From my big box of stupid, I pulled out Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archaeology (1993; mine is the 1998 revised ed.), perhaps one of the worst offenders in the realm of stupid claims about archaeology. I can’t imagine how I managed to read through more than 800 pages of deathly-dull text when I was seventeen; apparently before cell phones and broadband I had a greater tolerance for longwinded boredom. At least Erich von Däniken managed to make his fraud and lies entertaining to read.
Anyway, I opened the book at random, and the first thing I saw was from page 797, “Letters in Marble Block, Philadelphia,” which is as good an example as any of how Cremo and Thompson selectively reported bits of “evidence” to create false impressions in favor of Hindu creationism.
Cremo and Thompson report an article from the American Journal of Science (vol. 19, 1831, p. 361) which describes a marble block from Norristown, Pennsylvania. When it was uncovered in a quarry in 1829 and cleaved in half, within were found a more or less geometric break line that gave the appearance of two letters. The earliest drawing of it, from April 1830, is below:
The “engraving” measured 1.5 inches by 0.6 inches and was the only blemish in 18 square feet of rock surface. Surrounding the “letters” was a brownish-black powder that had prevented the marble from forming evenly around the raised indentations.
While this drawing does not look terribly scientific, Cremo and Thompson present a false drawing of the rock imaginatively redrawn either for or from W. R. Corliss’s Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts (1978), which implies to me that Cremo and Thompson never read the original report, only Corliss’s summary of it. The Cremo and Thompson drawing is rougher and more detailed, made to look like an actual archaeological drawing, including the texture of the stone, but based on no actual original observation. Here is the Cremo and Thompson version:
Corliss, a physicist, compiled anomalous material from scientific journals in his books. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Unlike Fort, Corliss selected his material almost exclusively from scientific journals like Nature and Science, not newspapers, so it has already been subjected to a filtering process which would have removed most hoaxes and reports from obvious cranks.” Clarke, however, was apparently unaware that early nineteenth century scientific journals did not have peer review, and many of their reports were simple letters asserting claims without verification.
A later sketch, from May 1830, gives a slightly different look, with irregular lines rather than perfect geometrical lines and the letters in a completely different order. There was no real agreement on the artifact’s actual shape.
Based on the depth at which the rock was quarried, its age was estimated at eight million years old in 1830, though Cremo and Thompson decline to date the rock. (Modern alternative authors have recently claimed 500 million years.) According to Cremo and Thompson,
But does it?
Ironically enough, the American Journal of Science report is dated April 1, 1830 but was mistakenly delayed in its publication because the editor had lost the letter. Had this been the only reference to the stone, I would willingly ascribe it to an April Fool’s prank, but it also appeared in the Pennsylvania Inquirer and the Pennsylvania Register. It is also worth noting that the journal’s notice is not in the form of a scientific article but a letter to the editor in the “Miscellanies” section at the close of the issue. Only a few years earlier, the editor of the American Journal of Science, Benjamin Silliman, fired the famed botanist C. S. Rafinesque, who would later go on to fake evidence for the Lost Race of Mound Builders, after a smear campaign by Caleb Atwater, who advocated for the acceptance of Hindus as the builders of America's ancient mounds, because Rafinesque had accused Atwater of plagiarism. Objectivity was not high on their list of virtues.
Cremo and Thompson accurately report the contents of J. B. Browne’s letter to the editor, though they attribute the remarks to the Journal itself. But this is the extent of their investigation. A cursory examination of news reports from the spring of 1830 shows that “several of the most respectable gentlemen” whom Browne refers to were not of the opinion, shared by Browne, Corliss, Cremo, and Thompson that the imperfection in the marble was the work of human beings.
The Register of Pennsylvania for April 1830 (vol. 5) presents the opinions of these respectable gentlemen, including the lawyer and amateur scientist Peter A. Browne, Esq.—whose relationship to J. B. Browne I do not know—which differ significantly from the Cremo and Thompson assumptions.
Neither Joseph Thomas nor Benjamin Bartholomew, two of the “respectable gentlemen,” ventured an opinion on the indentation. They merely confirmed that it was present when the marble slab was cleaved open in November 1829 and had not been added later.
Peter Browne gave the following account:
That, of course, means a “freak of nature.”
This is undoubtedly the right interpretation, but it was not the most popular in the 1830s. This was the period when the nation was transfixed by the idea that ancient Hebrews—the Lost Tribes of Israel—were the first settlers of America. As a result, nearly all the early interpretations of the find focused on whether they were Hebrew letters, thus proving the Lost Tribes theory. Several different Hebrew suggestions were made, including “Yahweh” and “Piety and Truth.” This would have been a tall order, since the square form Hebrew alphabet was scarcely two thousand years old—let alone eight million. This did not stop the Columbia Star and Christian Index from reporting in May 1830 that the find demonstrated “the truth of Scripture” through “real science,” though it did dutifully report that a real scientist—a Dr. Mitchell of New York—was fairly certain the impression was an accidental crystallization.
Cremo and Thompson also fail to report that by the time of the compilation of Sherman Day’s Historical Collections of the State of Pennsylvania in 1843, the “freak of nature” hypothesis was uncontroversial enough that Day was able to claim the rock was little more than a lasus naturae without fear of contradiction.
As an interesting side note, in 1878 residents of this same town were quite disappointed upon finding another buried carving—a sandstone bust of a man—because the image was obviously a Native American and not a Hebrew of the Lost Race.
To conclude, here is a picture from c. 1910 of some quarried marble blocks in Alaska. As you can see, they are not the smooth, unblemished marble familiar from polished and finished construction. It is quite easy to see how blocks like these can contain imperfections, crystallization, or areas where the metamorphic action did not evenly apply throughout the limestone during its transformation.
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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