Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/July 1885/Archaeological Frauds



IT seems rather hard lines that, even if the archæologist goes personally into the field, and gathers with his own hands specimens of stone implements, he is not quite free from the possibility of being imposed upon.

The cause of this unhappy state of affairs is found in several facts, all of which are of such character that it is well-nigh impossible to avoid being misled by them. In the first place, it requires much less skill and practice than is imagined to artistically shape arrow-heads and other small objects, from fragments of jasper and other minerals having a conchoidal fracture. Many boys, too impatient to gather the relics of the Indians, which requires considerable labor, often practice on broken specimens until they can repoint them, and convert others into handsome examples of scrapers, trimmed flakes, and other forms with which every archæologist is familiar. Unfortunately, the newly-fractured jasper presents a surface scarcely distinguishable from that of objects made centuries ago, so slowly does the process of weathering dull the surface of this flint-like mineral; and the eager collector, who a week before, it may be, charged the boys on various farms to keep all the relics they could find, receives, in his too great eagerness, as genuine, every specimen of known shapes, and is in nowise deceived in the difference in chipping between the ancient and the modern. Indeed, I greatly doubt if any difference can be detected in such simple forms as triangular arrow-heads, scrapers, trimmed flakes, and knives. I have time and again been shown handsome specimens, which I was assured were made by the exhibitors, and, on expressing some doubt, have had other specimens made in my presence. The skill with which one urchin chipped the characteristic beveled edge of a scraper, using only a small quartz pebble as a hammer or chipper, was marvelous, and I have good reason to believe I have been victimized more than once by this same youngster. Still, the prices usually paid for arrow-heads are not such as to warrant boys generally in undertaking the necessary preliminary practice of chipping flint, and the number of modern chipped implements is relatively not large; and being, in all cases, imitations of known patterns, they can not mislead. I do not think any of the Flint Jacks whom I have met ever attempted to design new forms, or copy those found in distant localities, a knowledge of which could only be derived from books. If such should become the case, dire confusion must inevitably arise.

In the case of such implements of stone as were made by pecking away the surface, and subsequently polishing all or portions of the surface, but few attempts to counterfeit have come to my notice. This remark, however, is exclusive of all objects of hematite. So many hundreds of these are manufactured in Cincinnati and other cities, that no object of this material should be admitted into a museum or private cabinet unless its history rendered fraud absolutely impossible. Attempts at making grooved axes have been brought to my notice, but they were so rudely shaped, and so new in appearance, that deception was impossible. The flat pebbles, with two or four notches, known as "net-sinkers," are readily made, but are so abundant that to manufacture them, instead of looking for those made by the Indians, has not yet become profitable.

The Indians were quick to perceive how readily thin, flat sandstone pebbles could be perforated, and so become available as ornaments. Such objects I have gathered by the score from graves and village sites; and, as a result of calling the attention of collectors to these perforated disks, I find that they are now made in large numbers; being perforated with flint drills, and the "new" surfaces carefully polished with leather and emory. This gives the appearance of age, and such specimens are readily palmed off upon the unwary. Indeed, detection of the fraud is well-nigh impracticable. A rainy Saturday means mischief, so far as country school-boys are concerned; for I find that they often congregate in some quiet corner to drill pebbles and repoint arrow-heads; and then, lying in wait for the professor or the "'Gasy (Agassiz) Club" boys, from town, unload upon them the remarkable "finds" (?) made since their last vist. I do not wish to discourage archæological research, but simply to warn enthusiastic students against dangers to which they are exposed; for I speak from sad experience.

Of frauds in mound pottery and striped slate, I need not here make other mention than to caution the purchaser of specimens; for there are abundant counterfeits offered by dealers in curiosities. I do not mean to imply that these dealers are acquainted with the true history of the objects exposed for sale, for they, like the archæologists, are frequently imposed upon.

Unexaggerated as are the dangers of imposition such as I have pointed out, they are really insignificant as compared with that attaching to the purchase of steatite implements. It is well known that the Indians made constant use of this mineral for the manufacture of cooking-vessels, for smoking-pipes, and, to a limited extent, for small ornaments; but probably never for weapons. As the mineral is so readily worked, the cunning Flint Jacks have long been in the nefarious business of imitating pots, pipes, and trinkets, without number.

Philadelphia has the honor (?) of being the headquarters of steatite frauds; and it is not long since that one hundred beautiful objects, made by one man, were added to an extensive collection, at a cost of five hundred dollars. Had not the discovery of their origin been made in time, it would have resulted in American archæologists crediting the Delaware Indians with far more skill in carving, even steatite, than they ever possessed. As tobacco-pipes have ever been the rarest and most costly of Indian relics, special attention was given to their manufacture, and very remarkable have been some of the specimens which have found their way into private cabinets and public museums. The history of some of these pipes is as intricate and fascinating as a novel, but want of space forbids its publication in this connection. Suffice it to say that the archæologist is only safe when he exhumes, in person, steatite pipes from graves, and finds other objects, either under like circumstances, or sees them plowed up on ancient village sites.

So determined, indeed, are some of these fabricators of frauds, that the following incident is worthy of being published, to show the ingenuity they exercise in their peculiar calling. To discover an Indian grave is, of course, a red-letter day for the archæologist. Now, Indian graves are manufactured to order, it would appear. At least the following recently occurred in New Jersey: A Philadelphia Flint Jack secured a half-decayed skeleton from a Potter's field in the vicinity, and placed it in a shallow excavation on the wasting bank of a creek in New Jersey, where Indian relics were frequently found. With it he placed a steatite tobacco-pipe of his own make, a steatite carving of an eagle's head, and beads; with these were thrown numbers of genuine arrow-heads and fragments of pottery. The earth was blackened with powdered charcoal. This "plant" was made in November, and, in the following March, during the prevalence of high waters and local freshets, he announced to an enthusiastic collector that he knew the location of an Indian grave, and offered to take him thither for fifty dollars, the money to be paid if the search proved successful, which of course it did. The cranium of that Philadelphia pauper passed through several craniologists' hands, and was gravely remarked upon as of unusual interest, as it was a marked dolichocephalic skull, whereas the Delaware Indians were brachycephalic!

A word, in conclusion, with reference to that much-vexed question, the contemporaneity of man and the mastodon in North America. Constantly objects are being brought to the attention of archæologists as having some bearing upon this question. As to whether the "elephant-pipes," of Iowa, or the "Lenapé-stone," of Pennsylvania, be genuine or not, no opinion is here expressed; but it is unquestionable that many of the remains of the mastodon found in New Jersey and New York are far more recent than some of the relics of man, and it is simply impossible that even so late a comer as the Indian should not have seen living mastodons on the Atlantic seaboard of this continent. Elephant-pipes and carvings should not be condemned, merely because of an impression still prevalent that the mastodon was a creature of an earlier geological epoch than the recent. This is but half the truth: he also shared the forests of the present with the fauna of historic times.