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Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics

A Michigan Historical Museum Exhibit

 The Mysterious Mounds

Early explorers and fur traders found thousands of mounds and miles of earthen walls-obviously man-made-throughout the Great Lakes region. They were familiar sights to early settlers along the Detroit River and near Grand Rapids. Local Indian traditions failed to explain their origins.

The Michigan Relics were always represented as coming from mounds and were thus linked to the mysterious "Mound Builders." Some of the mounds in which the relics had been placed, then "discovered," were undoubtedly genuine prehistoric mounds. But many were simply "turn-outs," natural mounds formed where soil had built up around the roots of a fallen tree.

Who Built the Mounds?

Illustration of mounds near the Rouge RiverEarly writers speculated that if Native Americans had not made them, then the mounds must have been made by a long-vanished race, probably killed off by and replaced by the Indians. They believed this race must have been culturally advanced in order to produce the large and complex structures found especially in Ohio.

Throughout the 19th century, the popular press published many theories about the Mound Builders, as they were known. These were not always based on the latest scientific information. By the middle 1800s, archaeological surveys and excavations resulted in major reports that described mounds and their contents in detail. In 1881, the Smithsonian Institution began an extensive study of the mounds, directed by Cyrus Thomas. His 742-page report, published after the first Michigan Relics had been unearthed, concluded:

The links directly connecting the Indians and mound-builders are so numerous and well established that archaeologists are justified in accepting the theory that they are one and the same people.

Lost Tribes, Mounds and Relics

In the years 722-721 BC, the ten tribes who made up the northern kingdom of Israel were conquered by the Assyrian Empire and exiled to what is today modern Syria and Iraq. Because the fate of these Israelites is not spelled out in the Bible—they presumably intermarried with the local population—there had long been speculation about their fate. In the 19th century, some people believed that the lost tribes had somehow come to America and become the mysterious Mound Builders. Others thought they might be ancestors of the Indians. The imagery on the Michigan Relics added to the speculation at the same time that anthropologist Cyrus Thomas (1825-1910) was unraveling the mystery of the mounds.

Irreparable Damage

The head of bird carved by Native Americans has had the IH/ symbol etched into it.Some Michigan Relics were not created entirely from scratch. This is a Native American object turned to a fraudulent purpose by the addition of the "mystic symbol."

By their own accounts, Scotford, Soper and Savage dug in "hundreds of mounds" Even if only 10 percent of what they dug were actual prehistoric burial mounds, this represents a major loss since professional archaeologists have excavated only a handful. Thus the pursuit of a fraudulent past effectively destroyed a major segment of the real past. Moreover, by casting Native Americans as a race who destroyed the "real" culture that had been here, Scotford, Soper and Savage promoted and prolonged the damaging belief that native Americans were incapable of such great achievements as the monumental earthworks of southern Ohio or the imposing Monk's Mound at Cahokia, Illinois.


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