The Newberry Tablet

While I was critiquing the 3rd episode of America Unearthed Season 1, I came upon a few new artifacts/concepts in pseudoarchaeology. One in particular caught my attention, because as I worked to debunk it, the red flags around it grew. I realized that it really needs it’s own entry into the blog, because there is a lot of well meaning buk out there, there are no attempts to explain why this artifact is a hoax.

The Newberry Tablet.

Screen shot of pictures of the Newberry Tablet from 1888, via America Unearthed S01E03 on The History Channel 2

Screen shot of pictures of the Newberry Tablet from 1898, via America Unearthed S01E03 on The History Channel 2

This artifact has a classic hoax origin story. It has multiple versions of the story, vague details, conflicting information, and no actual documentation to back it up. The story as per the Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed S01E03 (Wolter 2013), Two unnamed lumberjacks were working to clear some trees in 1896 in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) near Newberry, Michigan, when they discovered the tablet. It’s not entirely clear how or where exactly the Tablet was when discovered. Another source, says the Tablet was found in 1897 on the McGruer farm near Newberry, MI (Pohlen 2014). This story tells us that the tablet was found after felling a tree where it was tangled up in the roots of said tree (Pohlen 2014). This sounds familiar to me, it’s almost exactly the Kensington Runestone origin story verbatim. Pholen’s version of the story says that stone figures were found with the tablet, and the Fort de Buade Museum supports this.

The St. Ignace News has a completely different story all together:

“The most common story of their discovery, according Fort de Buade’s curator, Bill Peek, takes place in 1896. Two hunters were pursuing a mink near Newberry that had run into the root area of a fallen tree. They grabbed shovels and began to dig, but hit stone. They dug up the three statues and tablet.” (Coe 2012)

The Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) versions loose track of the Tablet around this point, only mentioning that pictures were taken of the the Tablet in 1898 (Fort N.d, Wolter 2013). Pholen’s (2014) version says that McGruer tossed the Tablet in his barn where it got broken. This could be where the whole idea that the Tablet was destroyed come from, as was thought at first in America Unearthed (Wolter 2013). The pictures were allegedly sent to the Smithsonian Museum who declared the Tablet a hoax. All sources of the story accuse the Smithsonian of not knowing what the 140 symbols on the tablet were. The Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) versions accuse the Smithsonian of trying to cover up the existence of the Tablet by claiming to have lost the pictures they had been sent.

According to the The Fort de Buade website, the controversial Dr. Barry Fell, got ahold of the images in 1988 and was able to identify the writing as written in ancient Hittite-Minoan. He was able to translate it as being instructions for getting good luck from the gods. According to Pholen’s (2014) version the symbols were describing how birds ate grain that was scattered before them. America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) version says the tablet is Minoan script, and the it’s untranslatable, but Wolter speculates that it’s probably some form of record keeping for Bronze Age Copper Mining.

According to the Fort de Buade website and The St. Ignace News (Coe 2012), in 2007 the Tablet and it’s associated bits were perched from Dr. Donald Benson when he passed away. He had kept it in his private collection for 30+ years and the condition of the items had degraded significantly. However, they now reside in the Fort de Buade Museum in Michigan, and due to this, is sometimes referred to as the the Fort de Buade Tablet as well.

Now that we have the story, let’s break this all down.

We’ve covered the issues with the origin of the Tablet. It has multiple versions and conflicting information. It invokes the idea of conspiracy of a cover-up at the academic level, and most importantly, it has no documentation. It’s also interesting to me how closely at least one of the versions is to the Kensington Runestone, especially since the Tablet is being used to prove Pre-Columbian European contact.

The multiple translations of the Tablet are also problematic. If we set aside Wolter’s speculation, because he doesn’t offer a hardcore translation, we’re still left with three options. 1) It’s a good luck spell, 2) It’s about birds eating grain, or 3) it’s not translatable. The third option comes about because of what the writing is supposed to be, at least two of the possibilities have never been deciphered.

Hittite – Minoan Cryptic/Cuneiform. I have no clue what kind of writing this is supposed to be. There is Cypro-Minoan which post-dates Minoan Linear A, both of which are currently untranslatable, and there is Hittite Cuneiform, which has several dialects. As far as I understand, the Minoan and Hittite writing systems are not related, despite being part of the Indo-European language family. This language family is the largest in the world, btw, so this really shouldn’t be surprising.

Examle of Cypro-Minoan via "Tablet cypro-minoan 2 Louvre AM2336" by Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tablet_cypro-minoan_2_Louvre_AM2336.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Tablet_cypro-minoan_2_Louvre_AM2336.jpg

Example of Cypro-Minoan via “Tablet cypro-minoan 2 Louvre AM2336″ by Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

0726 La Canée musée linéaire A by Ursus - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - httpcommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFile0726_La_Can%C3%A9e_mus%C3%A9e_lin%C3%A9aire_A.JPG#mediaviewerFile0726_La_Can%C3%A9e_mus%C3%A9e_lin%C3%A9aire_A.JPG

Example of Minoan Linear A via 0726 La Canée musée linéaire A by Ursus – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Example of Hittite_Cuneiform via "Hittite Cuneiform Tablet- Cultic Festival Script" by Mr. Granger - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hittite_Cuneiform_Tablet-_Cultic_Festival_Script.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hittite_Cuneiform_Tablet-_Cultic_Festival_Script.jpg

Example of Hittite Cuneiform via “Hittite Cuneiform Tablet- Cultic Festival Script” by Mr. Granger – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

Also, none of these forms of writing look like what was presented to us as the Newberry Tablet:

Screen shot of pictures of the Newberry Tablet from 1888, via America Unearthed S01E03 on The History Channel 2

Screen shot of pictures of the Newberry Tablet from 1898, via America Unearthed S01E03 on The History Channel 2

So basically, the writing on the Tablet is not any of the scripts it’s claimed to be, and even if it was, the two most commonly picked candidates are unreadable anyway. All this tells us there is no way it could be translated to anything. It also negates the argument that the Tablet couldn’t possibly be a fake since it was found in 1896 and the Minoan civilization was not discovered till the 1900’s by archaeologists. It’s not Minoan, so that’s not a valid argument. It’s also clearly not Viking, Phoenician, or Hebrew, so no luck there either.

There is also the issue of the condition of the modern tablet.

Screen shot of the Newberry Tablet

Screen shot of the Newberry Tablet as it is currently  in the the Fort de Buade Museum via America Unearthed S01E03 on The History Channel 2.

When Wolter is shown the Tablet on America Unearthed (2013) it sets off red flags for me. It looks nothing like the pictures we’re shown from 1898. Yes, as the story goes the tablet was lost and not cared for very well, but again, there is no documentation for any of this. Personally, and this is all my opinion based on the pictures and the stories given, this modern Tablet and the Tablet in the picture do not look the same. Obviously, there is no way to prove this one way or the other, but it’s still a red flag for me.

There’s also the story of the how the Smithsonian was trying to cover up the existence of the Tablet. There’s no reason to believe this story, there’s no reason to not. Simple fact is, there’s no evidence other than hearsay that the images were ever sent, looked at, or lost. When the images were discovered again they apparently were in the Michigan Archives, according to the the Fort de Buade Museum. I suppose the Smithsonian could have sent the pictures back secretly and hid them in the Michigan Archives, since there’s no evidence one way or the other, or maybe the pictures were never sent in the first place. There’s no way to prove either story. Interestingly however, Pholen’s (2014) version of the story has the Smithsonian backing off their declaration that the Tablet was a hoax. He speculates that the Tablet is genuine but doesn’t go as far as to claim the Smithsonian thinks the Tablet is proof of anything. I’d like to know who he talked to in order to get that information, it would be nice to have better documentation on this Tablet in general.

A final thing to add here, there was, in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s a rush of fraudulent artifacts that were found in Michigan. Some 3000 or more hoaxes were recovered during this time, most were immediately dismissed, some still have staying power.  None of them are seen as authentic by professional archaeologists. I find it interesting that the tablet and its associated figures were somehow spared this examination, since they were ‘found’ in the same time period and the same area. I suspect, especially since all versions of the story have the Smithsonian declaring them frauds, that they were part of the Michigan Relic hoax, if not directly, indirectly. Again however, since there is a timespan of nearly 60 years where the tablet was missing, so there is no way to verify this.

So what do we have left with the Newberry Tablet?

What we can say for sure is that the tablet is not Minoan, Hittite, or any of the other cultures it’s supposed to be written by. Since it’s not any of those cultures, there is no way it could be translated. So any claims that the Tablet proves contact with Pre-Columbian peoples is not valid.

It is my opinion that the Tablet in the Museum is not the same Tablet as the one in the pictures from 1898. I base this on the images as they have been provided. It’s not the best way to evaluate them,  I admit that, which is why this is my opinion on the matter and not a fact of any kind. If evidence comes to light that can prove the Tablet’s existence and location over the 60+ year gap between photographing and being purchased by Dr. Donald Benson, then I would re-evaluate my position.

With all of that, I must declare this Tablet a hoax. Neither the facts about the Tablet, nor the speculation is convincing enough to say otherwise.

Resources:

Coe, Aabra
2012    Unknown Origin of Artifacts in St. Ignace Museum Piques Curiosity of Many. The St. Ignace News, 8/23/2014. http://www.stignacenews.com/news/2012-08-23/News/Unknown_Origin_of_Artifacts_in_St_Ignace_Museum_Pi.html?print=1. Retrieved 12/09/2014

Fort de Buade Museum
N.d    Newberry Stones. http://fortdebuade.com/newberry.aspx. Retrieved 12/09/2014

Pohlen, Jerome

2014    Oddball Michigan: A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places. Pgs 39-40. Chicago Review Press, Chicago, IL.  https://books.google.com/books?id=_qo2AwAAQBAJ&pg=PA321&lpg=PA321&dq=Fort+de+Buade+Tablet&source=bl&ots=ZJ8y_71P0t&sig=FkFTyFYK6kf8cNDyOAFywidg4MA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=VmGHVMGCMJCyyAS0gYLICw&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=Fort%20de%20Buade%20Tablet&f=false. Retrieved 12/09/2014

Wolter, Scott
2013    Great Lakes Copper Heist. America Unearthed, Season 01 Episode 03. History Channel 2. January 4.

 

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Categories: America Unearthed, America Unearthed, Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway, History Channel, How Bronze Age Minoans Were Not in America., Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “The Newberry Tablet

  1. Pingback: Mysterious Minoan Miners and the Missing Michigan Minerals – America Unearthed S 1 Ep 3 | Archaeology Fantasies

  2. Graham

    Thank you for writing this entry, there is a brief mention in Colavitos review of the episode it appeared in, but I’ve not yet seen a focused look at the ‘artifact’ or it’s backstory.

    I hope you get a chance to expand on this story at a later time.

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  3. Argus

    As much as I do believe that the ancients got around a lot more than we give them credit for, and that humankind is much older than we allow—with the best will in the world I find it difficult to relate the images.

    It looks as if eventually Virginia Steen McIntyre may be (belatedly) resurrected. The Establishment does have a lot to answer for …

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  4. Laura

    Oh thank goodness for this article. I feel like I can breathe. I just watched the episode (season 1 ep.3) on Netflix and in escalating dismay thought “that is not Minoan. THAT IS NOT MINOAN.” Good thing you say everything in detail and save me the breath, but I’ll just vent a little anyway– since I’m still steaming. 1. The script on the Newberry Tablet is not ‘Linear A’, and therefore, it is not “Minoan”. This is immediately apparent in both the formation of the characters and their layout 2. And, even if the Newberry Tablet were in “Minoan” (IT’S NOT): Not only can we not read the Minoan script, ‘Linear A’: we don’t even know what language-family it’s from. We can’t even “sound it out” yet. So ain’t nobody “translating” anything Minoan unless there’s been a giant breakthrough in archaeology/linguistics/classics. (*All of this comes with the grain of salt that Bronze Age archaeologists are currently hot on the case and have pulled out place names and several nouns from Linear A–but have yet to decipher the script). 3. And even IF the tablet were in Minoan AND we could read it: it would be a tax-record, a stock inventory or an official/legal receipt–because that’s all Bronze Age scripts (the deciphered ones) record, and because the Phonecian and Greek Alphabets were a long ways away and writing did not become an expressive art form before then (in the west, that we know of). Ok. Rant over. Mostly this really irks me because he’s bold-faced lying to viewers: he could have literally googled a chart of “Linear A”/”Minoan” and compared it to this stupid photocopy and been like “ope, NOT EVEN CLOSE” but instead he lies lies lies! And there’s no way he doesn’t know he’s lying. The information that the script is not Minoan is just too easy to come across. You don’t even have to know any of the other stuff: just compare the “letters”. They don’t match!!! (lastly, who wrote in a grid? I can’t think of one example from ancient Europe or the Mediterranean) This is a really cool website!! More power to you for doing your research!!

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    • Laura

      Oh and to expand on my third point: The tablet, were it in Minoan and legible, still would have NO PURPOSE in a foreign land–writing was not used as a means of communication AT ALL. It was for record keeping within a community. So, even giving this crazy theory the absolutely blind benefit of the doubt: it still makes no sense!!! A Minoan trader would have NO REASON to leave behind a tablet. There aren’t Minoan tablets floating around all over the Mediterranean with their wares. The Minoans didn’t preserve a single mark of their own writing, they would use and re-use clay tablets for record keeping only. An fire in the record of room of the palace baked the clay and preserved a few thousand tablets. And most of them are about counting sheep. I kid yee not. Also, even if a Minoan trader left behind a fired clay tablet in America (not one part of that clause is even a possibility): no one in America would be able to read it ever anyway. Writing did not serve the same purposes then as it does today, it was not used for interpersonal communication, for long-term record keeping, or for artistic expression. It was for counting sheep and making sure everybody paid this year’s taxes.

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  5. Ken

    I’m disappointed that it’s a hoax. But there’s one problem I thought of as I saw the episode. If it lasted 3000 to 5000 years on the ground, in the ground and finally wrapped up in a tree and yet was clearly legible, then why oh why would it be degraded so in the next hundred years in someone’s possession.

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  6. Dear ArchyFantasies,

    You have done all the heavy lifting to point out the classic red flags of a hoax. I do not claim any bona fides in archaeology, although I did do hard labor at Settefinestre with Carandini, nor great knowledge of ancient languages, although I have worked a little with Linear B, and have studied under John Chadwick who cracked Linear B with Michael Ventris in 1954.

    My kind of background is not necessary to see through this story. All one needs is a little background in con artistry to be very leery of the connection of the Newberry tablets to Mediterranean Bronze Age people. A confidence artist uses a hundred plausibilities, hoping his “pigeon” will mistake them as mounting proof of one fact. A good con has an overload of unverified pedigrees, and a creation story that is indisputable — like, it was found in the roots of a tree more than 100 years ago.

    The tree-root scam is classic, because it shows it must be old, implying the tree was a wee seedling when the tablet carelessly was dropped next to it, and as years passed the tablet was covered with dirt and slowly the trees roots grew around it. This is like amateur carbon dating in folk archaeology yarns to prove it was a product of past ages.

    This whole thing reads like a campfire story.

    Just a little arithmetic works to debunk the tree-root story. The oldest tree in Michigan “is said to be 1,000 years old.*” That leaves a 2,500-year gap between the Mediterannean Bronze Age hieroglyphs, cuneiforms, syllabaries and alphabets. Migrations of peoples are measured by centuries, at most, not millennia.

    *http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/04/23/michigan-old-things/26232071/

    I think the story tellers were thinking that the glyphs are similar to Linear B’s syllable symbols, because in a split-second glance, it is hard to tell it is not Linear B, which is what the story-tellers are counting on. Chadwick proved Linear B is Greek or proto-Greek. We know enough about Hittite to know it is not Greek.

    I turned off the TV during this telecast out of disgust, when the program was too teasing, and not showing the actual tablet script. It was like a bad 1950s sci-fi movie where they won’t show the monster because it looks so fake. I thank you for the screen shot that shows it is not Linear B.

    If you make up a story about a tree in the forest, then who are the first people that come to mind to embellish a kernel of credence to your story for finding the tablets under that tree? The low-budget storyteller would think, “Woodsmen, of course!” When, in fact, lumbermen cut down trees, not dig them up. Woodsmen leave tree roots in the ground. (I do have credentials as a lumberjack on Washington’s Olympic/Kitsap Peninsula(s).)

    The story should have chosen truffle diggers for the “eureka” moment.

    In my opinion, the yarns around this artifact are extremely amateur and asinine, though of course this does not mean it positively is a hoax — but rule out Bronze Age Mediterraneans and Anatolians.

    Clint Burks

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