In the Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, published in 1893, the Bureau reported on the widespread fabrication of ancient artifacts. Many of these are still the subject of pseudo-scientific "investigation" today, such as on H2's America Unearthed. To help get a sense of how widespread fabrication and fraud were in the Victorian antiquities market, I'm presenting the first section of the Report's chapter on fraud below. It is funny to note that the Smithsonian scholars thought these "controverted pictographs" would be quickly forgotten; little did they know that more than 100 years later, a million people a week would be watching a TV show that pretends that these long-ago frauds are genuine evidence of Pre-Columbian diffusion from the Old World to the New.
No large amount of space need be occupied in the mention of detected pictographic frauds, their present and future importance being small, but much more than is now allowed would be required for the full discussion of controverted cases.
There is little inducement, beyond the amusement derived from hoaxing, to commit actual frauds in the fabrication of petroglyphs. It must, however, be remembered that coloration and carving of a deceptive character are sometimes produced by natural causes, e. g., pictured rocks on the island of Monhegan, Maine, figured by Schoolcraft, are classed in “Science” VI, No. 132, p. 124, as freaks of surface erosion. Mica plates were found in a mound at Lower Sandusky, Ohio, which, after some attempts at interpretation, proved to belong to the material known as graphic or hieroglyphic mica, the discolorations having been caused by the infiltration of mineral solution between the laminae.
The instances where inscribed stones from mounds have been ascertained to be forgeries or fictitious drawings are to be explained as sometimes produced by simple mischief, sometimes by craving for personal notoriety, and in other cases by schemes either to increase the marketable value of land supposed to contain more of the articles or to sell those exhibited.
With regard to more familiar and more portable articles, such as engraved pipes, painted robes, and like curios, it is well known that the fancy prices paid for them by amateurs have stimulated their unlimited manufacture by Indians at agencies who make a business of sketching upon ordinary robes or plain pipes the characters in common use by them, without regard to any real event or person, and selling them as significant records. Some enterprising traders have been known to furnish the unstained robes, plain pipes, paints, and other materials for the purpose, and simply pay a skillful Indian for his work, when the fresh antique or imaginary chronicle is delivered.
As the business of making and selling archaeologic frauds has become so extensive in Egypt and Palestine, it can be no matter of surprise that it has been attempted by enterprising people of the United States, about whom the wooden-nutmeg imputation still clings. The Bureau of Ethnology has discovered several centers of the manufacture of antiquities.
It was once proclaimed that six inscribed copper plates had been found in a mound near Kinderhook, Pike county, Illinois, which were reported to bear a close resemblance to Chinese. This resemblance seemed not to be extraordinary when it was ascertained that the plate had been engraved by the village blacksmith, copied from the lid of a Chinese tea-chest.
The following recent notice of a case of alleged fraud is quoted from Science, Vol. III, No. 58, March 14, 1884, page 334:
Dr. N. Roe Bradner exhibited [at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] an inscribed stone found inside a skull taken from one of the ancient mounds at Newark, Ohio, in 1865. An exploration of the region had been undertaken, in consequence of the finding of stones bearing markings somewhat resembling Hebrew letters, in the hope of finding other specimens of a like character. The exploration was supposed to have been entirely unproductive of such objects until Dr. Bradner had found the engraved stone, now exhibited, in a skull which had been given to him.
This was supplemented by an editorial note in No. 62 of the same publication, page 467, as follows:
A correspondent from Newark, Ohio, warns us that any inscribed stones said to originate from that locality may be looked upon as spurious. Years ago certain parties in that place made a business of manufacturing and burying inscribed stones and other objects in the autumn, and exhuming them the following spring in the presence of innocent witnesses. Some of the parties to these frauds afterward confessed to them; and no such objects, except such as were spurious, have ever been known from that region.
The correspondent of Science probably remembered the operations of David Wyrick, of Newark, who, to prove his theory that the Hebrews were the mound-builders, discovered in 1860 a tablet bearing on one side a truculent “likeness” of Moses with his name in Hebrew, and on the other a Hebrew abridgment of the ten commandments. A Hebrew bible afterwards found in Mr. Wyrick’s private room threw some light on the inscribed characters.
A grooved stone ax or maul, first described by the late Dr. John Evans, of Pemberton, New Jersey, was reproduced by Dr. Wilson. Several characters are cut in the groove and on the blade. They are neither Runic, Scandinavian, nor Anglo-Saxon. It was found near Pemberton, New Jersey, prior to 1859. Dr. E. H. Davis, who saw the stone, does not regard the inscription as ancient. The characters had been retouched before he saw them.
A grooved stone ax or maul, sent to Col. Whittlesey in 1874, from Butler county, Ohio, about the size of the Pemberton ax, was covered with English letters so fresh as to deceive no one versed in antiquities. The purport of this inscription is that in 1689 Capt. H. Argill passed there and secreted two hundred bags of gold near a spring.
It was claimed that an inscribed stone had been plowed up on the eastern shore of Grand Traverse bay, Michigan, and an imperfect cast of it was among the collections of the state of Michigan at the Centennial Exhibition. The original is or was in the cabinet of the Kent county Institute, Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is imperfectly executed, probably with a knife, and evidently of recent make, in which Greek, Bardic, and fictitious letters are jumbled together without order.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.