#34 – Virginia Hourigan Tells Her Story – 1986

Written by Virginia Hourigan:

As I parked my motorcycle at the curb in front of the sleepy little Sonoftobac Museum nestled at the foot of an Indian mound in Vincennes, Indiana, that hot August afternoon in 1986, I rather expected to be disappointed again. The book I’d seen back home in New York City had said this museum had “inscribed stones,” but that was such a controversial subject that the stones, if any, might have been chucked out or hidden away in a basement by now, as other museums had done. Or the “inscriptions” might be just plow scratches. Or somebody’s little boy might have been handy with a hammer. Two years before I’d spent the night at a camp-ground near Vincennes, intending to go to the museum the next morning, but somehow I’d forgotten all about it until I was fifty miles away, and I certainly wasn’t going back then. All I could do was to persuade myself that the stones probably weren’t worth looking at anyway. Still… two cars baking in the shadeless driveway announced that someone was there, so I wandered in to check it out.

The first room displayed the sort of Indian material – points, feathered headdresses and the like that I’d often seen before, but I could hear the elderly curator in the next room describing the work of Barry Fell to a bemused young couple so I hurried in to listen. Could there really be translatable scripts on stones here?

By the time I arrived, the curator, who I would soon learn was named Jack Ward, was telling visitors that over the years the farmers had brought him interesting stones they’d found in their fields, and he displayed them.

Then he came upon Fell’s book, America B.C., and a great light dawned, he said. He rushed to the museum to look over the stones. Sure enough, they appeared to have characters from ancient alphabets on them, the very sort of thing featured in the book.

When he discovered this, Ward said, he wrote to Fell, but getting no response he obtained some materials from the Epigraphic Society and set about translating the stones himself. It was a lot of work, he said, but he had succeeded and could tell us that in 726 BC a party, sent out by Pharaoh Piankhi of Egypt and led by Chief Raz, had arrived in the Vincennes area to set up a trading colony. Over there was Chief Raz’s boundary stone, and beside it were other stones relating to the journey, with large drawings showing the letters on the stones and another poster showing the translation. He pointed to glass cases on the wall.

Well, is that so, I thought. Not even Barry Fell ventured to put a definite date on anything based only on an inscription, unless a date was given directly. Styles of writing did change, but slowly, over a few hundred years. Had Ward really found a date on a stone? To judge by the labels in the museum, Ward’s English was rather weak – could such a person really translate ancient and forgotten languages? I left the group and went to examine the stones.

What I saw was as disappointing as I’d feared. The stones themselves were displayed sideways, so it was hard to see the marks on them, but I wasn’t at all sure the drawings had any relation whatever to the marks on the stones. Even if they did, I didn’t have much confidence in Ward as a translator.

The other visitors thanked him and left. He came over and took the stone purporting to be Chief Raz’s boundary stone out of the case to show it to me, pointing to marks on the stone and translating as he went. They certainly looked like plow scratches to me.

Just as I turned to go, my eye fell on some other stones on a ledge below the wall cases. “But what are these?” I asked in astonishment. I had never seen anything like them.

“Oh, those? They’re found in a cave in Illinois. I’ve only translated a few so far.”

“Never mind about the translations. I’m an amateur archaeologist and I’ve worked on American digs and seen a lot of museums. There’s nothing in America even remotely resembling them. Look, here are portraits of men in metal helmets never used in this country. Here,” I went on, my excitement growing, “here’s something that looks like a navigation aid, and here’s what looks like an ancient compass, with a depression in the center to float a needle! And what’s this ship doing here? Surely somebody making fakes wouldn’t do it like this.”

“Well, if you can find any evidence of that we’d sure like to know about it. We’ve tried every way we can think of to find out.” “Who is ‘we’?” I wondered, but didn’t ask.

“Look over here,” Ward went on, leading me to another wall case. “Chief Raz is buried in the cave. His skeleton is there on a bier, and here is the uraeus that was on his head, and here’s his arm band.”

They were pounded and shaped copper bands, the arm band a coiled snake, the headband having two separated ends, each curving upwards like a snake’s head. Two heads? Every uraeus I’d ever seen had only one – but maybe there were some in Egypt like this.

“And here’s his portrait,” Ward was saying. “This was found on the bier beside him.” A lovely thing, I thought, a roughly oval-shaped black stone with a relief of a man in profile. I was thrilled when Ward took it out of the case and put it in my hand. Then you could see that what might have been a “Mohawk haircut” wasn’t hair, but some kind of headdress ending in a pair of feathers. Very strange.

It was nearly closing time. “This is only a few of them,” said Ward. “Come over to my house in the morning and I’ll show you a lot more.” He gave me his address, and I left, dazed and unable to make up my mind whether these stones were fakes or not. It just didn’t make sense.

Next morning Ward was waiting for me in the living room of a white frame house on a side street. He led me into two rooms full of large and small stones bearing pictures and inscriptions of a bewildering variety of styles and techniques, no two alike. Some were rather crudely done, others showed skillful craftsmanship. I had brought a camera and I took snapshots of groups of stones. Then Ward took me to the garage, where he had fifteen or twenty more, larger stones, and out to a house he owned a few miles from town where he had some more large stones in the garden.

Weird stones, almost seeming to be a composite of elements rather then portraits. I took candid shots of these too. He talked a lot about the cave, what was in it, how it was found and the man who found it, and about their unsuccessful efforts to get some professional attention paid to the stones, but by now I was too dazed by all this and I hardly heard what he said.

As I rode my bike back towards New York the next couple of days I tried to make sense of it all. Some of the stones had Egyptian flavor, but always something was “wrong” with them. Surely a person with enough
skill to make them in the first place could copy the style more accurately than that. If he (or she) tried to sell them it would be spotted at once. Many were not Egyptian at all. I was in no way an expert, but even I could see that there was no Christian symbolism on them, nothing Greek or Roman, nothing identifiable as Native American. The motifs represented seemed a hodgepodge of Mediterranean mythology along with unknown others, the scripts seemed to consist of characters from ancient alphabets such as Iberian, Libyan, Phoenician, Ogam and more. The styles and techniques were so completely different from one another that they couldn’t have been done by one person, or even ten persons. And there were so many stones! Who but a maniac would expend so much effort in making something he couldn’t sell? But if they were genuine…?

Like almost everyone else, I’d never believed there was anything to be found in America except what was made by Indians. I’m a classical musician by trade, with a lot of other interests including history and archaeology, and I’d been a volunteer on many digs, not only in America but several in England and one at a paleolithic cave in France. The received wisdom was that it was just prejudice that caused so many people in the 19th century to think the Indians had nothing to do with the many strange things found in America by early settlers – even if the Indians themselves declared that it wasn’t their people. As for scripts, they were either recent forgeries or plow scratches.

I had no reason to doubt this until I heard an archaeologist, Salvatore Trento, on a radio program. He had written a book documenting the historical records and the Old World artifacts found here, calling attention to Barry Fell’s work and including photographs of artifacts and constructions that were very hard indeed to explain if one ruled out trans-Atlantic travel. I got in touch with Trento, read his book and Fell’s book, and since then I had seen some of these things for myself. I’d become convinced that some, at least, really represented cultures well known on other continents. All the same, I knew very well that frauds do exist, plenty of them, usually but not necessarily because someone sees an opportunity to sell something.

When I got back to New York I contacted some people I knew, to see if they had heard about Jack Ward’s stones. One of them was Gloria Farley, a remarkable woman from Oklahoma who, while working full time to support her family, care for an invalid husband and raise two sons, had somehow managed to float the rivers and climb the cliffs to record the messages left by literate travelers of long ago. Years went by before she could find anyone to pay any attention, until she heard that Barry Fell was working on and had actually translated ancient scripts. He was delighted to hear of her work and made it an important part of America B.C., which he was then writing. I had visited her and heard stories, and seen her photographs and her latex peels of inscriptions. Who would think there could be so much still remaining in America after 200 years of destruction?

Gloria phoned and said, “I just wanted to warn you. Jack Ward’s stones are fakes. Other people know about them and they all say so.”

“Are you sure, they aren’t just put off by Jack himself?” I asked. “Have they seen all those stones? I’ve counted over eighty in my candid shots, and I didn’t take nearly all of them. How can they all be fakes?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to warn you to be careful.”

I thanked her and hung up. I didn’t know what to think.