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16 November 2008
Find in USA nothing more than a fraud

In 1838, excavators of the Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia (USA) made a remarkable discovery: a small stone bearing inscribed markings that were variously read as Celtic, Norse or Phoenician. The stone appeared to confirm the then-popular idea that an Old World culture built the magnificent and mysterious mounds of eastern North America.
     Last month, at the annual meeting of the West Virginia Archeological Society, anthropologist David Oestreicher offered evidence to suggest that the Grave Creek stone can be dismissed as a fraud. Oestreicher found the source for the stone's confusing mixture of ancient alphabets in an 18th-century book on the "unknown letters that are found in the most ancient coins and monuments of Spain." According to Oestreicher, "everything on the stone," including "impossible sequences of characters with the same mistakes," can be found in this book.
     Oestreicher thinks the perpetrator of the fraud was a local Wheeling physician, James W. Clemens. Clemens had borrowed a large sum of money to bankroll the excavations and was disappointed when nothing significant was found. Planting the sensational artifact provided an opportunity to recoup his losses. But many scholars ridiculed the stone as a crude forgery, and Clemens' dreams of fortune and glory ended in financial ruin.
     The historian Terry Barnhart wrote that the true significance of the Grave Creek controversy is the light it sheds on the development of 19th-century American archaeology. William Broad and Nicholas Wade, in their book Betrayers of the Truth, argue that the study of fakes and frauds show us science "as it is, as distinct from how it ought to be." It is a "human process governed by the ordinary human passions of ambition, pride, and greed." And "the step from greed to fraud is as small in science as in other walks of life."

Source: The Columbus Dispatch (11 November 2008)

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