In 1838, at Grave Creek mound on the Ohio-West Virginia border, a strange little stone came to light, written in weird characters and apparently of ancient manufacture. Controversy swirled around the stone. Could it be proof that Europeans had colonized early America? The stone certainly jived with the tales of European builders of America’s ancient mounds spun by Caleb Atwater and other proponents of non-Native builders of these earthen monuments, a theory given great weight when adopted by President Andrew Jackson as a justification for the removal of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi River. For, if the mounds were built by white men, Native Americans were not the first owners of the land and could therefore be dispossessed legally as squatters on historically “white” territory.
It also played well with the story being spun by the most buzzed about religion of 1830s America, Mormonism. Just a few years earlier, Joseph Smith had reported finding wonderful tablets inside a mound in New York (actually a natural hill carved by glaciers, but which he thought was a burial mound) and had translated them with the help of magic glasses to reveal that the mounds were the work of Hebrew immigrants to the United States. God, the tablets said, had cursed most of them for their descent into polytheism and sin by turning their skin red and making them bloodthirsty Native Americans. The last pure white stock buried the tablets, the tale of their history, as a record of their whiteness…er, purity, in defending monotheism against the sinning Red Men. The whole tale was given in the Book of Mormon. (Modern Mormonism plays down the racial implications of this story.)
Back at Grave Creek, Dr. James W. Clemens concocted a scheme to get rich from the treasures he believed (on evidence of the lost-race theorists, of which he was one) lay buried within the Grave Creek mound. He was part of a scheme to sell shares in the excavation, payable with the proceeds from the artifacts excavated within. This scheme fell apart when all that the excavators found were two human skeletons, some copper bracelets, and beads. After the excavation went bust, Clemens returned to the mound and made a completely unexpected discovery: a two-inch oval disc inscribed with “Old World” characters.
The Grave Creek Stone was submitted to a number of linguistic experts, many of whom believed it to be authentic ancient writing. The Bureau of American Ethnology reported the results in 1893, and these results were hilarious. These supposed characters had an astonishing array of explanations!
One scholar finds among them four characters which he claims are ancient Greek; another claims that four are Etruscan; five have been said to be Runic; six, ancient Gaelic; seven, old Erse; ten, Phenician; fourteen, old British; and sixteen, Celtiberic. M. Levy Bing reported at the Congress of Americanists at Nancy, in 1875, that he found in the inscription twenty-three Canaanite letters, and translated it: “What thou sayest, thou dost impose it, thou shinest in thy impetuous clan and rapid chamois.” (!) M. Maurice Schwab in 1857 rendered it: “The Chief of Emigration who reached these places (or this island) has fixed these statutes forever.” M. Oppert, however, gave additional variety by the translation, so that all tastes can be suited: “The grave of one who was assassinated here. May God to avenge him strike his murderer, cutting off the hand of his existence.”
The Bureau concluded that the stone was most likely a hoax, one of literally hundreds of hoax stones manufactured in Ohio in those years (many of the hoaxers confessed), and the Bureau believed the letters represented nothing more than a hoaxer copying random alphabetic symbols from reference books, with “no intelligent meaning to convey by them.”
That’s where the story ended until 1930, when Andrew Price reported to Science News Letter that he had made a discovery. By viewing the stone at an angle, the obscure characters and weird lines that had stumped the experts came together to reveal a secret message:
B I L-S T-U M
P S S T O N E
O C T-1 4-1 8 3 8
Not only did this date agree with the discovery date of the stone, it also had another connection. The year before, Charles Dickens had published the wildly popular Pickwick Papers in which Pickwick discovers a stone with a suspiciously similar inscription:
B I L S T
P S H I
A R K
(X Bil Stumps His Mark.)
Interest in the stone was revived in the 1970s, when Barry Fell declared the writing Punic in America B.C. This, in turn, led to revived discussion of Price’s explanation.
However, it seems that Price was hoaxing a hoax, and while the story of the “Bill Stumps Stone,” as it is sometimes called, continues to be repeated in books and online down to the present day, there is a better explanation. Anthropologist David Oestreicher discovered that all of the symbols on the stone can be found in the 1752 book Ensayo sobre los alphabetos de las letras desconocidas (“An Essay on the Alphabets and Unknown Letters”) by Luis José Velázquez de Velasco, marqués de Valdeflores. Several of the symbols, according to Oestreicher, were reproduced in the same sequence as they appear in the book, and the symbols on the stone copied errors that Velázquez made in drawing his letters. He presented his findings at the 2008 meeting of the West Virginia Archaeological Society.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anything from Oestreicher on specifically which pages in Velázquez’s book the copied characters can be found. The book is more than 150 pages long with several pages of tables, and I did not immediately see identical sequences of characters in it, though I could easily identify several of the Grave Creek characters as matching symbols from the Etruscan, Phoenician, and other alphabets as drawn in the book. If nothing else, this should indicate that the Grave Creek inscription is a nonsense jumble of symbols from many cultures.
This returns to a theme I’ve mentioned several times: How is it that the people who allegedly traveled thousands of miles in deep antiquity somehow were so bad at their own cultures that they weren’t able to write anything in recognizable characters? Even allowing for the idea that explorers were not scholars, surely they should have been able to write using characters from their own alphabets? What kind of illiterate person draws from a half dozen alphabets whose use was separated across time?
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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