Anachronistic Clue

An Anachronistic Clue is any item or aspect of an item that cannot actually come from the time period in which it was supposedly produced or found. Most dictionaries cite the Greek roots of the word "anachronism" as meaning "against time" or "backward time". In realistic settings, such clues are pretty definitive when the investigators are trying to establish whether or not an item is authentic, and they're most often involved in examinations of historical documents, artifacts and works of art. Yet even in works which employ Time Travel, an object that "doesn't belong" is a big hint that something's amiss.

Sometimes the problem is a matter of substance. A purported Renaissance painting might be painted with a pigment that wasn't invented until centuries later, or a dated document could be written in an ink containing a synthetic compound that hadn't been invented before that date. Alternatively, a document or inscription might refer to something that either wasn't known at the time (talking about "photographs" or "photography" in a Regency-era letter when the word was coined in Victoria's reign—1839, to be precise), or wasn't called by a specific name at the time (say, using the phrase "World War I" in a document or on an item purportedly from the 1920s since back then it was known as "The Great War"). The matter may be as simple as the physical placement of an object: biologist J.B.S. Haldane supposedly said "fossilized rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian" (mammal fossils in a layer geologically dated to a time hundreds of millions of years before mammals existed) would disprove the theory of evolution note .

These clues might be incredibly obvious (visible to the unaided human eye) or require some kind of analytical test (chemical analysis, radiocarbon dating or something of the sort) to be discovered. This fact makes this trope a versatile plot device: creators can use it early on, such that the story is about finding the forger, or as a Twist Ending in which the valuable object everyone has been wanting turns out to be a fake.

Compare Signature Item Clue, which involves a specific item that indicates a specific person had to be at a given location; Fresh Clue, which involves clues (like the presence of warmth and/or smoke) establishing someone has been present in the very recent past; I Never Said It Was Poison, which involves a character having information they aren't supposed know; and Spotting the Thread, which involves someone finding a mistake in an impostor's disguise.

Over-reliance on this may result in Conviction by Counterfactual Clue. "The First World War" was being shopped around as a good name for the conflict at least a month before the Armstice was declared - it's just something far more likely to appear in personal letters than award ceremonies or service records.


Examples

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    Comic Books 
  • In one of the Fear Itself side-stories, two idiots try to stir up a race war on a Navajo reservation by posing as spirits. American Eagle sees right through them because they wield iron tomahawks; the Navajo didn't use iron weaponry prior to encountering Europeans.
  • Runaways offers a variation: When the team is accidentally sent back in time to 1907, they try to keep a low profile, but their presence is detected because they intervene to save children from a factory fire, and even though they're careful to flee the scene immediately afterwards, one of the local supers notes that the factory's conditions were such that the death toll should have been much larger.
  • Gwenpool is from our world, and she's not really a fictional character. But when we do see Gwen's world, there are some things that don't add up with our world. Gwen is seen buying the fourth issue of Secret Wars (2015), which came out in June 2015 in our world. And in the next issue, taking place a week later, Captain America: Civil War is shown to have been in theaters for a while, despite the fact that the movie was released in April of 2016 in real life. This is a clue that this world isn't her world, but a world that's just as fictional as the main Marvel universe.

    Film - Live Action 
  • In Angel Heart, Harry Angel spots a document as forged because it had been completed in ballpoint pen, which weren't available in the US until after World War II.
  • Late in Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve awakens in an unfamiliar room and hears a nearby radio playing the broadcast of a baseball game. A young woman in 1940's period clothing enters the room, and he demands answers from her, informing her that it can't be 1945 since the game on the radio was played in 1941 and he knows this because he attended that game.
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when Natasha and Steve are investigating the old SHIELD computer room, Natasha sees the modern USB hub amidst computer equipment that appears to be from the 1980's and earlier.

     Literature 
  • The parody poem Batrachomyomachia was long considered to be by Homer himself. Then someone noticed that the poem says "The cock had crow'd up"... there were no roosters in Greece until a couple centuries after Homer.
  • In Dorothy L. Sayers' 1939 short story "In the Teeth of the Evidence", a corpse is found in a burned out garage, and it is initially identified (in part by the dental work done to the body's teeth) as one Arthur Prendergast, a Wimbledon dentist. As the authorities were trying to ascertain whether the death was due to accident or suicide, further examination turned up a cast porcelain filling in one particular tooth (specifically on the anterior face of the left upper canine). Prendergast's own personal dental records indicated he had a fused porcelain filling in that tooth in that position in 1923. The problem comes in when the English consulting dentist Mr. Lamplough observes that the cast porcelain process came to Britain from America in 1928, and that the two types of fillings are visually different and inserted by different means. Wimsey points out that the records don't show the '23 filling was replaced, so he urges the filling be removed and examined. It turns out Prendergast killed a man and altered the fellow's teeth to pass the corpse off as himself.
  • In The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr (a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories alluded to but never described in the canon), one of the stories is about a woman being blackmailed through the threat of exposing documents proving that her late husband was already married before her, making their marriage invalid and their daughter illegitimate. Holmes, upon looking at the documents, notices that the name of the groom is written in a different ink than the rest of the document. That, by itself, doesn't mean much, since the groom might have carried a personal ink pot with him... if not for the fact that the documents are dated eight years before ink of that particular color was invented.
  • In the Simon Ark short story "The Weapon Out of the Past", Simon identifies a diary supposedly written during the American Revolution as a forgery because it uses the word "silhouette", an eponym not coined at the time.
  • Encyclopedia Brown:
    • In one story the Conviction by Counterfactual Clue that a sword isn't a genuine Civil War sword is the inscription, which states that it was given to Stonewall Jackson by General Lee "after the first Battle of Bull Run," which wasn't called that until after the 2nd Battle of Bull Run.note 
    • In "The Case of the Roman Pots", among several ceramic pots offered for sale as Roman was one pot dated "XXIII B.C." Encyclopedia Brown points out to a prospective buyer that the "B.C." dating system was created hundreds of years later.note  The other problem, of course, is that the dating system refers to an event that hadn't happened yet.
    • In another story, teenage Con Man Wilford Wiggins claims to have found ancient cave paintings in a dangerous poisonous gas filled cave and tries to get the neighborhood to invest in what is surely going to be a major tourist attraction. One of the photos he took shows a painting of a caveman hunting a dinosaur. Dinosaurs went extinct far before the first humans evolved.
  • In the Hawkeye Collins and Amy Adams series of children's books, specifically "The Case of the Roman Coin" in The Mystery of the Haunted House: & Other Mysteries (1984). The dealer selling the Roman coin in question says it was minted in 100 B.C. The problem being that the Romans didn't use the B.C./A.D. calendar: they might date things from the founding of the Roman Republic (753 B.C.E.) or by naming the year by naming the two men who were serving as consul at the time.
  • In Alfred Bester's "Disappearing Act", a few people during a war develop what seems to be an ability to teleport. Further investigation shows that they apparently travel in time. However, when a historian is brought in to research, it turns out all the stories are obvious Anachronism Stews... because these people have found a way to literally spend time in their Happy Place, even one which is a piece of Hollywood History.
  • A throwaway joke in The Eyre Affair has the LitraTecs pointing out that a manuscript of Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio is a fake because it was unlikely that Shakespeare would have his Cardenio searching for his lost love in a Land Rover.
  • In one of the Sister Fidelma short stories by Peter Tremayne, an alleged ancient Roman document detailing the location of a buried treasure allegedly hidden by the survivors of Legio IX Hispana and allegedly written shortly after the legion was lost claims that the treasure is near St. Martin's Church in Canterbury, referring to the church by the saint's name. Fidelma correctly points out that Martin of Tours was a fourth century saint and Legio IX Hispana disappeared in the second century. This is the first of many clues that the document is a fraud.
  • In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, Bert Baxter shows Adrian a pocket Bible with a bullet hole, which, he claims, saved his life in World War I. Adrian notices that the Bible was printed in 1956.
  • The True History of the Black Adder by J. F. Roberts intersperses a genuine history of the programme with the in-universe history of the family. Frequently quoted in these sections is actual historian Justin Pollard, who starts out pointing out certain discrepancies with established history, but by Goes Forth is protesting that the documents he's analysing are clearly the scripts to "A BLOODY TV SHOW". (The section on "Back and Forth" reveals that shortly after King Edmund took the throne, Pollard very sadly accidentally brutally cut his own head off while flossing his teeth.)

     Live-Action Television 
  • The Commish: Tony tries to prove to the press that his name and sexual preferences appeared in a madam's rolodex only after he had arrested her. He takes a polygraph and passes, but people still aren't convinced, so he gets an ink expert from the FBI to test the card and prove that the ink was less than 48 hours old, created after he had arrested the madam.
  • Midsomer Murders had an episode with an art forger who adds the Beatles to his supposedly historical paintings. Another had a skeleton found among the corpses of 18th-century tunnel workers in a cave-in whose teeth were the result of 20th century dentistry.
  • On White Collar Peter and Neil will often look for such clues to determine if an item is a forgery. It is usually averted with forgeries Neil makes since he does detailed research on the original and makes sure not to use anachronistic materials. This is invoked in one instance when Neil has to make a forgery that is good enough to fool most art experts but has just enough anachronisms that a detailed examination in an FBI lab would reveal that it is a fake.
  • Sherlock:
    • "The Great Game" features a forged painting of a night scene, where one of the stars in the sky is a star that only became visible to the naked eye when it went nova, after the painting was supposedly finished.
    • "The Abominable Bride" supposedly takes place in the Victorian era, but one scene features a murderer using the term "shotgun wedding", which wasn't in common parlance in the UK during that time period. As it was in use in the US, Sherlock takes this to mean that the conspiracy he's investigating spans multiple continents, but it's actually a hint that what we're really seeing is the drug-fueled hallucination of present-day Sherlock.
  • Doctor Who:
    • It never gets completely resolved, but in the episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" one clue that things aren't quite right on the spaceship they've landed on is there are multiple portals to 18th century France, first seen by the Doctor as a fireplace.
      Doctor: Well, there's something you don't see in your average spaceship. Eighteenth century. French. Nice mantle. Not a hologram. It's not even a reproduction. This actually is an eighteenth century French fireplace. Double sided.
      [later]
      Mickey: What's a horse doing on a spaceship?
      Doctor: Mickey, what's Pre-Revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective!
    • In the episode "A Town Called Mercy", the Doctor, Rory and Amy find themselves in a town in the Wild West. One of the first clues that something isn't right is the fact that the town has electric lighting, which shouldn't exist for another ten years.
    • Parodied in still another episode, in which Clara and Missy are looking for the Doctor in a medieval fighting pit. Missy says they should be looking out for any small anachronisms. The Doctor promptly enters the arena playing an electric guitar whilst riding atop a Chieftan main battle tank.
      Doctor: What? You said you wanted an axe battle!
    • In "The Time Meddler", Vicki and Steven realize that there is something dodgy going on when they discover that the chanting in a 1066 AD monastery is being played by a twentieth-century record player. (Although the audience already know that the Monk is a time traveler.)
    • In "The Idiot's Lantern", one of the first things that tips off the Doctor and Rose to the fact that something is amiss is that there are more television aerials around then there should be in London in 1953.
  • Death in Paradise: In "An Artistic Murder", Humphrey discovers that a painting is a forgery because it features a lighthouse that wasn't built until 1929; two years after the artist committed suicide.
  • On The Blacklist Tom invokes this as part of a Kansas City Shuffle. He pretends to be a wealthy gambler who likes to tell the story of how back in college he went on summer vacation with a friend and ended up finding a watch worth thousands of dollars. However, his story contains small anachronisms like buying a type of muffin that was not sold in the area at the time. The mark spent a lot of time in the area during the time period of Tom's supposed vacation and picks up on those clues. He quickly figures out that Tom is a conman who is using the story and the watch as a distraction while he cheats at craps. Of course that was Tom's plan all along and he tailored the anachronisms so only the mark would pick up on them.
  • On The Librarians Jake and Ezekiel seem to find the actual Picture of Dorian Gray but after a quick glance Jake declares it a fake since the colors are too vibrant. No matter how well preserved, a painting that old would have its colors fade with age.
  • The New Avengers: In "K is for Kill: Tiger by the Tail", Steed and Gambit realize that the K agent had a recent photo of his target despite having been in cryogenic suspension since World War II. This tells them that the agent had access to a recent file since his awakening.
  • One episode of NCIS has the team looking through the multiple computers (old and new, in various states of modification) that a programmer left behind, trying to find the one that contains a program that he was developing for Arms Dealer Arc Villain "Le Grenouille". Abby and McGee decide to test one of the old laptops when they see that it has ports for peripherals that were made long after the laptop was launched... and sure enough, this is the laptop that holds said program.
  • Banacek: In "The Vanishing Chalice", one of the clues to the solution of the mystery is that a figure of a Greek soldier in the display is holding a sling, despite no soldiers of that period being armed with slings.
  • Murder, She Wrote:
    • In "The Witch's Curse", Jessica identifies that a suspect's ring is not a family heirloom as she claimed because it features a brilliant cut diamond: a cut not developed until the 1920s.
    • In "Deadly Bidding", Jessica identifies a journal purportedly written by Arthur Conan Doyle is a forgery because it mentions a visit to Ellis Island in 1926. Ellis Island closed in 1924.

    Video Games 
  • Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney: As they explore the story teller's tower, they find a photo. Up to this point, everything has been medieval in technology level.
  • Tomb Raider (2013): Lara can find several items that appear to be ancient artifacts before she turns them to an angle that reveals a very modern-looking price sticker, revealing them to be worthless tourist-shop trinkets. Her disappointment upon discovering this can be heard in her description of the items.
  • Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1997):
    • In Case 10, the crook is given away because the map they're hiding behind shows places the Spanish didn't know about yet.
    • In Case 16, you spot the crook in Beethoven's orchestra because they have an instrument that hadn't been invented at the time.

    Web Original 
  • On /vp/, some anonymous user admitted in 2016 that they had in 2011 tried to force a Snivy-related meme on the board and had since hoped that nobody had recorded it anywhere. Afterwards another poster showed the original thread in all its glory... until somebody noticed that one of the reaction images was a winged Twilight Sparkle, which would not become reality until 2013.

    Western Animation 
  • In Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, one of the hints that reveal that the mystery in "The Night Ghoul of Wonderland" was genuine was a picture in a news article of Big Ben with a television antenna in an otherwise 19th-century environment.

    Real Life 
  • In Real Life, this is a standard technique for discovering forgeries. If the alleged 17th century painting uses titanium white paint (first produced in 1921 for artistic use), or if the ancient document makes mention of something that only happened after the document was supposed to have been written, there might be an issue with authenticity.
    • Also, a useful method to identify counterfeit wine is to sample the air inside the wine bottle and look for the presence of the isotope caesium-137. If the isotope is detected, then the wine must have been bottled some time after July 16, 1945—as caesium-137 did not exist on Earth until the detonation of the first atom bomb.
  • What most ancient astronaut claims are supposedly based on. For example, Erich von Däniken's claim that the discovery of what appeared to be the remains of a primitive battery in Iraq (the Baghdad Battery) was evidence of extraterrestrial intervention instead of primitive inventiveness.
  • A series of letters purporting to prove an affair between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were proven false using a series of these, including Font Anachronism. The most damning, however, was the use of ZIP codes on letters supposedly written before the US Postal Service introduced them in 1963, a few months before Kennedy's death.
  • In Germany in the 1980s, chapters of what was supposed to be an authentic diary of Adolf Hitler were sold to a major tabloid for huge amounts of money. It created a sensation and later a major scandal when it became apparent that the seller wrote the chapters himself, fooling not only the magazine but also large parts of the public. One of the things that didn't add up was that the binder glue used in the diary was found to be of a type that was not made in 1945 (Hitler's death) or before.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AnachronisticClue