(…from BULLETIN of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, Vol. 28, No. 1, October 1966)

A PROBABLE FAKE PRE-COLUMBIAN MARKER

BERNARD W. POWELL

 

         A stone slab bearing incised characters, purportedly in the style of a 13th Century English land grant marker, was seen by the author on a rural wooded hillside in south central Connecticut in the Fall of 1963.  Investigation of the stone, a tumulus found near it, and review of the circumstances suggest the stone is the work of a former resident.

THE FOLLOWING records circumstances of a rather unusual find in which I was involved in November 1963. Since a very brief notice has appeared previously in the literature (Powell,1964), and since some persons entertained the notion at that time that the find might be a pre-Columbian archaeological manifestation, a statement of the facts seems warranted.  Certain sensationalists have used murky records relating to other "finds" (Kensington Stone; Beardsmore finds)  support pre-Columbian European visitations to North America.

         The stone in question - hereinafter called the “Bresson Stone” - was brought to the attention of Mr. Charles Boland, then of New Canaan, Connecticut, by Mr. Roy Bresson of Newtown, Connecticut, upon whose family property the stone was located.  Supposedly the stone had been known to certain people - specifically Mr. Bresson’s wife - for many years.  She remembers having played near the stone as a child.  However, according to Mr. Bresson, nothing had ever been done about the stone and no outside comment had ever been sought.

         He was moved to inform Mr. Boland of its presence after reading material on supposed pre-Columbian voyages published previously by Mr. Boland.

         Mr. Boland in turn invited me and several others, including a geologist and a representative of the local historical society, to view the stone with him.  We traveled to the site and saw the stone in situ on November 3, 1963.  It was a large slab of metamorphosed, possibly gneissic, rock not too dissimilar from the surrounding country rock. It measured 34 –1/4 in. long by 21-1/4 in. wide at the widest part and varied from a minimum thickness of 5" near the top to a maximum at the bottom of 7" (Fig. 4 is a facial view; no profile).  I would guess its weight near 250 lbs.  As exposed about two-thirds the way down a steep hillside, it lay face up in deep, apparently undisturbed leaf mould. The spot is in the uplands near map coordinates 41o 26' 15" lat. and 73o19' 30" W.  long., 1- 6/10ths miles west of a bend in the Housatonic River (see U.S. Geol.  Survey 7.5 Series topographic map: Newtown Quadrangle).  For the record, the river could have been navigated upstream from Long Island Sound by a European seagoing vessel of the period in question to a point eighteen miles below the site at Derby; from there further travel would have had to have been overland, or by shallow draft longboat.  In Colonial days some vessels made it upstream at times of high water as far as Southbury - roughly the same distance as the nearest point to the site (Pease, J.C., et al, 1819).

         The incised characters (Fig. 4) were plainly visible, and read the same by everyone.  They are carved in a medieval style, and the 1271 certainly suggests a date.  The henricus is obviously the latinized version of "Henry." Henry III was indeed King in England in 1271 A.D. The Angl .was thought at the time to be a latinized abbreviation for England, but the remaining inscriptions were more obscure.

         Boland subsequently contacted a medievalist, Dr. Harry Bober with the Institute of Fine Arts, New York, in hopes he might be of some help.  After hearing the description over the phone, Dr. Bober unhesitatingly translated the inscription in toto - and explained it.  It was the form for a13th Century English land-grant marker, and it reads:
 

henricus  (Henry)
D.G.  (Deus Gracius, or Through the Grace of God)
Angl. rex  (King of England: the "x" and part of the "e" are missing on the stone)
D. hyb.  (Domini hibernium- Lord (or Master) of Ireland)

(These are prescribed titles for the English King; the 1271 is a year date during Henry's reign.)

 

         Interestingly, Bober was not told where the stone was - and assumed it was somewhere in England. When informed of where it had been found, he replied that it was obviously either a genuine marker brought here in recent years, or was a fake.  While this latter view is a view I share, its expression at this time was premature, for nothing had been determined of archaeological contexts or other aspects of the stone.

         The stone was subsequently removed to Boland's house for more detailed examination.  The outstanding
impression was one of age and weathering. No part of the stone was clean or fresh looking - including, notably, the incised characters.  Weathering products and corrosion were visible in the depths of these characters, and both rounding of their edges and differential weathering of mineral grains on their surfaces, seen with a hand lens, suggested some lapse of time since their creation.  Since no really comparative data on surface weathering of stones exists for the Northeast, such judgments can be rather subjective.  I considered a check against the appearance of characters on tombstones of known Colonial age in our region, but subsequent developments, as will be seen, obviated this.  I also sought to check against the possibility of the stone being an English gneiss, but was discouraged by a mineralogist, David Seaman(personal correspondence).

v:shapes="_x0000_s1026">         Close examination showed the slab had been carved without much preliminary dressing.  Tool marks in the lower edge of the date panel suggest a steel chisel with about a 1/2-inch bit was used.  The bottoms of the incised characters show faint, circular pits varying from 1/16th in. to 3/16th in. in diameter - supporting the inference that a steel punch was used in their manufacture.  Interestingly, Willard (1958) in his review of the enigmatic stone carvings at Westford, Massachusetts, cites steel punches in the kits of 14th century European armorers.  Very low-angle illumination of the stone shows a faint impression (Fig. 4) beneath the date that was likened to a rosette, or an "angel with wings." It is so faint it seems subjective; at least two persons "saw" it that way.

         The reverse side of the stone shows several long, more or less parallel grooves near the upper end.    They are reminiscent of plow marks often seen on large aboriginal artifacts from southern New England.

         Apparently, portions of the right side of the stone bad been broken off since it was carved, but without any real loss to the inscription, save the "x" in "Rex".

         The hill on which the Bresson Stone was found terminates about 75 feet higher in a small field.  In heavy underbrush near the outer edge of this field, was a low, rounded, fairly smooth mound about 20 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.  Investigation disclosed a recent rodent hole on the northwest side of the mound, and probing in this burrow suggested quite a bit of space beneath the mound.  Further, a number of weathered stone slabs from the mound visible in the walls of the rodent burrow, showed a faint layered orientation, with many slabs overlapping.  They hinted at a rough, coursed stone architecture beneath the sod of the mound. Was this some kind of manmade tumulus?  The thought was intriguing, indeed.

v:shapes="_x0000_s1027">         Accordingly, on November 17, 1963, a small party under my direction investigated this mound.  The prime thing to establish was whether it was indeed artificial.  The brush was cleared, and I had a trench run into the mound, starting well out from its base (Fig. 5).  This was to assure that we would pick up any borrow ditch in profile which might have once surrounded the mound and figured in its construction.  This exploratory trench was 2 feet wide and averaged about 18" deep. It was carried directly into the heart of the mound, and a lateral offset was then run to the west to include the rodent burrow area.  This exploration established beyond doubt that the mound was a natural formation and not the work of man.

         Interestingly, I resolved several aspects of the mound's intriguing appearance. For one thing, the space detected by the probe in the burrow was simply the den of the rodent and nothing more.  Dried grass and small bones marked it for what it was.

         Secondly, this trench suggested the origin of the layered stones. A ledge of schistose, fissile rock rises to the surface just beneath this mound.  Cyclic weathering and - notably - frost action over many years was causing the ledge to break up along natural lines of separation, i.e., as slabs or shingles.  Frost-heaving and other geological dynamics caused the slabs to migrate slowly out, and in some cases, up from the ledge.  These spalls in time assumed a layered, shingled orientation beneath the dirt of the mound, and suggested ancient, deliberate placement. The mound therefore, was wholly negative.  The rounded profile is probably incidental to horticultural activities which formerly obtained in the field.

         A test pit was put down at the spot where the Bresson Stone had lain. Carried down 4 feet to sterile subsoil, it revealed no evidences of prior disturbance, shaft outlines, charcoal grains, or other anomalies and proved, as had the mound excavation, to be wholly negative.  No further phenomena warranting field investigation were noted at the time, and this phase of the project was terminated.

         In the course of investigation, attention was directed toward the residents of the area.  It is here, I feel, that the most probable explanation for the stone's occurrence lies.  It so happens that some years ago, a man named Olivier lived in the old farmstead on whose property the stone was found.  This Olivier was surrounded by mystery.  It was rumored he was of French aristocratic sympathies and origin, and well-educated, but chose to live in this out-of-the-way spot as a simple truck-farmer.

         Some attempt was made to check on his background.  One or two of the original group who claimed interest in historical research, volunteered to see what they could find.  Unfortunately, no thorough investigation was carried through, and certain diaries and papers said to have been Olivier's never materialized.  However, a rather interesting, if damning, profile did emerge via hearsay.  Olivier had been a linguist, a nephew of a prominent 19th century medievalist, was globally traveled in his younger years, and was known hereabouts as, a craftsman and adept with his hands. He entertained unusual views on many subjects,, and is said to have been regarded by his neighbors as rather eccentric.

         This evidence is circumstantial, to say the least. To me, however, it suggests quite strongly that Olivier certainly had the capacity for creation of such a stone: linguistics, knowledge of medieval history, and mechanical skill.  This does not prove in the sense required in law or science, that he did it.  But it definitely shifts the burden-of-proof for the genuineness of the stone to the shoulders of any who advance this view. The presence of such an individual on the scene enormously complicates the matter.  It argues, does it not, for the Bresson Stone being a fake of recent origin?  Taken together with the negative field demonstrations for the tumulus, there is no really legitimate grounds for entertaining this as a pre-Columbian manifestation.  This paper seeks to inhibit unbridled speculation on the matter - rather premature accounts released to the press by Boland appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, November10, 1963 and elsewhere - or any attempt to cite this stone in support for pre-Columbian voyages unless additional data relative to the find are developed.

         One further point: since there is no evidence that the creator of the stone ever attempted to publicly capitalize on it (Olivier. is deceased some years), it cannot be properly termed a hoax or deliberate fraud. A charitable view is that it was made by Olivier for his own ends and that its "meaning” was strictly a personal thing to him.  He is said to have maintained a cultivated grape arbor in the field near the tumulus- and perhaps the Bresson Stone, found nearby, once graced this area in some fashion he privately fancied.

                                                                                                                                                  Norwalk, Conn.
                                                                                                                                                  February, 1965


 

REFERENCES AND NOTES

 

   PEASE, J. C. AND J.M. NILES
            1819      A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Hartford.

   POWELL, BERNARD W.
            1964      American Antiquity.  Vol.29, No. 4, April, pp.,540.  Salt Lake City.

   WILLARD, LAWRENCE F.
            1958      Yankee.  April, pp. 60 f.  Dublin, N. H.
 

A Post-Publication Addendum

For some years I have not had a copy of this article at hand.  Once during this interim, I referred to the whole incident  in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion (there is much about this “find” that still bothers me…), and extended my remarks into a “demo” of how unbridled speculation – not subject to scepticism, can run on to some very bizarre situations! LOL.  These latter ruminations I posted to the  “Vikings” Section right here on this same website. Check it out there under the heading “A Lesson in Applied Archeology.” As this was posted as I say when I did not have this published copy at hand, some of the details there may vary a bit since that latter post is entirely from memory.  You might enjoy…

                                                                                                                                                                          BWP
                                                                                                                                                                          8/00