Living With Fake Amber

Fly

“Piltdown” Fly
Image: NHM, London

Insects in amber are beautiful and complex objects that many people value. Many insects fossils in amber have scientific value and are collected by museum. There is more popular demand for amber than there is supply. Many people are willing to pay substantial sums for large, well preserved insects in amber. The high value supports a lucrative business producing fakes.

The most famous of the insect fakes is sometimes called “Piltdown” Fly, a reference to a famous human skull fake. Piltdown fly was in a piece of 38 million year old amber that was collected by the London Museum of Natural History. This specimen attracted the attention of renowned systematist, Willi Hennig. Hennig could detect no sign of fakery. The fly was indistinguishable from the latrine fly, Fannia scalaris. Hennig wrote a paper using the fake as an example of how little this fly had changed over time. The fake was good enough to fool many experts.

30 years later, another scientist was studying the specimen when it cracked under the heat of a microscope light. It then became apparent that someone had hollowed a chamber in the piece of amber, inserted the filth fly, then covered the hole and fly with resin.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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