Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part Two: False Messages in Stone
Bradley T. Lepper, Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, and Deborah A. Bolnick
The documentary Lost Civilizations of North America presents a distorted picture of American prehistory. The archaeological evidence presented to support notions of ancient pre-Columbian contact consists of long-discredited frauds.
“Our histories should give only what is known to be the truth, and falsehood should always be cried down whenever it is known to exist.”
—David Wyrick, accused perpetrator, but likely victim, of the Newark “Holy Stones” forgeries (1860)
As noted in Part One of this discussion (SI, September/October 2011), the documentary The Lost Civilizations of North America (produced by Steven Smoot, Rick Stout, and Barry McLerran) purports to be an exploration of “the fascinating world of ancient North America, and why the artifacts and evidences of ancient civilizations have been lost and largely ignored” (qtd. from the DVD’s website at www.lostcivilizationdvd.com/documentary.html). The ancient civilizations that are alleged to have left their mark in pre-Columbian North America include, at a minimum, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Celts. The documentary acknowledges that “mainstream archaeologists” do not accept the claim that any of these civilizations had contact with the indigenous North American cultures, yet it features the views of several “diffusionists,” none of whom appear to be archaeologists (“mainstream” or otherwise). These diffusionists argue that a wealth of artifacts appears to support the “lost civilization” claim, and they purport to explain why mainstream archaeologists have so assiduously ignored or suppressed this evidence for numerous episodes of intercontinental intercourse.
What Is the Evidence for Lost Civilizations in North America?
Interspersed throughout Lost Civilizations of North America are images of a bewildering variety of artifacts, some of which are recognized icons of American archaeology while others are less familiar and even startlingly odd. The narrator explains these puzzling juxtapositions as follows:
Many artifacts are shown throughout this film. Some artifacts are accepted as authentic by the scientific community today, and some are not. In many cases authentic artifacts may be shown alongside controversial ones. This is done in part to underscore the difficulty in determining authenticity, and also to illustrate a conflict that exists between mainstream anthropologists, and those who have been termed “diffusionists.”
There are numerous problems with this justification for intentionally blurring the distinction among verifiably ancient artifacts, objects of questionable authenticity, and objects that are demonstrably fraudulent. First, it falsely suggests that there is a legitimate scientific controversy over the interpretation of these artifacts. Framing this alleged controversy in this way is very similar to creationists attempting to characterize their argument with evolutionary biologists. As with that more familiar canard, there is no real scientific controversy. We are not aware of any contemporary anthropologist who thinks there is scientific validity to the infamous artifacts featured in this documentary, such as the Michigan Relics (Halsey 2004), the Grave Creek Stone (Lepper 2008), the Bat Creek Stone (Mainfort and Kwas 2004), and the Newark “Holy Stones” (Lepper and Gill 2000) (figure 1).
The effect of presenting these bogus objects in juxtaposition with ancient masterpieces, such as the Adena effigy pipe (figure 2), also shown in the documentary, is to validate infamous frauds at the expense of the authentic artifacts. It appears deliberately obfuscatory and is demeaning to the achievements of the ancient Native American artisans.
Second, we believe that the documentary’s justification for mixing authentic with “controversial” artifacts wildly exaggerates the “difficulty in determining authenticity.” In any archaeological analysis, the key to determining the authenticity of a putative ancient artifact is to establish its context. For virtually none of the disputed artifacts shown in the documentary is there any reliable information about its archaeological context. To begin with, none of the artifacts shown, nor any similar pieces that might lend support to the authenticity of the objects highlighted in the video, has been recovered in any modern archaeological excavation using the tools and techniques of late twentieth-century archaeology. This is a crucial point: by and large, artifacts with putative ancient Old World writing were found in New World sites during only a rather narrow window of time (primarily from the mid-nineteenth into the early twentieth century), a period during which there was enormous controversy concerning the origins of the mound builders of the American Midwest and Southeast. In the far more extensive archaeological fieldwork accomplished between 1930 and the present, no such artifacts have ever been discovered by professional archaeologists. We can think of no legitimate artifact category in which archaeologists ceased finding examples of an artifact type once the field became professionalized with applied scientific methodology.
In many cases, moreover, information on the historical context of these inscribed objects has demonstrated that they are frauds or forgeries. The video’s narrator asserts, for example, that the Bat Creek Stone was “found using modern methods within the original surroundings” (emphasis added) (figure 3). Donald Yates, a featured diffusionist who holds a doctorate in classical studies, goes on to assert that naysayers can’t dismiss this artifact because it was recovered in an “official excavation by the Smithsonian Institution,” as if that alone should be considered sufficient evidence—by professional archaeologists or anyone else, for that matter—for its acceptance as genuine.
It certainly is true that John Emmert, the man who claimed to have found the Bat Creek Stone, was in the employ of the Smithsonian Institution at the time of its discovery. During this period, the Smithsonian hired an eclectic assortment of individuals with varying levels of expertise to conduct local operations on the Institution’s behalf. Emmert appears to have been one of the lesser qualified excavators, and he was later fired because of questions about the quality of his work (Mainfort and Kwas 1991, 12). Even discounting the obvious questions about his competence, since Emmert excavated the stone in 1889, his methods could hardly be considered “modern” in any meaningful sense. Finally, since the archaeologists Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas discovered the source used by the forgers of the Bat Creek inscription, conclusively demonstrating it to be a fraud (Mainfort and Kwas 2004), consideration of Emmert’s qualifications is moot. It is clear now that Emmert either perpetrated the fraud himself or failed to detect the imposture because of his dodgy methods.
The Newark Holy Stones
The artifacts given the most screen time in the documentary are the so-called Newark “Holy Stones.” In fact, the narrator refers to the controversy surrounding the interpretation of these artifacts as a case study that “demonstrates the division between some diffusionists and most mainstream archaeologists.” If the producers of the documentary sincerely believe this statement, then it is difficult to understand why they feature only the diffusionist side of the argument. What makes this one-sided presentation particularly perplexing is that one of the scientists interviewed (one of the authors of this article) has written extensively on the Newark “Holy Stones” and therefore could have ably represented the “mainstream” view (Lepper 1999; Lepper and Gill 2000). Note that the narrator’s use of the qualifier in his phase “most mainstream archaeologists” leaves the listener with the false impression that there might be some “mainstream archaeologists” out there who accept the Newark “Holy Stones” as authentic. We are aware of none who have gone on record in support of these egregious, if historically interesting, forgeries.
The Newark “Holy Stones” consist of five separate artifacts, at least two of which even many diffusionists acknowledge to be fraudulent (Lepper 1991). The documentary focuses on the second of the artifacts to be reported although both of the two surviving “Holy Stones” are featured in various video clips.
David Wyrick, a Licking County, Ohio, surveyor and avocational archaeologist, made his first sensational discovery, the so-called “Keystone,” in a shallow excavation at the monumental Newark Earthworks. He found the “Decalogue Stone” (figure 4), even more spectacular and apparently definitive proof of his belief that ancient Israelites had built the ancient mounds, just five months later at a different site a few miles south of Newark (Lepper and Gill 2000).
The Reservoir Stone Mound, also known as the Jacksontown Stone Mound, was the largest aboriginal stone structure in North America north of Mexico. It was forty feet in height and 180 feet in diameter. First described in 1822 in a call to preserve the magnificent edifice, it was, nevertheless, largely destroyed between 1831 and 1832 when the stones were used in the construction of an extensive series of dikes framing the reservoir on the Licking summit of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Estimates vary, but between 10,000 and 15,000 wagon loads of stone are said to have been hauled away for this purpose. When the bulk of the stones had been removed, a portion of a circular arrangement of ten to twenty eight-foot-tall earthen mounds was revealed.
In the video, Ancient American magazine’s publisher Wayne May narrates the story of Wyrick’s discovery of the Decalogue Stone:
They found one major earth structure in the center surrounded by twelve small burials. David Wyrick went straight for the middle one with nine other gentlemen and they began to dig that mound down and they uncovered it—and when they did they found a wooden coffin made out of oak and opening up that coffin in there was a large skeleton of a man, but also in this coffin was a little box no more than maybe about eight or ten inches in size and it was cemented shut. Wyrick and the men, while they were all there together, they pried this box apart and in it was a black stone. They opened this box and here was this unusual artifact.
This account of the basic facts of the discovery is riddled with errors. Some may seem trivial, but they are important to document because they demonstrate a pattern of carelessness with regard to facts that is depressingly typical of the diffusionist literature.
1. The Decalogue Stone was not found in the central mound but in one of the ten to twenty mounds arranged in a ring at the base of the stone mound. The exact total of these small mounds was never recorded, probably because the entirety of the stones have never been removed, leaving some still buried beneath the remnants of the mound. May’s reference to “twelve” leaves the unwarranted impression of an exact count. The fact that May settled so precisely on the number twelve may have something to do with the mystical significance of that number in the Judeo-Christian tradition (twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, etc.).
2. Wyrick did not undertake his investigation with nine other men but with five.
Sources allow us to identify at least four of them: Jacob Wyrick, John Nicol, John Haynes, and John Larett. Nicol’s presence is significant, because he was directly implicated in the blatant hoax of two of the subsequent “Holy Stones” (Lepper 1991).
3. Wyrick’s team did not discover the wooden “coffin.” The “coffin,” originally described as a “trough,” was found in 1853 by William Parr (Wyrick 1860). Parr cut off a piece of the wooden trough to retain, but he left the rest in the hole to be reburied. Wyrick and a group of men returned to the site in August of 1860 to re-excavate the mound in order to recover the wooden “sarcophagus.” The excavation that resulted in the recovery of the Decalogue Stone was Wyrick’s second expedition to the site and at least the third time the mound had been dug into.
4. Neither Wyrick nor Parr recovered the skeleton of a “large man,” and the Decalogue Stone was not found in the coffin but rather several inches beneath it. Wyrick (1860) reported that Parr found human bones, but they amounted to only “bits of skull,” a few teeth, and some hair. There would have been no way to reliably identify either the sex or the size of the person represented by these meager human remains, and the bones are not known to be curated in any museum collection where they could be re-studied using modern forensic methods. The only artifacts associated with the human remains were ten copper bracelets. The Decalogue Stone was found in clay well below the original depth of the wooden burial platform.
May then recounts Wyrick’s efforts to interpret the Decalogue Stone:
They took it to some scholars—identified that it was probably some type of Hebrew. They took it to some rabbis living in the area and looking at it, they said yes they could read it and it was a complete rendition of the Ten Commandments. They called it block Hebrew. And so then naysayers started picking on Wyrick. He was accused of sticking this stone in front of these nine men somehow and being able to hide it and conceal it.
And it wasn’t until sometime in the 1900s, lo and behold, in Israel they find, guess what, they found block Hebrew. The block-style of Hebrew was given a name by the experts—monumental Hebrew, because of the way it was written. Long after Wyrick. After!
In other words, May is claiming that the version of Hebrew found on the Decalogue Stone could not have been fraudulently produced in 1860 because this form of writing was not known until years after the discovery of the stone. This is all nonsense. In fact, Wyrick took the Decalogue Stone directly to the local Episcopal Minister, John McCarty, who published a comprehensively annotated translation of the inscription within a week of its discovery (McCarty 1860).
There were rabbis who could, indeed, read the inscription. Abraham Geiger, a highly respected German rabbi and scholar of Hebrew, concluded in the July 27, 1860, New York Times that the Decalogue Stone inscription was “the bungling work of an unskilled stone mason and the strangeness of some letters as well as the many mistakes and transpositions was his fault. The letters are not antique. This is not a relic of hoary antiquity” (qtd. in Alrutz 1980, 41).
Geiger’s assessment has been confirmed and elaborated by our colleague Jeff Gill, who noted specific errors in the inscription that could have occurred only if someone were working from a conventional nineteenth-century typeface Hebrew text and then converting each letter into the corresponding antique-looking character of the Decalogue alphabet. Doing so would result in a recurring pattern of error, which confirms the modern source for the inscription (Lepper and Gill 2000, 20). Frank Moore Cross, Harvard University professor of Near Eastern languages and one of the foremost contemporary authorities on ancient Hebrew, fully corroborated Gill’s conclusions, writing that it was clear that “the modern forms of the Hebrew character[s] . . . stand ultimately behind” the Decalogue Stone inscription (Cross 1991). Cross offered his opinion that the Decalogue Stone was a “grotesque” forgery that could not be taken seriously.
May’s peremptory dismissal of the idea that Wyrick might have been able somehow to bury the fraudulent Decalogue Stone in front of the “nine” witnesses is completely unwarranted, since the mound in question had been dug into on at least two previous occasions. Moreover, Wyrick’s plan to continue his investigation of the mound was known by at least five other individuals, any one of whom would have had ample opportunity to plant the artifact within the excavation before the day arranged for the second expedition. Nicol’s subsequent involvement in a similar proven hoax casts considerable suspicion in his direction.
May’s claims about the significance of block Hebrew, also called monumental Hebrew, are specious and uninformed. “Block Hebrew” is simply what palaeographers and epigraphers call Classical Hebrew orthography from the Second Temple–era down to the present, and there is no coherent correspondence between any ancient epigraphic Hebrew and the Decalogue alphabet.
Finally, by ignoring the historical context in which the Newark “Holy Stones” appeared, May and other diffusionists lose the opportunity to understand the true nature of the forgeries. The Newark “Holy Stones” represented an attempt to encompass the prehistory of the New World within the biblical history of the Old World, thereby undermining the dangerous doctrine of polygenesis, which sought to provide a scientific justification for both the enslavement of African people and the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands. Ironically, these ideas would have provided some support and nuance for a central theme of the Lost Civilizations of North America documentary.
How Did Important Evidence of a Lost Civilization Come to Be ‘Lost’?
Lost Civilizations of North America advances the unsupportable proposition that the epigraphic evidence supporting diffusionist claims was not simply discarded after a thorough review by fair-minded scholars, but that it was actually accepted and deliberately suppressed by official historians because “the idea that ancient inhabitants knew of and used Middle Eastern Hebrew symbols undermined the notion that Native Americans were isolated savages.”
The claim that scholars have dismissed or even destroyed data to support racist interpretations of America’s past are made explicitly by Wayne May in the documentary. His argument rests on the use of a selectively edited quotation by John Wesley Powell, who served as the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey: “Hence, it will be seen that it is illegitimate to use any pictographic matter of a date anterior to the discovery of the continent by Columbus for historic purposes.” This quote appears on the screen just as we show it here, ending with a period as if this were the complete thought expressed by Powell. From this it is asserted that scientists knew about Native American writing and conspired to suppress the truth about such writing and its connection to Old World alphabets by forbidding the scientific use of these “pictographs.” This is, of course, patently false, and when his statement is read in its full context it is clear that this was not what Powell meant. The quoted phrase does not end in a period as shown in the documentary. Instead, a semi-colon separates the first part of the sentence from the rest of Powell’s thought. Powell’s entire statement is repeated here with the part excised in the documentary in italics:
Hence, it will be seen that it is illegitimate to use any pictographic matter of a date anterior to the discovery of the continent by Columbus for historic purposes; but it has a legitimate use of profound interest, as these pictographs exhibit the beginning of written language and the beginning of pictorial art, yet undifferentiated; and if the scholars of America will collect and study the vast body of material scattered everywhere—over the valleys and on the mountain sides—from it can be written one of the most interesting chapters in the early history of mankind. (Powell 1881, 75)
In other words, while Powell felt it “illegitimate” to interpret pictographs (figure 5) directly as a form of written history, he nevertheless felt they were of enormous importance and should be collected and analyzed precisely because they represent the beginning of a written language (exactly what the documentary claims Powell and others were attempting to hide) and a history could be derived by those who studied them. Powell was not attempting to suppress archaeological evidence but simply trying to subordinate theory to the collection of data.
Clearly, Powell got it wrong on some issues. For example, while he correctly noted that the “pictographs” produced by the civilizations of Mesoamerica were more “conventional” than those seen in North America, he incorrectly surmised that theirs wasn’t a true system of writing. This error, however, does not warrant the implication made in the documentary that his goal was to suppress any evidence showing that the native people of North America were capable of developing civilization. Exactly the opposite is true. As a matter of fact, Powell worked to dispel the myth of a mound-building people distinct from Native Americans, a conclusion he based not on armchair theorizing but on masses of data from extensive American ethnological and archaeological fieldwork. It is incredible that anyone would suggest, as the producers of Lost Civilizations clearly do, that Powell “robbed” Native Americans of their history. This is one of the more egregious of several non sequiturs present in the documentary. Powell’s purpose was to unite American archaeology and ethnology in the study of the mounds, not to suppress evidence. That is not to suggest that he did not have predispositions, opinions, and biases. Who does not? Yet Powell did as much as anyone at the close of the nineteenth century to make American archaeology and ethnology more exacting sciences. His critical comments on limitations attending the use of certain kinds of anthropological data still bear reading today.
Why Are Archaeologists Skeptical about Old World Visitors to the New World?
This brings us to a subject touched on only briefly in the documentary: the Norse settlement of North America circa 1000 CE. The clear implication in the documentary is that since it can be demonstrated that the Norse were here one thousand years ago, it is also possible that Middle Easterners were in the New World two thousand years ago.
In fact, before the 1960s, archaeologists were generally skeptical about claims of a pre-Columbian Norse discovery and settlement of the New World primarily because these claims were based not on material remains found in North America reflecting a pre-Columbian Norse presence but on the interpretation of historical documents—specifically, two Norse sagas (Eric the Red’s Saga and the Greenlander’s Saga), both of which had been committed to paper fully two centuries after the events discussed were supposed to have taken place.
Archaeologists, with a focus on material evidence, tend to subscribe to essayist Ambrose Bierce’s definition of written history: “An account mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools” (Bierce  2003). Essentially, material remains—the things people made, used, and then either lost or discarded—represent the gold standard in archaeological analysis. So, while the two aforementioned sagas claimed that lands to the west of the Norse settlements in Greenland had been discovered, explored, and briefly settled, most in the archaeological community were skeptical of taking the sagas literally without material evidence as confirmation.
This all changed when, in the early 1960s, artifacts and even structures unquestionably of Norse origin were found by archaeologists working in Newfoundland at the site of L’anse aux Meadows. Items such as a ring-headed bronze pin, a soapstone spindle whorl, iron boat rivets, and the remnants of turf houses were excavated, all in the clear context of the remains of an entire ancient settlement (Ingstad and Ingstad 2000). These material remains looked nothing like any that had been found at native sites but matched, in detail, objects found in known tenth- and eleventh-century Norse sites in Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Radiocarbon dates proved that the Newfoundland village had been occupied before 1000 CE, placing it in time roughly contemporaneous with the events described in the sagas. Subsequent research throughout northeastern Canada has revealed additional material evidence of a Norse presence there about one thousand years ago (Sutherland 2000). As a result, archaeologists now fully accept that the Norse came to the New World, explored, and, in some cases, settled there five centuries before Columbus.
The Norse example is an instructive lesson in assessing the underlying claim made by the Lost Civilizations documentary. It is, unfortunately, a lesson lost. If interlopers from the Middle East arrived in North America two thousand years ago, one would expect there to be abundant material evidence of their presence. If a handful of Norse explorers and settlers left behind recognizable elements of their material culture scattered across Canada, certainly a large contingent of Hebrews moving into Ohio and building the literally thousands of mound sites found there would have, just like the Canadian Norse, left behind villages littered with material objects diagnostic of their culture and easily distinguishable from that of the native people already there. Their material culture would be found abundantly virtually anywhere archaeologists—or, for that matter, anyone else—dig. They certainly would have left behind more than a handful of inscribed tablets. But there is no such evidence for the presence of Hebrews or any other Old World people in pre-Columbian Ohio. In this case we are confident in turning the old cliché on its head: here, at least, the absence of evidence is, indeed, evidence of absence.
Finally, we wish to make one additional point. It is not surprising that when individuals in the nineteenth century, for whatever reason, wished to convince their contemporaries that the mounds had been constructed by Middle Easterners, the most obvious and, to be frank, easiest way to attempt this was to manufacture fake artifacts, like the Newark “Holy Stones,” with inscriptions on them. It would have been far more difficult (in reality, virtually impossible) to concoct entire sites with trash pits, house remains, and burials—all reflecting the morphology, artifact types, skeletons, and burial practices appropriate for and diagnostic of Hebrews dating to the first century. Let’s not be too hard on the fabricators of these frauds, hoaxes, and forgeries; they did the best they could—and they’re still fooling some people even today.
One additional category of evidence discussed in Lost Civilizations will be examined in the third article in this series: genetic data used to trace the origins of the Native Americans in general and the mound builders in particular.
Alrutz, Robert W. 1980. The Newark Holy Stones: The history of an archaeological tragedy. Journal of the Scientific Laboratories, Denison University 57: 1–57.
Bierce, A.  2003. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury.
Cross, Frank Moorel. 1991. Personal correspondence to Lepper (September 15).
Halsey, John H. 2004. Forgeries, fakes and frauds. Michigan History (May/June): 20–27.
Ingstad, H., and A.S. Ingstad. 2000. The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books.
Lepper, Bradley T. 1991. ‘Holy Stones’ of Newark, Ohio, not so holy after all. Skeptical Inquirer 15(2): 117–19.
———. 1999. Newark’s ‘Holy Stones’: The resurrection of a controversy. In Newark ‘Holy Stones’: Context for Controversy, ed. P. Malenke (Coshocton, Ohio: Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum), 15–21.
———. 2008. Great find in West Virginia nothing more than a fraud. Columbus Dispatch (November 11): B7.
Lepper, Bradley T., and Jeffrey B. Gill. 2000. The Newark Holy Stones. Timeline 17(3): 16–25.
Mainfort, Robert C., and Mary L. Kwas. 1991. The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans in Tennessee? Tennessee Anthropologist 16: 1–19.
———. 2004. The Bat Creek Stone revisited: A fraud exposed. American Antiquity 69: 761–69.
McCarty, John W. 1860. Philology of Holy Stone No. 2. Cincinnati Daily Commercial (November 7).
Powell, John Wesley. 1881. On limitations to the use of some anthropologic data. In First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution 1879–80 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), 73–86.
Sutherland, P.D. 2000. The Norse and Native North Americans. In Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, eds. W.W. Fitzhugh and E.I. Ward (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), 238–47.
Wyrick, David. 1860. The recent mound exhumations. Saturday Evening Post (September 8): 6.
We are well aware that a claim underlying the Lost Civilizations documentary—that the mound-building people of the American Midwest were migrants from the Middle East 2,000 years ago—may be informed by religious doctrine. It is our position in this paper, however, that whatever inspires this claim is not nearly as important as the fact that it is plainly wrong. As such, we will leave it to others to assess the role played, if any, by religion in shaping Lost Civilizations and focus instead on scientific evidence relevant to that claim.