The Grave Creek Stone – archaelogical gem or hoax?

Posted by | August 15, 2016

Scholars and archaelogists have been duking it out over the authenticity of the Grave Creek Stone since it first surfaced in 1838.

Local amateur archaelogists in what was originally called “the Flats of Grave Creek” and is today Moundsville, WV reportedly found it during the first recorded excavation of Grave Creek Mound.

This burial mound was built in successive stages from about 250-150 BC by the Adena culture (~1000 B.C. to ~1 A.D.) This Woodland Period group had well-organized societies and lived in a wide area including much of present day Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, WVIn addition to the Adena ornaments and remains found in the interior, the first of two vaults allegedly contained a small flat sandstone tablet inscribed in an unrecognizable alphabet.

In 1847, archaelogist E.G. Squier made quite a fuss over the “singular omission” of any mention of the tablet in Dr. James W. Clemens’ first-hand, day-by day account of the excavation, which appeared in ‘Crania Americana’ (1839), by S.G. Morton. In 1858, however, anthropologist Wills de Hass managed to produce the manuscript original of Clemens’ account, and demonstrated that Morton had merely taken it upon himself to eliminate the stone’s discovery from the published version. Dr. Clemens in fact recorded the inscribed stone on the day of its discovery.

By 1868 the stone was in the collection of E.H. Davis, Squier ‘s partner in the Squier & Davis archaelogy firm, before most of Davis’ collection was sold to the Blackmore Museum, now part of the British Museum. Davis made a plaster cast of the stone and deposited it in the Smithsonian Institution, but the original never made it to the British Museum.

Charles Whittlesey, a prominent soldier, attorney and scholar, writing in “Archaeological Frauds,” (1876) cites Squier’s finding that “Dr. Clemens, in his first account of the opening of the mound, makes no mention of this stone” but himself makes no mention of de Hass’s correction of this misconception.

By 1876, there were 4 plaster casts of the stone, 1 wax cast, and 6 drawings, most made from inferior copies of the stone, and not the original. “If the Grave Creek find was free from suspicion as to its integrity,” noted Whittlesey, “it has undergone so many mutations from transcribers and translators that its value to ethnologists is gone.”

The Ohio State Archaeological Society appointed a committee in 1877 to study the authenticity of the stone. Committee member Rev. J.B. MacLean “did not hesitate to pronounce its authenticity as incontestable…. Regardless of who found the stone or whether it was discovered inside or outside the mound, all professed witnesses agreed it had come from the mound.”

drawing of Grave Creek Stone by Seth EastmanWhittlesey returns to the topic in an 1879 article, “The Grave Creek Inscribed Stone.” “The characters on the stone, by whomsoever they were cut,” he declares, “are not alphabetical or phonetic. If they have any meaning and are not a mere jumble of characters they must be symbolic or picture writing. It is therefore of small consequence whether the stone is antique or modern, whether it is genuine or a fraud.”

After Whittlesey’s two articles the Grave Creek Stone was generally dropped from serious consideration by archaeologists, except as a textbook example of an established hoax. It was so thoroughly discredited that they even lost track of its whereabouts.

Wills de Hass was appointed in 1881 to head the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology’s Mound Survey project, but was replaced after only a year in favor of Cyrus Thomas. It is not unlikely that this had something to do with his favorable position toward the Grave Creek Stone, whereas Thomas stood firmly in the skeptics camp. “What is in the published record is that DeHass got very little done,” said director John Wesley Powell. “He certainly was not a good field person.”

DeHass mainly dropped from sight in archaeology, although he still maintained his interest in mounds and American archaeology, giving a few reports in the Anthropology section of the AAAS (magazine of the American Anthropological Society), and exploring a few ruins when he was named U.S. Consul in Yucatan. The stone was probably in his collection at the time of his death in 1910.


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