Move over, Indiana Jones. In her undergraduate work authenticating the Mesoamerican greenstone collection at BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures, anthropology student Chloe Burkey developed an eagle eye for the microscopic details that distinguish authentic artifacts from forged ones.
For example, the order of incisions on a sculpture. “With an Olmec figurine,” Burkey explained, “they would have drilled out the corners of the eyes and mouth first to make it easier to dig into the stone and then notched out the rest of the features. But some of the figurines I saw at the museum were notched out and then drilled afterward, or not even drilled in both corners, which told me something was off.”
Burkey is an aspiring art conservator who has been fascinated with Mesoamerica since childhood, intrigued, she said, by “an entire culture that developed separately from anywhere else in the world, where everything looks so different but is also very advanced.” So she jumped at the chance to work with her supervisor, anthropology postdoctoral fellow Marion Forest, in the first effort to systematically authenticate BYU’s Mesoamerican greenstone artifacts.
Most of the 191 pieces Burkey and Forest examined came from private collectors and were donated before Mexico ratified an international treaty banning archaeological exports in 1972, and many of the objects have been stored in boxes at the museum for decades. It’s a common fate for simple greenstone artifacts. Thousands of years old, these items have spread to museums across the globe because they are small, portable and beautiful, crafted from the green-hued stone of Mexico and Central America. But these same features make them easy and desirable to fake. Unless museums acquire them directly from archaeological excavations, it’s often difficult to know whether they are authentic.
“If you don’t know what the artifacts are or where they are coming from, they are useless for research, education or display,” Forest said. “Identifying these artifacts will open up new avenues for the university’s students and professors and give them new visibility at the museum.”
To sift through the artifacts, Forest and Burkey took an exhaustive and creative approach.
The highest standard for analyzing greenstone artifacts, developed by Forest’s colleague
Emiliano Melgar Tizoc in Mexico, involves creating a mold of the artifact’s surface, plating it in gold dust and studying it with a scanning electron microscope (SEM), a large and expensive piece of equipment. BYU has an SEM in its microscopy lab, but because many museums lack access to one or the other resources to make replicas, Forest and Burkey wanted to experiment with less expensive methods.
“Considered one by one, none of our methods is innovative,” Forest said. “The originality of our work is that we looked at the whole collection and did so many different tests. We had just the right settings at BYU for this experiment: full access to a collection, all the different necessary instruments, specialists across many different departments and labs to train us. After our project, hopefully other museums can adapt our protocol to their collections and resources.”
Much of the work required sorting the artifacts based on patterns that indicated likely forgery or authenticity. The researchers performed water displacement tests to determine artifacts’ density, analyzed each object’s chemical makeup using a handheld tool called an X-ray fluorescence gun and studied every item’s iconography to see if the artifacts matched that of known, similar Mesoamerican artifacts.
The next step was to examine each artifact under a stereomicroscope — much less expensive and easier to use than an SEM — for tool marks, telltale scratches, polishing techniques, anything to reveal how the objects were made or used. For instance, a figurine with a geometric cut, with many faceted edges, would be a good sign of forgery as it indicates the use of modern tools.
“This project really helped prepare me for art conservation because I got to actually use so many different tools and methods I had learned about in my coursework. We incorporated chemistry, geology and mathematics as well as art history, which brought a more scientific approach to my studies,” said Burkey.
From their analyses, the researchers suspect that a significant portion of the collection is forgeries. They’ll soon know for sure — once they had divided the collection into likely fakes and likely authentic pieces, Forest and Burkey put each artifact into BYU’s SEM and then sent the SEM data to their collaborator Melgar Tizoc. With his help, they will confirm their predictions early this winter, which will tell them both which artifacts in the collection are imitations and how well their less-expensive methods worked.
Perhaps surprisingly, neither the museum director nor the researchers find the prospect of forgeries alarming. From an anthropological point of view, the fact that an object is a fake simply means it has a different story.
“Forgery or copying things is not a new concept; it goes back to antiquity,” explained Museum of Peoples and Cultures director Paul Stavast. “There’s still value, research and teaching potential, in forgeries because they say something about human behavior, humans’ interpretation of and desire for these artifacts.”
Burkey agreed, noting how surprised she was by how much she came to appreciate forgers’ grasp of prehistoric techniques and art forms. “I think we need to talk more about forgeries and not sweep it under the rug, because it’s a part of history and archaeology,” she said.
From her research, April 2021 grad Burkey developed a senior thesis, won a 2020 Mary Lou Fulton award for mentored research in anthropology and is preparing two co-authored publications with Forest. Based on Forest and Burkey’s work, BYU’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures is also preparing a catalogue and exhibit of the Mesoamerican greenstone collection for winter 2022.