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Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics

A Michigan Historical Museum Exhibit

 Controversy Revived

The End of an Era

Cover of 1910 booklet of engravings by Rudolph Etzenhouser.Following the controversies of 1911, the Michigan Relics dropped from public view. Believing that their arguments had been persuasive, professional archaeologists and scholars turned their attention elsewhere. But Soper and Savage continued to hunt for relics and to interpret their meaning to curious acquaintances.

After the excitement died down, Daniel Soper moved to Engraving from Etzenhouser's booklet. Click to see larger picture. Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he found a new audience for his stories. He returned regularly to Detroit until his death in 1923. Father Savage lived until 1927, continuing his pastoral work at Holy Trinity. Nothing is known of James Scotford after 1911.

For much of the 20th century, the relics were largely forgotten, surfacing occasionally as minor curiosities in the press. Copies of Rudolph Etzenhouser’s 1910 booklet of engravings still circulated, as did small numbers of relics.

There have been no documented discoveries of Michigan Relics since about 1920.

Interest Revived

Then, in 1986, The Mystic Symbol: Mark of the Michigan Mound Builders appeared. Its author, Henriette Mertz, worked from a collection of relics she had assembled. She was convinced that they had been made by early Christians fleeing persecution and offered some preliminary translations of the tablets. 

An academic group not recognizing the writing as having been set down in any letters with which they themselves were familiar, to save their self esteem, charged that it was fraudulent. . . . 

Henriette Mertz, 1986

Cover of the Ancient American includes a tablet from the Michigan Relics collection. Some of her readers began writing articles, which were published in the magazine Ancient American, “The Voice of Alternative Viewpoints.” 

While mainstream scholars insist that the Michigan tablets constitute a hoax, independent investigators believe they are authentically prehistoric.

Wayne May, Michigan’s Controversial Tablets Go Home, 2003

Larger inventories of script symbols are needed for more accurate studies. The work is tedious but it would help prepare for the next step—translation. Persistent, dedicated experts and graduate students may be able to achieve translation. Let’s hope that the work will be done (wisely) that we may learn more about these ancient people and their beliefs.

Glade L. Burgon, America’s Forgotten Scripts, 2003

Mormon interest in the Michigan Relics had never entirely died away, despite James Talmage’s unequivocal dismissal of them. In This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, written by Edwin G. Goble and Wayne N. May (editor and publisher of the Ancient American), the relics are crucial evidence in the authors’ search for the geographical location of episodes in the Book of Mormon. Since the 2002 publication of This Land, Goble has publicly stated that he now accepts the conclusion of recent articles in BYU Studies that the relics are fraudulent.

How did the relics come to the Michigan Historical Museum?

In the early 1960s, Milton R. Hunter, a General Authority in the LDS Church who researched and wrote about evidence for the historical accuracy of Book of Mormon, learned that Father Savage’s collection of Michigan Relics was at Notre Dame. He showed so much interest in it that the university gave it to him. At the same time, Hunter was able to purchase Daniel Soper’s collection from his son, Ellis. Hunter sought assistance from around the world in identifying and translating the inscriptions, but with no success. Before his death in 1975, he deeded his collection to the church.

A systematic review of the historical background of the relics and a material analysis of the relics themselves were published in BYU Studies in 2001. These studies satisfied church authorities that the Relics were fraudulent creations and thus irrelevant to the collections of the Museum of Church History and Art. Acting on a suggestion by Dr. Richard Stamps, author of one of the Brigham Young University reports, they opened discussions with the Michigan Historical Center. In 2003, the Michigan Relics returned to the state in which they were created.

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