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Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics

A Michigan Historical Museum Exhibit

Tablets — Centerpieces of the Collection

Tablet with writing and prone figureTablets made of clay, slate and copper are the best-known of the Michigan Relics. Encompassing an enormous range of sizes, they are the most intriguing of the relics because of the combination of images and the supposed language engraved on them. Close observation reveals differences in style that probably indicate the work of more than one person.

Tablet with calendar-like etchingThe tablets carry two main categories of images, biblical stories and happenings in the mythical history of the "relic people." The stories of creation, the flood and the giving of the ten commandments dominate the biblical tablets, although a few New Testament images, including the cross, are also found.

Tablet with procession of peopleThe "relic people" tablets show ceremonial activities taking place in temples, heroic figures and/or gods, objects resembling Egyptian mummy cases and zodiacs or calendars. They also present graphic scenes of torture and execution and battle scenes with another people, presumably Native Americans.

A number of features, discussed elsewhere in the exhibit, are inconsistent with the supposed age of the tablets. One particularly glaring anachronism is the portrayal of a guillotine, an implement of execution not invented until the 18th century.

Long and Tall

The long tablets on display in the Digging Up Controversy exhibitTwo extraordinary tablets show the imagination of the fabricators and their willingness to use exceptional pieces of raw material. One carries the Old Testament story of Genesis in a series of cartoon-like panels. This panel (below) shows a series of medallion-like images apparently presenting the main characters in a long struggle between the "Relic People" and their enemies, who appear to be Native Americans.

A temple scene on the tablet's opposite side includes additional evidence of its fraudulent antiquity. It is rendered in perspective, which was unknown as an artistic technique until invented by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century.

Tablet side showing medallion-like images

Given their exceptional size and probable fragility, it seems unlikely that the long tablets were ever buried. It seems more likely that relics like these were sold directly out of Scotford's workshop, helped along by Soper's salesmanship. They are made of what is known in the trade as "unfading, mottled, purple and green slate," a type found only in the Slate Valley along the border between New York and Vermont. The slabs were probably intended to be used as windowsills or fireplace mantels.

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