#67 – The 1991 ISAC Conference -1991

Written by Fred Rydholm:

On June 13, 14, and 15 of 1991 the Institute for the Study of American Cultures convened in Columbus, Georgia, Dr. Joseph B. Mahan presiding.

Former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter came and ate with the group, and shook hands with everyone in attendance.

On Saturday evening, June 15th, he and Mrs. Carter sat in the President’s Box of the old historic Springer Opera House, where he was introduced by the Mayor of Columbus. President Carter delivered a warm and impressive speech from his box, high up in the Opera House.

(It was explained to me that these boxes were not placed so that the dignitaries could see any better then anyone else, but so that they themselves could be seen.)

I felt that Burrows’ Cave was accepted better at that meeting than it ever had been before. However, Dr. Mahan later told me that ISAC had lost members because there were to be several Burrows’ Cave presentations at the conference.

Several speakers talked on behalf of the cave, and Virginia Hourigan gave what I felt was her best presentation yet of her slides. She had them organized into groups that definitely showed many different origins for the cave people or at least showed that they had made world-wide contacts.

Dr. Jim Scherz of the University of Wisconsin gave the first presentation of his many pictures of some of the gold coins/medallions from the cave.

I told some things about Russ Burrows that this very private man had been quiet about. I gathered that he didn’t really approve, but it gave a little different picture of him than most people had.

And each time I’ve heard him talk he has revealed a few more details of the cave.

One lady who saw the pictures wrote me an enthusiastic letter some time later, stating that she had seen many things in the pictures that reminded her of things she had seen in museums in Central America. Zena Halpern wrote a note to Russell that she saw some of those same faces in the Rufino Tomago Museum in Oaxaca, Mexico.

All in all, it seemed that there were a lot of converts in the audience, but the opinions that had been expressed earlier by such people as Norman Totten, Jim Whittall and Barry Fell prevailed with a lot of people, even then.

The one great boost was when Dr. Cyrus Gordon got up and spontaneously addressed the group saying that this was the “The Valley of the Kings in North America.” Later in his speech he stated that the cave could be the greatest discovery since King Tut’s tomb, not for art but for historic implication.

After the conference I wrote to Dr. Gordon asking him if he would like to write a statement for this book, concerning his feelings about the cave.

His answer was to the effect that it was too early to write a statement. Everything he knew about it was at second-hand, so that he could not speak for himself, until he has been able to visit the cave. At this writing that visit has not yet come about, but it is hoped that such a visit can be arranged soon. For now, Dr. Gordon would prefer not to be quoted.

It must be noted, however, that since the 1991 ISAC meeting Dr Gordon has denounced the cave almost as enthusiastically as he then supported it.

This came about because the landowner denied him permission to visit the cave. This is the story, according to Burrows:

(Russell Burrows):

A short while after returning home from Columbus, I received a letter from Dr. Gordon saying that he would be in Illinois in the early fall and expected to go to the cave. He did not request that this be done, he told me it would be done! I was concerned about this because I doubted that I could obtain permission from the security people. But I felt that Dr. Gordon was a valuable supporter and so I decided to make the effort. I spoke to the gentleman who owns the property and was much surprised when permission was granted.

I informed Dr. Gordon of that fact and began to plan for the trip into the valley. A few days later, I received yet another letter from Dr. Gordon and was surprised and concerned to read in that letter that his wife would be coming along. That letter read in part “My wife, Connie, who is also a PhD, will be accompanying me.” Now I was going to be escorting five people: the Drs. Gordon, Professor Scherz, Fred Rydholm and Virginia Hourigan. Along with myself, this was a total of six in the party. I knew right then and there that the visit was off! I knew that because I had not been permitted to visit the site myself for better than two years.

Nonetheless, I again approached the land owner and made the request. Just as I expected, it was rejected and the already-granted permission was withdrawn – the reason being security. It would be impossible, according to the security people, to escort a party of six into the valley and not leave a trail. It must be remembered that for over nine years, the location of that site has been a well-guarded secret, insuring that no destruction of the site occurred.

Dr. Gordon was informed that the visit was off, for everyone, but that a visit was scheduled in the spring of 1992 and he was invited. That was not a ploy, but fact. We were planning a visit to the cave early in the spring, for the purpose of deciding the best routes in and out for the construction of roads.

(FR resumes):’

Dr. Gordon, understandably though unjustifiably upset, wrote a letter which was published in the Louisiana Mounds Society Newsletter (#42, 1 Oct 1991). It reads as follows:

BURROWS’ CAVE: FACT OR FICTION? [LMSN editor’s headline]

Contrary to rumors, I have no connection with the alleged antiquity site referred to as “Burrows’ Cave,” in southern Illinois.

A slide showing many large “gold coins” said to come from the Cave was projected on a screen during a meeting of ISAC in June 1991. Mr. Russell Burrows implored the audience not to talk about this golden treasure lest it endanger his family who might be taken as hostages and abused by criminals to force him to reveal where the gold-laden Cave is located. His plea was impassioned and I attributed his apparent dread of such savage brutality to his experience as a veteran of the violent Vietnam War.

I felt that the coins, if genuine, were important enough to merit investigation rather than be brushed aside, a priori, as “too good to be true.” (I remember when the the caves that yielded the Dead Sea Scrolls were considered “too good to be true.”) However, until a trust-worthy and competent scholar is permitted to examine the actual coins, we must countenance other scenarios such as that the slide could have been made from a recently-contrived painting. No credible witness has, to my knowledge, seen the Cave or the coins.

The descriptions of the Cave and its contents that have come to my attention, are typologically akin to tales of caverns in the Arabian Nights. I have also heard such “cave stories” from sincere natives during my years of excavating in Iraq and Jordan. But Illinois is a new and unexpected source thereof.

I am interested in the phenomenon of belief in the fanciful. Perhaps all of us are subject to this to some extent. But it has no place in the disciplines of archaeology and history. If Mr. Burrows is essentially sincere about the Cave as he has described it, he may be obsessed with fantasies like many of my Near East acquaintances who live in a wondrous world of jinn and afarit. Their supernatural experiences are full of superlatives, like Mr. Burrows’ tales. The supposed owner of Burrows’ Cave is said to have allocated 25 million dollars for excavating the Cave and building a museum to house its contents. The Cave is said to include thirteen tombs with human remains, gold, and even inscribed scrolls.

Mr. Burrows tells how he penetrated the Cave by stepping on the outside half of a loose slab at its entrance. Had he instead stepped on the inside half, he would have dropped to his death in a pit made to trap intruders, as in Pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

If only a tenth of Mr. Burrows’ account were true, the Cave would be an outstanding discovery. So, at the ISAC meeting in June 1991, I arranged to examine the Cave and the gold coins under the guidance of Mr. Burrows. Soon we fixed an exact date: October 19th and 20th, 1991.

After a month and a half had elapsed, I received a couple of phone calls from Mr. Burrows. In the second one, he asked me if I was up to walking about half a mile to reach the Cave from the road where we would have to leave the car and continue on foot. I assured him that I would be equal to it (for I walk more than that every day). Then he added that the area was infested with snakes, to which I replied that with high leather footgear, I had no objection to the presence of serpents. (I’m used to venomous creatures from my excavations and explorations in the Near East, where I regularly shook out my shoes to make sure there were no scorpions in them, when I got dressed in the morning.)

When his latter-day Labors of Hercules failed to dissuade me, Mr. Burrows notified me (in a letter dated 23 August 1991) that the owner had rejected our long-planned visit to the Cave site, for security reasons. However, Mr. Burrows courteously offered to show me some of the region in which the Cave is allegedly situated and his collection of 115 artifacts from the Cave. I declined this kind offer because I have examined some of those finds and seen the photographs of many more. They are modern products in which I am not interested. The “good stuff” (notably the gold) has – so the story goes been put back into the Cave.

I cannot prove that the Cave, its owner, the latter’s munificent gift of $25,000,000, and the gold do not exist. In a world where men walking on the moon have been televised on earth, where surgeons perform heart transplants, where the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, where the Cold War suddenly ended, etc., who can say that other miracles can’t happen. Maybe there is a tiny kernel of truth to the wild stories about Burrows’ Cave. But I have no time to search for it. I have other priorities. – Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon.

In the next issue of the same Newsletter, Russell wrote an apology to Dr. Gordon, for the failed visit to the cave. We hope that the rift and hurt feelings are temporary.