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Grave Creek Stone: Wikis


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The Grave Creek Stone is an object of archaeological debate. It was discovered in 1838 in Moundsville, West Virginia. The small sandstone disk is inscribed on one side with some twenty-five characters; it has been described as both an artifact and a hoax. The only known image of the actual stone is a photograph of items of the E.H. Davis collection (circa 1878) before the majority of the collection was sold to the Blackmore Museum (now part of the British Museum).



A search through modern archaeological texts reveals two different stories of discovery. Here is a synopsis of the discoveries outlined in Stephen Williams’ Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory and David H. Kelley’s “Epigraphy and Other Fantasies" found in The Review of Archaeology Vol. 15, No. 2 (1994), a response to Williams.

H. R. Schoolcraft discovery (1843) as written by Stephen Williams:

On page 82 of Fantastic Archaeology, Williams writes “about five years after the excavations, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a noteworthy scholar, visited the site and ‘found this curious relic lying unprotected among broken implements of stone, pieces of antique pottery, and other like articles."[From page 387 of Transactions of American Ethnological Society, vol. 1 which contains Schoolcraft’s article “Observations Respecting the Grave Creek Mound”] This same account by Schoolcraft is referenced by Matthew Canfield (M.C.) Reid (also seen spelled "Read") in his article entitled “Inscribed Stone of Grave Creek Mound” found in The American Antiquarian Vol. 1 No. 3 which was read at the meeting of the State Archaeology Society, held at Wooster, Ohio, September 25, 1878. Reid’s article mentions that this pile of broken implements was in “the chamber erected for exhibition of the articles found in the mound,” whereas Williams refers to the context of the pile as being “in the building that had been erected to house the artifacts from the excavations.” The difference in wording shows that there is some disagreement as to just how “undiscovered” the Grave Creek stone was when found by Schoolcraft. Williams sides with Catlett and Wharton, who claim that the stone was not discovered by Abelard Tomlinson as Tomlinson had claimed (discussed in more detail below). Williams writes that Tomlinson was 70 years old by then and living in California. He also explains "Tomlinson's description of the way the shaft and drift were dug does not accord with any of the statements made by any of the observers of the excavations." Williams sees no reason to consider Tomlinson's claim to discovery to be credible.

Abelard Tomlinson discovery (1838) as written by David H. Kelley:

Abelard Tomlinson is credited with the discovery of the Grave Creek Stone in 1838 at the Grave Creek site (which he owned) in what is now Moundsville, West Virginia. The first published account of the find occupied the front page of the Cincinnati Chronicle of February 2, 1839 in an article written by Dr. Thomas Townsend. His account explains that in the upper (or second) of two vaults at the Grave Creek mound a skeleton was discovered with many artifacts. “With this skeleton, we found a small thin flat stone of common fine grey sand stone. This stone has some hieroglyphics engraved upon it.” A drawing of Townsend’s version of the stone accompanied the article. Abelard Tomlinson published his own eyewitness account of the find in May 1843. According to this, the stone was discovered on June 9, 1938 in the upper vault, described much in that same way as Townsend described it. He described the stone as having “no engraving on it, except for on one side…The stone with the characters on it was found about 2 feet from the skeleton…”

A letter dated 10 April 1839 written by Dr. James Clemens (who spent two weeks at the Grave Creek site collecting data in the summer of 1838) was discovered by his son, Sherrard Collins, and published in 1877 by P.P. Cherry. His account of the skeleton, artifacts, and the stone itself coincide with the other accounts. He writes that “Abelard Tomlinson, Thomas Biggs, myself, and others were present when the stone was discovered with the copper bracelets and the shell necklace…”

Shortly after Clemens’ account was published, Cherry was contacted by Col. Wharton and Peter B. Catlett, who had both worked at the Grave Creek site. Catlett claimed that he had been that original discoverer of the stone. He described it as having “one side filled with engraving and about half filled on the other” and being found outside the mound, rather than inside—further contrasting the earlier accounts.


The sandstone disk is about 1 7/8" (4.8 cm) wide, and 1 1/2" (3.6 cm) high. One side of the stone is inscribed with 23 alphabetical / pseudo-alphabetical characters arranged in three lines with a final non-alphabetical symbol on the lower portion. There are no inscriptions on the reverse side. The stone had passed through various collections, but its current location is unknown. While it was in E.H. Davis's collection in the late 1800s, he made a cast of it which he deposited to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian now has 4 casts of the stone. The National Anthropological Association also has a wax impression of the stone made by Davis.


The 23 alphabetical / pseudo-alphabetical symbols inscribed on the Grave Creek Stone have been the object of much controversy. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was the first to study this aspect of the stone. He strove to determine whether or not the symbols were alphabetical by consulting experts on the subject (it is said that he had already believed the symbols to be alphabetical and that he simply wished to prove it). His correspondence with “noted antiquarians” leads him to the conclusion that inscription contains “four characters corresponding to the Ancient Greek; four Etruscan; five Runic; six ancient Gallic; seven old Erse; ten Phoenician; fourteen old British; sixteen Celtiberic, with some resemblance to the Hebrew.” However, he “…is inclined to regard the whole inscription as Celtiberic.”

M.C. Reid (also found as “Read”) performed an experiment in the late 1870s in which he asked four people: a teacher and law student, a school girl, a druggist, and a college professor to create for him “twenty or more arbitrary characters not resembling any figures or alphabetical characters known to them.” Since the Grave Creek Stone was inscribed using only straight lines (which is quite common, since straight lines are much easier to inscribe than those with curve), Reid instructed the four participants to only use “straight lines or combinations of straight lines.” To further simulate the actual inscribing of the stone, the individuals were not allowed to improve upon their first attempt (since one cannot erase all or part of a symbol once it is inscribed). All of this can be found in Reid's article "Inscribed Stone of Grave Creek Mound" published in The American Antiquarian Vol 1. No. 3 in January 1879.

Just like the inscription in the Grave Creek Stone, these symbols resemble characters found in alphabets of the old world. The fabricated inscriptions produced recognized characters found in the Punic, Pelasgian, Oscan, Gaulish, Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek, Syriac, Servian, Ethiopic, Coptic, Gothic, Cypriotic, Old British, and Runic alphabets. This leads Reid to be “compelled to conclude that there is nothing in the form of the characters of the Grave Creek Stone which require us to decide that they are old, that they are alphabetical, or if alphabetical that they are derived from any known alphabet.”

Recent research

At a meeting of the West Virginia Archaeological Society in October 2008 the anthropologist David Oestreicher suggested that the inscription had been forged by James W. Clemens, a local physician who had financed the excavation through loans. It is suggested that he planted the stone and that he used an 18th century book on unknown letters found on coins and monuments in Spain, and that "everything on the stone," including "impossible sequences of characters with the same mistakes" was copied from the book.[1][2]

External links


  • Williams, Stephen. Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, 1991.
  • Kelley, David H. "Epigraphy and Other Fantasies", in The Review of Archaeology Vol. 15 No. 2, 1994.
  • Reid, M.C. "Inscribed Stone of Grave Creek Mound", in The American Antiquarian Vol. 1 No. 3, 1879.
  • McCulloch, J. Huston. "Grave Creek Stone", at
  1. ^ Lepper, Bradley T. "Great find in West Virginia nothing more than a fraud" November 11, 2008 The Columbus Dispatch [1]
  2. ^ Rick Steelhammer, "Grave Creek Stone hoax linked to Wheeling doctor" Charlotte Gazette October 13, 2008[2]


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