Tag Archives: pre-Columbian artifacts

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.

 

Happy World Digger’s Day 2013! aka Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, and the Real Crystal Skulls.

I love old Indy!

Lets be fun today, it’s the second international World Digger’s Day and as such we’ve all been asked to change our icons and avatars to either a pic of Indiana Jones or Laura Croft…I went with Indy because Croft is a Tomb Raider.

That being said, I thought it might be fun to dedicate a post to the glorious Harrison Ford. Why you ask?

I’m not going to lie, the Indiana Jones movies were my favorites growing up, I got all worked up when the Last Crusade came out, and when Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls came out I about died. I love them all, and maybe they had some influence on me choosing to got into this field. When I worked in the Arch lab during my undergrad, there was a life-sized cardboard figure of Indy watching over all of us. My advisory kept a hat and whip on hand at all times, and frankly, I can’t really think of a single individual I have worked with that hasn’t told me that they like the movies too.

Indy is a meme, or trope, for those of us in the field  however seriously or not-seriously we take him. He represents our naive ideals and is the starting point of many a real conversion on why we need to educate the public on what archaeology really looks like. We love Indy, and we hate him, and frankly we’re jealous of him.

But Indy isn’t a real person, he’s an archetype, a legend. What about the man behind him, the man who took words on paper and gave him life? What about Harrison Ford!

Harrison Ford was my first Movie Crush. I remember getting in to a fight in 4th grade with another girl over which one of us was going to marry Harrison Ford when we grew up. (needless to say neither of us won that argument.) Harrison Ford is also an active advocate for archaeology, a cheerleader if you will, and we love him for that even more.

Harrison Ford publicly speaks on behalf of archaeology, helping to raise public awareness and constantly advocating for the preservation of natural resources and places of historical significance. Matching with Indy’s statement “It belongs in a museum!” he also works to prevent looting and the illegal antiquities trade. He’s been serving as a General Trustee on the Governing Board of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) since 2008.

Screw it, I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Now I know many don’t agree with me, but I liked the last movie. It was fun, fast paced, had all the old Indy feel to it, yah it was over the top, but Temple of Doom? Hello!

But one thing I wanted to look at a bit closer, because this is a blog about archaeology, were the Crystal Skulls themselves.

http://www.crystalskulls.com

Apparently, there is something to the Crystal Skulls. Their story starts in the 19 century as a collection of small skull shaped beads. They were recovered, supposedly, from locations in Mexico in a time when no scientific archaeological excavations had been done there, so knowledge of pre-Columbian artifacts was scarce (Walsh 2008). This was also a time when it was very lucrative to fake pre-Columbian artifacts, which was something Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes observed when he visited Mexico City in 1884 and was overwhelmed by “relic shops” (Walsh 2008).

William Henry Holmes (Wiki Commons)

The man who seems to be tied most intimately to the skulls is a French antiquarian named Eugène Boban. Boban was a Frenchman who was the official “archaeologist” of the Mexican court of Maximilian, and also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico.

French antiquarian Eugène Boban with his collection of Mesoamerican artifacts at an 1867 Paris exposition. (Walsh 2008)

Boban appears to have fallen in love with Mexican culture at a young age, in his teens he spent his youth conducting archaeological expeditions on his own, becoming fluent in Spanish and the Aztec language, Nahuatl (Walsh 2008). Around this time he appears to have began selling his finds through a family business in Mexico City (Walsh 2008). He returned to France in 1870 and opened an antiquities shop selling a large amount of his collection eight years later to Alphonse Pinart, a French explorer and ethnographer  (Walsh 2008). Pinart donated the collection to the Musée de l’Homme. The collection at this time contained three crystal skulls  (Walsh 2008).

In July 1886, Boban moved his museum business to New York City where he later held an auction of several thousand archaeological artifacts including a crystal skull that Tiffany & Co. bought for $950 (Walsh 2008). In 1896, Tiffany’s sold that skull to the British Museum for the original purchase price (Walsh 2008). Off topic but interesting none the less, is Boban’s 1886 catalog for the New York auction lists another small crystal skull and it is listed with a crystal hand, neither can be accounted for today (Walsh 2008).

In the end Boban managed to sell no less than 5 crystal skulls, all in museums world-wide. Where did he get them? Who made them, and can they really melt your brain if you look at them?

All of Boban’s skulls are claimed to be from either Aztec origins, or more generically Mexico Valley. But there are no records to back up those claims. Archaeology was in its infancy at this time, and the Mexico Valley untouched by academic and scientific archaeology. We are well within our rights to question the claims of Boban’s skulls.

The crystal skull at the British Museum (ID Am1898C3.1 ), similar in dimensions to the more detailed Mitchell-Hedges skull. (Wiki Commons)

So what about the Skulls themselves? Dr.  Jane MacLaren Walsh has spent a great deal of her time answering those questions. She breaks the Skulls down into generations  describing the small bead skulls as the first generation. Usually they are small, no bigger than 1.5 inches and are drilled through from top to bottom, like a bead (Walsh 2008). The holes possibly are reminiscent of their bead’s pre-Colombian origin, but the beads were probably carved after the fact to be sold to European antiquarians or as mementos mori, objects meant to remind of the eventuality of death (Walsh 2008). The earliest of these seems to be a British Museum crystal skull acquired in 1856 by British banker Henry Christy (Walsh 2008).

The second-generation skulls appear as life-size representations of human skulls and don’t a bead hole, as they are too large to wear. The first of these appeared in 1881 in the Paris shop of Boban where he exhibited it alongside actual human skulls (Walsh 2008).

The third generation of skulls  started showing up around 1934. Sidney Burney, a London art dealer, purchased a crystal skull of proportions almost identical to the one in the British Museum (Walsh 2008). We don’t know where he got it, but it’s almost identical to the British Museum skull but with more detailed modeling of the eyes and the teeth, and a separate mandible (Walsh 2008). This skull has acquired a Mayan origin and a number of supernatural powers, it has nicknames like Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and for some unknown reason has a vendetta against computer hard drives (Walsh 2008)

The Mitchell-Hedges skull, (Walsh 2008)

There have been a few other possible candidates for crystal skulls sent anonymously to various museums, including the Smithsonian in recent years. None with any real documentation towards their authenticity.  The most recent was a skull sent about 16 years ago, according to its unnamed donor, was purchased in Mexico in 1960. It dwarfs the other skulls in collections at 31 pounds and 10 inches in height (Walsh 2008). but like the others, is indeed a modern hoax.

 All the skulls in both the British Museum and the Smithsonian have been examined under light and scanning electron microscope  by Dr. Margaret Sax and Dr. Walsh (Walsh 2008). They have conclusively determined that the skulls were carved with modern lapidary equipment (Walsh 2008). Pre-Colombian lapidaries used stone, bone, wooden, and possibly copper tools with abrasive sand to carve stone, and the skulls are too perfectly carved and polished to be made in this manner (Walsh 2008). Dr. Walsh also believes that the first generation of skulls were made in Mexico between 1856 and 1880, around the time they were sold (Walsh 2008). She believes that this 24-year period represents the work of a single artisan or workshop (Walsh 2008). 

Despite the fact that all of the known skulls are fakes, they are interesting compelling fakes. They are really cool to look at and I’m sure they make great conversations starters. I know I wouldn’t mind one in my room.

So there you have it, a great way to wrap up World Digger’s Day! A bit of love to Harrison Ford and a bit of debunking on the actual Crystal Skulls.

Resources:

Walsh, Jane MacLaren

2008    “Legend of the Crystal Skulls”. Archaeological Institute of America
archive. Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008http://archive.archaeology.org/0805/etc/indy.html. Retrieved February 1, 2013