vol. 26 no. 2, June, 2021

Book Reviews

Michel, Cécile and Friedrich, Michael (eds.). Fakes and forgeries of written artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020. vi, 338 p. ISBN 9783110714333. Open access. (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, vol. 20). https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110714333

When reading this book, I remembered my surprise at finding an information leaflet in a field with rune stones in Southern Sweden. It was written that in 1666 the National Antiquarian has assessed the stones and found them authentic. The fact that it was profitable to fake rune stones in the 17th century Sweden was equally astonishing as the fact of the existence of an official taking care of cultural heritage since 1640 (see Swedish National Heritage Board history).

This book presents ample evidence that faking and forging of inscriptions on various media and entire documents started long before the 17th century, actually from the beginning of writing. I was reading the chapters of the book feeling like a participant in a fascinanting Indiana Jones film sequence, despite the fact that many of these chapters are full of technical, linguistic and natural science details beyond my grasp. The reasons why I have picked it were far from having thrill. First, the book was open access, so I wanted to see what is presented by De Gruyter publisher in this mode. Second the title bears the term 'fakes', which is a trendy topic right now, so seeing it in association with ancient Mesopotamia was another insentive for reading. And I am really glad that I did.

The volume consists of thirteen chapters in three parts. At the start there is an introduction to the concepts and terminology used in the book, the process of producing fake objects, the characteristics of forgers, who should have good education and skills, and their motives ranging from the most mercantile to idealistic. Forging history may bring benefits to whole social groups that otherwise could be persecuted in various ways and for different reasons or establish certain cultural (e.g., the Glozel case in France, chapter by Breniquet, part 1) and political claims. However, the most widespread motives relate to financial gain, which in turn depends on the antique market.

Part 1: From copies to forgeries shows that the first forgeries are found already in ancient Mesopotamian states and, as in many other cases, emerge from the natural process of making copies or learning the script trade by copying existing inscriptions. Cuneiform is relatively easily replicated and copied or changed, so there is a problem of recognizing the ancient forgeries in addition to identifying modern artefacts. Many of similar issues accompany other types of writing: Chinese caligraphy, Islamic manuscripts, ancient Roman inscriptions, Maltese Arabic or Spartan documents, the latter three in the Part 2: Frogers and their motives. The personalities of the forgers presented in this second part are fascinating. The biggest focus falls on Abraham Firkowich (1787-1874) who invented a new history for Jews and Karaites so well that has achieved his aims in protecting Karaite population in Tzarist Russia. His activities are described by two authors (Shapira and Beit-Arié) who do not even try to hide their admiration of this amazing personality.

Part 3: Identifying fakes focuses on the methods used to identify fakes, though we have already met them in previous chapters. However, this part demonstrates how varied and difficult these methods are by presenting the cases of the Lead Books of Granada, inscriptions on leather, ornaments, gravestones, bamboo, papyrus, paper and other materials. The final chapter provides a summary of methods used in identification of the forgeries and fakes related to examination of materials and forms, writing and language, historical content and cultural context. It is amazing that some cases cannot be assessed by now, even when using all available methods. It also seems that a close relationship exists between the methods of detection and the methods of forgeries. They both evolve together and feed on each other.

While reading about all this ancient evidence and confusion with copies, fakes, forgeries, immitations, replicas and what not, including the motives of people to produce and buy them, I was trying to extrapolate to the digital world where the issues are no less complicated. It is no wonder that the concepts of authenticity, integrity, protection and security are pervading modern information science and digital humanities literature.

The publisher has targeted this book towards historians, philologists, archaeologists, and art historians. This is a primary audience for this volume, however, judging by myself who does not belong to any of the named categories, I would think that librarians, archivists, museum curators, information scholars and professionals will also find it useful. The open access allows anyone to enjoy it, and I hope that this short annotation will help to find it.

Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
June, 2021

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2021). Review of: Michel, Cécile and Friedrich, Michael (eds.). Fakes and forgeries of written artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China De Gruyter, 2020. Information Research, 26(2), review no. R718 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs718.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.