Spanish Archaeologist Found Guilty Of Faking Ancient Artifacts

A Roman bridge at Trespuentes in Basque Country (Euskadi), an autonomous community in northern Spain. Basotxerri/Shutterstock

A Spanish archeologist has landed himself with a prison sentence after being found guilty of faking many of his most notorious discoveries, including pottery stuck together with modern glue and ancient inscriptions that contain references to 17th-century philosophers.

Eliseo Gil was sentenced this week to 2.5 years in prison on charges of fraud and documentary forgery at a court in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz, according to Spanish newspaper El País. His collaborator Rubén Cerdán was also handed a 15-month sentence for his role in the crime. Both were ordered to pay a fine of €12,500 to the Provincial Council of Vitoria, which helped fund the excavations.

Known as the Iruña-Veleia case, the controversy dates back to 2006 when Gil was the lead archeologist behind excavations at the Roman site of Iruña-Veleia near the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Basque Country, an autonomous community in northern Spain. 

Among his 400-odd discoveries, Gil claimed to have found third-century pottery that bore the earliest known portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He claimed to discover ancient pottery featuring graffiti written in the Basque language centuries before some of the other early examples of the language. There were also animal bones engraved with the name of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and pottery inscriptions written in hieroglyphics and Latin.

Altogether, the excavation held the potential to push the Basque Country to the forefront of ancient history, suggesting it was a vibrant cultural crossroads with deep links to Roman Christianity and Ancient Egypt. The discoveries initially made Gil somewhat of a local celebrity, not least because it emboldened the heritage of Basque Country, a region with a strong sense of cultural identity.

But cracks in the story quickly started to emerge. Shortly after Gil gave his first press conference on the artifacts, Joaquín Gorrochategui, a professor of Indo-European linguistics at UPV and an expert in ancient Basque, started to ask questions about the discoveries and raised concerns to the head of the Álava Archaeological Museum, the Archaeological Institute of America reported in 2008. 

After much debate, the discoveries were eventually proven to be forgeries by a committee of experts in 2008. The independent experts said some of the artifacts contained falsehoods that were so obvious it was ridiculous. The Guardian reported at the time that some of the pots were pieced together with modern glue. Some of the text contained spelling mistakes, the names of non-existent gods, and one ancient inscription even made a reference to René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher. The doodle of Christ's crucifixion also featured the acronym "RIP," which would have been totally unheard of at the time.  

It remains unclear why Gil carried out the hoax, but there has been some speculation about the finances and politics behind the Iruña-Veleia case. Reported in the journal Zephyrus in 2017, archaeologist Ignacio Rodríguez Temiño explains that local government bodies and Basque organizations awarded Gil with a fair amount of money for his work at Iruña-Veleia through sponsorship. While the link has never been definitely proved, it's been suggested that the funding was supplied because the discoveries promoted Basque nationalism and could have been used to promote political aims.

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