Today I thought I would share a gross and morbid thing I discovered in researching the Grave Creek Stone for my book on the history of the lost white race of Mound Builders. The Grave Creek Stone has a weird and checkered history. It was allegedly uncovered in an Adena mound on the Ohio River in 1839, but it was really a hoax created, in all probability, by a Dr. James W. Clemens, a local physician who had hoped to get rich quick by selling shares in the dig on the promise of finding the Mound Builders’ treasure. When no treasure emerged, he used an old Spanish book and scratched copies of Celtic-Iberian runes into a small stone and arranged for it to be found. Clemens wrote to the greatest scientific racist of his day, Samuel Morton, in the hopes that Morton would popularize the stone as the work of a lost white race. Morton, however, ignored Clemens, to the latter’s deep chagrin
Clemens turned next to Henry Schoolcraft, a great ethnologist but a romantic with a tendency to fall for hoaxes that supported the notion of a lost white race. This one was tailor-made for him, and after seeing a drawing of the stone, he became entranced. He solicited opinions from the great scientists of his day, none of whom agreed on what language the stone was written in. But Schoolcraft decided to go visit the stone in person, and that’s where the weird part comes in. The mound where it was supposedly found had become a museum. The owner, Albert Tomlinsin, had dug a cavern into the mound and made it into an underground rotunda where he displayed the bodies and the grave goods of the Adena that he had unearthed.
Here is Schoolcraft’s description of the museum from his report in the Transactions of the American Ethnological Society. Try to imagine the morbid horror of it all.
I visited the rotunda in the mound and took accurate impressions of the inscription During the time spent at this place, visits were made to all such objects in the neighborhood connected with its antiquities as I could hear of; and drawings taken of the various objects accumulated in the rotunda-museum. […] I found this curious relic lying unprotected among broken implements of stone, pieces of antique pottery, and other like articles. These were arranged for exhibition in the rotunda constructed under the centre of the mound, and at the termination of the horizontal gallery mentioned. This rotunda is twenty-eight feet in diameter, bricked around to the height of nine feet, and ceiled over with timbers and plastering. From its centre rises a circular hollow column of brick, which occupies the space of the shaft. Around the base of this column there is a circular shelf provided with wire cases, in which the bones, bead ornaments, and other objects of interest, found in the vaults, are arranged. The place was dark, or but dimly lighted with a few tallow candles, which cast round a sepulchral glare on the wired skeleton and other bones spread around. Silence added its impressive influence to the panoramic display of so profound and humid a recess. It was warm August weather, yet the damp and acrid character of the atmosphere in this area, were such, as sensibly to affect the respiratory organs. The candles used to render objects visible, burned heavily, in an atmosphere so evidently loaded with foreign particles. But the most striking display hung from the ceiling. On casting the eye upward, there was seen depending from the plastered ceiling a white exuded mass. This exuvia was very white, and extended over a large part of the wall. It appeared to be the result of rain water slowly percolating from the surface and summit of the mound through earth, which, it may be supposed, was surcharged with residuary animal matter. Globules of water, rendered brilliant by the rays of candle-light, studded this unequally depending mass with splendent points, which gave the scene a striking yet sepulchral appearance. This effect was further heightened by the large skeleton arranged against the walls, and by the other disentombed objects. Drops of this white mass fell frequently to the floor, during my several visits. On examination it had the appearance of phosphate of lime, yet in such a state of minute chemical solution, that when a moderate ball of it was dried, it left but a thin flocculent trace on the paper enclosing it. This exhibition of articles in the tumulus, is intended to gratify travellers, and hasty visitors, but it furnished an atmosphere deficient both in light and temperature, and by no means adequate to examine the various objects with care, far less to decide upon the character of the inscription.
A dark, dank hole filled with artifacts heaped haphazardly and skeletons nailed to the walls. Fat from dead bodies dripping through the leaking ceiling. It’s the kind of detail that reminds you that people in the past were kind of gross, to say nothing of disrespectful to the bodies they desecrated.
Tomlinson’s museum operated until 1844. At the point, it shut down and the Grave Creek Stone was sold off to the antiquarian Wills DeHass, who led the charge to have the hoax accepted as a genuine artifact of ancient European presence in America, a point on which he succeeded in 1858 when Ephraim Squier, the stone’s greatest scholarly opponent, conceded its authenticity when he was unable to prove that it was, as he rightly suspected, a hoax. It would be decades before scholarly opinion recognized Squier’s first instinct was correct.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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