Famed archaeologist forged murals, inscriptions for decades

In a shocking development, researchers have discovered that James Mellaart, the archaeologist who first excavated one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world, the 9,000-year-old Neolithic proto-urban settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, for decades fabricated murals and inscriptions, passing them off as genuine finds and publishing them extensively.

James Mellaart, who died in 2012, created some of the “ancient” murals at Çatalhöyük that he supposedly discovered; he also forged documents recording inscriptions that were found at Beyköy, a village in Turkey, said geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger, president of the Luwian Studies Foundation. Zangger examined Mellaart’s apartment in London between Feb. 24 and 27, finding “prototypes,” as Zangger calls them, of murals and inscriptions that Mellaart had claimed were real.

“He used the same approach for over 50 years,” Zangger told Live Science. “He would first acquire a tremendously broad and deep knowledge [about the area he was interested in]. Then, he would try to use this knowledge to develop a coherent historic panorama,” Zangger said. This process in itself is not uncommon for an archaeologist or historian. The only difference is that legitimate researchers then look for evidence that either supports or refutes their ideas. Instead, “Mellaart would fabricate drawings of artifacts and translations of alleged documents to reinforce his theories,” Zangger said.

But perpetrating multiple frauds in defense of his own conclusions, as appalling as that is, isn’t even the worst of it. His deceptions went beyond the grave, his own and other people’s. He manipulates scholars who trusted and respected him into keeping his long undetected record of forgery and fiction passed off as fact unbroken after his death, and he put many of these lies in the mouths of dead colleagues who could no longer defend their reputations.

Last year, Mellaart’s estate sent the Luwian Studies Foundation a number of documents containing “ancient texts” which Mellaart had singled out as being of special significance and worthy of immediate publication. LSF experts were tasked by the estate with researching those texts further. One of them was a very long inscription from Beyköy that doesn’t exist. The sole evidence that it ever existed was a drawing and transcription of the lost stone done by archaeologist Georges Perrot in 1878. Perrot’s purported copy of the inscription was in Mellaart’s notes. Eberhard Zangger and independent researcher Fred Woudhuizen published that inscription in the December 2017 issue of Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society.

This publication made headlines at the time because the inscription touched on one of those subjects that the mainstream press gets excited about: Troy. Now the Luwian Society can’t tell if it’s authentic or not (I vote most definitely not), because so many of Mellaart’s Beyköy inscriptions have proven to be forgeries complete with multiple drafts and clear evidence of the fabrication process.

Zangger said he feels betrayed by the fact that Mellaart asked researchers to publish his forgeries for him after his death. “I feel abused,” Zangger said. Correspondence found in his apartment indicate that Mellaart tried to get others interested in publishing the forgeries before he died, Zangger said, adding that “he had no scruples when it came to harming other people’s careers.”

Oh, and Mellaart first contacted Zangger about the Beyköy inscriptions in 1995, claiming he couldn’t read Luwian (an ancient Anatolian language group) and asking Zangger to translate them for him. Zangger discovered when he went through the papers in Mellaart’s apartment that in fact he had an excellent command of Luwian, so he was setting him up as the patsy more than two decades ago.

I came very close to writing about two of these frauds, the ostensible Trojan inscription and an ostensible volcano mural. I dodged those bullets for two reasons: a) the “finds” seemed tenuous to me and 2) there were no proper high res pictures. Not that I ever suspected Mellaart had spent decades as a committed fabulist keen to drag unwitting colleagues into his web of delusion, deceit and a disregard for professional ethics so enormously flagrant that it transcended even his own death. That had not occurred to me. I just thought there was too much speculation based on very limited hard evidence, something you see all the time in archaeological stories, and I discard a dozen interesting articles a day because the photos suck. Never have I been happier to be obsessed with scoring big pics.

14 thoughts on “Famed archaeologist forged murals, inscriptions for decades

  1. But wait, now I do not know what to believe, is even this blog a fabrication I have been fooled into repeating as the truth… argh, where do the lies end…


  2. 𐇒 𐇐 𐇑 𐇒 :𐇓 𐇔 𐇕 :𐇖 𐇗 𐇘 𐇙 𐇚 :𐇛𐇜 𐇝 𐇞𐇟 𐇠 : 𐇡 𐇢 𐇣 : 𐇤 𐇥 𐇦 :𐇧 𐇨 𐇩 𐇪 𐇫 :𐇬 𐇭 𐇮 𐇯 𐇰 : 𐇱 𐇲 𐇳 𐇴 𐇵 𐇶 𐇷 𐇸 𐇹 : 𐇺 𐇻 𐇼: 𐇔𐇬𐇒 𐇐 𐇑 : 𐇤 𐇥 𐇑𐇦 : 𐇧𐇬 : 𐇗 𐇐 𐇘 𐇙 :yes:

    …to make at least that clear !

  3. Could the “prototypes” really just be copies or sketches he made after discovering the real thing, or work in progress translations? In a story about the dangers of just believing stories as they’re presented, shouldn’t we be a bit more cautious before we trash this guy who can’t defend himself or explain the situation because he’s dead?

  4. Read the articles, Toby. This is not fake news. Damn, even the carvings are unweathered.

    In the fall semester 1972 Mellart’s excavation of Çatalhöyük turned up in the European Neolithic course I took at Syracuse. In those days there were still enough not yet dead old men populating the field of prehistoric archaeology to keep V Gordon Childe’s diffusionism and the timeframe of a late Neolithic alive. Çatalhöyük was a total anomaly that shouldn’t have existed. The older generation basically ignored it.

    My young professor [same generation as Colin Renfrew] was quite open about waiting for the old boys to die off so the field could progress; which it has by leaps and bounds in the 45 years since.

    Mellart was a hero of mine: I feel like I’ve been poleaxed.

    1. I’m sorry, Gordon. I wish I could say I thought there was some part of Mellaart’s contributions to archaeology that is still salvageable, but the extent of his deceptions and the shockingly callous way he used other people in the field makes it very difficult for me to untangle any untainted thread from the skein. It’s like you have to mourn his loss twice, once after his death from natural causes and again now after the murder by his hand of his own legacy.

  5. In all fairness, that “mural sketch” could also have appeared on some sort of 60’s ‘psychorock’ LP record cover, or whatever. He was -if I am correctly informed- stopped from excavating Çatalhöyük already in 1965.

    There are hardly inscription of that kind from 9000 years ago, and apparently, he applied to his ‘prototypes’ what could be referred to as ‘Reversed Anna Papastrati’ method (cf. ‘Dorak affair’):

    There are various views about the reality behind the Dorak affair. One perspective holds that Mellaart, who was known only in relation to the excavations at Çatalhöyük, had invented the treasure himself. The supposed letter from Anna Papastrati has similarities with the typewriter used by his wife in the institute and for his other correspondence at that time. Another opinion connects the American accent of “Anna Papastrati” with the US base at Izmir. In the late 1960s, this was known as a key point for smuggling of items out of Turkey for the illegal art market. […] In this view, the meeting with Mellaart on the train was intentionally arranged and he was then played by criminals.

    To me it appears as if he messed around with ‘Çatalhöyük’ almost like that Evans dude did with the ‘Knossos’ palace on Crete (personally, I visited the really cool one at ‘Phaistos’).

    The good news, if correct, might be that the mound at Çatalhöyük is 13ha = 32.1237 acres, of which only five percent have been excavated so far.

  6. I do not understand this. Was it post 1965, and thus a retaliation for being removed from Catalhoyuk?

  7. How long will it take to remove from the literature all the errors that were built atop his lies?

    Oh dear, oh dear. Still, cheer up, chaps. It’s not as bad as the two great scientific scams of recent decades. And it’s unlikely he killed anyone.

  8. So I went googling around a bit and found this article that in a relatively concise form chronicles why Mellaart was a controversial figure while alive:


    In light of what we now know, it seems Mellaart began making up stuff from at least as early as 1959 (The Dorak Treasure). Possibly as early as 1956 when he was excavating at Hacilar. It’s not mentioned in this article but before thermoluminescence dating came along he authenticated many Hacilar clay figurines as genuine on behalf of various museums and antiquities traders. TL dating later revealed the majority to be modern forgeries. But the kicker is that the fakery was often so obvious that he should have been able to spot them easily.

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