Fake Heritage for the Fake News Era

Heritage is a physical manifestation of days gone by – the remains of humankind’s past; from our buildings, monuments and landscapes, to our artefacts, documents and decoration. The past is important. So what happens when the thread of history is broken and the lessons it can teach us become meaningless, or worse, twisted to tell a different story – a lie?

John Darlington dives into the strange, surprising world of false artefacts, faux archaeological sites and copied buildings in his compelling new book Fake Heritage: Why We Rebuild Monuments. Here, he introduces some of the most famous (and infamous) examples of fake heritage and asks the question: why should we care?


John Darlington shines a light on fake heritage …

There’s something inherently honest about a building or monument. In a fast-paced, digital world full of fake news and self-appointed experts, the tangible simplicity of stone, metal, wood and clay cannot lie. If you can see or touch it, it must be true. Consequently, the structures of our past are reliable benchmarks of truth in history…

Not true, of course. Witness the current debate surrounding statutes and monuments.

Fake heritage is all around us. Buildings and monuments of every era since humans first constructed shelter from the rain, heat or cold, reflect the ambition of their builders and are as prone to deceit and bias as anything written or posted on the internet today. Indeed, the truth behind the material remains of our past is made more complicated by both the passage of time and the piecemeal nature of the evidence, both of which guarantee a story only half told. No-one sat down to a bowl of porridge in anticipation that archaeologists of the future would want to reconstruct their prehistoric breakfast. 

Why do it?

Architectural and archaeological heritage fakery comes in countless guises and there are many motivations: the craving for fame or fortune, the desire to fit in or stand out, the need to reinforce or impose beliefs, or perhaps to project aspiration through architecture.

The Earliest Englishman turned out to be a jabberwocky of animal parts.

Sometimes reconstructed heritage is an out-and-out lie. The famous case of Piltdown Man, ‘The Earliest Englishman’ feted at 500,000 years-old when it was discovered in the early 19th century, turned out to be a jabberwocky of animal parts.  Charles Dawson, Piltdown’s ‘discoverer’ craved academic recognition, an addiction that subsequently led to a backlog of dubious discoveries. A magnificent golden crown belonging to the Scythian King, Saitaphernes, dating to the time of Homer, was sold to the Louvre in 1896. Suspicions that all was not right with the acquisition soon surfaced; the decoration depicting scenes from The Iliad was full of detail that was impossible to know at the suggested time of its creation, and while the crown was scratched and pitted, as might be expected after 4,000 years of wear and tear, no weathering touched the panels of elaborate repoussé decoration. The story soon unravelled, with the trail leading to two Ukrainian art-dealers who commissioned the item from a talented local goldsmith and then sold it for the equivalent of 2 million euros.

Money may be a significant motivator, but it is by no means the only reason to falsify the past. Sanderson Miller, a gentleman architect, built his reputation during the 18th century in constructing mock ruined castles. These follies were more than mere eyecatchers in the parkland landscape of his wealthy clients, but faux effigies reinforcing their family lineage, or a commentary on their politics. What better way to claim overlordship than by pointing to the castle of your ancestors? A similar story is told time and time again. The nouveaux riches Torlonia family constructed ruins mimicking the Temple of Venus and Rome in the gardens of their eponymous villa in Rome. The early 19th century folly was part of an armoury of techniques adopted by the family to suggest that the Torlonias had a similar ancient pedigree, as well as taste, as the families that they sought to become.  Or, in mid-18th century Austria, at a time of war and schism over who should succeed as Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburgs commissioned the Ruin of Carthage in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace. In this context, the ruins made a clear statement affirming the status of the Habsburg-Lorraine family as the undisputed successors to the ancient Emperors of Rome. And of Rome’s defeat of Carthaginian challenge.

Can ‘fakes’ still be valuable?

Fake heritage can be about what is omitted and ignored – either the subtle bending of history to favour a particular narrative or, more dangerous still, the attempt to redact a culture that does not align with the propaganda of a dictatorial state view. The razing of both mosques or churches during the Balkan conflict, or Mao’s campaign against of pre-Revolution culture in China which resulted in the destruction of the Four Olds, are just two examples of the phenomenon.

Eliminate the Four Old – Establish the Four New, 1967. Poster. Library of Congress, United States. The Red Guard youths, during the Cultural Revolution, destroy the four old traditions: customs, culture, habits and ideas. One youth carries a flag bearing the likeness of Chairman Mao Zedong.

But, reconstructed heritage can be a force for the good too. The rebuilding of historic city centres, such as Ypres, Warsaw or Frankfurt, marked a restoration of cultural pride, a symbol of commemoration and rebirth after the destruction of war. Duplicated heritage may be created to save the real thing from irrevocable damage. The prehistoric caves of Lascaux and Chauvet in France are now almost impossible to access save for a few experts; consequently, facsimiles of the caves and the extraordinary art within them are the only way in which the public can appreciate the work of some of the world’s earliest artists. A plaster version of Trajan’s column, split into two, joins countless other architectural copies in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Cast Courts, whilst a full replica of the Parthenon can be found in ‘the Athens of the South’, Nashville in Tennessee – both examples of reconstructed heritage serving an educational purpose.  

Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, Tennessee, 1897. Chromolithograph, 81 x 115.9 cm. Library of Congress, United States. A poster illustrating the pleasures that awaited visitors to the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The Parthenon is in the centre of the site, which also comprises replicas of other classical buildings, including the Erechtheum, a Pythian building (for the Knights of Pythias, of course), a pyramid and Anne Hathaway’s cottage, which housed the headquarters for the exhibition.

Why should we care?

The fabric of the past is important: for understanding where we have come from; for the lessons it offers for the future, good and bad; for the character it gives to our cities, villages and countryside; and for its contribution to identity, society, economy and politics.

As we have seen, history is rarely a neat consensual narrative – a single, agreed sequence of events – but a maze of alternative interpretations and views, coloured by vastly differing perspectives. History ‘is an aggregation of truths, half-truths, semi-truths, fables, myths, rumors, prejudices, personal narratives, gossip, and official prevarications.’[1] Invariably, it is more interesting, complex and nuanced than fantasy.

Within the context of such in-built ambiguity, the presence of fake heritage and the increasing opportunities for it to flourish in a technology-rich world are considerable. To the perpetrator, the spoils: be they justification, inspiration, glory or riches.  The conclusion of this compendium of falsehood and reproduction is to treat history as a WhyDoIt, as opposed to a Whodunnit… to look closer when it comes to the past, to be curious and consider the ambition and stimulus of those telling their story, to be careful of the roots of nationalism and challenging of those who ignore evidence and scientific fact. 


John Darlington is executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain.

His latest book Fake Heritage: Why We Rebuild Monuments is the first survey of the many redesigned and imitation historical landmarks and objects that dot the globe. Find Fake Heritage online or at your favourite local bookshop.

Find more architectural history on the Yale Art Blog.


[1] Philip D. Jordan

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