Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Great Haywood Artifact Scam

Just south of Canton, past the homeplace pictured here, the land near the confluence of Garden Creek and the Pigeon River has been inhabited for thousands of years.

The Garden Creek archaeological site consists of three mounds and two villages on a twelve-acre tract. At Garden Creek, Mann S. Valentine and his sons conducted one of the first archeological digs in North Carolina. They arrived in Haywood County in 1879 to obtain artifacts for their museum in Richmond, Virginia and employed ginseng hunters, who were most familiar with the mountain recesses, to scout for stone tools, pottery and other traces of ancient civilizations.

Soon, A. J. Osborne became the local agent for the Valentines, obtaining and forwarding artifacts taken from Garden Creek and surrounding areas in Haywood County. One of the first significant finds was a stone cup, followed by birds, animals and men, carved in stone. Learning that the Valentines paid top dollar for such relics, farmers on the East Fork of the Pigeon got busy digging for antiquities.

Having explored mounds in the Ohio River Valley, Valentine began to notice the "absolute unique character of the finds," and acknowledged that carvings of a camel and a rhinoceros could give rise to questions of authenticity. But he insisted that he had taken every imaginable precaution to guard against fraud.

Other archaeologists who examined the carvings reported:

The human figures are nearly all of a uniform type – round, regular, though somewhat flat features, totally distinct from the ordinary American Indian, with a mild, placid expression, almost suggesting that of the Chukchis of north-east Siberia, but more intelligent.

Valentine took the artifacts and photographs to London in 1883 to obtain an opinion from the Royal Anthropological Institute. One of the reviewers concluded that the objects had been manufactured with metal tools and saw no reason to regard any of them as ancient.

Despite the doubts about their origin, the Haywood County artifacts were gaining international attention for their unusual design and clues they might yield regarding the Mound Builders. Meanwhile, Cyrus Thomas was exploring mounds throughout the country for the Smithsonian Institution. After investigating Valentine's artifacts, Thomas exposed them as fraudulent in an 1894 report:

…these articles were made from the soapstone found in that region by some persons who had learned to give them the appearance of age. This is done by placing them, after being carved, in running water which is tinctured with iron, as most of the streams in that region are.

The Smithsonian report even included illustrations of bogus articles carved by the modern counterfeiters in Haywood County- who proudly demonstrated their ability to create "ancient" relics. The embarrassment to the Valentines was so great, they abandoned the plan to devote their Richmond museum to archaeology and instead shifted the emphasis to the fine arts.

In the end, the archaeologists didn’t resolve the mysteries of the Mound Builders…but they learned how a few Haywood mountaineers wielding sharp pocketknives could pull one over on the experts.

In a funny coincidence I just found that Dave Tabler, the Appalachian History blogger, already posted a story today of a West Virginia mound artifact hoax:

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