Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The sordid saga of the Michigan Relics

James Scotford stuck his shovel into the ground, hefted a pile of earth, and heaved it to the side. He was digging postholes in the Montcalm County community of Wyman that day in 1890, and so far his labors had been routine. That all changed when his shovel plunged into the earth again and struck something hard. Scotford cleared away dirt from his find and lifted the object for a better look. In his hand was a clay cup with strange symbols, almost like hieroglyphics, scattered across its surface. Whether or not he knew it at that moment, Scotford's life was about to change forever.

James Scotford

The laborer had unearthed the first of what would turn out to be thousands of "Michigan Relics," objects that Scotford and his eventual business partner, former Michigan Secretary of State Daniel Soper, claimed were evidence that civilizations from what we now know as the Middle East had traveled to the New World. The artifacts have long since been exposed as forgeries, but the background behind their "discovery" and the conspiracy surrounding it is just as interesting as the tall tale that Scotford and Soper insisted was the relics' true origin story.

After Scotford "found" the cup, he quickly unearthed several other artifacts around Wyman. Though academics who examined the finds quickly denounced them as fakes, several believers maintained they were proof that ancient Asian civilizations had lived in Michigan. Ministers were especially interested in the relics, as some of the finds featured scenes from the Bible and seemed to be the work of people who had once occupied the Holy Land.

"Michigan Relic" made of clay

Soper's role in the ruse came about a few years after Scotford made his first find. The former Secretary of State had been forced to leave office after committing various financial shenanigans, and lived in Newaygo County (immediately to the west of Montcalm County) at the time Scotford was making his phony discoveries. Soper participated in his first dig with Scotford in 1907, and eventually became the duo's spokesman, criticizing any academic attempt to discredit their finds. 

Daniel Soper

Eventually, searchers found such relics as coins, pipes, boxes, figurines, and tablets in sixteen counties across Michigan. Scotford had a standard procedure he followed when conducting digs. He would create artifacts with his sons and sons-in-law, plant the artifacts in the ground, wait a few weeks for nature to erase any signs of recent disturbance, then hire a digger to search the area. (Sometimes, Scotford was bold enough to sneak an artifact into the ground while the digger was at work.) Scotford invited members of the local community to watch, and when an artifact appeared, the observers were so excited, they quickly signed affidavits attesting to the relic's authenticity.

"Michigan Relic" made of copper

Though Scotford and Soper had their defenders, including Father James Savage, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Detroit, who purchased a significant number of Michigan Relics, the weight of their detractors' arguments continually grew. In addition to the college professors, archaeologists, and historians who insisted the artifacts were fake, individuals who knew Scotford and his sons (including Scotford's own stepdaughter) insisted that they had seen the men make the relics themselves. Critiques ran along the lines of what one researcher concluded in 1891, after Scotford found the first relics:

The articles were bad enough in the photographs. An examination proved them to be humbugs of the first water. They were all of unbaked clay and decorated with bogus hieroglyphics...On opening one casket we found that the lid had been dried on a machine-sawed board.
 
And from another critic, writing in 1892:
 
The inscriptions are largely a horrible mixture of Phoenician, Egyptian and ancient Greek characters taken at random from a comparative table of alphabets such as is found at the back of Webster's Dictionary.
 
A "Michigan Relic" tablet
 
Scotford and Soper never admitted their finds were frauds, and even today a few scholars insist the relics are authentic, arguing that they offer evidence of ancient Christian civilizations in Michigan. However, modern historians are in near-universal agreement that the artifacts were constructed with contemporary tools by men who, by selling the artifacts to eager believers, committed fraud as a means of achieving fame and making money off people willing to pay for a piece of history.

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