Back in the faraway time of the 2010s, classical Reddit and Twitter were seized by a strange obsession with an Etruscan ceramic piece in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is a small vessel about seven inches done in terracotta in the shape of a wild boar. The museum acquired the piece in 1977 and its official name in the collection is “Vessel in the Shape of a Wild Boar”, but in internet circles it is generally referred to as “Boar Vessel 600-500 BC Etruscan Ceramic,” which is from a photo file name in Wikimedia Commons for this object.
Know Your Meme dates the resulting meme to that 2012 Wikimedia post that was picked up by Tumblr and an Etruscan meme page on Facebook the following year. It would continue to be passed around in various memes, reaching peak visibility in 2018 with its own dedicated Reddit page. The Boar Vessel meme is a great example of a meme that became so entrenched in classical internet circles that newcomers were usually baffled as to what the joke was and forced to just accept that “Boar Vessel 600-500 BC Etruscan Ceramic” was something you were supposed to laugh at without really knowing why. But it wouldn’t be until last year that the Boar Vessel’s dirty little secret would become more widely known: that its name is a lie and it’s very likely that the piece is in fact a forgery made in the late 19th/early 20th century.
The internet might not have known this, but the Cleveland Museum of Art had long been suspicious of this piece, though only coming out more firmly on the side of forgery in 2021. One thing that worked against the Boar Vessel from the start is its uniqueness—there simply wasn’t anything like it previously discovered from its alleged time period. The Etruscans, arguably the greatest Italian civilization prior to the rise of the Romans, had a deeply sophisticated artistic culture and were masters of a wide range of pottery techniques. Many of these they received and improved on from an earlier culture, generally referred to by archeologists as the “Villanovans” (c. 900-700 BC). The Etruscans as a civilization are thought to have existed concurrently with the Villanovans for the earliest part of their timeline but would survive as a separate group until the last of their cities was taken by Rome in 27 BC, with a zenith in the Boar Vessel’s alleged range of roughly 750-500 BC.
The vessel could be considered an early version of Etruscan bucchero wear, an Italian word with roots both in the Latin poculum (“cup”) and in the Spanish búcaro (“vase”)/Portuguese púcaro (“odorous clay”). As the name suggests, this pottery was often a vase or vessel, distinguished by the Etruscans for its distinctive black, unglossy etched surfaces. The color was achieved by reduction, that is, cutting off oxygen to the kiln to turn the natural red of the clay a dark black, improved on a technique likely learned from the Villanovans, whose own pottery was more of a tan or brown. The Boar Vessel demonstrates the Villanovan version of this style and coloring (sometimes called impasto) in keeping with a timeframe of the 8th/7th century BC, but in a form that is much more in line with later pottery from the 3rd/2nd BC, as you can see from the pictures below. The Etruscans preferred stylized depictions of animals, while the Boar Vessel reflects a more naturalistic style more in keeping with later Latin and Greek art. It is possible, of course, that this was either a visionary early Etruscan artist, or a later one fusing a traditional style with a new form, but we haven’t found any other examples of this sort of thing. The archeological record is imperfect, but truly unique works are few and far between, particularly for an item designed to be functional rather than decorative, as the Boar Vessel would have been. Throughout history there have always been people in the hunt to have something that no one else does, but typically art, which has always been a business at heart, is about trends. Most people want whatever’s in style—yes, the best version of that, but not necessarily the most individualized. That’s why the Romans made so many copies of Greek statuary.
Telling the real thing from fakes has always been a challenge for museums, and it has really only been since the advance of technologies like x-rays and certain dating techniques that have given them the tools to catch sophisticated forgeries. Curators at the Cleveland Museum of Art used thermoluminescent dating to try to pinpoint the Boar Vessel’s age, which is a technique that measures the accumulated radiation levels in objects. If the object contains crystalline materials, exposure to heat, either through fire (i.e., lava or ceramics) or sunlight (i.e., for natural substances like sediments) leaves a radiation trail that can trace the most recent time that exposure occurred. For a ceramic piece like the Boar Vessel, its highest readings would be when it was fired in a kiln (in other words, when it was made), as opposed to the last time someone left it out in the sun too long. If it was an authentic Etruscan vessel, this reading would be expected to come from somewhere in the period delineated above (900-27 BC), if we were using the most generous specs. But the highest reading the Boar Vessel hit came from about a hundred years ago, which presuming it hadn’t taken a detour to Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, likely means that the Boar Vessel is not of ancient Etruscan origin. The museum removed the piece from display while further investigations continued and a veritable week of mourning was held on Twitter and Reddit.
So how did this happen? Well, as I said, curators have master’s degrees for a reason, but even then, a really clever fake can be hard to spot. Art forgery has been a big business for most of the modern era, be it in its more acceptable forms like aforementioned Roman copies and plaster casting—where the recipient understands the piece isn’t authentic, or in its illegal guise as selling replicas to the unsuspecting at original prices. Another famous Etruscan example of this comes from three bucchero warrior statues that the Met had on display for nearly thirty years before realizing they were fakes. Some of this is simply the quest for lucre, obviously, but it is driven in part by an insatiable appetite for antiquities that has been going up since the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek antiquities in the late 14th century, coupled with the rise of a measurable middle class with enough money to spend on luxuries like art, ballooned the market for artistic works and gave birth to the modern art market. There was big money to be made, but an extremely finite amount of antiquities to go around—a recipe for hijinks.
Sometimes forgeries are attracted by a big archeological discovery. A great example of this the proliferation of forgeries that sprung up in the wake of the discovery of several Minoan snake goddess figures by Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations in the Minoan palace complex at Knossos, Crete at the turn of the 20th century. The authentic figures, dating from around 1600 BC, caused a sensation upon their unveiling, and even today are often the first thing anyone with a passing knowledge of the culture thinks of when they think of “Minoan art.”
We actually don’t know very much about the figures and what they meant to the Minoans. They are usually described as “snake goddesses” or “snake priestesses,” but their full significance is largely opaque. The women, be they mortal or divine, are shown in traditional Cretan dress of the time, with the characteristic colorful, layered skirt and tight-waisted vest that leaves the breasts bare. The figures are made of faience, a crushed quartz paste that when fired produces a lustrous sheen and vibrant colors. But faience is at its heart a ceramic, which makes it potentially very fragile. The most famous of the Minoan snake priestesses, the middle figure in the picture above, is partially a reconstruction. She was found missing her head and part of her left arm, and the larger figure’s (the one on the far left above) entire bottom below the waist is a replica—predicated on the shape of the third topless figure (far right figure above) found with the other two. This discussion of the state in which these figures were discovered may feel off-topic, but it’ll become important later.
Following their discovery, and that of a later-era Minoan bronze figure of a priestess/worshipper wearing a similar outfit, public interest in these figures was immense and that in turn led to a flood of forged figures entering the market. Two examples of these are a gold/ivory figure obtained by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1914, and a soapstone figure obtained by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 1931. Like the Boar Vessel, neither of these figures have been 100% proven to be forgeries, but there is a significant body of circumstantial evidence pointing to their likely modern manufacture. With the Boston figure, her near-pristine condition and certain aspects of her design (her face looks “too modern,” and her hips are considered to be too narrow for the depiction of a Minoan woman) have brought her authenticity into question. As for the Baltimore figure, her general styling and the method by which her pieces were joined together (probably a drill), in addition to the material used are unusual for an authentic Minoan sculpture. Soapstone was used by the Minoans at Knossos, but more often for items like libation vessels, as opposed to figures or sculptures. The Walters Art Museum also has a gold/ivory snake goddess figure similar to the Boston figure that is probably a forgery as well.
So what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, at a hundred-plus years old, many of these forgeries are now antiques themselves; certainly old enough to live in a museum, if not as old as we thought. Many of these forged pieces are no longer kept on display, but no one’s suggesting tossing them in the dumpster out back, which is good. There is a value to these pieces, both as objects in history and as exercises in critical thinking. Probably one of the best way for curators and archeologists to learn how to better spot these fakes is to keep them in collections for study. Especially since, as I alluded to, a definitive dating for many of these objects remains elusive with our current technology and there is a small risk they may in fact be genuine.
But I also think these types of artifacts are important for the public to know about. Not to spread schadenfreude about experts being hoodwinked by con artists, but to teach the public to also view art critically, not just follow it “because it’s in a museum.” Museums have been criticized for helping to exacerbate the atmosphere of “worth” in the art world. For centuries, museums primarily promoted an uncritical view of art. Painting X is worth Y dollars because it’s a work by artist Z, rather than necessarily promoting a broad range of art or history. Obviously art has always been subjective, but only with the Renaissance and the more concentrated rise of specifically known artists did names become more important than the work. On the antiquities side, age became paramount over historical significance. Both of these scenarios ratcheted up the ante for museums to acquire certain types of art, which just increased the rewards for creating good forgeries. As I argued in my entry about CMOA’s plaster casts, replicas are not necessarily a bad thing; we’ve just created a system where we’ve convinced the public that only seeing the real thing “counts,” focusing on authenticity over education. But in a world where the most famous of the Minoan snake goddesses is partially a replica, the British Museum is under increasing pressure over the Parthenon marbles, and a fake Etruscan boar vessel can become an internet star, it seems like we’re overdue for a new approach to antiquities and our engagement with them. Luckily, I also think the future is bright for these changes, and offer exciting opportunities for museums to find new art and connect with new audiences.