#54 – The 1988 ISAC Conference – 1988

Written by Fred Rydholm:

As stated, in 1987 I’d joined ISAC (the Institute for the Study of American Cultures). My good friend Warren Dexter encouraged me to attend the 1988 annual meeting in Columbus, Georgia. So June and I traveled down there.

It was here on that hot day in June that I first met Russell Burrows and became so enthralled by his story. It was not a case of believing it or disbelieving it, but just a matter of intense curiosity. Jack Ward spoke at the same meeting and both, to me, appeared to be straightforward and honest. I just couldn’t imagine anyone with such a strange wild story being willing to tell it to a group of scholars unless they thoroughly believed it themselves. And although the story alone would be hard to believe, yet it was backed up by hundreds of pictures taken by Virginia Hourigan and the statements of Dr. Warren Cook and my good friend Warren Dexter.

All they had mentioned were the many carved stones and the vast stonework, but I felt that there just had to be copper involved and possibly gold and silver.

I asked the question of Russell, “Did you find any metal in the cave?”

He hesitated just a moment and then said something to the effect that they had decided not to discuss metal at this time. I had my answer.

(Russell Burrows):

By 1988, I had made contact with Dr. Joseph Mahan, who runs things in the Institute for the Study of American Cultures (ISAC). I was invited to attend their spring seminar. I was very much surprised when Dr. Mahan invited me to speak at the seminar, but I agreed to do so.

It was there at that meeting that I made some of the most important contacts of my life with respect to Burrows’ Cave. One of these contacts was Dr. Cyclone Covey, a highly admired elderly gentleman. If anyone has anything bad to say about him they’re going to have to fight me.

It was at this seminar that I began to realize just how much opposition I really had and most of it seemed to be coming from the members of the Epigraphic Society who were present.

The Society’s vice-president at that time was Dr. Norman Totten. After looking at all the photos that Virginia Hourigan had with her, I heard him say that he could see nothing wrong with them. I also heard him say, while holding one of the artifacts in his hands, “I can’t see anything wrong with these things.”

Yet during that very seminar he spoke out strongly against the project. In a talk after mine, Dr. Totten went into a long dissertation about how a patina could be produced, with chemicals, for instance, or acid. While he did not say right out that he was talking about my cave, it was obvious that he was. Someone told me at that time that I should not worry as he was one of Dr. Fell’s pupils and that he was just trying to protect Dr. Fell.

It was also at this meeting that I first met the man who was to prove to be the spark that kept me from throwing in the towel and giving up. That man has now become a very good friend as well.

While I did not have much contact with Fred at that time, except to reply to his questions while I was at the podium and a few words later on, I did get a chance to have a good long conversation with him when he visited Vincennes later that year. He and a friend made a special trip down from Upper Michigan that fall, to learn more about the cave and to examine the artifacts. It was from that meeting that my confidence in him developed and, I think, his confidence in me.

I could not, for the life of me, understand the attitude of most of those within the ranks of the Epigraphic Society.

“Why?” I kept asking myself, “Are they so dead set against this thing?”

Here were all these fellows who, according to what I had been told, could read anything that was ever written by anyone, in any language. While the opposition had been strong prior to my going to Columbus, it doubled shortly thereafter; I just couldn’t understand it!

At that time all contacts were being made by Jack Ward. When he and I discussed the problems we were having, he seemed just as mystified as I. He was, according to what he was telling me, begging for help from those who were calling us frauds and a few other names.

It was shortly thereafter that I got a clue to at least some of the dissension. I learned that he was then making contact with these people, telling them about how he was able to decipher the artifacts in question and that he was running the show in Vincennes.

Something should be explained about Jack and his contact with the scholars at ISAC. He had been invited down to Columbus to give a talk in 1984. He gave a rambling and almost foolish presentation. He was claiming that disc and plow marks seen on some stones he had with him were, in fact, ogam. He claimed that the tiny little marks along the edge of the groove left by those implements was, now get this, micro-epigraphy. According to Jack, a complete story was told on those rocks. From what I was told by Dr. Mahan, Jack’s presentation was so bad that Mahan had to cut him off in the middle of it.

The result was that he and his wife packed up and left that evening, convinced that Dr. Mahan was, as he put it, “out to get him.” Practically all of the people who were at the 1984 meeting were also at the 1988 meeting, and I was told by many of those attending that the surest way of having my find labeled a fraud was to be associated with Jack. Understand, I had no idea of what had really happened in 1984. I had only Jack’s side of the story. I felt sorry for him. In my mind he was on to something and his theory was not going to be given a chance to be proven.

Remember, in all of the problems I had up to that time, Jack figured in some way into all of them. Of course, I did not realize it at that time. He was trying to establish himself as an epigrapher. Besides Dr. Fell, he had made contact with Gloria Farley, Philip M. Leonard and several others who were at that time the guiding lights in epigraphy in this country. I have difficulty figuring out what goes on in the minds of these scholars, and how to get along with them, especially in matters which concern their field.

I have found out that there is no use hammering away at a point once they have made up their mind on it, using their various styles of logic. If it does not fit their way of thinking, if they have gone on record against it, then the harder you try the worse off you are.

Jack didn’t catch on to that. He kept hammering away, and as a result he put many learned and valuable people so strongly against this project that now nothing can change their minds regardless of what or how much evidence is placed before them.

As a result of this unfortunate situation I disassociated myself from Jack Ward. Whatever he said, was on his own. While I formerly went along with his theories, if anyone should ask me today what I think of them I would have to say that I don’t go along with them. As far as I am concerned we are back at square one. The study of the contents of the cave needs thoroughly competent people who will tackle the exploration with an open mind. And whatever their findings are, I am ready to accept them.

I firmly believe that, had I kept control of the situation and not allowed Jack Ward to be the sole contact with the scholars who were trying to figure out what was happening, we would not be in the situation we are in now. All I can say now in retrospect is that I would not have done that. I didn’t know what I was doing and without experience I have made some mistakes.

But if I have made mistakes, Jack made a lot more. He continued to make statements that may or may not be true and he continued to stand by his decipherments which all of the experts seem to disagree with.

While I am trying to discuss my problems with the Epigraphic Society here, I find I am instead discussing Jack Ward. I associate the two together. After all, I would not be in such hot water with that group, if it were not for Jack.

Later, a linguist by the name of Joe Palmer came to Vincennes to have a look at the collection of artifacts. Thank God Joe is a very smart man. He had to be to wade through all the stuff Jack Ward threw at him.

Now Jack figured out, through his deciphering, the names of two men who are buried in the cave. According to Jack, one was named Aga Zih, and the other was named Raz. Jack said his title and name was Chief Raz.

But according to Dr. Fell “Raz” itself translates as “chief.” So that man was named “Chief Chief.”

And Jack told Joe Palmer and another gentlemen, both scholars, that “Raz was red-headed, you know.” Absurd.

I want to tell you, one and all, I made my excuses for having to leave and got out of there fast. It was fortunate that Joe called me later in the day, and that I had a chance to talk with him about what Jack had said. I was very relieved to hear that he had taken it with a grain of salt.

It is to be hoped that the best men in the field will withhold their judgments until a study has been made, and all of the artifacts can be displayed. It takes very patient people to be able to wait and not start making claims before seeing the evidence.

Those who are crying foul the loudest have never seen the collection! They are basing their decision that these artifacts are fraudulent solely on a description by others or, worse yet, they are basing their decision upon the fact that they are unable to decipher the script on these artifacts. I cannot accept that as a good solid scientific reason to call it all fraud. That is really an ugly word, isn’t it?

When this cave thing first began, the evidence was presented to Dr. Fell and his opinion was asked for. I was not the one who did this; Jack Ward was.

Dr. Fell was sent some photos (they were poor ones) to help in his evaluation, along with a letter from Jack telling Dr. Fell that a cave had been found which contained tablets that appeared to be ancient script. If Jack had stopped at that point in his information, he might have enlisted Dr. Fell’s aid, but he did not.

Instead, Jack informed Dr. Fell that he had deciphered some of the text displayed on these tablets. I think at that point the red cape was waved at the bull, and the rest is history.

Jack had already attempted and failed to establish himself as an epigrapher at Columbus, Georgia, in 1984. Now he tells Dr. Fell that he is able to decipher these tablets. By that time Dr. Fell had made his opinion known on this subject, and there was just no way that he was now going to admit that he was wrong.

A description of Dr. Fell’s reactions and decisions can be seen in a letter he wrote to Virginia Hourigan, dated October 29, 1986, and printed here with permission.

The Epigraphic Society
an incorporated tax-exempt public foundation
6625 Bamburgh Drive
San Diego, California 92117
Telephone: (619) 571-1344

October 29, 1986

Dear Virginia:

Thank you for your letter of October 22, and the enclosed photos.

Some time before Mr. John A. Ward published his novel AncientArchives Among the Cornstalks (1984), he sent me an envelope of photos of what he said were ancient inscriptions on slabs of stone and (I think also) metal, and which he said he had translated and would soon publish. I examined them and then wrote, as sympathetically as I could, to him, saying that I was very sorry to have to tell him that the so-called inscriptions were meaningless fakes of modern origin, in which childish drawings and absurdities were applied to surfaces that obviously had required an advanced technology to produce. Thereafter I heard nothing more from him save only the gift of his book, which would seem to claim to be genuine history, but which is quite obviously a fabrication. Since Michael Crichton wrote a fascinating novel Eaters of the Dead, based on a fragment of Arabian text coupled with a big slab of imagination, and with the consent of some of his former professors at Harvard (not me) whom he quotes in fictional footnotes, to add verisimilitude to his novel, I assumed that probably Mr. Ward was doing the same in taking such liberties with my work when he composed his 200-odd pages of supposed “decipherments” of marks on small stone slabs said to be found in Vincennes. So I let the matter pass without comment.

Now you tell me that he says that I told him, not what I have said above but instead that “I was too busy” and that he should find another person to help him. I said no such thing. Since, however, it now appears that thousands more of these forgeries are coming into existence, now all covered with signs of alphabets that were almost unknown before I began work decades ago, I shall have to take his advice and refer his tablets to others. I have therefore asked a number of epigraphers to serve as an ad-hoc committee, including the president of the Southern Californian Epigraphic Society (a historian), the chairman of the Gadelic Committee, and myself, and I now invite you to serve on the committee since you have been active in bringing the newer tablets to our attention. In due course the committee members will report on the particular features of the tablets that come within their ambitus, and then we will probably want to make a statement in ESOP. For the time being then you may leave the matter in our hands until I contact you again. I have sent you ESOP vol.15. Your photos serve as part payment, as the price of the volume is $22.50. I thank you for your action in bringing this disturbing matter to our attention. I think you should avoid discussing it publicly until our ad-hoc committee is prepared to make a considered judgment.

Barry Fell (President)

I am not attempting to take away from Dr. Fell credit for the many scientific break-throughs that he has made. On the contrary, I believe he has done some awesome work. But, as I see it, he and his Society have developed the attitude of “If I didn’t find it, it cannot be genuine.” Again, let me say that this is just my opinion. It’s based entirely on my experience with Dr. Fell and his Society.

I have become not a little confused by the whole thing. On the one hand I have respected anthropologists and archaeologists telling me that, based on the patina and other such evidence, these tablets are genuine. On the other hand I have Dr. Fell and the Epigraphic Society dashing around the country saying that these tablets are fraudulent. In my own opinion, they have to be real and genuine, and I’m sure that when they are put to various scientific tests, I will be proven right.

(Fred Rydholm):

One can easily determine from his statements that Russ Burrows was very confused and discouraged after the 1988 ISAC meeting. In talking among the group during the three days of our presence there I came away with the feeling that the majority of the people there either did not believe such a cave existed or that the story and the artifacts that went with it were recently fabricated to fit each other. Of course there were a few believers who kept noticeably quiet and many who were open-minded and wanted to see more or wait for further developments.

I guess I was one of the latter, except I could not let something of this magnitude just sit. I wrote letters, mostly to Jack Ward, and made phone calls to both Russ and Jack, and then I made a trip to Vincennes with a witness. In time I became satisfied that what they were telling us was all true (maybe interpreted wrongly by Jack Ward, but you have to start somewhere) and that the story, at least of the discovery, was for the most part exactly as the events occurred.

In my conversations with Russ that year I learned that, although the president of the ISAC organization, Dr. Joseph Mahan, had asked him to be on the program again in 1989, he felt he had had such a bad experience with them the previous year that he “didn’t want to go through that again,” and told me he wouldn’t be there.

When the program for the 1989 meeting arrived at our house and Russell Burrows’ name was on it as a presenter I called him again.

“Apparently Dr. Mahan thinks you are going to be on the program.” I said. “If you’re going to be there, I’ll be there. If you aren’t, I’m staying home.”

“Well, I’m not going to be there,” retorted Russ, and neither of us showed up at that meeting.

Dr. Joseph Mahan has done much research into Native American history, and seemed to believe that the cave in Illinois was worthy of belief. To be sure, he was not accepting Jack Ward’s interpretation, but when it came to Russell, he continually wanted him to tell his story. Russell was not into giving interpretation unless it was something of a minor obvious nature. He was merely telling what he had found and trying to do something about it without the thing getting out of hand. To the credit of the ISAC group, Joe Mahan has always supported Russell and the cave.

There were other important people who felt the same way and there were a few positive things happening that I was excited about. One of them was that Dr. George Carter had become interested and was willing to help out.

I had met Dr. Carter at Barry Fell’s home in San Diego back in 1985. He was the main speaker at the ISAC conference in 1988, and down through the years had been a prominent supporter of the theory that there were many exchanges among the various cultures before Columbus, in food, plants, and culture. Carter was highly respected among diffusionists but was considered a maverick by the inner circles of the establishment.

Russell Burrows met George Carter at the 1988 ISAC conference. We were told after that meeting that Dr. Carter would get a highly qualified team of archaeologists from a Texas university to conduct the cave investigation. He would be working with Dr. Cook. This was the encouragement that Russell needed to keep his head above water during that period. We were quite enthused over these developments and attended the 1990 meeting of ISAC.