#4 Meeting the Burrows Cave People – 1988

Written by Fred Rydholm

It was during the summer of 1988 that I found myself seated in about the third row from the front in a huge room in the old “Iron Works” building in Columbus, Georgia. The building went back to the time of the Civil War. They had made cannon and ironclad ships there for the Confederacy, and now the building was cleaned up and renovated into a beautiful Civic Center which any city would be proud to have. I noticed that care was taken to preserve bits of the building’s history throughout.

I and my wife, June, were attending a meeting of the Institute for the Study of American Cultures (ISAC). Most of the people in the assembled group were complete strangers to us, but I recognized many names and a few faces of the scientists and historians there.

For about five years I had been a member of the Epigraphic Society, the group started by Dr. Fell. It was dedicated to the deciphering of inscriptions in ancient alphabets. I had read articles by some of the very people in attendance at this meeting, in the Society’s Occasional Papers (or ESOP, for “Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers”). I had ordered back issues of ESOP and had been receiving some each year, and was by then up to date.

Dr. Warren Cook and Warren Dexter were the two people I knew the best in the group. They were from Vermont and were close friends of each other. They were known to many there as the “two Warrens,” as they were never far from each other at the Epigraphic Society meetings where I had met them before. Warren Cook was a frail man with a crooked spine who was an historian. Warren Dexter was an elderly but energetic and enthusiastic archaeological photographer.

Several years earlier he had come to our home in Marquette, Michigan to inspect a rock arrangement that I suspected was a dolmen. I had wondered about that rock for years, but for the first time I had read about others like it in the book by Barry Fell. Dr. Fell had asked Mr. Dexter to take a look at it, and he stayed with us a few days. We found him to be a scholar and a delightful person to be with, kindly, generous, obliging and steeped in knowledge of ancient times and far-off places.

That day at the Columbus meeting it was very warm. I have always lived on the shores of Lake Superior and thrive on cool invigorating weather. It is true that we must put up with a few days of heat each summer, but even then there is always someplace to go for relief. I do not like hot weather.

I looked around the high open room. About thirty feet up, in the gable end of the brick wall behind the stage, was a hole with a fan in it that was rotating, very slowly. There was no way of telling if it was blowing air out of the room or bringing it in, but whichever was the case it was woefully inadequate.

I loosened my tie, then in a few minutes removed it altogether. Then I took off my suit coat and hung it on the back of my chair and unbuttoned another button on my shirt. The talks were interesting but I just couldn’t seem to get into them while fighting for air. My feet seemed to be swelling so I loosened my shoes. A short time later I took them off.

As the speakers droned on I began to observe the other people around me. None seemed to be suffering with the heat as I was. It was then that I noticed the fellow sitting next to me on my left. He hadn’t seemed to move during all my squirming, but sat bolt upright, at attention.

The man wore a three-piece grey wool suit, perfectly pressed; his shoes gleamed like patent leather. I thought to myself, he must have been in the military. I remembered how I used to get my shoes shining like that, getting ready for inspection when I was in the Navy during World War II.

People must have been noticing by then that I was suffering with the heat. I was slouching uncomfortably in the chair. I could not concentrate on what the speakers were saying. My mind was on that little fan high in the wall, wondering if it was doing any good at all and wondering about the fellow next to me, who sat stoically in his chair showing no distress whatsoever, straight and still, not a hair out of place.

He was younger than I, probably in his middle or late forties; he had a medium build, and short cropped hair with a neat part in it. He had sharp chin and a rugged complexion. Yes, I thought to myself, he must have spent a lot of time in the military.

Suddenly I realized that he was being called upon to be the next speaker. My mind groped for the statement that had just been made about him. It was still ringing in my ears. He had been introduced as the discoverer of Burrows’ Cave.

None of this meant much to me, but the elderly gentleman who had preceded him had talked about Burrows’ Cave also. And the things I was hearing about it were a colossal story of people coming from the Mediterranean in ancient times, with huge ships that ascended the Mississippi River. Their legacy was in a cave that had been through earthquakes and floods. It had filled with sand and silt to the point where its entrance was hidden. But most remarkable of all was the fact that throughout this silt were literally hundreds and hundreds of variously-sized stones that had pictures on them, even inscriptions. Many of the stones depicted faces of different ethnic groups.

I was well prepared to believe this story. For years I had been convinced that there had been a regular copper trade with Mediterranean people sometime in the distant past. I had plenty of information, pieced together by many people, that had proved this to be fact without a shred of doubt in my mind, but most people either didn’t know these facts or they didn’t believe them. Obviously there was not proof strong enough to convince them. This was the whole reason for our making the trip to Georgia, to hear something like this, something that would convince the rest of the world, and give credence to the overseas visitor theory that had obsessed me for so long. The story of Burrows’ Cave was what I wanted to hear – but there was something strange about it.

The discovery had been made several years earlier. Why wasn’t it in the papers, why wasn’t it on the TV or in National Geographic magazine and why weren’t people firing questions at the speaker? The man was Russell Burrows, for whom the cave was named.

There were murmurings of disbelief running through the audience, and I had a feeling that the two men who had the information on the cave had not been treated with the respect that they deserved, nor even with the esteem that had been accorded the other speakers.

In fact, the next speaker to follow Russell Burrows [Dr. Norman] Totten] delivered what appeared to be an impromptu discourse on all the possibilities that the very thing we should have been trying to prove at the meeting might not be so. He spoke of how gullible the public was and how easy it was fake such things. It was pointed out that in the area where the cave was found there had been a cult sometime in the early nineteenth century that held ceremonies in caves, and these artifacts could very well have been left by them. None of this seemed to pique the curiosity of most of the audience, and while some seemed to be claiming that it was some kind of a clever ruse, most appeared to be unimpressed and were content to move on to the next order of business.

After his talk I asked Russell Burrows several questions from the floor, all of which he answered to my satisfaction. I had many more questions but, not wanting to monopolize the question-and-answer period, I decided I would speak with him later.

After their talks the two gentlemen from Illinois had retired from the hall. I told June that I wanted to go and find them. I was agog with curiosity. I wanted to hear much more. June prevailed on me to wait until the end of the next segment of the program.

When the break came I left the hall and searched for the two men. I saw that Russell was with a small group of people, but then I spotted the older of the two seated alone in another part of the Iron Works.

During my discussion with the older gentlemen I learned the story of his involvement. The man’s name was Jack Ward and he was from Vincennes, Indiana, an old and historic town just across the Wabash River from the State of Illinois. Anyone who has read much American history has heard of Vincennes.

Jack had been a life-long resident of the area and was a retired rock and gravel salesman. He was well versed in different kinds of rocks and rock formations and gravel deposits. In the course of his work he had become interested first in Indian artifacts and then in stone artifacts of any kind.