The controversial Prenestine Fibula containing the oldest Latin inscription discovered

In 1887, the archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig presented to the astonished members of the German Institute in Rome a small piece of gold, a fibula barely 10 and a half centimeters long, used to hold clothing such as togas.

As he claimed, it had been found in 1871 in the ancient Latin city of Palestrina, which archaeological excavations dated back to the 6th century BC. However, he did not explain that he had not actually been the author of the discovery. Instead, he had purchased the piece from Francesco Martinetti, an antiquities dealer and well-known forger, of doubtful reputation.

When that information became public, suspicions of fraud began to grow. Not because of the piece itself, in fact similar brooches had been found on other occasions, but because Helbig’s contained an inscription, and if authentic it would be the oldest Latin inscription found up to then (a condition that it still maintains today).

That inscription, which is in archaic Latin from the Etruscan era, would date from the 7th century BC and says: Manios med fhefhaked Numaiosi (Manius made me for Numerius).

Supposedly the fibula appeared in what is known as the Bernardini tomb, which was excavated in 1876 and not in 1871 as Helbig initially claimed. Suspiciously, he was also unable to indicate where in the tomb it had been found or by whom. Georg Karo, a contemporary archaeologist of Helbig, assured that he had confessed that the fibula was stolen from the tomb, although without specifying more.

However, Helbig’s reputation was finally enough to prevail over doubts and, for a century, the authenticity of the piece was considered valid.

But in 1980 the epigrapher Margherita Guarducci published a book in which she put forward the theory that, even if the fibula could be authentic, the inscription would be a forgery by Francesco Martinetti. What’s more, he would have agreed with Helbig to perpetrate the deception at the end of the 19th century and thus relaunch the careers of both.

Since then the controversy has not left the piece. In 1999 Massimo Poetto and Giulio Faccheti found an Etruscan inscription from the Orientalizing period (end of the 8th century BC – 7th century BC) on an arybalo (a type of ceramic vase) in which the name appears Numasian. This would confirm the authenticity of the name numaiosi that appears in the fibula.

The fibula inscription / photo Augustana Library

And in 2011 a team of researchers led by Edilberto Formigli (university professor of Sciences Applied to Cultural Goods) and Daniela Ferro (chemist at the Italian Institute for the Study of Nanostructured Materials) carried out new analyses, using the latest technologies.

Electron microscopes and X-ray microprobes were used, which, combined with physical chemistry methods and knowledge of Etruscan goldsmithing techniques, led them to conclude that both the fibula and its inscription are undoubtedly authentic and much older. than the 120 years attributed to them by supporters of the forgery theory.

The definitive proof was the detailed physical and chemical analysis of the surface between the inscription’s indentations, which revealed the existence of gold microcrystals, a natural phenomenon that could only have occurred in the centuries after the casting of the the fibula, impossible to replicate by a 19th century forger.

The Prenestine Fibula, today the oldest known Latin inscription, is kept in the Pigorini Prehistoric Ethnographic Museum, in Piazza Guglielmo Marconi in Rome, and can be visited from Tuesday to Sunday from 8 a.m. to 7 pm.


Prenestine Fibula. Tra antiquari, eruditi e falsari nella Roma dell’Ottocento (Margherita Guarducci) / Scientists declare the Fibula Prenestina and its inscription to be genuine “beyond any reasonable doubt” (Daniele F. Maras) / El País / Augustana Library / Wikipedia.