In l890, 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 which looked vaguely similar to cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs .Were these relics fakes, or were they evidence that ancient Near Eastern people had lived in Michigan?
In the late l800s the public was fascinated by the mystery of mid western 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 order” ; another deeply unimpressed by the quality of the forgeries, said they were “remarkable only for their clumsy character.” But despite statements such as 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.
What a pity these relics turned out to be forgeries.
The underlying message here 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.
Lisa Young research scientist at the University of Michigan.