Fake Trilobites

Fake Trilobites

How to identify fake trilobites - A Tutorial

by Dipl. Geol. Jens Koppka, Heiko Sonntag & Horst Burkard (© 2003)

German to English tranlation by Heiko Sonntag and Richie Kurkewicz

A. Introduction

We have as trilobite collectors and preparators visited numerous fossil shows and carefully observed and studied faked trilobites. This experience and knowledge acquired over many years affords us the ability to quickly identify faked specimens, a task that is likely precluded for laymen who are unfamiliar with how fake trilobites are fabricated, and therefore unable to spot the cues of fakery. It is unfortunate that, at this time in 2003, the trilobite market is inundated with fakes, and as the skills of those plying the trade are continuously improving, making it ever harder to distinguish real from fake. Accordingly, we are compelled to share in a comprehensible way our experiences in recognizing fake trilobites.

We also note that there is no way to have trilobites vetted for authenticity in commercial venues, such as the internet, especially e-bay, in shops or at shows, and no actions are taken against sellers who knowingly sell fake material (i.e., like exclusion from shows and/or legal action). The environment facilitates some dealers in taking advantage, to the detriment of those who are honest. Horst Burkard undertook to investigate the multiplicity of fake trilobites coming from Morocco by the ultimate means of dissecting them with a saw. The results of the destructive investigation were displayed during the Hamburg Fossil Show in 2003, which allowed the photos in this article to be taken.

A. Historical Context

Faking trilobites is not a new invention. Falsifying, supplementing and restoring fossils is essentially as old as the fossil trade. The problem is that fossil fakery is profitable, and as is often the case in the undeveloped world where there are meager opportunities, it is driven by the existing poverty.

The famous 19th century researcher, Barrande, employed what he called “rock men” to search the areas near Prague for trilobite specimens. Special finds were concomitantly rewarded with higher payment, which incentivized some rock men to deceive their employer by producing falsified trilobites in order to earn a richer reward. Many of these faked specimens even found their way into the collections of the great European museums where they remain on display today as refurbished curiosities (Budik & Turek, 2003).

A popular means to fake trilobites was then simply to fabricate new specimens from disparate parts, at times resulting not only in different specimens but even different genera; these complete trilobites fetched higher prices. Some of these supposedly “rare species” that were sold to museums and educational institutions look quite grotesque in light of current knowledge of the trilobita baud plan. There was, for example, a trilobite assembled from the cephalon of a Phacops, the pygidium of an Odontochile, and with a thorax having only four segments. (SNAJDR, 1992). However, during these times, at least the parts of the on-off “unique” faked trilobites were genuine. Nowadays, while using two or more to make one persists, new falsification techniques using synthetic resins enables the casting of parts or even entire trilobites.

A trilobite cottage industry evolved in the wake sensational finds of large and bizarre trilobites in the Moroccan desert near Alnif, Erfoud and Tabourikt over the last three decades. This occurred in a region where education, electricity, and running water were mostly unavailable. The Moroccans, some nomads, found finding and preparing trilobites and other fossils a viable income source, and for some it became their sole livelihood. Over the course of years, this cottage industry evolved to become a critical element of the economy, especially in areas of severe poverty in the high Atlas Mountains where many Moroccan trilobites are found.

Burkhard and Bode (2003) note that there are well-known manufacturers in Morocco who produce fake trilobites. Fossil dealers, who buy locally, know these workshops. The manufacturers do not hide their production methods, and portray their product as replicas. It is thus easy to surmise that some fossil dealers and exporters who go to Morocco to buy trilobites are well aware that those from these sources are not real. Thus, the fraud occurs through dealers who knowingly purchase these so-called replicas cheaply, and subsequently and cheaply dump them on the market. The fabrication of fake trilobites seems to have begun In the 1980's, and was particularly evident in the huge and highly sought Paradoxides when the sources were depleted. Initially, several parts of different Paradoxides were combined, leading to later falsification of most or all the trilobites. Ostensibly, the idea to falsifying is not attributable to the Moroccans, but to American and European dealers who encouraged the fakery and provided the financial incentives. These dealers then sold the falsified Paradoxides as authentic. This process escalated to encompass most species Morocco species and became so prevalent that fakes may have outnumbered the authentic specimens for a period of time.

B. Clues for identifying fake Moroccan trilobites

1. Air bubbles in matrix and exoskeleton are signs of resins.

The presence of small holes in either the matrix or the trilobite exoskeleton is a strong clue that the trilobite is a fake. These holes, normally less than a half millimeter in diameter, are artifacts of bubbles bursting during curing of casting resin. Such bubbles are apparently unavoidable in the harsh condition of the Moroccan desert. (See Figures 1 and caption)

Figure 1: The figure shows a primitive and poor fake phacops trilobite that was entirely cast from resin and then remounted on actual limestone matrix. A) Prevalent are tiny holes in the resin surface of the trilobite exoskeleton are readily visible. They resulted from air bubbles bursting as the resin cured, and constitute the unmistakable signature of fakery. B) This close-up of the pleural spines show the tell-tale holes. C) This close-up of a faked Dicanurus trilobite shows where both the trilobite and immediately juxtaposed matrix were cast together prior to remounting in matrix. In this case the color is an additional clue since the matrix should be a dark grey limestone, rather than the unnatural brown seen here.

2. Cast trilobites often exhibit differences in matrix color

Especially with Moroccan Devonian trilobites, when the matrix adjacent to the trilobite is light brown while the underside of the limestone matrix is the correct dark grey, it is indicative of a cast fake. The natural matrix is uniformly dark grey from Hamar L’Aghdad, and reddish or light yellow from Laatchana. Differences in color together with numerous preparation marks on the surface (to hide tiny holes) indicate that the trilobite and the immediately adjacent matrix were cast together and subsequently re-mounted on possibly authentic rock from an actual fossil site. Particularly in the huge Cambrian trilobites, matrix color variations could connote the trilobite's assembly from the parts of different specimens. Close inspection should reveal thin lines separating colors where parts where different specimens were glued together. Authentically whole Trilobites should exhibit homogeneous colors across broad areas, even where broken matrix may have been glued.

Figure 2: This is a completely fake Dicranurus monstrosus trilobite. The trilobite and adjacent matrix were cast from brown resin and subsequently mounted on real rock. The fake trilobite was then painted, and the surrounding matrix gauged to mimic normal preparation marks. Sawing the specimen provided definitive proof by revealing a large void beneath the trilobite, as well as color difference between upper brown resin layer the real grey rock beneath. The photo was taken by Sonntag and the trilobite sawed by Horst Burkhard. (Also see these identical fake Dicanurus trilobites from the Tucson fossil show - ya think the buyers should have been suspicious?)

3. Cracks through Devonian trilobites are potential indicator of authenticity

Unlike the vertically compressed trilobites from shale that are exposed by splitting the matrix, Moroccan Devonian trilobites come from very hard limestone and are usually three dimensional. Consequently, the Moroccan trilobites are normally found with fine line cross sections revealed in broken cross sections. Thus, prior to preparation, two or more pieces need to first be glued back together (like broken china). One should be suspicious when there is lack of residual evidence of cracks, though they could also be absent due fine preparation techniques..

4. Characteristics of the trilobite exoskeleton as indicators of fakery

Moroccan Devonian trilobites mostly exhibit a black exoskeleton, though various shades of brown and a bit of greenish tint are far less commonly seen. Faked trilobites are found in different colors, often brownish, and often appear unnaturally shiny; however, air-abrasion cleaning can also cause a shiny surface. Biting the trilobites with your front teeth will sometimes serve as a test of trilobite authenticity. Fake trilobites might feel soft to the bite as a plastic would feel. This simple and safe test utilizes the sensitive nerves in your teeth, and would certainly never damage an authentic trilobite that is markedly harder than fakes made of resin. Only slight pressure is needed; don’t try and bite into it for obvious reasons!

Importantly, Moroccan trilobites from the Ordovician and Cambrian exhibit different exoskeleton colors from those of the Devonian. Because mineral replacement, the preserved exoskeleton normally contains hydrated iron oxides, resulting in colors that are shades of ochre, brown or orange, rather than yellow or black.

Picture 3: Knowing some characteristics of authentic trilobites can assist in differentiating fake trilobites by the absence of the same. A) The Paralejurus trilobite in the left image is authentic, and exhibits the characteristic crack lines (marked by arrows) expected in Devonian trilobites from hard limestone. The upper crack is conspicuous across the cephalon, while the lower crack is less obvious. B) The top right photo shows prominent terrace lines on the pygidium of the Paralejurus. These lines will normally be missing in faked trilobites or specimens, or in trilobites prepared too aggressively with microabration. Notice the tiny pinpoint white spots that appear in various places, which are places where the microblaster has burned through the exoskeleton, possibly because the tip of the prep needle either touched or was too close, notwithstanding that more careful preparation would have avoided such minor flaws. c) The lower right photo shows individual eye lenses of a trilobite of the order Phacopida. They are signs authenticity because trilobite eyes are hard to fake. It should be noticed, though, that schizochroal eyes are unique to the trilobite suborder Phacopina that are abundant in the Devonian of Morocco; many other trilobite orders (e.g., Lichida, Harpetida, Proetida) are also abundant, but lack schizochroal eyes.

5. Morphological characteristics, surface details and trilobite eyes afford clues

Trilobite exoskeletons of real trilobites usually show detailed structures, inconsistencies and ornamentations (e.g., the terrace lines of the Paralejurus noted above), various spines, tubercles, nodes, ridges, and pits. Taking a close look at the trilobites’ eyes will be helpful as, for example, Phacopina trilobites should have schizochroal eyes with individual lenses visible with the naked eye. Faked trilobites usually lack these characteristic details. It is hard to perfectly copy the fine details that nature produced. Faked Phacopina usually have smoothrather than schizochroal eye surfaces, because the required casting techniques have so far not appeared in Morocco.

6. UV-lights and solvents as tools to identify resin

A UV-light may shed light on whether a trilobite is a fake. Since resinites reflects ultraviolet light differently than the rock matrix. A real trilobite exoskeleton is mineralized similar to the matrix, and will reflect light similarly. In contrast, resins will tend to glow and be in sharp contrast to the surrounding matrix. A caveat is that some preparation techniques can polish the exoskeleton, and increase its reflectivity.
Moroccan trilobites, both fake and authentic, have sometimes been coated with an unidentified black chemical. Applying a solvent such as Aceton or Bindulin with a paintbrush can remove such coatings along with the coloration they cause. Take a paintbrush and confront your trilobite with the solvent and within seconds the paste will come off, as do other artificial colorings. Reconstructed areas will appear whitish, but, hopefully you’ll be lucky and these areas of relatively small in size.

7. The ultimate destructive determination

If after all the above fails, then destruction might be the only recourse, an ultimate act of defiance. This should be done with a diamond blade saw, an example of the result of which is shown in Figure 4 below. Note the void below the trilobite where it was set in a carved-out piece of matrix. Irrefutably prrof, with no real loss.

Figure 4: This is an entirely fake foot-long Burmeisterella trilobite, as the cavity underneath attest. It was cast and shiny enamel paint applied. Photograph taken by Sonntag, specimen owned and sawed up by Burkhard.

C. Examples of faked Moroccan trilobites

1. Unnatural trilobite assemblages

Unnatural assemblages of Moroccan trilobites are frequently seen at shows and various places on the Internet. We call them falsified assemblages, and the trilobites contained can be either authentic, or themselves fakes. The assemblages are usually found on thin, circular plates. We have even seen them as the faceplate of clocks, with the trilobites denoting the hour. Trilobite mortality assemblages do not occur with such symmetry, or diversity of species, in the fossil record of the Devonian of Morocco. Several examples of falsified trilobite assemblages are shown here.

Figure 5: This is a completely faked trilobite assemblage, with all individual trilobites made of resin on an underlying plastic film and all mounted on real limestone matrix; the castings are of: Leonaspis, Walliserops, Crotalocephalus, Paralejurus, and something unidentified on top (left image), and Odontochile, Psychopyge, Phacops and Scutellum (right image). Photography: Sonntag, specimens owned and sawed up by Burkhard.

2. The "Burmeisterella " - Faking the apparently nonexistent trilobite genus

Among the most impressive fake trilobites coming out of Morocco are the Burmeisterella (see two versions in Figure 6 below). The fakery is first betrayed by the simple fact that an authentic, complete specimen of this impressive species has yet to be discovered. Burmeisterella are ostensibly Phacopids belonging to the family Homalonotidae, and accordingly are close relatives to trilobites in the family Calymenidae, of which the parts of very large specimens are dispersed throughout Morocco. From this, we postulate that parts of cephalons, pygidia, pleurae, etc. were used to estimate what a complete Burmeisterella would look like. From this prototype, complete fakes could be manufactured in mass. According to Mr. Burkhard, it is common practice for the Moroccans to trade parts of trilobites in order to get a complete set of parts.

Figure 6: These are entirely fake Homalonotida Moroccan trilotes. A) A so-called Spiny Burmeisterella sp.?. The spines are made using small Orthoceras that are glued to the exoskeleton. Otherwise, parts of real trilobites have been bonded to actually trilobite parts in actual limestone matrix. B) A so-called Smooth Burmeisterella sp., where Cephalon and pygidium are from real trilobites. Otherwise resin cast section are outlined in red. Both faked trilobites measure some 25 cm long. We were fooled by these at first glance.

The faking process requires obtaining various parts from real trilobites, which will be assembled in a proper-sized piece of actual Devonian limestone. Real parts and cast parts are assembled within a hollowed area of the matrix. We examined both a spiny and non-spiny variety. Presuming that a trilobite resembling the spiny Burmeisterella exists at all, it is not likely that its spines are well mimicked by the Orthoceras that are according to Mr. Burkhard, expedient to use due to massive supply. Previously, spines had been formed with resins with more difficultly and yielding a less convincing result (call this expedient desert innovation). The Orthoceras are glued onto the cephalon, thorax, pleurae and pygidium to yield a fairly convincing looking trilobite. In the case of Figure 6A, it is mostly comprised of real fossil parts, albeit different fossils. In contrast, the Figure 6B trilobite is mostly a cast fake.

On balance, both of these trilobites appeared rather impressive a first sight. We’ve seen others less impressive, such as the unnatural coloring and distances between as shown in Figure 7. Even then, it had to be sawed up for a definitive determination of fakery.

Figure 7: These are additional examples of fake Homalonotida trilobites from Morocco, A: Red strips denote the resin between assembled pleurae. Apparently, the right side of the pygidium had been broken off, and thus, the right pleurae were shortened in order to mimic that the trilobite was still partially buried inside the matrix. B: This vertical cut through the axis of the trilobite reveals areas made of resin, the whole thorax, free cheeks and the anterior border, which are marked in red. C) : In this sawed up spiny Homalonotid, the spines are small Orthoceras. Real trilobite parts appear yellowish while the resin areas appear grey. It was also evident that ground rock was mixed with plaster and used in some areas.

All photographs above taken by Sonntag, most trilobites belong to and were sawed up by Burkhard.

3. Fakes of giant Cambrian trilobites

The large Paradoxides trilobites from the Cambrian of Morocco are well-known and in demand. Size and demand lead to incentive for faking. Fakes now vastly predominates the specimens seen, and authentic material is very hard to get. The demand is met by fakes that vary from those made with some real parts, to entire resin or plaster castings. The nature of the exoskeletons make fakery somewhat easier than other trilobites, and with practice, the manufacturers get better in time, as all the fake trilobites shown in Figure 8 should attest.

Figure 8: All the trilobites in the four pictures above are fakes. A) This Acadoparadoxides briareus (Geyer 1993) is a cast trilobite painted a yellowish ochre color, and is some 25 cm in length. It was made with resins in a mold, and the arrows indicate the location of a crack where the cast and the limestone are not adequately glued. Also, the circle shows an area where the worker failed to obtain pleurae symmetry as would exist in an authentic specimen. Fakes such as this one have been widely sold throughout the world (Also see Fake Paradoxides and Cambropallas Trilobites from the 2006 Tucson fossil show). B) The 15 cm long Cambropallas telesto (Geyer, 1993) trilobite shown here exhibit the same poor adhesion between cast and limestone in the red circle. Additionally, the pleural spines are far too long and narrow. C) This is a poorly faked Cambropallas. With the possible exception of the lower axial section, it was entirely cast out of resin or plaster, and the glabellar furrows were carved in a non-realistic manner. D) This cast Cambropallas has become completely unglued (from the host cavity). Photos taken by Sonntag, Photographs A, B, D: are from Burkhard collection.

How can one recognize falsifications of the Paradoxides? With a majority of the falsifications, a casting of a genuine Paradoxide is inserted into hollowed out, genuine Cambrian matrix from which the Paradoxides are found. Due to the inadequate adhesion of glue used to bind the trilobite into the matrix, the castings often separate from the matrix in the form of a curved tear along the perimeter of the trilobite (see Figures 8A and 8B above); it is also possible that the casting completely falls out (see Figure 8D above). We already described above the means by which to recognize castings. These include a smooth appearance (that seems too good to be true) without flaws expected on a natural exoskeleton. Characteristics expected on a natural exoskeleton may be absent, such as tubercles on the Cambropallas exoskeleton of and terrace lines on Paradoxides free cheeks. The natural color of Cambrian trilobites is very often mimicked using an ochre (brown-yellowish) paste that poorly compares to the natural color. Authentic Moroccan Cambrian trilobites have normally undergone mineral replacement with hydrated iron oxides (often limonite) that will present with reddish hues; this belies the authenticity of black or brown Cambrian trilobites that have been painted to hide restorations and to create artificially better contrast.

4. Evolution of Moroccan trilobite fakes - from simple casting to matrix imitation

Initially, Moroccan trilobite fakes were carvings out of rock, which led to oddities owing to a lack of knowledge of authentic trilobite morphologies (see Figure 9A). In the beginning (and perhaps still today to fool tourists), not only trilobites, but scorpions and even snakes, including zig-zag scratches were carved. I have seen huge Moroccan ammonite fakes with missing spirals.

To repeat, the early Moroccan trilobite fakes were conspicuous in their morphological inaccuracy and surface characteristics. The casting outlines were roughly formed and details tooled before curing of the casting material. Frequently “fantasy trilobites” resulted with outrageously or ridiculous anatomical features from cephalon to thorax to pygidium. One can surmise that the tinkering was done based on the individual’s memory of what the outcome should look like. Problematically, other than incorrect characteristics, the cast-matrix interface was readily distinguishable; this led to a new innovation of coating the matrix with resin or plaster mixed with ground matrix with coloration added as needed (See Figure 9B-9D). The trilobite cast was formed by pouring the casting into a negative mold. The cured fake is pried from the mold and then mounted into the coating. Once the matrix sets, the interface separating the fake trilobite and fake matrix is hidden by tooling starches and gauges that appear as preparation marks. The procedure hides holes caused by gas bubbles bursting as the casting material cures. The final step is painting of the aggregate creation. The entire faking protocol takes perhaps two hours (excluding curing time of up to several hours). This can be compared to some 5 to 20 hours, depending on difficulty, required for professional preparation of a real trilobite, or even up to 100 hours for a Spiny trilobite masterpiece.

Figure 9: Image A shows a rather primitive fake Phacopid trilobites (circa 1983), while images B through D shows a much improved Odontochile (a trilobite coming from the Lower Devonian of Morocco). What a difference 20 years makes. Generally speaking, the contemporary fake if morphologically correct, except for the absence of the requisite Phacopida eye lenses. The more modern fake was manufactured by casting the trilobite and placing it in a bed of resin in a cavity within authentic limestone matrix. The lower right portion of image B shows an area where the resin layer has chipped off the authentic limestone layer. Images C and D show the eye lens facets are completely absent, which alone is testament to the fakery.

5. Psychopyge trilobites - weird and therefore widely faked

The Psychopyge trilobite from the Lower Devonian deposits of Morocco is highly sought due to its enigmatic cephalonic extension and high spinosity, and therefore widely faked. Authentic Psychopyge are extremely spinose with three rows fine spines, one along the central axis, and a row on either side of the axis between the pleurae and the also impressive pleural spines. Perfectly prepared authentic specimens will cost in four figures (US dollars) owing the prodigious preparation time. In contrast, fakes can be found for a few hundred dollars (and less, as the price of them continues to decline). Obviously, caution is warranted. A few years back, an acquaintance of ours presented an ostensibly bargain Psychpyge trilobite. After inspection under magnification, we had to witness his dismay in learning it was a fake. The Psychopyge’s bizarre morphology renders it popular, and so fakes have been ubiquitously and prodigiously available for many years.

The Psychopyge shown below in Figure 10 has many of the tell-tale signs of fakery discussed above, notably the incorrect brown color, and numerous holes from bubbles bursting in resin. Unlike well-prepared trilobites having smoothed matrix adjacent to the trilobite that enhance contrast, the preparation scratches shown here are very sloppy and unattractive. Creating an artful and attractive fossil is, generally, not the intent in fakery, so ugly Moroccan trilobites should raise suspicion of fakery.

Figure 10: The images show an unattractive, fake Psychopyge elegans from the from the Devonian of Morocco. In this case, both the trilobite and the matrix surface are resin casts. A: Note that the exoskeleton color is an abnormal brown rather than the usual black, and the surface is riddled with holes that are the consequence of bubbles bursting in the resin during curing. B: This magnified view of the cephalon shows that eyes and glabella unrealistic due to sloppy work. C: The pleurae have been quite obviously carved from resin, rendering unrealistic sharp points, and, again evidence of bursting bubbles is conspicuous. D. As in C, the pygidial spines have been carved and many holes are present in the exoskeleton and fake matrix layer. (This photo was taken by Sonntag at a German fossil show).

6. Dicranurus monstrosus - a frequently faked horned trilobite

Dicranurus (Order Lichida, Family Odontopleuridae) has one of the most bizarre morphologies of the trilobites coming from the Lower Devonian of Morocco. Most notable are the pair of swirling spines resembling horns that are attached to the occipital ring. The trilobite is both rare and quite difficult to prepare, at least with crude tools. Both are reasons that authentic specimens are expensive and frequently faked. As mentioned above, crude preparation marks are indicative of crude techniques for which caution is warranted. When the matrix (or resin in the case of fakes) inside the horns has not been removed (see Figure 11), and when the matrix is a light brown color and the exoskeleton a is brown (rather than normal black being), then suspicion should be heightened that the trilobite is fake. Fake Dicanurus trilobites, like others discussed here, are most often made by casting in resin or plaster both the trilobite and the underneath matrix layer, with both ultimately placed in a hollowed out, real piece of limestone. discussed the fakes of Dicranurus mostly consist of both the trilobite and a matrix layer being cast from resin or plaster and then glued on top of a chunk of real matrix, the typical "imitated-matrix-fake". Genuine Dicranurus trilobites normally prepared with free-standing horns, because the extra effort is warranted by the trilobites rarity.

Figure 11: The images are of a prototypical Dicranurus monstrosus some 10 sm in length. The trilobite was fabricated by gluing brownish resin cast trilobite and underneath layer to a real limestone base. 1: This frontal view shows distinct and crude gauges intended to mimic authentic preparation marks; 2: This shows a close up of the pygidium with prominent holes caused by bursting gas bubbles as the resin cured; 3: This shows pleurae with sharp edges from a carving tool. The real spines should be rounded; 4: This close up of the cephalon shows the lighter-colored fake resin contained within the left horn of the trilobite.

7. Acanthopyge trilobite - Advanced Faking!

At the Hamburg Fossil Show we discovered a rather good faked Acanthopyge (see Figure 12), a relatively large Lichid trilobite from the Devonian of Morocco (the trilobite measured some 10 cm in length, but larger ones can be found). Since complete Acanthopyge trilobites are rare, we were motivated to undertake a more rigorous examination. Also, since the dealer had a second complete specimen, and several obviously fake Psychopyge, our suspicions’ were quite keen. We inspected with a magnifier and Heiko took some high-resolution photos. Because we were convinced it was fake, no purchase was made, but we later undertook further investigation by blowing up the images on a laptop in order to render a verdict on how it was manipulated. The bite test (see above) was done earlier on the cephalon and pygidium from which it was concluded that at least some parts of the trilobite were real. But, a rounded and conspicuous seam betrayed the fact that the trilobites had been mounted in resin on real limestone, making one wonder why such effort would be done for an authentic and complete specimen. To enhance appearance? Probably not.

Figure 12: This Acanthopyge trilobite from the Devonian of Morocco was assembled using genuine parts, and probably disarticulated parts from several trilobites. A: The arrows show the location of the seam where the trilobite parts were mounted in the hollowed matrix, which is especially apparent to the bottom and right of the image. Additionally, it was apparent that some pleural and pygidial spines, and both genal spines were resin casts. Also so that the cephalon was tilted to the left during assembly and that the lower thorax lacks symmetry. B: This shows the occipital ring that was made of resin and likewise the right free cheek C: The ellipse surrounds parts of the pleurae made of resin, with the arrows marking pleural segments inserted to assemble the thorax. D: This shows the left pygidial spine that was made of resin, as well as the holes in the simulated resin matrix inside the seam. (Images taken by Sonntag)

With closer inspection of our photograph we quickly concluded that neither the genal spines (and parts of the free cheeks) nor the eyes (carved from matrix) were genuine. The pleurae were authentic (at least to a large extent), as were both the cephalon and pygidium. We then deduced that the trilobite was assembled from parts of multiple trilobites that were assembled over time for the re-construction. They used the same tricks as the Burmeisterella fake discussed above, with perhaps some further modifications. We surmised that real limestone from the same strata as the lichid’s parts came became the base into which the cleaned trilobite parts were set in resin and glued to the limestone base. Furthermore, real crushed rock was mixed with the resin, which is readily identified by the tell-tale holes from bubbles bursting during resin curing (see Figure 12D). It must have been complex to isolate the thin pleural segments from matrix, as apparently some were broken and have to be patched with resin. The first five pleural segments seemed to be part of the actual thorax, and maybe were present on the matrix. The border between real rock and resin is readily apparent around the pygidium than around the cephalon. We had to admit that much work was expended for this fakery. The question was: Why? Heiko shared that he had heard that the locality where the Acanthopyge were found exhausted, and that half the mountain had been dug away. All that effort had resulted in but 40 complete Acanthopyge specimens seem to have been found, 40 specimens, which is a very small number for the normally rich Moroccan trilobite beds. This would be consistent to the extra effort of faking them, given no more were to be found, and demand unfulfilled.

8. Selenopletis – An Ordovician trilobite that is also faked

Ordovician trilobites from Morocco are relatively rarely perhaps because they found complete and preserved well inside of concretions (e.g. Flexicalymene and Asaphellus). This lessons the motivation for falsification since the concretions are readily opened revealing fine specimens. In contrast, spiny Ordovician trilobites like Selenopeltis (Pic. 13) that typify Gondwana trilobite fauna and are also found both in the Czech Republic and Britain are a different matter. In Morocco, Selenopeltis is normally found in very hard, fine grained, grey-white sandstones. The hardness of the rock demands careful and patient preparation with professional equipment, and it is especially difficult to prepare all the many spines. Ostensibly, these trilobites cannot be extracted by splitting the concretion because some parts will remain with the counterpart (the normal professional way to prepare such trilobite is with to work down through the matrix with professional equipment). Burkhard obtained Selenopeltis trilobite where the fakery was easy to discern. First, the trilobite’s exoskeleton was brown color, whereas it should have been black (see Figure 13A). It was a cast trilobite that was obviously glued such that the cast was already beginning to separate from it (see Figure 13B). While the quality of the cast was good, it lacked proper, particularly on the glabella (see Figure 13E). The length of the lower pleural spines was also clearly seen to be much too short compared to authentic specimens. Finally, the faked exoskeleton id porous unlike a real trilobite which would be somewhat reflective (i.e., shiny) a mild failed The artisan also failed to produce the mild shine of a real calcified exoskeleton and the matrix was also obviously not authentic.

Figure 13: This collection of pictures compare real and fake Selenopeltis sp. Trilobites from the Middle Ordovician (Caradoc) of Morocco. Figures 13A, 13D, and 13F on the left show a genuine trilobite from the Burkhard collection, whereas Figures 13B, 13C, and 13E on the right show a faked Selenopeltis trilobite. A: This real trilobite is some 15 cm in length, embedded in white quartz sandstone. It appears as if some pleurae were broken before the trilobite was embedded in the matrix. B: This fake trilobite was cast from resin and is readily seen to be separating from the matrix. Further clues to the fakery are markedly too short pleural spines, and a conspicuous lack of lack of left-to-right symmetry. C: This close-up of the area of the pleurae and thorax made of resin has an uneven (i.e., unrealistic) surface. D: This shows the corresponding area as in Figure 13C of the real trilobite (except is the right side) which is black and reflective, as should be the case for a real exoskeleton; the rough spots seen here are due to preservation flaws rather than fakery flaws. E: This close up of the head shield of the fake trilobite is a very poor morphological representation, lacking segmentation features in the glabella not visible, and unrealisticallt distinct glabellar lobes. F: In contrast to Figure 13E, the real trilobite authentic has correct and distinct cephalon features. Both specimens: Burkhard collection, photos by Sonntag.

D. Notes on purchasing trilobites

1. Seek reputable fossil dealers

The layman is advised to acquire trilobites from respectable dealers. There are many such fossil dealers who have earned good business reputations, who would never knowingly sell falsified material. Less experienced and, occasionally, even experienced dealers will themselves be fooled, but would surely make good on those rare occasions. So, refer to this article with magnifying glass in hand in order to inspect what you receive. Beware the blowhards that rant and rave about other’s fossils being fake and restored, and their’s being real and pristine; one web site in particular that does this to a ridiculous degree and is, in fact, a real good place to see additional fakes, but unfortunately probably snares a lot of naïve laymen. The reputable dealers do not have to engage in such behavior. When in doubt, you can contact the German Fossil Dealer's Association that offers identification/verification services.

Respectable dealers don’t sell at on Christmas markets and other folk festivals because it is at these minor shows that cheap fakes are more likely to be abundant. Black sheep dealers are also found at larger fairs, particularly among Moroccan fossil dealers. During our visits to the larger shows we found both reputable Moroccan dealers alongside disreputable dealers selling junk and fakes. Particular care is warranted when plates are seen having many trilobites, especially when the exoskeletons are grey or black rather than black. Be careful when coming across multiple-specimen-slabs, the shapes of which appear soft, the exoskeletons rather dark grey or brown. Be even more cautious still if that Moroccan dealer assures you in broken German or English of the fossils authenticity, even rarity, but that he will nonetheless sell it to you inexpensively. (see Figure 14).

Figure 14: This matrix slab measuring some 25 cm (about one foot) across mounted Ceratarges and Proetus trilobites. The circles indicate where color is differential to the larger slab. The lower right arrow shows a brownish layer typical of matrix falsification. In all likelihood, every trilobite on this plate is a fake cast from resin. Another possibility is that some or all of the trilobites are poor or poorly prepared specimens plated in the matrix. Photo taken by Sonntag.

2. About Trilobite Restoration

Early in this article we mentioned trilobite restoration and now want to expand and clarify. Every fake trilobite shown and discussed above, if sold as authentic, would constitute fraud. But, can we draw a line where trilobite restoration ends and fraud and faking begins? Generally speaking, restoration is done to: 1) improve appearance, and 2) increase the sales price, the later being where the fakery concern is greatest. Our own view is that small mm-size restorations of part of a spine, eye, or other part or patching pits and scratches caused by nature or collecting has not crossed the line into fakery and fraud. Some sophisticated trilobite collectors demand pristine appearance that simply does not occur in nature, and they therefore expect restoration to be professionally done; such professional preparation/restoration in exacting work requiring skill and experience with expensive equipment. It is also costly and cost-prohibitive on poor and very common fossil when done in the Europe and the U.S. Such professional work thus enhances value, and has not crossed the line into fakery. We have noticed one web site with abundant claims that its trilobites have no restoration, are investment quality, and are very high priced. This will not fool sophisticated collectors who know that perfectly preserved trilobites are exceedingly rare, but unfortunately, the layperson could be easily duped. That most of the trilobites are from Morocco, from which the vast majority of fake fossils and trilobites come, warrants triple caution; just walk away. Subsequent articles will delve more deeply into issues of quality, preparation, restoration and value, since we’ve barely scratched the surface of the issues.

3. Quality has its price

Whether at shows, in shops or on the internet, have some skepticism when purchasing fossils and use a magnifying glass if possible. The caution will pay off. Pay attention to the dealer and the entire stock and inventory. If there are a lot of Moroccan trilobites, be really careful as the vast majority of fake trilobites come from Morocco. Do your homework, as the internet allows easy comparative shopping. Prices that are lower than the norm should be a red flag to you. Prices that are too high accompanied with bloated claims should also be a red flag to you. The best material is readily sold and does not require inflated claims. Quality has its price, but don't overpay.


  • BUDIL, P. & TUREK, V. (2003): Trilobitenland Tschechien. – Offizieller Katalog der 40. Mineralientage München, Turmalin und Trilobit: 94-99, 8 unn. Abb.; München.
  • BURKHARD, H. & BODE, R. (2003): Trilobitenland Marokko. Keine Angst vor Fälschungen. – Offizieller Katalog der 40. Mineralientage München, Turmalin und Trilobit: 136-144, 22 unn. Abb., München.
  • Snajdr, M. (1990): Bohemian Trilobites. – 265 S.; Prag