Today I’d like to call your attention to a fascinating article newly translated into English over at Le site d’Irna on one of fringe history’s most persistent OOPARTs, or “out of place artifacts.” Known as the Dorchester Pot, the small bell-shaped jar was supposedly found buried in an ancient deposit near Dorchester, Massachusetts. This particular piece has been used as evidence for ancient astronauts, Biblical creationism, Hindu creationism, Fortean high strangeness, and numerous other flavors of fringe history. Most readers here will probably know it best from its appearance in Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned in 1919, from which most modern accounts are drawn:
There’s a wretch of an ultra-frowsy thing in the Scientific American, 7-298, which we condemn ourselves, if somewhere, because of the oneness of allness, the damned must also be the damning. It’s a newspaper story: that about the first of June, 1851, a powerful blast, near Dorchester, Mass., cast out from a bed of solid rock a bell-shaped vessel of an unknown metal: floral designs inlaid with silver; “art of some cunning workman.” The opinion of the Editor of the Scientific American is that the thing had been made by Tubal Cain, who was the first inhabitant of Dorchester. Though I fear that this is a little arbitrary, I am not disposed to fly rabidly at every scientific opinion.
As it happens, Fort didn’t quite get the story right. He got the year wrong for one. In Scientific American for June 5, 1852 (vol. 7, issue 38, p. 298), the magazine quoted a Boston Transcript newspaper report from a few days earlier about the find. That paper in turn threw up its hands and said it had no idea how the jar came to be buried “fifteen feet” below the surface in an ancient rock bed. The paper expressed hope that Prof. Louis Agassiz, the well-known zoologist, botanist, and geologist, could explain it. To this Scientific American added a joke, which Fort seems not to have understood, or purposely misunderstood. The editors joked that “this is not a question of zoology, botany, or geology, but a question relating to an antique metal vessel perhaps made by Tubal Cain, the first inhabitant of Dorchester.” It was a reference to Biblical first blacksmith and a backhanded way of implying that the locals were getting riled up over an unscientific question.
This would have been nothing more than one of hundreds of similar stories in the realm of Fortean material were it not for our old friends Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, who, in the midst of looking for ways to collect information to prove that H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos had some sort of basis in fact, prepared a French translation of Fort by Robert Benayoun. It was published in 1955 with a preface by Bergier. Bergier later used the story of the pot in Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present (1970). There, Bergier goes beyond Fort (while repeating Fort’s wrong date) and asserts that “the rock that had been dynamited was itself several million years old.” (Incidentally, Bergier helped lay the foundation for David Childress’s Smithsonian conspiracy by asserting on the same page that “the vaults of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, for example, are full of crates of incomprehensible objects that no one is studying.” He didn’t see this as any different from any other museum, though.)
Although Bergier claimed that the object had passed between museums and then disappeared, a piece answering to its name came to the attention of Brad Steiger, the mystery monger, not long after the 1974 English translation of Bergier was published in America, and many years after Steiger first wrote about the bell in 1971’s Atlantis Rising. Steiger published a photograph of the supposed Dorchester Pot in 1978’s Worlds before Our Own, according to the photo credits in a 1982 Reader’s Digest reprint of the photo. (I have not seen Steiger’s original.) The photo is attributed to Milton R. Swanson, discussed anon. Another photo later appeared on the Amazing Massachusetts website.
In an Ancient American magazine article from around 2001 (collected in Frank Joseph’s Discovering the Mysteries of Ancient America ), Dennis Ballard said that “recently” a man named Milton R. Swanson of Maine said he owned the object and bought it from a building supervisor for Harvard College who, more or less, stole it from the closet where it had allegedly been kept down to recent years. Ballard was in fact plagiarizing Steiger, and “recently” was the late 1970s. As implausible as this seems, I would like to emphasize a further point that Le site d’Irna did not perhaps emphasize quite enough: the original object found in 1852 was allegedly “in two parts, rent asunder by the explosion,” according to the Transcript, as quoted in Scientific American. Although these parts were put back together to try to understand the object (only after which was its bell shape apparent), the Swanson piece, in the extant photographs of it, betrays no sign of this destruction. I think it is important to quote this exactly because the wording strongly suggests that the original object was not understood to be bell-shaped until its parts were placed back together: “Among [the debris] was picked up a metallic vessel, in two parts, rent asunder by the explosion. On putting the two parts together, it formed a bell-shaped vessel…” So where is the break line? How could metal break so cleanly by explosion (!) that not a trace of the break remains?
Later, Reader’s Digest made the piece famous in 1982’s Mysteries of the Unexplained by reproducing the image from Steiger’s book alongside inaccurate text drawn from Fort. Creationists, mostly Christian, picked up the story. In 1993, Michael Cremo and Richard L. Thompson wrote about the same in their Hindu creationist book Forbidden History. The authors reproduce the Scientific American article and add that U.S. Geologic Survey maps state that the rocks around Dorchester were 600 million years old. From here, the object is routinely described as somehow being million years old. According to Steiger, Swanson alleged that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts spent two years (!) testing the Dorchester Pot but failed to date the object. He claimed that they dated the rock matrix in which it was found to 1,000,000 years ago—and how did they do this, since the pot has no rock on it and its exact location of discovery isn’t known? Oh, and they refused to confirm any of this “for fear of ridicule.”
Oddly enough, recent pictures of the object show a different vessel altogether, an Indian pipe holder used on Wikipedia as a comparison for the Swanson photograph and mistaken by some uncritical recent writers for the alleged Dorchester vessel.
I won’t belabor the point: All of the pictures of the so-called Dorchester Vessel are pictures of silver hookah bases from nineteenth century water pipes, particularly the kind of Indian-produced hookah equipment popular between 1830 and 1880.
The trouble is that I’m pretty sure that Steiger was taken in by (or even abetted) a fraud, and that the objects passing under the name of the Dorchester Pot are not the specific one found in 1852, for which no pictures were published from 1852 to 1978. These objects show no signs of blasting and no damage consistent with being repaired from two pieces “rent asunder.” Heck, if the piece really had been encased in rock, we should also expect it to have pieces of the rock matrix attached to it—and no one ever claimed that for it, rendering the suggestion that it was ever encased within the rocks all but moot. If I had to guess, I would say that Swanson, or someone who deceived Swanson in making the reported artifact sale, used a pipe holder as the best match for a story he knew only from Fort (or, if my hunch is right, actually Bergier), who in turn had failed to mention that the object had been rebuilt from two pieces. As the author of the Le site d'Irna article told me, it is most likely that the Swanson photograph is actually a copy of a photograph from a late nineteenth or early twentieth century book of Indian art.
Really, what are the chances that someone would admit in a public forum to buying a stolen artifact from a Harvard employee and that the school would have made no effort to recover it? What museum would agree to test admittedly stolen goods? If not for Bergier’s claims that the object had been lost from museums, would this story have even been remotely plausible?
But, if we take Swanson at his word, someone ought to find whoever has the piece now and confiscate it as stolen property. Sadly, we can’t ask Swanson, since a public records search shows that a man who matches his biographical details died in York, Maine in 2005. I don’t know where the hookah base now rests, but I find it difficult to trust Brad Steiger’s word that it is whatever object was thrown up by blasting in 1852.
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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