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are trying to establish whether or not an item is authentic, and they're most often involved in examinations of historical documents, artifacts and works of art.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 to 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.
- In Ashita no Nadja, Leader is in a tent about to buy many things from a wandering peddler, like the binoculars that Columbus used to see land, only to be told that binoculars didn't exist back then. And a real engraved samurai sword, only to be pointed out as well that Japanese swords usually aren't engraved in the Latin alphabet. He ended chasing the peddler with his very sword.
- In Baker Street #3, Sharon identifies a jade carving as forgery because the lines are too smooth and sharp to have been carved centuries ago with hand tools. It has to have been done with modern machine tools.
- 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. Normally, this might be written off as a standard case of Comic-Book Time — but here, it's a clue that this world isn't her world, but a world that's just as fictional as the main Marvel universe.
- 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.
- In the mystery strip Lance Lawson, some of the solutions revolve around historical items that couldn't possibly come from the claimed time period. For example, this strip involves a postal card dated with the day of Lincoln's assassination. Lance figures out that it's a fake, since postal cards didn't appear in the U.S. until several years later.
- 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.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe
- 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 1940s 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 1980s and earlier.
- Torture Garden: In "The Man Who Collected Poe", Ronald Wyatt realises that there is something wrong with Canning's story of undiscovered Poe manuscripts because they are written on paper with a modern watermark.
- 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 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 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.
- 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 laternote . The other problem, of course, is that the dating system refers to an event that hadn't happened yet (B.C. dates are by definition retroactive).
- 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.
- One story had someone trying to sell a painting of the debut of the Liberty Bell, supposedly painted at that time. One kid in the audience calls him out on not having the crack in the bell, but he points out that it's there, just hard to see based on the size of the painting. Encyclopedia Brown then points out that the bell didn't crack until years later.
- 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 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 Kraken, a murdered man's body is found floating in a giant jar of preservative in the back halls of the British Museum. The mystery of how it got there deepens considerably when it turns out that the jar's sealing dates back to over a century in the past, yet the corpse bears the tattoo of a punk band's name and logo.
- At one point in Mindwarp a pair of time-traveling teenagers are detained in a 1945 diner as counterfeiters. Though they wisely paid in change, the waitress immediately noticed their dimes all had Franklin Roosevelt's face on them, and once she had a reason to look closer, noticed the years on all the coins were all wrong.
- 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.
- 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 Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, Jim, while in the time of the Napoleonic Wars (an alternate timeline, actually), learns that the villain whom he followed from the future is checking all people entering his stronghold with some kind of device. He's puzzled at what it's supposed to detect, since they don't have his personal data, and all parameters of his own body are within the Earth norm. Then he realizes they didn't use nuclear power in the 19th century, and sure enough, the radiation level of his body is far above that of the locals.
- Thursday Next: 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.
- 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.)
- What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies has Francis Cornish trying to figure out if a particular painting, purportedly by a fifteenth-century Dutch master, is a forgery. Cornish is sure the painting must be a fake, but he has only his intuition to go on; all the tests and techniques he uses prove inconclusive. In despair, he decides to take a break by going to the zoo, which is where he finds his evidence at last: the painting includes a monkey hanging by its tail. The only monkeys with prehensile tails live in the New World, and no European in the 1400s would have ever seen such a thing.
- 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.
- 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.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In "Inca Mummy Girl", Willow notices that the supposed 500 years old mummy is wearing modern braces on his teeth.
- In one episode, they discover evidence of foul play because a private investigator found one of the mummies in a Mayan tomb was wrapped in ancient bandages but the mummy herself dated to less than 500 years old (as recent as the test could go).
- One episode had them recover a stolen painting, only for their witness to point out that it had to be a forgery because it smelled new (she had hyperosmia and recognized the sent of fully set oil paint versus drying oil paint).
- 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.
- Crownies: A teacher accused of having sex with a student claims that a note the student had in her possession was written to his wife years earlier. Unfortunately for him, the note happens to mention a brand of alcopop that didn't exist at the time.
- In an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grissom and Sara are processing a 17th-century Japanese collection for clues. Then they read the manifest and realize that one item is missing: a full-body suit of samurai armor. Except, as Grissom points out, such armor didn't exist until the following century, meaning it's a fake. They go to the collection's owner, who reveals that he doesn't own a suit of armor. The whole thing is a huge insurance scam by the casino owner.
- 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.
- Doctor Who:
- "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 knows that the Monk is a time traveller.)
- It never gets completely resolved, but in "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.
The 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.
Mickey: What's a horse doing on a spaceship?
The Doctor: Mickey, what's Pre-Revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective!
- "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.
- "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 that the town has electric lighting, which shouldn't exist for another ten years.
- "The Magician's Apprentice": Parodied when 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 Chieftain main battle tank. Apparently, the Doctor also taught the locals the word "dude", which also qualifies.
The Doctor: What? You said you wanted an axe battle!
- An episode of Get Smart has Maxwell Smart using this to figure out the KAOS agent that stole an Electro-retrogressor Gun and planned to use it on some top scientists. In an attempt to hide her true allegiance, the KAOS agent tried to make it appear that she was also hit by the gun's rays by jumping rope and talking about watching Captain Kangaroo. However, with Captain Kangaroo not debuting until 1955, Max realized that had the agent really been shot by the Electro-retrogressor Gun, her eight-year-old self wouldn't have been a fan of the show.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent:
- In "Trophy Wine", the counterfeit wine was an excellent forgery, but George Washington's initials on the bottles were etched by machine, not by hand.
- In "Art", the detectives suspect a Monet is an excellent forgery. The lab analyst points out that almost everything about the painting (the age of the canvas, the types of material used in the paint, etc.) would certainly point to an authentic work. Except an analysis of the paint found it contained much higher levels of background radiation than expected, indicating it was painted after the beginning of the Atomic Age in 1945.
- In the Lewis episode "The Lions of Nemea", Oxford classics don Simon Flaxmore's career is built on his discovery and translation of a lost play by Euripides. However, the play mentions the constellation of Leo Minor, which was not classified as a separate constellation from the adjacent Leo Major until 1687, over two millennia after Euripides' death. This leads to the revelation that everything about Flaxmore is a fraud, including his name and the credentials he used to gain a faculty position.
- The Librarians 2014
- In "And the Crown of King Arthur," Stone immediately recognizes that the "Crown of King Arthur" painting on display in the Munich museum, supposedly painted in AD 1146, must be a fake because it uses carmine red dye which was not discovered until the 1500s
- In "And the Image of Image," 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.
- Averted on Manifest as a plane that took off in 2013 lands in 2018 but the passengers and crew claim it was just three hours. The authorities check every single item of baggage and clothing but note that absolutely nothing exists that was made after April of 2013.
- 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.
- 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.
- In "To Kill A Legend", Cabot Cove is rocked when someone discovers a letter allegedly written by George Washington. The paper was made in the 1770s as was the ink, and the letter was even sealed with whale oil, as letters of the time sometimes were. Jessica ultimately proved that the whale oil contained traces of mercury, a contemporary pollutant that wouldn't have been found in whale oil during the 1770s, thus proving the letter was a forgery.
- 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.
- Another one starts with a recently-exhumed Civil War casket being opened. Inside is a dead soldier — with a cell phone. Turns out that he's a recent murder victim stuffed inside the casket.
- 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.
- Naturally this comes up in Selling Hitler, a mini-series about the Hitler Diaries scandal (see Real Life). At one point the journalist is told that the binder material used isn't authentic, but he allows himself to be talked out of his suspicions by the conman who claims the experts are wrong and the binder is Older Than They Think, having been around since the First World War.
- "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.
- 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.
- Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: As Layton and Luke explore the Storyteller'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 a sousaphone, an instrument that wouldn't be invented for a few more decades.
- The "Time-Traveling Hipster" supposedly shows a man wearing modern clothes, shades and an unrealistically-small handheld camera in 1940s Canada. Alas, it turns out to be a subversion — as out of place as the man looks in the suit-and-tie crowd, it all really did exist in the 1940s. It makes more sense when you remember the Retraux nature of hipster fashion.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 the existence of an affair between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were proven to be fake 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 until after Hitler's death in 1945.
- An Andy Warhol painting that was based on a Superman panel was proven to be a forgery by a pair of comic fans, who realized that the inking style of the panel matched the work of an inker who wasn't working on Superman until well after the painting was supposedly created. Unfortunately, their claims were mostly dismissed until later.
- This Snopes article talks about an alleged rejection letter for a doctoral application to Albert Einstein by the University of Bern from 1907. It points out to that the address does not make sense since it uses a modern name for a street and that Switzerland didn't use a four-digit postal code until the 1960s. All of that besides the fact that the letter is in English, while both the University and Einstein would speak in German.
- The Donation of Constantine was supposedly a decree from Roman emperor Constantine giving large amounts of land and power to the Church, and it was used in the Middle Ages to justify the political authority of the Pope. In the Renaissance, it was proven to be a forgery because it used in 8th century Latin (from the age it was "discovered") rather than 4th Century Latin (the age when it was supposed to have been written).
- Any creationist claims about human artifacts supposedly found in layers of 200/350/415 million years ago in the 19th century or earlier. The ability to date layers in an absolute manner (instead of relatively, as in, "shallower/deeper/tertiary/quarternary layer") is an invention of the 20th century, and not too early at that.
- Dan Rather ran a story in 2004 featuring memos that criticized then-President George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. They were found to be forgeries due to a font and format not available in the 1970s; Rather's career and reputation took a serious hit, and he retired from the CBS Evening News a year later.
- This helped expose James Reavis, a forger and fraudster who manufactured a land claim in the American Southwest. Among other things, documents supposedly written before the 19th century showed evidence of having been written with steel-nibbed pens, types of ink that didn't exist at the time appeared in some places, and some pieces of paper bore watermarks from mills that wouldn't be founded until decades or even centuries later.