There have been a couple of interesting blog posts I’ve read over the last few days that seem important to share with my readers. First is Andy White’s latest exploration of Jim Vieira’s claims for lost giants. This time he takes on a supposed first-person account of witnessing the excavation of a giant. According to the gigantology version of the story, a man in 1938 claimed to have seen a giant skeleton in 1876 and used that memory to carve a wooden model of the same. I’ll leave you to read for yourself the detective work that reveals this story to be a trick of memory, but the fact that Vieira failed to trace back the easily accessible primary sources that clearly reveal that the story is false shows how threadbare the research behind gigantology really is.
Next is a fun reflection on a debunking that happened four decades ago. Brad Lepper shares a classic incident from the annals of fringe history. In 1928, a corroded black disk was found just below the surface of Seip Mound, an earthwork in Ohio. The finders of the coin sold it to a jeweler, who in turn showed it to another man who thought it resembled a Roman coin from the reign of Maximinus (235-238 CE). Some began to speculate about the coin’s Roman origins and what this meant for mound investigation. Geneticist Clyde Keeler started investigating in 1969 and became convinced it was a Roman coin. But when he published an account of it in the New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter in 1972, he had changed his tune.
Keeler cleaned the “coin” and uncovered some lettering on it that he thought was Latin. Because he was primed to believe that the Romans could have visited Ohio, Keeler admitted that he quickly saw in ambiguous shapes the Roman goddess Victoria, and in half-effaced letters an inscription to someone called Tolinus. Showing it to numismatists, he received a variety of opinions, including several who claimed that the piece was an authentic Roman coin. However, upon further investigation, he conclusively identified the disk as an 1874 advertising token for the Elgin Watch Company, whose half-effaced name he misread as Tolinus and in whose corroded image of Father Time with his hourglass he saw Winged Victory.
Lepper goes on to cite Jeremiah F. Epstein’s 1980 Current Anthropology article on Old World coins supposedly found in America, which, in turn, draws on the work of Frederick J. Pohl, the same fringe theorist who helped fabricate the claim that Henry Sinclair traveled to Nova Scotia in 1398 and was worshiped there as a god. Epstein concluded that nearly all of the coins found in such contexts seem to have been lost from modern collections, with the majority having been lost in the past three decades.
This little incident came a century after Benson John Lossing wrote in his 1848 Pictorial Description of Ohio pretty much exactly the same thing that Epstein would write in 1980:
But great caution is necessary in arriving at a correct conclusion respecting the antiquities in question, lest the remains of the early French settlers should be mistaken for the handiwork of the aborigines. Knives, pickaxes, copper-kettles, pottery, medals, and even Roman coin, have been found beneath the earth and their origin referred to the ancient people of whom we have obtained a few glimpses. These, doubtless, have been deposited by those Europeans who, soon after the earlier discoveries, traversed Ohio and the neighboring region, and, therefore, possess no antiquarian interest beyond that which the influence of association creates in the mind.
And yet we have to keep relearning that lesson.
One thing I learned from Epstein is that the very first claim of a Roman coin in the Americas was made in 1533, when Lucio Marineo Siculo, a Sicilian scholar living in Spain, made the claim in describing Panama in Book 19 of his De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus. This was the only account of a Roman coin in the Americas until the nineteenth century, according to Epstein, and is widely considered to be the Italian author’s attempt to fabricate a claim to Italian glory in the face of Spanish mastery of the Americas. I was interested enough to fish out the passage and translate it:
Yet there is one thing in this place that I shall not pass over in silence because it is most remarkable and most worthy to be known, especially since others, so far as I have observed, have omitted it in their writings. In a certain region, which is said to be on the mainland [near Darien], whose bishop was Juan de Quevedo, of the Minor Order [a Franciscan], there was discovered by men digging in the earth searching for gold a coin with the name and image of Caesar Augustus. Juan Rufo, archbishop of Consencia, obtaining this, sent it to Rome, to the Supreme Pontiff, as a remarkable object. This wonderful thing has ripped the glory from the sailors of our time, who once boasted that they had sailed there before all others, since the evidence of this coin now makes certain that the Romans once reached the Indies.
Lucio Marineo: The Scott Wolter of sixteenth century Castile.
Bartolome de Las Casas took issue with Marineo’s claim, as well as the similar claim of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo that the Hesperides as given in Pliny were the Americas, and he assembled an elaborate explanation of the evidence that the Romans had no knowledge of the New World. This argument, in turn, inspired Francisco López de Gómara to specifically attack the Hesperides theory and instead declare the America was in fact Atlantis, and therefore its discovery predated the Romans. His work, in turn, would give rise to more than 450 years of Atlantis speculation.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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