The Newark Decalogue: Hoax
Newark Decalogue Stone (Copyright
J. Huston McCulloch)
In November of 1860, amateur archaeologist David
Wyrick made an interesting discovery. His excavation exposed
a small rock, perhaps seven inches long, composed of "black
limestone." The stone had been carved so that one side showed
a robed, bearded man. Around the man and then along the sides
and back of the object were carved what turned out to be a condensed
version of The Ten Commandments. The commandments were written
in ancient Hebrew with a peculiar form of post-Exilic square
lettering. The artifact itself had been contained in a small
stone box that had obviously been hollowed out precisely to
contain the carved stone. Nearby, a small stone bowl, about
the size of a teacup, was also found.
The carved stone, which was to become known as
the Decalogue, seemed to be designed to fit into the
hand, and even showed wear marks where it had come into contact
with the owner's fingers and a nub where it might have been
tethered to the left arm. Researchers concluded that it was
a Jewish arm phylactery or tefilla from the Second Temple Period
(20BC-70AD). Such an object would have been used by its owner
in his daily prayers.
This object would have been an interesting, but
not controversial, find if located in the Mideast. The problem
was that Wyrick had been excavating an ancient Indian mound
near Newark, Ohio, USA.
Why was this Hebrew artifact found in the American
Midwest? Most scholars suspected the Decalogue was a hoax: A
fake artifact planted where it should not have been either as
a joke or to prove some outrageous archaeological theory. In
fact, many books list the case of the Decalogue as that of a
"well-known hoax" though there is little evidence to back up
such a statement.
Wyrick himself became the primary suspect to
many of those who thought it was a hoax. A few months before
finding the Decalogue, Wyrick had also discovered another strange
stone in a different section of Newark. It was shaped like a
fat, rounded arrowhead and became known as the Keystone.
It too was inscribed with Hebrew lettering with one phrase on
Holy of Holies
King of the Earth
The Law of God
The Word of God
Los Lunas Decalogue
Ancient copies of The Ten Commandments do not just
show up in the New World carved on small stones in Ohio.
The Los Lunas Decalogue is cut into a 90-ton basalt
boulder on the side of Hidden Mountain, New Mexico.
It is inscribed in Hebrew using the Old Hebrew alphabet
and some Greek letters. The inscription was first seen
by an archaeologist in 1933 and there are reports of
it extending back into the 1880's. The writing is on
a forty-degree angle, indicating the boulder has shifted
since the carving was made. One geologist estimates
the age of the work (based on the weathering) could
be between 500 and 2000 years old.
Analysis of the text suggests the writer's primary
language was Greek, with Hebrew as a secondary language.
One scholar suggests that the Decalogue is a Samaritan
mezuzah. Similar to the Jewish mezuzah placed by the
entrance of a house, a Samaritan mezuzah was traditionally
carved on a large stone slab placed by the gateway to
a property or synagogue.
The finding of two strange artifacts by the same
person seemed to fuel suspicions of Wyrick as a hoaxer to later
archaeologists. However, in 1861 Wyrick had published some of
his discoveries in a pamphlet. The picture Wyrick drew of the
Decalogue had some 38 different errors in the lettering as well
as mistakes in the reproduction of the Moses figure (for example
the Decalogue shows Moses wearing a turban, while Wyrick drew
him with a beret). It seems unlikely that Wyrick, if he were
attempting a hoax, would have made these kind of errors in drawing
an object he had carved himself.
Similarly, Wyrick also made mistakes drawing the
keystone by having the inscription TWRT YHWH appear as HWRH
In 1991 archaeologist Stephen Williams
in his book Fantastic Archaeology suggested that Wyrick
may have planted these stones because he was interested in proving
the Lost Tribes of Israel wound up in Ohio. There seems to be
little evidence for this as a motive since Wyrick never mentions
this theory in the pamphlet he wrote or in his letters. Wyrick's
interests, published in the Ohio Farmer in 1860, include
mound exploration, surveying, geo-magnetism, anomalous boulders,
river terraces, beaver dams and sorghum processing, but not
the lost tribes of Israel. It also seems unlikely that if Wyrick
had gone to all the trouble of faking the Decalogue he would
have figured out he needed to use a pre-Exilic style of lettering
(which was in use at the time the lost tribes disappeared) instead
of the more modern square post-Exilic style.
The Rev. John W. McCarty, a local minister, and
Elijah Sutton were also accused of planting the stones by archaeologist
Bradley T. Lepper. Lepper's evidence against the two seems very
thin. Bradley based his argument on the speed of which McCarty
was able to translate the stone despite its strange lettering.
Sutton was a stonecutter who lived in the area (he carved Wyrick's
tombstone). He became a suspect because the Decalogue was about
the same thickness as that of the monuments he often worked
In defense of the two, J. Huston McCulloch,
of Ohio State University, points out that any well-trained minister
of the time could probably have done the translation in a few
hours once he had figured out how to substitute the unfamiliar
letters in the text with familiar ones. According to McCulloch,
McCarty also published a second article a few days after the
first one correcting errors he'd made in the translation. One
of the errors, his mistaking the figure on the stone for Christ
instead of Moses, was rather obvious in retrospect and it seems
unlikely the Reverend would purposefully make it.
The case against Sutton as McCarty's accomplice
is even weaker. While the Decalogue is the same thickness as
a tombstone, they are composed of different types of rock.
Perhaps the best candidate for a hoaxer, if there
was one, was John H. Nicol. In 1864 two additional Hebrew-inscribed
stones were found during the excavation of a mound east of Newark.
They became known as the Inscribed Head and the Cooper
Stone. Shortly after they were found, Nicol, a local dentist,
admitted that he had carved them and introduced them into the
excavation with the intention of showing how easily the Decalogue
and Keystone could have been faked. The Inscribed Head reads
in Hebrew letters as:
Short vowels in Hebrew are not represented by
letters so this is how one would write:
The Nicol hoax helped discredit the Decalogue
and Keystone at the time and some even suspect that Nicol was
responsible for carving the original stones. The character of
the carving in the Decalogue seems totally different than that
of the Nicol stones, though, and Nicol never attempted to take
credit for making them.
In 1867 another stone was found near the mound
where the Decalogue was discovered. This coffin-shaped stone
is now lost, but records show that it was about three inches
long and covered with text which seems similar to that on the
Decalogue. The fact that the stone was discovered independently
from Wyrick (who had died in 1863) seems to confirm that the
original find might be genuine.
Newark Keystone (Copyright
J. Huston McCulloch)
So are the Decalogue and Keystone hoax or history?
If they are genuine, what were Hebrews of the Second Temple
Period doing in the American Midwest? If they are fakes, who
carved them and why?
Recently attention has been focused on one final
piece of evidence. Remember the small stone bowl found near
the Decalogue? Who would take the trouble to carve a stone bowl?
Among other people, the ancient Hebrews of the Second Temple
Period. Under Jewish law stone vessels were always ceremonially
pure. Mideastern Archaeologists use the presence of stone vessels
as one of the markers that tells them an ancient site was occupied
The Museum wishes to
thank J. Huston McCulloch for his contributions to this article.
Krystek 1999. All Rights Reserved.