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The Newark Decalogue: Hoax or History?

The 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 each side:

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 YHWH.

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 on.

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:

J-H-NCL

Short vowels in Hebrew are not represented by letters so this is how one would write:

J-H-NiCoL

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.

The 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 by Jews.

The Museum wishes to thank J. Huston McCulloch for his contributions to this article.

McCulloch's Archaeological Outliers Page

Copyright Lee Krystek 1999. All Rights Reserved.

 

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