Archaeology’s great hoax

In a storeroom of the Michigan Historical Museum, state archaeologist John Halsey examined the newly acquired artifacts purported to be the remnants of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization that settled in Michigan thousands of years ago.

He pointed to the pictures engraved on slate tablets, telling stories from the Old Testament.

Here’s God directing Adam to the Garden of Eden. Here’s Eve. Here’s the apple tree. Here’s God banishing them from the Garden. Here’s Moses with the Ten Commandments. And here’s a scene depicting the crucifixion of Christ.

But, wait a minute, how did that get in there?

“If you’re going to tell an Old Testament story,” Halsey said, “Jesus shouldn’t be there.”

It’s one of many indications the so-called “Michigan Relics,” once hailed as the greatest archaeological discoveries since Pompeii, are fakes.

“It’s the physical evidence of the largest archaeological fraud in the state’s history,” Halsey said, then, on further reflection, he added: “It is arguably the largest archaeological fraud ever in this country, and the longest running.”

More than a century after the first relics were discovered, some people still believe them to be authentic. Some influential members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) once considered them evidence of the church’s connection to a Near Eastern culture in ancient America. The Mormon Church for decades kept a large collection of the artifacts in its Salt Lake City museum, but never formally claimed them to be genuine.

This past summer, after scholars examined the relics and declared them fakes, the church donated the 797 objects to the Michigan Historical Museum, which plans to exhibit them beginning next month.

James Scotford claimed he found the first relic — a large clay casket — while digging a post hole on a Montcalm County farm in October 1890. He hurried into the nearby village of Wyman to announce his discovery, touching off a frenzy of digging all over the Lower Peninsula.

Over the next 30 years, thousands more artifacts — tiny caskets, amulets, tools, smoking pipes and tablets — were found, including some in Kent County. The items were made of clay, copper and slate, and most bore the mark “IH/,” which some interpreted as a tribal signature or a mystic symbol. Some thought it was a variation on IHS, the ancient Hebrew symbol for Jehovah.

A syndicate was formed in Stanton to corner the market and sell the items to the highest bidder, perhaps the Smithsonian Institution.

Oddly, nearly all were found when Scotford, a former magician and sleight-of-hand expert, was present.

Almost from the beginning, skeptics cast doubt on the finds, among them University of Michigan Latin Professor Francis Kelsey who in 1892 called them forgeries. He noted the inscriptions on some of the relics appeared to be a “horrible mixture” of ancient alphabets, such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform, and spelled nothing.

The clay tablets appeared to have been molded on a machine-sawed board, Kelsey said.

But the relics had their vocal promoters, chief among them Daniel Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State, forced to resign because of corruption. In the early 1900s, Soper teamed with Scotford to sell the objects. They enlisted the support of the Rev. James Savage, priest at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Detroit.

Historians and archaeologists today believe Savage, who became the most avid collector, was not privy to the scam, but was duped to give the finds credibility. Savage believed the artifacts were left by the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel or a colony of ancient Jews. He became an easy mark for Soper and Scotford, Halsey said, because the artifacts confirmed his religious beliefs.

“They were very clever in who they picked as their marks,” Halsey said.

Typically, Scotford and Soper would invite prominent members of a community — a postmaster, a wealthy farmer, a sheriff — to accompany them on their digs. Scotford would point out a likely place to dig, and, when an object was found, which it inevitably was, he would invite his guest to remove it from the ground. Those accompanying Scotford and Soper were asked to sign affidavits, attesting the items were authentic, because they saw them removed from the ground.

The finds soon drew worldwide attention from those who believed and those who didn’t. Publications from The New York Times to The Nation reported on the controversy surrounding the finds.

Soper and Scotford were incensed when anyone questioned the objects’ authenticity, and tried to discredit their critics.

When some experts said the unfired clay objects would quickly dissolve in Michigan’s damp soil, the pair uncovered fired clay objects. When some said the slate tablets showed the marks of modern saws, chisels and files, Scotford and Soper unearthed crude saws, chisels and files fashioned from copper. When some questioned what happened to the makers of the relics, a tablet surfaced depicting a battle with Indians.

Over time, the story behind the finds changed. Some said the relics were the work of Egyptian Coptics. Some speculated they were the charms of wandering Japanese Buddhist monks.

Notably, wherever Scotford went, more artifacts were found. When he moved to Detroit, pieces were unearthed in Southeast Michigan. Eventually, relics were found in 16 Michigan counties, all baring the IH/ imprint.

Halsey and other modern archaeologists believe Scotford and his sons were making the relics, and Soper was marketing them. Some neighbors complained the pounding coming from Scotford’s shop kept them awake at night. In 1911, Scotford’s stepdaughter signed an affidavit saying she saw her stepfather making the relics, but she insisted the statement remain secret until after her mother’s death.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, some still believe the relics prove foreigners settled here centuries before Columbus sailed.

“To call them an outright fraud is a big mistake by the archaeological professionals,” said Wayne May, a self-described “armchair archaeologist” and publisher of the Ancient American, a Wisconsin-based magazine dedicated to the proposition that overseas visitors arrived here long before Columbus.

May conceded some of the Michigan Relics may be fake, but “I believe there’s a lot of pieces that are not fraudulent,” he said, reached while leading a tour of Ohio burial mounds. “Some day something’s going to give, and it’s going to prove there were (foreign) people here long before Columbus.”

Savage died still believing the Michigan Relics were genuine. He bequeathed his large collection to Notre Dame University. In 1960, a pair of Mormon missionaries found the collection there, and Notre Dame gladly donated it to the church.

In 1977, the church asked Richard Stamps, an Oakland University archaeology professor and practicing Mormon, to examine the relics. Stamps concurred with the conclusions of earlier scholars the relics were fakes. The copper relics, he said, were made from ordinary commercial copper stock, not hammered copper ore. The copper had been treated with chemicals to produce the green patina of aged copper, Stamps said.

The slate tablets appeared to have been cut using the English measuring system of inches and feet and were too smooth and uniform to have been fashioned by an ancient civilization, he said. The slate apparently came from quarries on the New York-Vermont border, he said, and may have been scavenged from a Detroit slate yard.

In 1998-99, Stamps again studied the relics in the Mormon collection and again pronounced them fakes in an article published in 2001 in BYU Studies, a Latter-Day Saint journal.

“Poor Father Savage. I feel so sorry for this Catholic father,” Stamps said. “I think Scotford was cranking these things out and slipping them into the ground, and I think Savage didn’t have a clue. I think he (Scotford) probably had some sleight-of-hand technique.”

Last June, Stamps visited the Slate Valley Museum on the New York-Vermont border and asked workers there to examine several of the relics. The workers could identify the specific quarry each piece came from and what it originally was made to be: a window sill, a shingle or other construction pieces. But one trapezoidal tablet still puzzled Stamps. In the next room, he looked at a display of items made from slate, including a laundry tub. On closer examination, he noticed the end pieces of the tub were trapezoids, exactly matching the tablet.

“It was obvious,” Stamps said. “That was a buzz for me.”

Through Stamps, the Mormon Church decided to donate its collection to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. It arrived there recently, and workers began preparing the Michigan Relics for an exhibit opening Nov. 15 and running through Aug. 15.

“We thought it was such an important collection historically,” Halsey said, “and, since Michigan was the setting of all the finds, that this is where it belonged.”

He added that “we’re fully cognizant that no matter what we do, people are going to believe in them.”

It may be significant that no more relics were found after Scotford died in the 1920s. Soper eventually moved to Chattanooga, and both men went to their graves insisting the objects were authentic.

Ironically, they had wanted the aura of legitimacy that a museum exhibit would give their finds — although not one portraying them as the greatest archaeological con men in American history.

“They’d call us cowards and scoundrels,” said Steve Ostrander, preparing the items for display, to which Halsey added: “They’d be after our jobs.”

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