Last year I wrote a piece on the history of the Grave Creek Stone, also called the Grave Creek Tablet, a mysterious rock with alleged Old World characters found in Grave Creek mound in what is now West Virginia in 1838. As I discussed at the time, there is good evidence that the rock had been hoaxed by lost race theorist James W. Clemens, who had tried to exploit the mound as part of a money-making scheme and desperately needed an “Old World” discovery to help him make the dig a success. The Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology reviewed the find and concluded it was most likely a hoax, earning the artifact a spot on the list of supposed finds that the Smithsonian took efforts to suppress.
The Grave Creek Stoneitself was lost a century ago, but casts were made and one is currently on display at a museum at the site of the Grave Creek mound called the Delf Norona Museum at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, run by the state of West Virginia’s Division of Culture and History. The museum, which opened in 1978, is dedicated to the prehistoric earthworks of the area, especially the Adena mounds. One of the exhibits chronicles the Grave Creek Mound and its excavation, and archaeologist Ken Feder, author of the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, visited the museum a few weeks ago. He told me that despite the generally high quality of the museum’s archaeology exhibits, he found a surprisingly credulous claim in the exhibit space devoted to the Grave Creek Tablet. According to Feder, the exhibit makes the following extraordinary claim on the authority of none other than Barry Fell:
Exploration of American coastlines and rivers by Mediterranean seaman from 3000 to 500 years ago is a matter of accelerating probability as revealed by discoveries and decipherments of prehistoric rock inscriptions.
And here I thought that the government was actively trying to suppress diffusionist claims and that museums were actively hiding the “truth”!
Feder also sent me the Museum’s list of others’ proposed translations for the Grave Creek Stone, which is surprisingly funny when taken together. Consider this: No one can decide which language the tablet is supposed to be written in (though Phoenician is the most popular choice), and no one can agree on the supposed translation of the text, even when they agree that it’s Phoenician!
“The chief of emigration who reached these places (or this island) has fixed these statutes forever.” (Maurice Schwab, who apparently thought it Phoenician)
Charles Fort copies some of the above translations in The Book of the Damned (1919). Fort concludes that it should be “obvious to any mentality not helplessly subjected to a system” that the Grave Creek Stone is possibly more important to world history than the discovery of Australia (!), and he prefigures David Childress and Scott Wolter by asserting that such objects are “exhumed only to be buried some other way” by dogmatic scientists and museums. He further anticipates modern fringe writers in ordering the open minded to never admit a hoax. Instead, he says: “Accept anything. Then explain it your way.” Surely this is the motto for fringe history.
Fort incorrectly gives the author of at least one translation, due to misunderstanding the version of them given in Charles Whitttlesey’s “Archaeological Frauds” (1876), his acknowledged source. He misread the section describing Levy Bing and thought it belonged to M. Jomard instead.
Therefore, let me here add that M. Jomard believed that the inscription was Libyan, but could not translate it. A copy of the stone was also sent to Carl Rafn, the man who first attributed the Newport Tower to pre-Columbian European visitors, because some thought its inscription was connected to the mysterious characters on Dighton Rock, which Rafn had tried to connect to Scandinavia. But Rafn refused to endorse claims that the text was Norse runes. That would have to wait a century, for Olaf Stranwold. A guy named Mr. Schoolcraft split the difference and declared that the letters were from a variety of different alphabets: four Greek, four Etruscan, five Runic, six Gaelic, seven Old Erse, ten Phoenician, fourteen Old British, and sixteen Celtiberian. Rather than see this as evidence of forgery, Schoolcraft instead concluded that the only person to have that kind of command of language was someone in the entourage of the Welsh Prince Madoc! (Schoolcraft was close: As I discussed last year, anthropologist David Oestreicher found the stone’s symbols all appear in the 1752 book on undeciphered alphabets Ensayo sobre los alphabetos de las letras desconocidas by Luis José Velázquez de Velasco, marqués de Valdeflores, almost certainly the true source for the hoax.)
To this let me add a further statement by Monsieur Levy Bing, who makes a rather familiar claim for an allegedly Old World rock found in a New World context, based on what he thought was a sword icon: that it was a land claim! “This must represent the idea of Sovereignty and Conquest.” Methinks we’ve heard that claim a few too many times.
Writing about all of this in 1876, Col. Charles Whittlesey declared the thing an archaeological fraud, and after conducting research among those still living who had been present when the stone was uncovered in 1838, he noted that no one ever saw the stone embedded in the earth, only in the dirt piles being removed from the excavation site. This is interesting because Whittlesey was one of the first people to see Ohio’s so-called Newark Holy Stones, which included the Newark Decalogue Stone recently endorsed by Scott Wolter as an “authentic” Hebrew artifact. He begins by describing the men who testified to the Grave Creek Stone’s authenticity by way of introducing the idea that honest men could be taken in by a hoax:
No one questions the sincerity of their belief that it is of the age of the mound itself, but none of them state, or can state, that he saw the stone in its place. Both myself and the late Israel Dille, of Newark, O., saw the first of Wvrick’s “Holy Stones” in his hands, at the place where be said he uncovered it, within an hour after he said it was found, and while it was still partially encrusted with earth. It was seen the same afternoon by the Rev. Mr. McCarthy, who read the incription, and by a number of other citizens of Newark, including the late Dr. J. N. Wilson, all of whom then believed it to be ancient, and have so stated. They conceived Wyrick to be incapable of such a fraud. But when his second find occurred in November of the same year, embracing the ten commandments written in the same character, they began to be suspicious. Dr. Nichols, who was present, charged him with deception at the time. After his death proofs were found, showing that all the incriptions were made by him with great labor from an old Hebrew Bible in his possession. Since that time a party in the same region has confessed to the fabrication of more inscribed stones, which may account for the appearance of those which came into the possession of Messrs. Barlow and Bradner.
In a more elaborate version of the same, from 1872, Whittlesey also claims that the Freemasons recognized one of the Holy Stones as a Masonic keystone and that Wyrick faked the lot of the stones for money. However, J. Huston McCulloch contends that the Hebrew on the Decalogue Stone does not bear enough of a resemblance to nineteenth century Hebrew bibles for that to be the source. He also notes that Whittlesey incorrectly declared an Adena artifact, the so-called Cincinnati Tablet, to be a hoax and suggests that this meant Whittlesey was too quick to see fraud.
Whittlesey would remain deeply involved in the Grave Creek Stone controversy throughout the 1870s. In 1879 he delivered a third rebuttal to claims of its authenticity.
But what is more interesting just how closely the Grave Creek saga interacted with other fringe history claims from the period, not just the Newark Holy Stones (via Whittlesey) but also the Newport Tower and Dighton Rock (via Carl Rafn), the myth of a lost white race of Mound Builders (directly and also via E. G. Squier, who condemned the Grave Creek Stone), as well as advocates of the discovery of America by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Welshmen. If there is one lesson to take from this, it is that fringe history claims are more closely connected to each other than we might at first think and that fringe history advocates see in ambiguous evidence a Rorschach test that reveals whatever conclusions they brought with them to their investigation.
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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