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Cite as: Pinsky, Randy. 2007. The Davenport Conspiracy: Revisited and Revised. PARA Research Paper A-05.

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The Davenport Conspiracy:

Revisited and Revised


Randy Pinsky

McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Anthropology and Archaeology

Wednesday May 16, 2007.


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In the early development of the archaeological field in the late 1800s, researchers were enthralled by the mound structures that dominated much of the Eastern United States’ landscape. They attempted to prove that they had been constructed by an earlier European ‘race’ called the Mound Builders. While there was much debate on this issue, a discovery in Davenport, Iowa in 1879 emerged with the distinct value of possibly settling this case conclusively. The Davenport Tablets were inscribed with a variety of letters and illustrated scenes that were argued to be attributed to this European ‘race’, however, doubts as to its authenticity soon transpired. The mystery that ensued is analyzed from various standpoints to demonstrate the investigative approach that must accompany the examination of any archaeological matter. A critical appraisal of the arguments on both sides is thus warranted, and its vital role in the Mound Builders myth examined.




The Creation of the Mound Builder Myth

            As the Americans tried to expand their ownership of territory in the United States, in the 1800s they soon encountered the many mound structures that sat silently and imposingly on the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. The initial argument was that they could possibly be attributed to the “Indians” (as the Native Americans were called). However, this idea was quickly refuted due to the racist and prejudiced view that the perceived as simple-witted Indians could not have coordinated the means nor labor to construct such massive monuments. Thus, an alternative idea needed to be developed. The prime solution emerged in the assertion that the mounds were built by a mysterious past ‘race’ with European linkages that had existed in the area prior to the native peoples. While there was much debate as to their exact origins as possibly being European, Phoenicia, and even of Atlantis (as these inhabitants were also believed to have built mounds), these ancestors were seen as being a preferable alternative to crediting the Indians with the structures (Silverberg 1968:192, Sabloff 1973: Vll).


            This hypothesis served two vital functions for the incoming settlers. Firstly, it fulfilled their desire for an ancestry in the United States, “a desire … [for] a great epical history in this newly adopted homeland” (Sabloff 1973: Vll, Hinsley 1996:184). This would be used to justify their colonization, as it would be seen as returning to their land, despite their varying backgrounds and kaleidoscope of nationalities. In an ironic twist, Hinsley (1996) refers to a quote by Ariel Dorfman, author of “the Lone Ranger’s Last ride”, in the Empire’s Old Clothes which stated “if they’ve [the native peoples] lost their lands it’s because they could not come up with the proper ancestors” (180). This was the belief the Americans in the 19th century wanted to believe, which is paradoxical because it would eventually be irrefutably proven that the Mound Builders were indeed the ancestors of the Native peoples. More importantly, the Americans’ attempt to claim European ancestry to the land, served to act as a “convenient rationale for the ongoing extermination of the Indians of the West” and the taking of land for themselves (Silverberg 1968 and Trigger 1980 in Meltzer 1985:253). Thus, the myth was instrumental in legitimizing such actions for their own advantage.


            This latter reason was much enhanced when the Americans dreamed up further romantic ideas about their ancestry. The Mound Builders, they claimed, had been a civilized European ‘race’ who had advanced courts of law, religion and writing systems (the latter two facts would be extremely valuable in the discussion about the Davenport Tablets). It was believed that the native people had invaded on the peaceful Mound Builders, and brutally exterminated them (Silverberg 1968 in McGuire 1992:821). Thus, actions that were equally cruel were seen as revenge to what had happened to their ancestors in the past by the hands of the ruthless Indians. By viewing them as savage individuals who were incapable of cultural achievements (a sign of civilization), they felt justified in their actions and assertions (Sabloff 1973: Vlll, Trigger 1984:363). 


            At this period in history, there were a variety of scientists in different disciplines who were interested in the arguments made about the Mound Builders. While the academic discipline of anthropology was developing, archaeology was seen as a pursuit that interested individuals of various backgrounds could engage in. Meltzer (1985) declared that “in 1879 a separate archaeological society was perceived as unnecessary. Archaeology was a part of anthropology and [was seen as being]… well served by [the]… anthropological society” (249, Mason 1880:349). At this time, few people could claim to be professional archaeologists; instead, most were “self-styled… amateur …archaeolog[ists]”, with the field becoming professionalized by 1900 (Williams 1991:77, Meltzer 1985:249).The first locations for archaeological work and research were the Bureau of America Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institute and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Harvard University. As the discipline was not yet professionalized and there was no certification process necessary, people of various backgrounds and credentials were given free reign to search for and interpret artifacts from the past.


            The initial developments in archaeology as a result of this initial unprofessional nature, was one of nationalist archaeology that had the precise aim of proving and romanticizing a people’s ancestry. This nationalist archaeology developed with “the American Indian as its centerpiece” (Meltzer 1985: 251). Archaeology was seen as another way of learning about these peoples, to extend what was known about them in the time of recorded history, to the prehistoric past (McKusick 1964). Thus, it was almost predestined for these ‘archaeologists’ to examine the mound earthworks and to evaluate the Mound Builder hypothesis more closely. Interestingly, Mason (1880) noted that in 1879, there were sixteen important archaeological publications that were focused on either mounds, the Mound Builders, the Indians, or a combination of the topics.


National archaeology served to submit findings to be viewed in a manipulated and prescribed manner and from a certain viewpoint as to its interpretations (Trigger 1984:360, Kohl 1998:223). It was in this atmosphere that archaeology matured. Williams (1991) describes how much of pseudarchaeology, (as proponents of the Mound Builder myth were) are engaged in this type of biased archaeology that hides a precise motivation behind its analyses (23). Indeed, this claim is substantiated with an examination of how the 19th century archaeologists carefully skewed their interpretations of any finds to further prove and validify the Mound Builders myth. In addition to the too complex construction of the mounds themselves, the artifacts uncovered were also deemed to be of more advanced artistic quality than it was believed the Indians were capable of possessing (Silverberg 1968:128). This was the most harmful aspect of the Mound Builder myth, as it denied the Native people of any agency and creative ability.  Interestingly, it would be on these precise claims that an archaeologist would attempt to undermine the myth.




Cyrus Thomas; Slayer of the Mound Builders Myth

            In 1879, John Wesley Powell founded the Bureau of American Ethnology, a research affiliate to the Smithsonian institute (McGuire 1992:822). Along with Spencer Baird, Powell encouraged the development of archaeological research, with Baird’s main motive being to gather findings in order to develop museum collections (Meltzer 1985:251). Powell was unconvinced of the Mound Builders myth. Some authors claim that his staunch unacceptance of the hypothesis developed from his youth, when as a child he firmly opposed the notion of slavery. These feelings of opposition against mainstream and commonly accepted ideas are similar in that he despised how they were both employed to legitimize the mistreatment of others, whether they be Black slaves or Indians. He set out to prove that the mounds had been built by the Native peoples who had lived at the time and whom the Americans had encountered upon their arrival. He appointed Cyrus Thomas, an educated man with an interest in archaeology, to uncover the truth behind the debate. Thomas was comparable to others involved in archaeology as he had some skills in the field, but he actually had a background in entomology, the study of insects. This specialization in a seemingly irrelevant field of study must be taken into account when viewing his arguments.


            In an ironic nature, Thomas, who would later on be credited as having destroyed the Mound Builders myth conclusively (Meltzer 1985:254, Sabloff 1973: Vll), initially was convinced of the idea himself. It appeared that Powell wanted to convince this educated man of his beliefs, so he appointed him for such a position with the hope that he would uncover the ‘truth’ on his own when confronted with the archaeological evidence arguing otherwise (Sabloff 1973: Vlll, Silverberg 1968:173). An aspect not mentioned in any of the sources, is as to why this man was chosen to engage on such a study. From his biased nature, would not Powell be concerned that all interpretations would be filtered through the belief in the European ancestry of America, and thus skew the objectively of his interpretations? It seems that it would have been wiser on the part of Powell to have chosen someone who was of his like mind and conviction. An interesting point that can be argued is that once Thomas became engaged on his mission and soon became convinced of the falseness behind the Mound Builders myth, he might have used his own previous assumptions and beliefs as an earlier supporter of the myth, in his endeavor to disprove the claims.


To exemplify, he was in all likelihood a member of the proponents who believed the Indians to be too feeble minded and clumsy to have been able to create the complex mounds and intricate artifacts uncovered in the mounds. He might have viewed this as an opportunity to prove his compatriots correct and Powell wrong. Instead, this led him to discover the true similarities between the Mound Builders and the modern Indians, whether on the level of artifacts or the mounds themselves. Thus, Thomas’ own earlier beliefs might have been instrumental in providing the guidelines for his research, where after switching alliances, he set out to disprove the myth. He soon unwaveringly believed that “the Indians were the authors of these [earth] works” (Thomas 1898:138).


Thomas examined the historical literature, and was amazed to find much notice and commenting of the historical use of mounds that was recorded in memoirs by European explorers and first Americans (Thomas 1898:140). Indeed, the accounts clearly credited viewing the Indians create such mounds and gave much detail as to their purpose and mode of construction. This thus served to dispel the claim that there were no historical references associating the Indians with the earth works. In Introduction to the Study of North American Archaeology, he discussed how the mounds were important to the people, as they served as a raised platform for the cacique or leader of the native peoples and his family to reside (Thomas 1898, Thomas 1889:10). The rest of the villagers would reside on the slopes or lower layers, depending on the shape of the mound. The mounds also were instrumental in providing protection from incoming invaders (Thomas 1898:140), as their mere higher position served as an advantage in better aim of projectiles and to enable for a sharper lookout. He described how the mounds were built with the skeleton structure of poles and various supporting layers of earth. Thomas soon discovered that there were a variety of shapes, sizes and uses of the mounds, whether for village use or for burials (Thomas 1898:12, Silverberg 1968:209). This delving into the historical past in order to prove the earlier use of the mounds was very helpful for the native peoples, as they could not defend themselves, since the remaining Indians had “neither recollection nor legend” of building such “earthworks” (Meltzer 1985:252).


Burials were another critical factor that was used by Thomas to further strengthen the link between the Indians and the Mound Builders as being one and the same people (Thomas 1898:144). The Indian ancestors, as he was gradually proving, engaged in the same types of unique burial practices as the native people at the time. This was in a sitting position, although others were lying flat down (see image 1). The proponents of the Mound Builders were comparable with modern pseudoarchaeologists in their common selective neglect of some aspects and their over-emphasis on others. Straus et al (2005) were instrumental in revealing how pseudoarchaeologists can attempt to overly stress the slight similarities that existed between two peoples, or in their case, two styles of prehistoric tools. In doing so, the narrow-minded individuals overlook or carefully avoid confronting the more than vast differences that would possibly discredit their theory. Pseudoarchaeological authors do not like to be challenged or confronted in what they believe to be true, and this is why they take part in such selective analysis.



Image 1: An artistic image of the contents of a mound.

Source: Silverberg, Robert 1968 Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth. New York Graphic Society Ltd, Greenwich, Connecticut: 99. For a clearer image, this was found at University at California, Davis, The History Project, Professional Development for Social Science Teachers at, accessed on Friday April 13, 2007.


In a similar fashion, the proponents of the Mound Builder idea claimed that the people had to have been of European ancestry, as they buried their deceased in coffins (Thomas 1898:26). These so-called ‘coffins’ were slabs of rock that were place around selected individuals, but this was by no means evident for the majority of cases. These pseudoarchaeologists did not acknowledge the clear historical evidence of earlier explorers witnessing the Indians using and making mounds, the mound that these graves were discovered in, in their feeble attempts to prove their idea. Williams (1991) described how pseudoarchaeologists are lacking in three critical aspects in archaeology; those of form, space and time. He asserts that pseudoarchaeologists do not adhere well to the second idea of space, as they often ignore the idea of context, as can be seen by such arguments based on ideas that were selectively extrapolated out of their context (Williams 1991:18-19). Thomas (1898) discussed how in fact both the Mound Builders and Indians engaged in this activity of burying individual in “stone graves” (28). In 1894, the monumental Report on the Mound Explorations was completed and was viewed as a landmark for the destruction of the pervasive hypothesis.




Thomas and his Careless Mistakes

Thomas then proceeded to examine the artifacts found in the mounds, and compare them to the tools and various cultural objects made and used by the Indians contemporaneous to him (Thomas 1898:144, 1898:14).  He concluded that the artifacts were so similar to one another that they must have had a similar origin; a comment which would conclusively claim that the Mound Builders were the Indians ancestors (Williams 1991:66); or so he believed. While Thomas’ work has been credited as providing uncontestable and valuable findings serving to prove the true cultural background of the Mound Builders, some of his arguments are dubious at best. For instance, his paper on the Problem of the Ohio Mounds was mainly focused on denoting the similarities between the Mound Builders and the Cherokee to prove that they were indeed a similar people with identical origins. Silverberg (1968) argues that this is a weak argument as the earthworks from Ohio did not bear as much resemblance to the Cherokee ones in Tennessee as Thomas was trying to imply. He argues that the effort to link the groups often seemed to be “forced and labored” and that he often tended to distort materials to create a more seamless a parallel than there truly was (Silverberg 1968:212-221).


Unfortunately, Williams (1991) argues that this is a tactic employed by pseudoarchaeologists. This places some doubt on to Thomas’ work, and is also a serious charge that could tarnish his present reputation as a renowned archaeologist. The reason for this is because he seemed to be engaging in the practice Williams (1991) decreed of “spurious similarity”, where aspects that may slightly resemble one another, do not provide conclusive evidence to their true similar origin (21).  Barry Fell (1976) of the notorious America B.C has long been critiqued for committing this offense. Even worse is how Silverberg (1968) claims that the “conclusive” proof of this cultural link was soon dispelled by archaeologists, who at present, no longer accept his argument of Cherokees having been the original creators of several of the earthworks. It is interesting how this is the only author who critiques Thomas’s work, while the others simply accept it at face value.


As mentioned, Thomas’ work has been argued to be rushed and his arguments sometimes forced. His reasoning, while appearing scientific and approved, surprisingly has other suspicious aspects reminiscent of pseudoarchaeologists. In addition to the above argument, he often attempts to back up his views by referring to various historians or other individuals, the credential, identification and relevance of which is often absent (Thomas 1898:16, 20, 28). This is unfortunately similar to Fell (1976) again, who would make reference to several renowned archaeologists who may have stated something related to his topic, and used their famed name to give his ideas more credibility. In truth, the book America BC “never received any archaeological review [or approval] before publication” (Williams 1991:265).


Moreover, while Thomas’ argument is that the Cherokee and the Mound Builders had similar burial rituals and objects of art and use, his manuscript is almost completely devoid of photos or drawing that would prove his point. He simply makes overly generalizing comments such as, “as is well known”, without always substantiating it (Thomas 1898:24, 25). In a fashion that would put most archaeologists to shame to admit, Fell (1976) has at least one advantage over Thomas. This is as, even when his theories are replete with errors, self-contradictions and mismanaged facts, he does have numerous photos that are used in an attempt to give his ideas more credibility than they really have upon analysis. This provides a weak point in Thomas’ arguments, a careless negligence that does not aid his arguments. It is even all the stranger, when it was noted in Williams (1991) that Thomas was not alone in his endeavors to prove against the Mound Builder hypothesis. Rather, he was accompanied with the faithful and artistic William Henry Holms. Nowhere does Thomas mention the latter, although they both earned the title of “myth-destroyers par excellence” (Williams 1991:65). The fact that his companion was an artist and there are no illustrations is questionable to say the least. The arguments would have been more convincing if there had been this addition.


Despite these faults, Thomas did make a valuable contribution in his proving conclusively that the Mound Builders were the ancestors of the native peoples (Thomas 1898:22). The final work that was submitted by the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute in 1894 was a complete work with evidence of various excavations, analyses and discoveries. During the compilation of his findings, he was aided in his quest by an interesting excavation that was taken place in Davenport, Iowa.




The Spectacular Finds

In 1867, a group of amateur scientists formed a group designed so they could discuss their mutual interest in topics such as natural history in a more scholarly manner than the general interest groups of before. This developed into the Davenport Academy of Sciences (Williams 1991:90). The backgrounds of the scientists were numerous, and an interest in archaeology was apparent for some of them. Reverend Jacob Gass was a new arrival to the area; a recent immigrant from Switzerland. He was an amateur archaeologist who soon became engaged in coordinating excavations in various grave mounds on the Cook farm in 1877. To everyone’s intense surprise, he successfully discovered three tablets that had various inscriptions and drawings of cremation, a hunting scene and an astronomical table on them in some of his directed excavations (see image 2). The tables were believed to be inscribed with “Mound Builder hieroglyphics” (Williams 1991:90, see image 3). He also found several valuable clay pipes and other artifacts. The members of the Davenport Academy were so intrigued that they invited him to join them in their ranks, while they analyzed the finds. The tablets were critical in that they could provide the priceless link and conclusive proof that the Mound Builders had indeed been European (McKusick 1991:11, McKusick 1970:1). The reason for this was that the Native Americans had had no writing style, and the pictures were deemed to be of European influence. However, the pristine and unquestioned nature of the tablets was not to last.

Image 2: The Davenport Tablets, in clockwise order: the Cremation Tablet, the Creation Tablet and the Astronomy Chart in the Calendar Stone.

Source: Williams, Stephen 1991.Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia: 93.


The Tablets Raise Suspicion

The Davenport Academy members diligently studied the slabs of stone, in order to interpret their messages and to discern a conclusive date. Many attempts were made to decipher the writings as they observed that some letters were Roman, while there were musical notations, numbers and symbols from other languages (see image 3). Less than a century later, Barry Fell (1976) would claim to be able to read the inscription. He firmly believed that this was the first American Rosetta Stone, as he argued that it had corroborating messages in Phoenician, Iberian and Egyptian (McKusick 1991:37). Fell (1976) claimed that the message denoted a certain time of year when celebrations should take place, a time that would be denoted by the sun reflecting on a certain rock at a particular time. However, Goddard and Fitzhugh (1978) of the department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute made the critical comment that “Smithsonian specialists in linguistics… consider [all] the conclusions reached in the book to be incorrect” (85). Thus, this argument along with his other ones on other matters, must be relegated to the realm of disbelief. Fell’s hyper-diffusionist arguments are not simply harmless hypotheses. In truth they are as racist as the Mound Builder theory as they are implying that Egyptians and Phoenicians had come and shown the native people how to do everything they knew; a form of denying them agency.




Image 3: The ‘inscriptions’ on the Davenport Cremation Tablet.

Source: McKusick, Marshall 1991. The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa: 29.


During the time of analyses, a member of the committee, Dr. E Foreman argued that he did not believe the tablets to be genuine; rather he claimed they were just clever fakes (McKusick 1991). Upon discussing his arguments, one must note that frauds were rampant at this time period not only in archaeology, but in various sciences as well. This referred “especially …to inscriptions”, (William 1991:79-80). It is perhaps for this reason that there was some skepticism as to truly believing the tablets’ authenticity as they bore some sort of writing. It was believed that the “tablets [were] too numerous and the discoveries too frequent” for them to be accepted as genuine (Editorial 1886:56). Foreman had many substantiating evidences to back up his assertions, such as how it appeared that modern tools had been used to create the spherical shapes on the zodiac tablet. The tablets also did not show much sign of weathering, an observation that served to throw more suspicion on the slabs’ proposed antiquity (Editorial 1886:52).


Then he revealed a critical aspect that had been overlooked by many who had read Gass’ excavations reports. The first tablet was found at one part of a mound that was intact, next to some complete skeletons. However, the two last tablets were discovered in an area with loose soil. After so many years being untouched, the ground should have been firm and compacted. Additionally, the bones of the skeletons were scattered about and “the entire contents [of the grave] thrown into confusion” (Foreman 1877MSa in McKusick 1970:17, Editorial 1886:46). This was evidence that the site had been tampered with before Gass’ excavations, where someone had clearly dug into the mound, placed the tablets inside and simply replaced the dug out earth and shells (see images 4 and 5). This rose suspicion on the genuine nature of the findings.


Image 4: The layers of the mound as excavated by Reverend Gass and his team. Note the identification of the layer of “loose earth”.

Source: Editorial 1886. Are the Davenport Tablets Frauds? The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 8 (1):50.    



Image 5: The excavation drawings of the grave in which the tablets were discovered by Reverend Gass. Note the difference between the intact nature of Burial Pitt A compared to the confusion in Burial Pitt B.

Source: Source: McKusick, Marshall 1991. The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa: 33.


Cyrus Thomas, with his elaborate work on trying to firmly place the Mound Builder hypothesis into mythical status, became interested in the controversy. He, too firmly believed that the tablets were frauds, and cited many fascinating reasons to support his argument. The most commonly denoted ones were that the inscriptions were found to be identical to the ones contained in the contents of Webster’s dictionary, a book which had been published only five years earlier to the Davenport discoveries. There was a display of various symbols and letters of different languages, and it was from here that the inscriptions derived their inspiration (Thomas 1886b). Thus, they were a random assortment of signs and letters, and not an actual language or message (see image 3). However, Thomas once again made such an assertion without actually providing proof of the corroborating page in the dictionary. This is despite the fact that he challenges the reader to see for himself (Thomas 1886a:10). Fell’s ideas in America B.C have been discredited for factual errors and selective ignorance of facts, and his comments as to the interpretation of the tablets are unquestionably of the second kind. McKusick's original book that detailed the “Davenport Conspiracy” was written in 1970, and Fell wrote his notorious America B.C merely six years later. This was a direct selective disregard for findings that had clearly discredited the tablets as being fabricated frauds in his quest to prove his hyper-diffusion theory, of Egyptians and Iberians coming to America before Columbus.



In addition, Thomas stated how the zodiac astronomical on the Calendar Stone was also found in the same dictionary (Thomas 1886:11), raising the possibility of there being one single creator of all three tablets who had used the same source for inspiration (see image 6). In the Cremation Tablet, it was noted how there appeared to be a fire in the middle that had smoke rising from it and people lying near it (see image 2). While Thomas does admit that the Indians did engage in cremation, as the Mound Builders had done (Thomas 1898:19) (the former fact selectively having been ignored by advocates of the hypothesis), he argued that the Indians would have place the drawn people within the fire in their artistic depictions and not merely near it as was evident.


Image 6: The astronomy chart of the 19th century Webster’s Dictionary has been superimposed on the astronomy circle of the Calendar Stone to denote their similar nature and identical origin.

Source: McKusick, Marshall 1991. The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa: 58.


Thomas was also skeptical towards the image of the face in the moon on this same tablet. He interpreted this depiction as being a European construction of the so-called “man in the moon” (Editorial 1886:52). However, once again, his argument looses some conviction in no pictorial evidence is included in the argument. While this might have been seen by some as being proof as to the European origin of the tablets, there are mistaken once more, as this artistic idea was a fictional creation that did not have such an antiquity in age as was being argued for the tablets themselves. Moreover, when Native peoples drew a face in a celestial body in prehistoric art, it is more often the sun rather than the moon that bears such an aspect. Very few authors aside from Thomas made reference to this point, aside from the debate as to whether it was the moon or the sun that bore the face. This seems like a menial argument, as it can be clearly seen in image 2 which was the chosen one.


Lastly, Thomas argued that while the native people might have believed in astronomy, they did not have a twelve symbol astronomical chart as was depicted. This too was a European invention. While advocates of the Mound Builder hypothesis eagerly took these facts as proving their Europeans ancestry in the Mound Builders, Thomas rather claimed that it demonstrated a recent creation and dubious authenticity of the tablets.  While his conviction has much merit, it is unfortunately weakened due to the fact that he fails to mention the converse form of astronomy that Native groups might include in their cultural beliefs, for him to truly be able to make such a statement.


While some members of the Davenport Academy supported similar views as Thomas’, some such as Charles Putnam strongly fought against both Thomas and Foreman, as was see in the various articles in the renowned journal, Science of the year of initial discovery and later years. Williams (1991) claimed in a slightly overdramatic manner that Putnam “believed in these archaeological discoveries with all his heart and soul” (94, Putnam 1885:9). This was demonstrated in the latter author composing an entire manuscript based on the findings in 1888, in “Elephant Pipes and Inscribed Tablets in the Museum of Natural Sciences”. Putnam stated that the skeptics’ criticisms were too harsh and their comments “so trivial and … fanciful as to scarcely attain the level of serious criticism” (Putnam 1886:119).


He was supported by others who declared that such findings did not represent the general opinion of the members of the Academy. Putnam pointed out minor flaws in Thomas’s argument to prove that his claims had no credibility, such as correcting him in stating that there were three rather then four lines around the astronomy circle, as the former had argued. He even twisted Thomas’ comment about the moon having a face, and claims that he was futilely questioning the sun with the face, something “not uncommon in Indian pictography” (Putnam 1886:119). This was obviously not Thomas’ intention as was demonstrated above, but was merely an attempt to trap Thomas in a mangled version of his own words. Putnam is also suspect in his stanch backing of Gass; so staunch that he even inverted Thomas’ argument to prove him incorrect. However, due to the strength and conviction in Thomas’s arguments, the members if the Davenport Academy soon concluded that the poor reverend had been duped by ill intentioned people. The Davenport Tablets were conclusively not genuine but rather had been created in the 19th century (Goddard and Fitzhugh 1978:86).




Possible Suspects

            In 1967, McKusick (1970) was fortunate to have the chance to interview some people who had been involved in the Davenport incident (83). One former member of the Academy admitted that the tablets were fabricated by himself and other members as a joke on Gass. This was no mere innocent prank, however. Rather, it had the grave motive of trapping the reverend into a plot, and throwing suspicion onto his reputation. This may have emerged out of being one last attempt to convince people of the Mound Builder ‘race’ as could be assumed from the obvious careful thought being taken in the fabrication of the tablets.


Indeed, the forgerers created the slabs with careful adherence to what proponents of the Mound Builders theory believed the race to have had in their culture. Thus, the fact that it was believed that the Mound Builders had engaged in cremation and were perceived as having “a highly developed culture … [and] a language, perhaps with letters” Powell 1894: xli in Williams 1991:62), was well taken into account by the creators. They wanted the tablets to be as convincing of possible to provide undisputable links to the Mound Builders. The fact that the findings coincided so well with what was assumed about this advanced race, meshed with the fact that such similar findings had never before had been unearthed, should have thrown suspicion on the tablets in the first place.


Gass was not well liked by the rest of the Academy who resented having a foreigner of such high status within their society. This hatred was deepened with the fact that he was successful in unearthing valuable findings in the mounds that had previously yielded nothing in the past to earlier excavators. This prejudice and dislike of the reverend provided the impetus for the forgerers to plant the tablets where they knew he would find them. The tablets had been carved out of a slate from the roof of the Old Slate House (a house of prostitutes) and made to look old and convincing. The very proof is evident in the photo where the nail holes are clearly apparent in the Calendar Stone (Williams 1991:95, see image 2).  McKusick (1991) cleverly asserted the intention as being merely a joke by pointing out the marks on the astronomical chart that denoted the expected date of the planting of the tablet and the date when it was predicted that Gass would uncover it (see image 6). The joke that was unintended to humble Gass blew out of proportion with the publicity, after which the guilty members could not confess. Gass bemoaned, “I [have] been the victim of all” (McKusick 1970:91).




Gass, Perhaps Not as Innocent a Victim as was Believed?

            Most of the sources on this issue were of the conviction that Gass had been a guiltless victim, caught in a plot that was intended to publicly humiliate him by his prejudiced peers in the Davenport Academy. McKusick (1991) believed that “it seem[ed] clear that the Reverend Gass had nothing to do with the tablets” (95). McKusick (1991) also corroborated that “Reverend Gass unknowingly had excavated a ransacked mound” (33, emphasis mine). However, suspicion can be placed on most of the findings excavated by Gass. Although McKusick makes only slight hints to this, it is possible that Gass was not as uninvolved in the excavations and planting of material as was believed. Perhaps he was not simply the innocent bystander, the simple victim of a cruel joke. There are several slight details that tarnish and throw suspicion on his honest nature. An anonymous author in The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal alluded to this, in stating that while the explorer’s accounts seem to “give… every evidence of honesty…we read between the lines” (1886:46).


            Primarily, Gass had been arrested before for having dealt with and sold artifacts, specifically presumed as ancient smoking pipes, of doubtful nature, a fact of which he surely was aware (Williams 1991:95, Gass et al 1886:438, McKusick 1971:40). Thus, he was no stranger to this occupation of engaging with fraudulent materials. McKusick (1991) also provides a table demonstrating that the whole Gass family was involved in various aspects of such fraudulent dealings. Table 1 shows how his brother, Edwin Gass and brother–in-law Adolph Blumer, were involved in the ‘discovery’ of many unauthentic pipes. McKusick (1991) makes the shocking statement that “the Gass family was responsible for at least twenty-nine of the thirty-four frauds” (106). While Gass had found fourteen genuine to twelve fake pipes, it is critical to note that the brother and Blumer found a total of seventeen fakes between them, and no genuine ones. This is critical to note and throws suspicion on the family. Interestingly, some sources claim that the relatives were also trying to ‘frame’ the reverend (McKusick 1991:108), but it is curious as to their motive.


Genuine pipes

Fraudulent pipes

Finder or Donor



Jacob Gass



Adolph Blumer



Edwin Gass



Academy members



Miscellaneous gifts



No information




Table 1: Relationship of members of the Gass family to the selling of fraudulent artifacts. After McKusick 1991: 106.


            As well, it was often mentioned in various articles describing the finds, about how Gass was a reverend and a “man of God”. It is possible that he used this to his advantage in order to convince others that a man of such pristine nature could not possibly have taken part in any illegitimate actions. Another aspect that throws suspicion on his presumed clear record, is the fact that he is mentioned as not being willing to draw up extensive excavation records. Whether this was from his weak grasp of English (a claim all his own), or because such work did not challenge his creative potential as a poet, he was content to write extremely brief summaries of the events (McKusick 1991:16). He preferred to simply unearth artifacts, and leave the interpretation and analysis to others; a suspicious assertion on its own. Much of the excavation statements were thus written up by others who had also come on the excavations, scientists who may not have been aware of his dubious dealings.


            There are two other aspects of suspicion on Gass. Firstly, while the members of his excavation teams changed each time, Reverend Gass was the only individual always present at each of the discoveries; a dubious and distrustful coincidence. As well, was it possible that the teams were intentionally rotated to prevent anyone from seeing any pattern in the findings? Williams (1991) makes the seemingly innocent statement that “the diggers worked with unseemly haste” that bears questioning as to the reasons behind this (92). Gass also tended to habitually excavate in January, a very strange time to engage in such activity as will be noted by any archaeologist, as the ground is frozen and digging made even more difficult than usual. This was also around the time of his initial joining of the Davenport Academy. One reason for the digging to have taken place at such an unconventional time could have been because the current farmer’s lease on the Cook farm was due to expire and the “new tenant swore… that he would never allow Reverend Gass on the property” (McKusick 1991:24). This assertion is made without any possibly explanations as to why the farmer would begrudge Gass this opportunity; that is, unless he had reason to do so.


 Moreover, Gass’ short temper aided in him getting in disputes with the other members of the Academy when he accused them of not finding anything worthwhile in the mounds. He boasted he could do better and was more skilled, upon which they called him a “windjammer and a liar” (McKusick 1991:17). One of the individuals who was interviewed by McKusick in 1967, admitted to such an assertion. It was thus from this provocation that he joined others of like mind to try to trap Gass in an embarrassing prank that would make him regret making such insults.


On the other hand, Gass himself might have been involved in the planting of the materials, to clearly ‘show up’ the jeering Academy members.  Some sources do claim how he had a “divining rod” and had a “’remarkable archeological instinct’” (McKusick 1991:16, 1970:28, McKusick 1978). This was even more so in the fact that he found artifacts in areas that had yielded nothing in earlier excavations.  This very term was used in the recently exposed case of Shinichi Fujimura who held the title of “God’s Hand” to refer to this skill of performing an equal task. Fujimura was soon exposed as having planted the artifacts he would later on “discover” (Feder 2006:45). It is possible that Gass likewise had a dubious nature. Putnam, who staunchly believed in the authenticity of both the tablets and of the reverend himself, argued in his favor, stating that “if there [was] anything to be found, he [would] find… it” (Silverberg 1968:187, Wiltheiss 1879:67, Putnam 1888:12). However, even more against Gass was the fact that no one had ever discovered such finds of the nature he did in the mounds. Was it really mere coincidence that led him to discover a variety of precious artifacts?


The Davenport Conspiracy is a dramatic account of fraudulent archaeological activity, framing and deceit. It is directly involved with the early American desire to try to claim European ancestors to the American land, by attempting to make links with an earlier ‘race’ called the Mound Builders. While Cyrus Thomas successfully destroyed the hypothesis, the Davenport case provides for a valuable case study in demonstrating how pervasive such a desire to believe can be. This aspect has often been much abused by pseudoarchaeologists. The critical assessment of the claims of both sides is valuable to discern the true nature of what occurred, and how to best learn from it.





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