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Digging Up Controversy: The Michigan Relics

A Michigan Historical Museum Exhibit

 Time Line

Benchmark Events in the Michigan Relics Story

October 1890 James Scotford "discovers" a clay cup while digging postholes in Montcalm County. Phase I: "To Entrap the Guileless" (unbaked clay objects)
June 1891 Dr. Alfred Emerson, Lake Forest University, examines the unbaked clay caskets and declares them to be bogus.
October 1891 Rev. N. P. Barlow, a Baptist minister from Greenville, MI, is the first of many clergymen to support the authenticity of the relics. He interprets the objects as the work of Egyptian and Chaldean immigrants.
Late 1891 Francis W. Kelsey, University of Michigan, and Morris Jastrow, University of Pennsylvania, study the objects. Both publish denunciations of the relics.
1892 Seventh Day Adventist minister Merritt E. Cornell publishes his evaluation of the relics: A Brief Account of the Wonderful Discovery of Pre-Historic Relics Consisting of Caskets, Tablets, and Altars with Written Records of the Mound Builders.
1894 Digging in mounds on the south side of Crystal Lake, Montcalm County, yields relics. Stephen Peet, editor of the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, and Harlan I. Smith, a prominent Michigan archaeologist, declare the objects a fraud.
1890s Miss R. R. McLaughlin, a traveling photographer,  prepares and sells a set of 50 stereographs of the Michigan Relics.
May 1898 Professor John Campbell, Presbyterian College, Montreal, publishes an attempt to translate the "language" on the relics. Phase II: Persistence and Change (baked clay objects; slate also used as a medium)
1898 W. H. Holmes, Smithsonian Institution, notes,

Speaking of fraudulent work I think the most flagrant case is that developed in the western part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. It is a most persistent and unscrupulous attempt to mislead the country into believing that traces of Oriental culture are found there.

1898 The American Archaeologist publishes an article by James Scotford that describes the September 1897 excavation of a mound near Wyman.
Summer 1898 An unnamed man who "presented a general air of dilapidation" tries to sell relics from a traveling exhibit to the University of Michigan and abandons them there when the curator refuses to purchase them.
1907 Father James Savage, pastor of Detroit's Most Holy Trinity parish, makes his first relics purchases. In October Daniel Soper participates in his first "finding party" and begins acting as spokesman for the relic hunters.  Phase III: Durable Goods (Increasing numbers of copper artifacts appear, etched with acid to appear aged; objects made of durable materials replace clay.)
November 1907 The Detroit News publishes articles about the relics by William A. Benscoter. Although the articles label them as fakes, they revive interest in the relics. Benscoter implicates James Scotford with his two sons and son-in-law as fabricators of the objects. Detroit is now the center of distribution for the relics.
1908 The American Anthropologist publishes "Some Archaeological Forgeries from Michigan" by Francis Kelsey. He follows this with a letter to the editor of The Nation about the fraud.
1910 Rudolph Etzenhouser publishes Engravings of Prehistoric Specimens from Michigan, U.S.A., an illustrated catalog of 44 images available to the public for $1.
1911 Father Savage invites prominent archaeologist Dr. Frederick Starr to Detroit to examine the relics. After his return to the University of Chicago Starr reports,

I have serious doubts regarding the authenticity of these objects. If offered in the market for sale they would be undoubtedly stamped as fraudulent.

June 1911 James Scotford's stepdaughter, Ella Riley, signs an affidavit stating that her stepfather manufactured relics at his home. It is not made public until after her mother's death.
August 1911 Previous a supporter of the relics, Professor J. O. Kinnaman meets with Dr. Starr and declares,

I was most beautifully, if not scientifically, taken in. . . . Yes, I was badly fooled.

Professor James Talmage publishes his report on the relics, The "Michigan Relics": A Story of Forgery and Deception.

1912 Archaeologists return to original interests and have no further involvement with the Michigan Relics, feeling their analysis has prevailed. Phase IV: Phoenix—Interest in Relics Dies and is Reborn
1916 Dr. Henri Hyvernat, Catholic University of Washington, DC, and Father Laurentius Scheidl, O.S.B., St. Benedict, Louisiana, are taken on a dig by Daniel Soper and return to their institutions with slate tablets.
Early 1920s Soper and Savage collections continue to inspire the desire to find evidence supporting the "Lost Tribes of Israel."
Mid 1920s The Michigan Relics are discussed as background or comparative material for new archaeological hoaxes as far away as Tucson, AZ.
1927 Father James Savage dies. Sometime before or after his death, his collection of relics is given to the Academy of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, MI, then goes to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
1940s-1950s Reminiscences published in rural newspapers and local archaeological journals occasionally revive interest in the relics.
1960s Two Mormon missionaries discover the Savage collection at the University of Notre Dame. They bring it to the attention of Milton R. Hunter, president of the New World Archaeological Foundation and a General Authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The university gives him the entire collection. Hunter also purchases Soper's collection of relics from Soper's son Ellis.
1970s Retrospective articles in the Detroit Free Press and Michigan History Magazine seemingly put an end to the relics hoax.
1975 Milton R. Hunter deeds the combined Soper-Savage collection to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints before his death in 1975.
1986 Henriette Mertz, a relics collector and believer, publishes The Mystic Symbol: Mark of the Michigan Mound Builders, which reviews the history of the relics and offers "translations."
1990s to early 21st century The Ancient American, "The Voice of Alternative Viewpoints," publishes articles and older manuscripts about the relics as authentic.
2001 The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints commissions Dr. Richard Stamps, archaeologist at Oakland University, to review the relics and their history and publishes the results in BYU Studies. His sophisticated tests produce new evidence of the relic's modern manufacture. Satisfied that the relics are fraudulent, the Church looks to divest itself of the collection. Phase V: The Michigan Relics Come Home
2003 The Michigan Relics are given to the Michigan Historical Center's Michigan Historical Museum.
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