O, Holy Stones! A thrill of hope for a nation on the brink of war?

Further thoughts on the Newark Holy Stones by Guest Blogger Jeff Gill: In my previous post, I pointed out that the inscriptions on the Keystone, the original Newark Holy Stone, give every appearance of having been carved from left to right, when if they had been carved by someone who understood Hebrew, they should have been carved from right to left. Interestingly, this is not the first time it has been noted that there are elements of these carvings that hint at a transcriber who doesnt know the letters or words they are carving. Huston McCulloch, a retired economics professor at the Ohio State University who holds onto an interpretation that some, if not all of the Holy Stones are signs of ancient involvement in the Americas by Hebrew travelers, has for some years quickly cast aside Wyricks first 1860 discovery as a fraud, well-meaning or accidental, possibly a Masonic ceremonial object from a few mere decades earlier. McCulloch sees what most observers have quickly noted, that the Hebrew of the Keystone is replicated bookhand, or the typeface of a Hebrew Bible in the age of printing, not the Hebrew of the Second Temple era, let alone earlier. For a New World discovery to have a credible Hebrew inscription, antiquarians in 1860 said, it should be in a square, stonecarving-suitable hand (not the serifs and curlicues of typography), with a text that points more at Jewish religious practice than the suspiciously Masonic shape and sense of the Keystone. That hunk of stone might have been a prop lost by a pioneer era Freemason, they said, but if you found a longer text with a simpler alphabet hearkening back even to the Old Testaments lost tribes of Israel, well then . . .

Detail of the Decalogue Stone. Image courtesy of Phil Wanyerka and the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum.

And on November 1 of 1860, just before the fateful election day that would propel Abraham Lincoln of Illinois into the White House, and see the nation split over the question of the humanity of different races, just such an object was found, addressing just those issues. It had some problematic considerations of its own, however. From McCullochs analysis: (These) considerations would argue that the author of the stone was someone who was conversant in a dialect of Hebrew and wrote down the Decalogue text from memory, giving the essential sense of it, if not the exact wording. On the other hand, a few other discrepancies point instead to someone’s having slavishly copied a standard Hebrew text without understanding all the words. (1) Youll notice that in this passage, hes focusing on the Decalogue stone, whose ancient authenticity hed like to maintain. In fact, I would argue that the Keystone and Decalogue stones stand or fall together, given the number of common points to their discovery, their general size and shape, and their shared nature as purported Hebrew ritual objects. Both show signs of transcription by a non-speaker of Hebrew, the Keystone overwhelmingly so. And if you want to try to maintain some lost survivor hypothesis, a flickering last remnant of a small exploring party from Israel or just a single lost wanderer, you would have to explain why not only they had lost their knowledge of Hebrew, but why when they tried to leave one last hint of their memory they just happened to carve out their text as would an English-speaking scribe, from left to right. Or you could start to ask the even more interesting question of why Ohio citizens of sound mind, good health, and civic standing would take the pains to craft such hoaxes, as their country was being shaken to the foundations over questions about the basic humanity and ultimate justice due to African slaves and Native tribespeople. Might they have seen the prospect of a great civil war on the horizon, heard the insistence with which some in the South argued that science and theology supported their belief that the different races were in fact separate creations, disparate creatures, suitable only for different laws and subordinate status? And might some have believed that, if the right artifacts hadnt been yet found to prove those slave-power theologians wrong, it would be morally right to create some, rather than wait for chance and fortune to turn them up? To plant these artifacts would have been wrong, any parson or professor would know that, but the prospect of brother against brother in rebellion, in secession, in warfare: would that justify it? In trying to imagine the motivations and machinations of all the parties involved, we put ourselves in their shoes, and we wonder what we would have done. Jeff Gill *  *  * 1.  “An Annotated Transcription of the Ohio Decalogue Stone,” by J. Huston McCulloch, Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers vol. 21 (1992): 56-71.

Posted December 16, 2013
Topics: Archaeology

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