Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 29, 2024

The writing on the stone

It can often be difficult to sort fact from fiction, especially when multiple people become involved, each with his or her own agenda -- and varying determination to adhere to the truth.

Take, for example, the Brandenburg Stone.  It's a 74 by 39 centimeter slab of oolite (a sedimentary rock) that appears to have writing-like marks scratched into the surface.  Without further ado, here's a photograph of the alleged artifact:

It was found in 1912 near Brandenburg, Kentucky by a farmer named Craig Crecelius.  Crecelius clearly thought the marks were writing -- and you can see for yourself that they look like it -- and he made a good effort to contact linguists who might be able to identify the script, but without success.  He exhibited the stone several times in nearby towns, but wasn't able to drum up much in the way of interest.

In 1965, the stone passed into the hands of one Jon Whitfield, and that's where things start to get interesting.

Whitfield thought he knew what the script was.  The letters, he said, were Coelbren y Beirdd (Welsh for "Bard's Lot"), a script for writing the Welsh language that in the early nineteenth century was the center of a linguistic controversy regarding its origins.  The man who promoted it, one Edward Williams (more often known by his "bardic name" of Iolo Morganwg), was absolutely obsessed with ancient Welsh history and traditions, and achieved fame as a collector of rare medieval Welsh manuscripts.

But why would there be Welsh script on a stone in Kentucky?

Whitfield thought he knew the answer.  There was a story circulating that the medieval Welsh prince Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd had crossed the Atlantic in around the year 1170 C. E. with a handful of friends, and the lot of them had stayed in North America and intermarried with Native Americans.  (Fans of Madeleine L'Engle will recognize this legend from her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)  This, said Whitfield, was proof that the legend was true -- and that Welsh-speaking Natives who descended from Madoc and his comrades had gotten as far inland as Kentucky.

There's only one problem with this.  Coelbren y Beirdd almost certainly wasn't an ancient script at all, but had been invented by Iolo Morganwg in 1791 -- who then passed it off as authentic.

It's pretty clear that despite his legitimate work in preserving ancient Welsh manuscripts, Williams/Morganwg also was a champion forger.  He was exposed as such long after his death by Welsh linguist and poet John Morris-Jones, who decried Williams's dishonesty, saying "it will be an age before our literature and history are clean of the traces of his dirty fingers."  Several of the works he "transcribed" were apparently written by him -- weaving his own fiction and philosophy into allegedly ancient legends and poetry, thus confusing the hell out of scholars who simply wanted to know what historical cultures actually believed.

So even if the marks on the Brandenburg Stone are actually Coelbren y Beirdd, it can't be any older than 1791, and probably much more recent than that.  Skeptic Jason Colavito points out that Morganwg's writing became really popular in the mid to late nineteenth century, when his son Taliesin began publishing and promoting his father's works.  Colavito writes:
The alphabet was widely published in the 1830s and 1840s, and whoever forged the Brandenburg Stone (it was not actually either Williams, who were never in Kentucky) almost certainly used such publications, possibly Taliesin Williams’s widely-read book about the alphabet, in forging the stone.  The younger Williams’s popular book was published to scholarly acclaim in 1840 (having won a prestigious prize two years before) and the alphabet was exposed as a hoax in 1893 (though suspicions had been raised earlier, until Taliesin successfully combated them), which makes it much more likely that the stone was actually carved between 1840 and 1912, though a date as early as 1792 cannot be excluded.  In the United States, libraries had dozens of different volumes on Coelbren y Beirdd, including the Iolo Manuscripts (1848), Bardaas (1862 and 1874), etc., but I am not able to find evidence that the alphabet itself would have been widely available in rural America prior to Taliesin’s book, though it is possible that some of Edward’s specialist publications imported from Britain were available in some places.  After 1862, the largest collection of the Williams forgeries was in print and the alphabet was at the height of its popularity.  Thus, the latter nineteenth or early twentieth century seems the best candidate for the time of forgery.
So we have Craig Crecelius, the farmer who found the stone, and who appears to have been genuinely unaware that it was a forgery; Jon Whitfield, who was the one who identified the writing as Coelbren y Beirdd, but was too young to have been responsible for the creation of the stone, and seems to have thought it was authentic as well; and Edward Williams, who created the fake script but never went to Kentucky and so can't have been the stone's creator, either.

In the end, we're left with a mystery.  An unknown person scratched some mysterious letters on a stone, probably in the last half of the nineteenth century, and left it for someone to find.  And someone did... starting a domino effect of speculation that still shows up on television shows specializing in archaeological weirdness.  The fact remains, though, that everything about it is certainly a forgery -- not only the artifact itself, but the script in which the inscription is written.

But as far as who perpetrated the hoax, we'll probably never know.


1 comment:

  1. Asking "who perpetrated the hoax?" feels like jumping to a conclusion. A hoax is a deception, and there's no evidence that there was any intent to deceive.

    I've studied Classical Latin a bit. I live in Florida. If, say, I got bored and scratched something in Latin onto a rock while hiking in the woods, and someone else found it years later and decided that must mean the Romans came to Florida long before Columbus, that's not a hoax - it's simply a mistake.