The Newark "Holy Stones" are one of the most infamous frauds in Ohio archaeology. Long dismissed by professional archaeologists simply as a crude effort to support the ethnocentric notion that the so-called "Lost Tribes of Israel" built the mounds and earthworks of eastern North America, when examined in their social context, they actually shed light on an historically significant debate in 19th century anthropology (Lepper 1992; 1999; Lepper and Gill 2000). The champions of polygenesis believed African Blacks and American Indians were separate species and legitimately could be displaced from their homelands and enslaved. Supporters of monogenesis argued that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve and human slavery was a moral and spiritual outrage. When viewed in this context, the "Holy Stones" appear to be scientific forgeries designed to refute arguments for polygenesis and to undermine the scientific support for slavery promulgated by the "American School" of Physical Anthropology. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, which ultimately would end slavery in the United States, and the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the monogenesis vs. polygenesis debate became irrelevant and the "Holy Stones" dropped out of mainstream anthropological discussions.
The "Keystone" (left) was found by David Wyrick within a small circular enclosure just east of the Octagon Earthworks in Newark on 29 June 1860. Charles Whittlesey examined the artifact and concluded it was a 19th century Masonic artifact. It was not deeply buried; the Hebrew writing carved on the stone looked thoroughly modern in character; and local Masons identified it as a Masonic keystone. (Image courtesey of the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum.)
The "Decalogue Stone" (right) was found by David Wyrick at the Reservoir Stone Mound near Jacksontown, Ohio on 1 November 1860. Found just four months later, it effectively answered all of the concerns Whittlesey had about the Keystone. It was found at the base of a small earthen mound that had been covered by the 40-ft-tall stone mound, the Hebrew writing appeared to be ancient in character, and it was unlike any 19th century Masonic artifact. The Hebrew text, however, incorporates errors that could only result from incorrectly transcribing a 19th century Hebrew version of the Ten Commandments into the archaic-looking alphabet of the Decalogue Stone. (Image courtesy of the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum.)
The profound impact of these epic cultural and scientific revolutions so changed the intellectual landscape that it has become difficult for us now to appreciate the context in which the "Holy Stones" forgery was conceived. Yet if some early supporters of abolition thought that by crafting these stones and planting them in mounds they could subvert the dubious scientific doctrine that appeared to justify slavery and possibly prevent a prolonged and bloody war, they could have felt more than justified.
Early Ohio archaeologist Matthew Canfield Read wrote that frauds "will always in some way represent the ideas of the time of the forgery." This is particularly true of the "Holy Stones." Nevertheless, the "Holy Stones" continue to find support in some contemporary special interest groups, such as some fundamentalist Christian sects and supporters of extreme cultural diffusionism. What keeps this forgery, seemingly tailor-made to address an arcane 19th century debate, alive and well in the 21st century? Ironically, while some Biblical literalists still are championing monogenesis and see the "Holy Stones" as "scientific" proof of this doctrine, some extreme diffusionists see them as proof that the indigenous peoples of America did not build the architectural wonders of this continent and that some "lost race" (or "races") of white people properly deserve the credit. Although certainly not all diffusionists are racists (though some incontestably are), assertions of this kind, especially when founded on such weak evidence, are consistent with and give considerable aid and comfort to those who deny the aboriginal American people the ability to have come up with domesticated plants, systems of writing, and/or monumental architecture on their own.
The principal Newark "Holy Stones," when considered in their historic context, may deserve the sobriquet "Holy," but they were hastily conceived and rather sloppily executed scientific forgeries. It is surprising, but revealing, that they were taken so seriously by so many in the 19th century. It is even more surprising, and correspondingly more revealing, that some today still take them seriously as supposed relics of an ancient Israelite presence in Ohio.
Two later additions to the "Holy Stones" corpus clearly are hoaxes and are widely, if not universally, recognized to be such (Lepper 1991).
Lepper, Bradley T.
1991 "Holy Stones" of Newark, Ohio, not so holy after all. Skeptical Inquirer 15(2):117‑119.
1992 Just how holy are the Newark "Holy Stones"? In Vanishing Heritage, edited by Paul E. Hooge and Bradley 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. and Jeff B. Gill
2000 The Newark Holy Stones. Timeline 17(3):16-25.