It was supposed to be the discovery of the century. James O. Scotford was a sign painter on the west side of the state. One October 1890 day, he was out in the field doing some digging and his shovel hit something hard. He quickly dug out with his hands and was stunned by what he found.
Scotford discovered a clay cup. It had mysterious symbols on it. The man became something of a celebrity in the community as people believed the artifact was from the Mediterranean and Near Eastern, popular designs at the time.
According to the Archaeological Institute of America publication, Archaeology, Scotford found more of these pieces in the days that followed. All of the artifacts that were discovered had the same type of symbols etched into them. It led to rumors that Mediterranean or Near Eastern people may have lived in Michigan at some point.
The so-called, "Michigan relics," began making headlines across the country and eventually the world. Scotford began to celebrate his newfound celebrity. He was hired as a leader for digs and leading teams to where he thought more artifacts could be found.
As more items were found, speculation ramped up that this was proof that another group of people lived in Michigan in ancient times. Many believed that the group had to be Near Eastern because of the marks on the artifacts, though some were skeptical.
To ease the naysayers and help shore up his reputation, Scotford asked some of the leading academics in art history to look at the pieces he'd found. He was certain that they would agree with him that these were the real deal.
They did not.
Experts Weigh In
From just a photograph of the pieces, one professor scoffed at the legitimacy around them. University of Michigan professor Albert Emerson said that there was no way these were from another civilization. In 1891, when he saw them up close his opinion did not change.
He wrote in the university's paper, Deep Blue, that the relics were "bad enough in the photograph... an examination proved them to be humbugs of the first water."
His colleague at the University of Michigan, Professor Francis W. Kelsey agreed with that assessment. Kelsey went on to say that the markings were a horrible mixture of "jumbled ancient scripts."
Bentley Library (on the university's campus) reports that Kelsey and Emerson were among the first academics to call the findings fraudulent. The reason is that whoever forged the artwork didn't pay enough attention to the details.
Of those details were markings of a lion without a tail, something that an ancient artist would not have missed. The markings were cuneiform characters but they were made in a random order that didn't make sense for any time period. Even more damning, the items disintegrated in water. That meant the artifacts could not have been buried for a long period of time.
But as it turned out, not everyone agreed with the experts. Some clergymen took Scotford's side and claimed that the symbols seemed to be from biblical times.
Despite the artifacts being debunked by the leading experts at the time, some people still believe that they are proof that a Near Eastern group of people could have lived in Michigan at some point in the past. They point out that the experiments weren't perfect and that there are some things that we are still learning about ancient civilizations.
Still, experts say that while we are still learning, there is no way these artifacts are the real deal. Alma College points out that Scotford's family came forward and admitted that he tried to pull a fast one on the community. But people say that's not true or they misunderstood what happened.
In 1986, Henriette Mertz was asked to look at the artifacts. She was renowned for being an intellectual in many fields, including linguistics. Before actually handling the pieces, she said that there was a chance that they are legitimate.
Mysterious Michigan reports that she said some of the symbols could have been referring to religious figures like Jesus Christ. She wrote: "One peculiar thing stood out, even though the letters may be a mixture, the mixture within itself appeared consistently uniform.”
Since then, the debate has raged on about whether or not the artifacts are legitimate. Both sides have compelling arguments but neither can prove their case decisively.