Current archaeological activities, updates and discussion from the staff of the Ohio History Connection. Your comments are welcome!
I have largely avoided watching the popular History Channel program America Unearthed, because I had read enough about Scott Wolter and his show to know that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. I decided to watch the latest episode entitled “Ark of the Covenant,” however, because I heard it included information about the Newark Holy Stones, which I have been studying for years. I was morbidly curious to see what Wolter would have to say about it.
Jason Colovito, a serious student of pseudoscience, has reviewed every episode of America Unearthed, on his website, which I highly recommend to your attention. Rather than repeat his analysis of this episode, I will restrict my comments to the segment of the show that dealt with the Newark Decalogue Stone.
The Decalogue Stone is one of the several artifacts known collectively as the Newark Holy Stones, because they were found in the vicinity of Newark, Ohio. It is a small, roughly tombstone-shaped object carved from black limestone. It is completely covered with a Hebrew inscription comprising the Ten Commandments and there is a rendering of a turbaned individual identified as Moses. It reportedly was found beneath a small earthen mound that, in turn, had been buried beneath an enormous stone mound. The bulk of the stone had been hauled away during the 19th century revealing a number of small, earthen mounds, which promptly were dug into by various parties and one of these expeditions resulted in the apparent discovery of the Decalogue Stone.
For more details about this fascinating object and why I am sure it is a 19th century forgery, you can refer to the several publications that I and various co-authors, particularly my colleague Jeff Gill, have written on the subject. A list is appended to this post.
In “Ark of the Covenant,” Wolter and his guest expert, Huston McCulloch, appear to be unaware of this body of research for they make no mention of it whatsoever. They conclude the Decalogue Stone is an authentic relic of prehistory and that it is a key piece of evidence pointing towards North America as the repository of the fabled Ark of the Covenant.
As a quick summary, here are the arguments they offer in support of the authenticity of the Decalogue Stone:
1. Wolter asserted that the Hebrew text inscribed upon the Decalogue Stone had passed the scrutiny of the skeptics.
2. McCulloch pointed out that the small stone box in which the Decalogue Stone was found would have taken a lot of work to make and asserted that if the Decalogue Stone was a fake, the forgers wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of making such an elaborate box for it.
3. After a microscopic examination of the Decalogue Stone, Wolter concluded it was not made by modern machinery and no geological data indicated it was a hoax. He observed scratches on the back of the stone, but McCulloch asserted the scratches likely were made when the Decalogue Stone was being placed in or removed from the stone box.
4. Wolter concluded there was no reason not to accept the Decalogue Stone as genuine, but that academics have dismissed it, because it didn’t “fit the paradigm.”
All of these claims are rubbish.
1. Not only has the inscription on the Decalogue Stone not passed the scrutiny of skeptics, no less an authority than the late Frank Moore Cross, Harvard University Professor of Near Eastern Languages, declared it to be a “grotesque” forgery. Jeff Gill has demonstrated that the archaic-looking Hebrew letters on the Decalogue Stone are based on the standard Hebrew alphabet used in the 19th century. It is a 19th century artifact made to look as if it were ancient.
2. Why would anyone go to all the trouble of creating such an elaborate hoax? Jeff Gill and I have thoroughly addressed this point in our published analyses of the Holy Stones. We do not think the stones were mere pranks. They were sophisticated forgeries intended to address the most important scientific debate of the age, a debate with profound political and religious implications. Of course the perpetrators would have gone to great lengths to make them look authentic.
3. The back of the Decalogue Stone does, indeed, preserve evidence that it was made with 19th century technology. Jim Hahn, an avocational archaeologist employed by the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum to make fine, cast replicas of the Decalogue Stone, told me that at least one set of scratches on the back of the Decalogue Stone actually was a small patch of grinding marks made by a 19th century grinding wheel. Evidently, the stone carver had missed this patch when he was finishing the stone.
4. The idea that my colleagues and I are hiding the supposed truth about the Decalogue Stone, because we are part of some kind of Machiavellian conspiracy to maintain the current paradigm is the most absurd claim of all. If we had actual evidence to prove that Hebrews had traveled to ancient America, we would get our pictures on the cover of National Geographic magazine. Large grants would be lavished upon us to undertake excavations and we would get to re-write the textbooks. Why would I choose to remain an underpaid museum archaeologist when “fortune and glory” were within my grasp? I can’t speak for all my colleagues, but my commitment to the current paradigm is not strong enough to pass up such an opportunity.
As a final note, Huston McCulloch is identified in the program as an “Historian.” Actually, he is a retired professor of economics and, to my knowledge, has no training as an historian. If he were an historian, then he might have had a better appreciation of the historic context in which the Holy Stones and similar frauds emerged. Matthew Canfield Read, a 19th century archaeologist from my hometown of Hudson, Ohio, had the right of it. He wrote that such frauds “will always in some way represent the ideas of the time of the forgery.” That’s why none of the hundreds of professional archaeological excavations conducted in Ohio during the 20th and 21st centuries has ever uncovered anything remotely like the Decalogue Stone.
For further reading:
Bolnick, Deborah A., Feder, Kenneth L., Bradley T. Lepper, and Terry A. Barnhart
2011 Civilizations lost and found: fabricating history. Part Three: real messages in DNA. Skeptical Inquirer 35(5):48-51.
Feder, Kenneth L., Bradley T. Lepper, Terry A. Barnhart, and Deborah A. Bolnick
2011 Civilizations lost and found: fabricating history. Part One: an alternative reality. Skeptical Inquirer 35(5):38-45.
Lepper, Bradley T.
1992 Just how holy are the Newark “Holy Stones?” In Vanishing Heritage, edited by P. E. Hooge and B. T. Lepper, pp. 58‑64. Licking County Archaeology and Landmarks Society, Newark.
1999 Newark’s “Holy Stones”: the resurrection of a controversy. In Newark “Holy Stones”: Context for Controversy, edited by P. Malenke, pp. 15-21. Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, Coshocton, Ohio.
Lepper, Bradley T., Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, and Deborah A. Bolnick
2011 Civilizations lost and found: fabricating history. Part Two: false messages in stone. Skeptical Inquirer 35(6):48-54.
Lepper, Bradley T. and Jeff B. Gill
2000 The Newark Holy Stones. Timeline 17(3):16-25.
2008 The Newark “Holy Stones”: the social context of an enduring scientific forgery. Current Research in Ohio Archaeology 2008.