An American Discovery

Cast of the Grave Creek Stone
Smithsonian Institution Photograph No. 6768
(Catalogue No. 7252)

The artifact known as the Grave Creek Stone is one of several tablets discovered in 1838 at a depth of 60 feet in a large burial mound at Moundsville, West Virginia, about 10 miles south of Wheeling. Today the mound is preserved in the Grave Creek Mound State Park. Details on the discovery, and the controversy generated, can be learned at the Grave Creek Stone website of Ohio State University.

Critics made much of the "singular omission" of any mention of the stone in Dr. James W. Clemens' first-hand, day-by day account of the excavation, which had appeared in S. G. Morton's 1839 publication of Crania Americana. However, a few years later, in 1858, it was found dutifully reported in the original manuscript of Clemens' account, demonstrating that the editor had taken it upon himself to expurgate the discovery from the published version. Dr. Clemens had, in fact, recorded finding the inscribed stone on the very day of its discovery. (Barnhart, 1986)

Prof. Rafn of Copenhagen easily recognized the script as Iberian, and Dr. H. Barry Fell (1976) of Harvard University believed that it reflected an Iberian presence in ancient America. Prof. Fell found the script comparable to other Iberian tablets found in Europe, but other authorities question this conclusion (Smith, 2006). As yet no one is sure of the direction in which it was written (Iberian could be written in either direction, or even "back and forth," boustrophedon style, meaning "as a plowman walks").

The phonic values were determined by Spanish scholars, and published by the English epigrapher D. Diringer in 1968. The language itself has not been positively identified, and it appears to incorporate several ligatures (a combination of more than one letter in a single character). Dr. Fell became acquainted with a fairly large number of Iberian-like inscriptions running all the way from Uruguay in South America to the New England states of North America--and as far into the interior of the USA as the states of Iowa and Oklahoma.

Dr. David Kelley (1990) of the University of Calgary, one of the first linguists to recognise that the Maya script was essentially phonetic, has backed several of Fell's discoveries including the tablet above; but he leaves the identification of the language and its translation to others. Kelley does give Fell full credit for opening up the possibility that America indeed had a "written history" before its re-discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus.


      Barnhart, Terry A. "Curious Antiquity? The Grave Creek Controversy Revisited," West Virginia History, 1986.
      Fell, Barry, "America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World," Simon & Schuster, New York, 1976.
      Kelley, D. H., "Proto-Tifinagh and Proto-Ogham in the Americas," The Review of Archaeology, Spring 1990.
      Smith, C. Edward, Jr., "What the Grave Creek Stone Does not Say: An Epigraphic and Philological Analysis,"
      Colerain, Ohio, June 2006.

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Last updated: 17 Mar 2010