The Newark Decalogue and Keystone Revisted

Jim Goodman comments on my post, The Pseudoarchaeology of Glenn Beck, to point out the waste of his tax dollars on my education. Perhaps. But I doubt any of his tax money went to my tuition.

Still, his primary criticism surrounds a portion of that post which deals with some 19th century hoaxes used to promote a political agenda of the day, which is to say that there were many folks who were opposed to attributing the construction of the various mounds of the northeastern United States to the ancestors of Native Americans who lived there upon the arrival of European settlers. The mounds, they claimed, must have been built by ancient Europeans, therefore it was right to displace the Indians (i.e. Trail of Tears).

My chief disagreement was with Beck’s implication that there was somehow evidence that the “lost tribes of Israel” made their way to the Americas because of these artifacts. The “lost tribes” notion is one that Beck’s adopted religion of Mormonism believes.

The artifacts in question are primarily known as the “Decalogue” and “Key stone,” both inscribed with Hebrew script. The former includes a bas-relief of Moses (it reads in Hebrew square script, mosheh above the figure’s head) and an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments from the Torah -the Decalogue- on the sides and back.

Beck’s implication in the video linked in the previous article was that these are artifacts suppressed by “mainstream archaeologists” and evidence of a much earlier presence of Israelites in America. Ironically, one of the purposes for the hoax in the 19th century was, in part, to justify our actions in stealing land from the Native inhabitants. Another part of it was that there existed a ethnocentric bias against Natives in that settlers of European descent couldn’t accept that they were capable of the technology or had the know-how to build the intricate mounds that exist in places like Newark, Ohio. Beck exhibits this same ethnocentric attitude even today in his show, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

The commenter, Jim Goodman, was, however, right to criticize my conclusions that the stones were forgeries. They’re hoaxes, but further investigation on my part reveals that they’re very likely the real thing.

Not having an expertise in ancient phonetic scripts, I had to rely on whatever information I could obtain from my university library or the internet on these stones. Most of the sources I was able to locate were either of the Glenn-Beck-America-is-the-Land-of-the-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel variety or of the aliens-are-among-us-variety. I remembered a Skeptical Inquirer article from years ago on the subject, but that issue has been long absent from my personal library. The author of that article eventually commented on my Beck-post, confirming what I remembered and linking to an article at Ohio Archaeology that sums it up.

Recently, however, a friend sent me a link to an article by Rochelle Altman, who is an expert on ancient phonetic scripts, in which she goes into great detail about the “…Newark Ritual Artifacts.”

Her explanations are convincing as well as her arguments, and I’m inclined to accept her conclusions that the artifacts themselves are genuine, Late-Medieval ritual objects. She bases this on the “stylistic features on the bas-relief sculpture […] and the Late Medieval Hebrew base-script used for the consolidated grid font that appears in the inscriptions.” She goes on to say, “[t]he artifacts are authentic, if not what they were thought to be in the 19th century, and, unfortunately, even today.”

The likely source of the objects is a European settler, from whom these may have been stolen and subsequently deposited at the sites where they were located in the early 19th century. The Decalogue and Keystone may not be forgeries, as I stated in an earlier post, but they are certainly hoaxes when presented as artifactual evidence of an “ancient America” with ties to the “lost tribes of Israel” and the other mumbo-jumbo Glenn Beck was alluding to in his program.

I highly recommend Rochelle Altman’s article, “‘First, … recognize that it’s a penny’: Report on the ‘Newark’ Ritual Artifacts,” found at The Bible and Interpretation. I find that I have to thank Altman and my friend for setting me straight on this and I wish I would have found this article earlier. I find I must also offer some thanks to commenter Jim Goodman, though I was already thinking of writing a short article either by itself or a part of my annual round of of pseudoarchaeology (which will be published here in a day or so). I doubt, however, that I’ve fully satisfied Mr. Goodman: the Newark artifacts might not be fakes, but they are frauds in the manner by which they are being promoted.

The sad truth, pointed out by Altman, is that the true nature of these artifacts is being sidelined by nutters and skeptics alike (though she certainly didn’t say “nutters”).

EDIT (12/28/10): after a personal correspondence with Brad Lepper, I’m, again, back to wondering about the veracity of the artifacts. It is very suspect that a person who had a preconceived notion of how the mounds were built (David Wyrick thought the mound-builders were not the Natives that lived in the region and was digging to prove it) should find just the sort of artifact that could be used to show the site was not Hopewell.

It’s also convenient that the person who was able to translate it happened to be on-hand.

So, were these artifacts entirely fraudulent, created in the 19th century and planted as a means to confirm a conclusion about Native Americans that was popular among many? Or were these genuine artifacts, salted in the places Wyrick was to dig. It would be simpler to salt the site with genuine artifacts if they were available -not inconceivable given the number of European immigrants out nation had up to then. But, it’s also not inconceivable that the artifacts could have been created of locally quarried limestone, then salted at the site.

What Lepper and Altman agree on, however, is that this is not evidence of any “Lost Tribes of Israel” in the Americas.

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About Carl Feagans 312 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.