The Davenport Tablets – Famous Fakes

Object: The Davenport Tablets – Famous Fakes

Materials: Slate

Place: Davenport, Iowa, USA

Date unearthed: 1877

Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, Davenport, Iowa, USA

EMu user since 2004

october smallThe archaeological community was astounded in 1877 when Rev. Jacob Gass, a member of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences (now the Putnam Museum), unearthed two engraved slate tablets from an ancient burial mound site southwest of Davenport, Iowa, USA. The tablets depict a hunting scene and a cremation scene. The cremation scene shows a funeral pyre atop a mound with rows of “text” above, while the hunting scene incorporates crude images of animals, including an elephant-like animal.

Gass found the tablets at a time when America was embroiled in a great debate over the origins of the Mound Builders. Many people did not believe that Native Americans could have descended from the people responsible for creating the fabulous mounds scattered throughout the eastern United States. The writing on the tablets was used as supporting evidence for the Mound Builders’ foreign origins since there were no known native written languages in the United States.

october2_small.jpgThe nation squared off with some believing that the tablets were authentic and others that they were fakes. Articles and rebuttals appeared in all the major popular science and archaeological journals of the day. The Mound Builders were finally determined to be Native Americans, rather than some lost foreign population, and the tablets a fake. There is some evidence to suggest that the tablets were created to embarrass Rev. Gass and that the joke simply got out of hand. Whatever their origins, the tablets helped spur a change in archaeological excavating practices. The days of haphazardly opening mounds gave way to a more scientific approach with detailed documentation of both the physical aspects of the site and any objects found during the excavation.