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Museums: Michigan's Mystery Relics Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Lisa Young

[image] Some of the "Near Eastern" artifacts discovered in Michigan around the turn of the century. The crudity of the hoaxes make them a dead giveaway today, but at the time many accepted them as genuine. (Michigan Historical Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1890, sign painter James Scotford was digging a posthole in central Michigan when he uncovered a clay cup with mysterious symbols on it. Within a few days more objects, including elaborately carved tablets, were found. All had similar markings that looked vaguely like cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Were these relics fakes, or were they evidence that ancient Near Eastern people had lived in Michigan? The turn-of-the-century debate is the focus of an exhibition at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing called "Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics," running until August 15.

In the late 1800s, the public was fascinated by the mystery of Midwestern mounds. Many believed they were created by ancient settlers from Europe or the Near East. The Michigan Relics were heralded as proof of this lost civilization, even though a government-funded study, published shortly after the discovery of the objects, clearly demonstrated that American Indians built the mounds.

Within a year of their discovery, the Michigan Relics were denounced as forgeries by leading experts on the ancient Near East. One scholar called them "humbugs of the first water"; another, deeply unimpressed by the quality of the forgeries, said they were "remarkable only for their clumsy character." In spite of statements like these, highly respected clergymen were intrigued by the images depicted on the tablets, which were reminiscent of biblical scenes. In the end, however, all emphatically concluded that the whole episode was nothing but "a story of forgeries and deception."

The exhibit (which has also has an extensive web site: expertly explains how the artifacts were identified as fakes and fingers Scotford as the main culprit. The underlying message is that archaeological hoaxes cause substantial damage not only to the archaeological record (the "finds" touched off a looting spree in Michigan) but also by perpetuating fraudulent claims about the past. With high-profile hoaxes still making headlines, it's a message as relevant today as it was a century ago.

Lisa Young is a research scientist at the University of Michigan

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America