Davenport Tablets

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By Mike Gates

Hunting Scene from one side of the Davenport Tablets[1]
Cremation scene from other side of one of the Davenport Tablets[2]

The Davenport Tablets are three inscribed slate tiles discovered by Swiss immigrant and Lutheran clergyman Reverend Jacob Gass inside a Native American burial mound at the Cook Farm site near Davenport, Iowa in 1877 and 1878[3]. The tablets depict scenes of cremation, hunting, an astronomical table and an array characters deriving from multiple ancient languages. Also found inside the mound were human skeletal remains, bronze axes, shells, red and yellow ochre and other valuable artifacts[4][5]. The tablets were originally viewed as the “missing link” proving Native American mounds were built by an ancient race of culturally advanced settlers who came to America from the Old World[6]. Further analysis of the tablets has proved they are all forgeries planted by unknown individuals, likely to discredit Jacob Gass[7].

Context

Moundbuilder Myth

As American settlers moved West in the 19th century they encountered huge earthen mounds throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys whose origin were unknown[8]. It was assumed by incoming settlers that contemporary Native Americans were not advanced enough to coordinate the means or labor to construct these mounds[9]. European settlers argued that there must have been a past race, originating from Europe, existing in the area prior to contemporary indigenous populations[10]. This “lost race”, which was notably unrelated to Native Americans, were claimed to have been superior in culture and intellect compared to the Native Americans[11]. Supposed evidence for this came from artifacts discovered in the mounds, which were considered a more advanced artistic style than contemporary Native American populations were capable of[12]. These ideas provided incoming settlers with two vital functions:

  1. Fulfilled a desire by European settlers for ancestry in North America[13]
  2. Justified the colonization of Native American land as repossession[14]

Both concepts fueled a racist ideology that persisted throughout America in the 19th century and robbed Native American populations of their agency, as well as their land. It was soon believed that contemporary Native American populations were the descendants of invaders who had killed the peaceful moundbuilders and taken their land for themselves, thus justifying similar actions against contemporary indigenous populations[15].

Amateur Archaeologists

Archaeology in the 19th century was seen as a pastime or hobby that interested individuals of broad disciplines and occupations could participate in[16]. This resulted in the first findings in archaeology following a nationalistic and Eurocentric pattern that aimed to romanticize people’s ancestry. Across the United States, numerous scientific clubs and organizations had sprung up for anyone interested in presenting theirs and listening to others findings[17]. In 1867 a number of amateur scientists in the Davenport, Iowa area formed the Davenport Academy of Sciences to discuss their mutual interest in topics ranging from natural history to archaeology, with the aim of presenting their work in a more professional and scholarly manner than previous scientific interest groups[18]. By the mid-1880s, however, the Moundbuilder hypothesis had lost steam among national, professional archaeological organizations. They began to lobby to credit Native Americans with having built the mounds, causing much discontent with local amateur archaeologists, who were eager to find “proof” that would validate their ideas and discredit those of the national organizations[19].

Excavation

In 1874, 1877 and 1878 Jacob Gass and several aids excavated Mounds No. 3, the largest of the group, and No. 11 of the Cook Farm Group, located on the Cook Farm near Davenport, Iowa[20][21]. Mound No. 3 had two graves in the center located parallel to each other and separated by approximately three to four feet of earth[22]. The first grave, located towards the south half of the mound, was later called Grave A. The second grave, located in the north, was Grave B.

Mound No. 3

Grave A

Cross-section of Mound No. 3[23]

In the latter part of 1874 Jacob Gass and three theological students began by excavating a unit several feet in width on Mound No. 3, three to four feet south of Grave A, and came across two human skeletons, which were determined to be no older than a century based on the good preservation of the bones and assorted artifacts including a silver earring and a fire steel[24]. Immediately beneath these remains lied a thin layer of river shells approximately one to two inches thick, followed by a slightly thicker bed of shells located below a foot of soil[25]. Below this second layer of shells lied Grave A containing three skeletons, two adults and one child, five copper axes wrapped in cloth, numerous copper beads, two carved stone pipes, a number of red stones, and several other valuable artifacts[26].

Grave B

Top-down view of Graves A and B[27]

In the winter of 1877 Jacob Gass visited the site again, this time with seven new aids, and began excavations on the north side of the mound after shells had been discovered in the area during tilling[28]. Again, Gass found a layer of shells one to two inches thick, but between this layer and the surface the soil was scattered with human remains, again of modern origin, as a number of stones which were more numerous around what would be the center of Grave B[29]. Beneath the first layer of shells, after roughly a foot of soil, was a second layer of shells, below which was what Gass himself called “a stratum of loose black soil” between 18 and 20 inches, laying on top of solid, undisturbed clay[30]. This was Grave B, in which was discovered fragments of human bones, a copper axe, copper beads, fragments of pottery, a flint arrowhead and several other mineral artifacts[31]. Two slate tablets were also discovered lying close together on the hard clay in the northwest corner of the grave, about five and a half feet below the surface of the mound[32]. The smaller tablet was engraved on one side while the larger one was engraved on both sides. Both tablets were closely encircled by a single row of limestones, and were covered on both sides by clay[33]. In the southwest and northeast corner of the grave were found human bone fragments, indicating two skeletons that were buried in the grave, but the scattered state of the remains made it impossible to determine the number interred[34].

Mound No. 11

Cross-section of Mound No. 11[35]

On January 30th, 1878, having been notified by the owners of the Cook Farm that some unusual stones had been uncovered while plowing, Rev. Gass, John Hume and Charles Harrison visited the site again, this time searching for a new mound[36]. The mound had been so nearly leveled by constant cultivation that it was barely recognizable, but the team discovered a number of limestone fragments and decayed shells in one spot and decided to excavate[37]. Opening a unit 4 by 6 feet, the team excavated about 14 inches when they discovered a pillar of stones and continued to remove these stones until, about one meter below the surface, they discovered a large, unwrought stone lying in horizontal position[38]. After removing this stone, a small chamber was discovered, the floor made of yellow clay like Mound No. 3, containing another tablet, flour flint arrows, a shell containing red ochre, and a quartz crystal[39].

Psuedoarchaeological Narrative

"Proof" of the Moundbuilders

Rev. Jacob Gass[40]

The Davenport Tablets, as the three tablets came to be called, were immediately believed to be the crucial, missing link that would prove the Moundbuilders were of European ancestry. The basis for this conclusion relied primarily on the inscriptions on the tablets, since Native Americans had no written script of their own, and the artistic quality of the images, deemed to be of European influence[41]. One member of the Academy, R. J. Farquharson, wrote a detailed analysis of the two tablets found in Mound No. 3, convinced they were constructed by a missing Moundbuilder race. He realized that the tablets were made of bituminous shale, which is abundant in the local region, and notices two holes with a diameter of 3/8 of an inch bored in the upper corners which he claims were used for suspension[42]. Examination with a magnifying glass revealed much of the original polishing, indicating the tablets had weathered very little, which Farquharson argues is due to the exccedingly friable nature of the tablets rendering significant exposure to weathering impossible[43]. On the Calendar Stone, Farquharson argues the twelve signs marking the divisions of the year are analogous to the zodiac signs, and evidence of contact with a society possessing knowledge of these uniquely Old World symbols[44]. On the cremation tablet, Farquharson suggests a strong similarity between some of the symbols seen on the tablet and those in the Phoenecian alphabet[45]. On the Hunting Scene Tablet Farquharson suggests two of the creatures inscribed might be mastodons based on the contour of the back, shape of the legs, tail and body proportions, though the trunk and tusks are missing[46]. The third tablet was analyzed by Charles Harrison. He determined the tablet was constructed out of non-fossiliferous limestone, resembling the Upper Helderberg limestone found on nearby Rock Island[47]. On one side of the tablet is inscribed a human figure seated upon or astride a circle with radial lines extending from it, apparently representing a sun, while within the circle is engraved the outline of a face[48]. The human figure was interpreted as a sun god sitting upon his throne, the sun[49]. With this information, Gass and the Academy believed they had discovered the definitive missing clue that would once and for all prove the Moundbuilder hypothesis. Of equal importance was the fact the tablet had been discovered in the Davenport area, giving the city and Academy much publicity and fame.

Hyperdiffusionist Claims

Later psuedoarchaeologists would extend the origin of the moundbuilders to Africa, a hyperdiffusionist claim which proposes that all of human civilization originated from a single progenitor civilization. In 1976, Barry Fell argued, without proof, in his book, “America B.C. – Ancient Settlers in the New World”, that the inscriptions on the tablets were written in the Phoenician, Iberian and Egyptian language, evidence an American "Rosetta Stone".[50]. The message, Fell argued, discussed a certain time of year when celebrations should take place, denoted by the sun reflecting on a certain rock at a particular time of year[51]. Fell also argues that the tablets show an opening of the mouth ceremony common in ancient Egyptian tradition[52]. From these conclusions, Fell argues that the tablets were placed by Egyptian and Libyan explorers who sailed up the Mississippi River during the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt, a period of intense overseas exploration according to him[53]. These theories have since been taken and further stretched by other psuedoarchaeologists and other non-professionals claiming evidence of Pre-Columbian contact to be found in the Mississippi River Valley[54].

Deconstructing the Narrative

Disproving the Moundbuilder Myth

Cyrus Thomas[55]

Soon after discovery, the tablets were examined by Dr. E Foreman at the Davenport Academy of Sciences, where he argued they were not genuine[56]. He noticed that the spherical engravings on the zodiac tablet appeared to have been made with modern tools, and the tablets themselves showed little signs of weathering that would be expected with an ancient stone artifact[57]. Foreman also noted that Gass’ excavation reports mention two of the tablets had been found in an area with loose soil while the contents of the grave were confusingly scattered about, which is highly indicative of tampering and planting at the site[58]. Soon after the tablets were sent to the Bureau of Ethnology, where Cyrus Thomas, who did not believe in the Moundbuilder hypothesis to begin with, also concluded the tablets were fake. This conclusion was based in part on the dubious deposition circumstances of the artifacts, and the fact the Hebrew and Hittite looking characters could be found on page 1766 in a copy of Webster’s Dictionary printed in 1872, five years before the artifacts were discovered[59]. The Zodiac Calendar seen on the tablets can also be found in the same dictionary. Thomas also noted the soil deposited over the stone pillar in Mound No. 11 was described by Harrison as comparatively loose, “easy to handle, being composed of dark soil with an admixture of clay” and no indications of any stratification[60]. Furthermore, the chamber the tablet was found in was noted as being empty save the tablet and associated artifacts. This would be impossible for any cavity of significant age not hermetically sealed, as running water slipping through the un-cemented stone pillar would deposit soil in the cavity over time[61]. In 1967, Dr. McKusick, an archaeologist from the University of Iowa, interviewed some of the people who had been involved in the discovery of the Davenport Tablets, including one member of the Davenport Academy of Sciences. This member confessed that he and other members had fabricated the tablets as a joke to discredit Gass’ reputation[62]. Gass was unliked by the rest of the academy due to his foreign birth and high status in the academy, which was only deepened after he had found valuable artifacts in mounds that had yielded nothing to previous excavations[63]. According to the confessing member, the forgers had taken slate tiles from a brothel, which can be seen by the nail holes in the calendar stone, denoting the expected date of the planting of the tablet and the date when it was predicted Gass would uncover it[64]. After the joke blew out of proportion due to its publicity, the guilty members decided they could not confess, and let the incident develop on its own[65].

Debunking Hyperdiffusionism

Shortly after Fell published his interpretation of the Davenport Tablets, Dr. Goddard and Dr. Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian Institute Department of Anthropology had the tablet reexamined by linguistic specialists[66]. Scientific tests of the weathering rate of the scratches, the chemistry of the remnant tool filings in the grooves, and the shapes of the tool marks lead the team to conclude that the tablet showed little evidence of weathering, proving a modern rather than ancient date for its manufacture[67]. Also noted were the linguistic errors and anomalies in the alleged Phoenician inscriptions which are consistent with modern manufacture but inconsistent with a genuine ancient origin[68]. The linguists came to the consensus that every single conclusion made in Fell's book was demonstrably false[69].

Conclusion

The Putnam Museum, repository of the Davenport Tablets and successor to the Davenport Academy of Sciences[70]

All three of the Davenport Tablets are demonstrably frauds. They were likely planted by members of the Davenport Academy of Sciences who were jealous of Reverend Gass’ success and reputation, especially given his immigrant background. The prank soon grew out of hand, however, and the Academy began fervently affirming the authenticity of the tablets and their context as evidence for the Moundbuilders. Though the tablets were soon proven to be frauds, at least at the national level, it was not until 1930 that the Academy admitted the tablets in their posession were not genuine[71]. Still, hyperdiffusionist hypotheses continued to be spun out of the narrative that resulted from this prank. It is important to realize that the pseudoarchaeological narratives accredited to the tablets are not simply crazy hypotheses, but deeply racist and ethnocentric ideas that rob Native Americans of their scientifically established claim as creators of the mounds and descendants of what was once labeled “Moundbuilder culture”. The tablets are today housed at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa, which succeeded the Davenport Academy of Sciences. It is correctly labeled as a fraud and part of what is now known as the Davenport conspiracy, serving as a reminder to archaeologists of the ease with which a simple prank can turn into a century long conspiracy theory.

References

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  2. Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science "[Davenport] Inscribed tablet cremation scene." 1880. http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/digital/collection/putnm/id/55
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