding we can produce about the past, through collaboration and cooperation between archaeologists from multiple countries and institutions, as well as local stakeholders, and the government.”

Detail of a mural found at Çatalhöyük showing aurochs, a deer, and hunters (photo by Omar Hoftun via Wikimedia)

Which brings us back to Eberhard Zangger, and his recent allegations that James Mellaart faked artifacts from Çatalhöyük.

Zangger has been a controversial figure in his own right. In 2016, he put forward a theory of a massive Bronze Age Collapse, which media outlets reported as World War Zero, essentially suggesting that several Bronze Age empires collapsed around 1200 BCE. He even suggested that a previously undiscovered empire had spread across western Anatolia during the late Bronze Age. The claims were quickly debunked by archaeological experts. Undeterred, in 2017, Zangger published a popular book with the same thesis, which was again dismissed by the mainstream archaeological community.

It appears that Zangger has relied on Mellaart’s research for his Bronze Age Collapse theory. After Mellaart’s death in 2012, his son, Alan, allowed Zangger access to papers for his research. According to LiveScience, Zangger examined Mellaart’s apartment and found what he called “prototypes” of murals, among other materials. But when Zangger and a colleague published objects from Mellaart’s estate, they had to defend their research against accusations that they had themselves published fake archaeological material.

It now seems clear that these “artifacts” did not come from Çatalhöyük. It seems possible that, for unknown reasons, Mellaart could have created them in the tradition of material from the site. Zangger alleges that many of the Mellaaart estate artifacts, especially parts of schist-engraved petroglyphs, are simply fakes. A press release by Luwian Studies, of which Zangger is president, calls Mellaart’s crafting “a forger’s workshop.”

In his statement to Hyperallergic, Zangger denied that he had accused Mellaart of forging artifacts, despite his assertions in LiveScience that Mellaart fabricated murals and engravings on schist.

It is not easy to test these claims. Mellaart never published these creations and translations, and he did not publicly claim that they were genuine Neolithic antiquities. They arguably aren’t “fake” unless they were put forward as real — and they’re not necessarily frauds or forgeries in the absence of proof that Mellaart meant to deceive audiences.

An excavation in the southern part of Çatalhöyük (photo by Stipich Béla via Wikimedia)

Our obsession with what’s “real” and “fake” may say as much about our expectations as it does about archaeology. “Scientifically speaking, we can determine if something is certainly not what it is purported to be,” Donna Yates, a University of Glasgow archaeologist and lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, told me. “But we cannot determine if something is ‘authentic.’” She added: “What we consider to be ‘real’ depends on our social and cultural circumstances, our world view, and the context that we are in.”

Plenty of Mellaart-era artifacts excavated from Çatalhöyük are the real deal, as decades of peer-reviewed archaeological research demonstrate. Still, the nature and significance of the Mellaart estate artifacts remains a matter of debate. For now, allegations of fakery are keeping Eberhard Zangger’s Bronze Age Collapse theory in the news. And if history is any indication, we can expect the stories of these curious objects to resurface again and again.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated: “It appears that some of the evidence that Zangger relies on for his Bronze Age Collapse theory comes from artifacts and translations from Mellaart’s early excavations in and around Çatalhöyük.” Zangger denies this.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Eberhard Zangger, and to differentiate between the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age.

Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian in Austin, TX, interested in the history of science and material culture. She is the author of Bookshelf (Bloomsbury 2016), Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s...