Tag Archives: Michigan Relic hoax

Those Damn Victorians at it Again, or Why so Many Fakes in the 19th Century?

Those Damn Victorians at it Again

If you follow this blog or podcast for any amount of time you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the things we cover can be traced back to 19th-century ideas. I’m not saying we should blame the Victorians for everything dealing with pseudo-archaeology, but I’m not saying we shouldn’t either.

What was going on during the Victorian era. Times were changing, social structures were being challenged, Darwinism, and archaeology was blossoming into a legitimate field of academic study. Kind of.

Of course, with every great growth spurt comes growing pains. And I honestly think that’s what the 19th century was for archaeology.

This is mainly me speculating basing all of this on 10 years writing this blog, and five years of hosting a podcast about debunking bad archaeology. I think I have a little authority to speak from here when I say the Victorian era in the 19th century was a powerhouse for fake archaeology. Some of the most enduring hoaxes that still plague modern archaeology today were created in the 19th century.

Some of them have been mostly dealt with, things like the Cardiff giant and Piltdown man. Not even the ancient aliens people push either of those as being authentic anymore. I know there’s a late hanger-on every now and then who pops up. I know the Cardiff giant was recently brought up as evidence for giants by one of the obscure vlogs I watch. For the most part though these of been laid to rest, debunked by archaeology and archaeologists of the 19th century, and continually reinforced by modern archaeologists, most pseudo-archaeology theorists don’t even bother with these.

There are others that have such staying power that I must marvel at them. Things like the Newark holy stones, the Michigan relics, the Kensington Rune Stone, the Bat Creek inscription, and the whole mound builder myth. Most of these things are complete hoaxes. They are not accepted in any way shape or form by the field of archaeology, but they are staples in the pseudo-archaeology arsenal of alternative history buffs.

Why do so many fakes come out of the Victorian era in the 19th century? What was so special about this time period that fakes were being made left and right?

One of the most obvious reasons for there being so many fakes from this era is the lack of ability to fact check them. In our modern era were used to Google and Wikipedia. We’re used to being able to type in a search term and get hundreds if not thousands of results to answer a question. This isn’t how things worked over 100 years ago. I’m not saying that people weren’t capable of distinguishing a real from a fake. The Piltdown man and means the Cardiff giant are clear examples that science and archaeology of the time was more than capable of spotting fakes when presented with them. The problem here is the average citizen had even less access to information than they do today, and in general trusted individuals who portrayed themselves as authorities.

Also keep in mind times were changing. People were moving into the beginning of an era where information traveled quickly, comparatively to the time, and lots of interesting spiritualist ideas were starting to spread. Many of the ideas that archaeologists deal with as far as the concepts that ancient aliens put forward, or giantologists argue, or even the lost Atlantean people push, mostly originated during the 19th century. At the time there was less information to counter these arguments with, and there, of course, was the accepted social stance that a lot of these spiritualist ideas fit into. Yes, I’m talking about things such as ethnocentrism racism, classism, and all the other fun things that I rally against constantly on this blog. I’m not saying the Victorians created racism, but they sure as hell liked using it.

During this time archaeology was concerned mostly with discovering origins and finding the oldest – whatever. Add to that the socially dominant idea that Native Americans could not have been the first people in the Americas, for reasons that are pretty much only supported biblically and even then not really. What you got was a race to find the first evidence of a superior white race that predated the Native Americans. When evidence began to come up lacking to support this loose hypothesis, some people took to creating that evidence themselves.

It can be speculated that certain hoaxes like the Bat Creek inscription were placed maliciously to harm the reputation of the excavator in charge. Other hoaxes, like the Kensington Rune Stone, may have been placed in an effort to confuse and befuddle the “learned men” of the time. Other hoaxes were most definitely done specifically to raise money. The Cardiff giant was created specifically as a moneymaking scheme, and it kinda worked. We also have to look at hoaxes such as the Piltdown man, which was basically an exercise in nationalism, and the desire to prove that Britain was better than everyone else because it had “the first man” the quintessential “missing link” in the evolutionary chain.

And we’re just talking about the archaeological hoaxes that most people are aware of. There are hundreds if not thousands of fake artifacts in the cultural history and art museums across the country and around the world. Artifacts that were created specifically to sell to institutions, like the Smithsonian, to make a quick buck. Some of these artifacts remained in the collections for many decades before being discovered as fakes. I suppose the comfort is that almost all of them had some detractor or doubter of their authenticity, but on the whole were accepted as authentic.

But how could so many fakes and hoaxes get past institutions specifically designed to study ancient history and art?

Basically, the technology wasn’t in place to debunk these artifacts. Even though communications were growing and becoming easier during the 19th century, they are still a far cry from what we enjoy today. I can send a text to a colleague and have an answer within an hour or so. During the 19th century, that question could take months to receive an answer. During that time the fake artifact or hoax may have already been purchased and possibly displayed to the public.

Authenticating artifacts was difficult as well, mainly because there weren’t as many experts as there are today. Collections were still thin, museums still growing, experts still being created. It was easier to pass off a fake as an authentic artifact or to just create a culture whole cloth in order to sell an artifact because the ability to debunk these things didn’t quite exist yet. There was no chemical testing at the level that we have today, no infrared scanning of paintings to see what colors fluoresce and what colors don’t. There was no way to molecularly test an object to see what kind of varnish was being used to create the aged look on an artifact.

So why were there so many fakes that come out of the 19th century and the Victorian era? Essentially, because that time period was right for it. The combination of fevered interest in discovering the human past, combined with lack of knowledge and comparative samples created a perfect storm for the creation and the selling of fakes and hoaxes.

Which should be the real question here though is, why are these fakes and hoaxes still accepted today as fact? It’s one thing to look back at the 19th century and the Victorian era and understand that people weren’t necessarily gullible as much as they simply didn’t have access to the proper information because it didn’t exist yet. It’s another thing entirely to be in the modern era where these things can be checked at the top of the phone screen and yet there is still fervent belief in the idea of the mound builders myth, that the Kensington Rune Stone is a real Viking room stone, that the Newark holy stones prove the lost tribes of Israel were in the Americas before Native Americans, and that somehow giants are real.

On the one hand yes we have ancient aliens that’s run for 14 seasons on television and has spawned numerous similar shows on various channels. But at some point, we can only blame the media for so much. At some point, we need to sit back and ask ourselves, what are we missing, and how can we fix it?

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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.


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.