I recently gave a lecture at the FIRM Conference on the Michigan Artifacts—a collection of tablets and other items found in Hopewell mounds in the 1800s that contained biblical scenes and Egyptian and Cuneiform writing. Here’s a brief summary of my presentation:
From 1848 to roughly 1920 artifacts were found in Hopewell Indian mounds near Detroit, Michigan containing biblical scenes and ancient languages. Awareness of the artifacts began to build in 1890 when James Scotford reported his first findings. In 1907 Daniel Soper, a former Security of State of Michigan, and respected clergyman Reverend James Savage, also made numerous discoveries in the mounds and increased awareness on a national scale.
In 1910 Bishop Rudolph Etzenhouser, a missionary of the former RDLS Church, published Engravings of Pre-Historic Specimens from Michigan, U.S.A. This really put the artifacts on the map and many well-known scholars began denouncing the artifacts as forgeries and accusing James Scotford as the counterfeiter. A National committee was formed to investigate the artifacts led by Professor Frederick Starr of the University of Chicago, Roswell Field of the Chicago Examiner, and Dr. James Talmage, director of the Deseret Museum in Salt Lake City.
By this time the LDS church had become interested in the artifacts. As I’m sure some of the brethren were excited but the finds, there is evidence that Elder Talmage was more nervous than excited. Apparently he was worried that the whole controversy surrounding the Michigan artifacts would reflect poorly on the Book of Mormon.
Professor Starr and the committee issued a report claiming that the artifacts were frauds, and that, despite having retrieved several tablets himself in front of multiple witnesses, asserted that the artifacts were “introduced into the mound by sleight-of-hand as everyone watched”. Also, several of the artifacts retrieved by the committee were found under tree trunks and wrapped in roots. Counting the rings, the trees were hundreds of years old!
Ever the skeptic, Elder Talmage decided to do another investigation. He took James Scotford with him and they excavate several mounds themselves. They found an inscribed tablet. Talmage then took James Scotford and Daniel Soper on another excavation and they found an additional inscribed tablet. Still skeptical, Talmage ventured out by himself and excavated 22 mounds. He didn’t find any artifacts, and because of this, he concluded that Scotford, Soper and Savage were fooling him and had manufactured the artifacts – despite the fact that Soper was a former Secretary of State, and Father Savage was a beloved and respected community leader.
Fast forward to 1953: Judge Claude Stone of Peoria, Illinois asked respected Chicago attorney, author and scientists Henrietta Mertz to study the Soper-Savage collection and draw a conclusion as to whether they were fake or genuine. Mertz was a trained specialist in forgery and identification. In fact, she served as a Lt. Commander during WWII in the Office of Scientific Research and Development where she worked with a team breaking Nazi codes. After years of study, Mertz concluded that the artifacts were genuine without question, and theorized that a group of Coptic Christians left the Middle East because of persecution by the early Roman church and made their way to North America. Her findings were posthumously published by her nephew in 1986, titled The Mystic Symbol.
The LDS Church re-enters the scene. In 1960 two LDS missionaries, Elders Bird and Roundy, began a friendship with Father Charles E. Sheedy of Notre Dame University. In the course of their discussions, Father Sheedy took the two elders to the basement under the football stadium and showed them the Soper-Savage collection of the Michigan artifacts. How did Notre Dame acquire the artifacts? Upon his death, Father Savage had willed the collection to the university.
The elders then contacted LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and excitedly described the collection, which were full of biblical, and, as they believed, Book of Mormon scenes—epic battles between a Caucasian race and a native race.
The Church sent my grandfather, Elder Milton R Hunter, who was serving in the Presidency of the Quorum of Seventy, to Notre Dame to investigate the artifacts. Elder Hunter had authored over 23 books and was the Church’s de facto Book of Mormon archeology scholar. Elder Hunter met with Father Sheedy and the priest gave him the entire collection. My grandfather leaves Notre Dame with a collection of over 800 pieces of the Savage-Soper Michigan Artifacts.
Elder Hunter immediately believed the artifacts were genuine and embarked on a 15-year study of the collection. Even among fellow General Authorities, Elder Hunter had his detractors. Several wanted nothing to do with the artifacts, while others believed they were authentic. In a letter written to Ellis Soper, Danie Soper’s son, Elder Hunter wrote, “The fact that many people have proclaimed that both Father Savage’s and your father’s collections are frauds or forgeries makes your and my problem much more complicated. As you know, I, personally, however, feel that the artifacts are all genuine. . . . “
(Milton R. Hunter. Letter to Mr. Ellis Clarke Soper, Consulting Engineer, Franklin, North Carolina, dated January 20, 1965.)
In 1973 Elder Hunter began a book about the Michigan Artifacts. In 1974 he became ill and donated the collection to the LDS Church. In the donation documentation, my grandfather insisted that the collection NEVER leave the State of Utah. In 1975 this faithful servant of the Lord passed away.
In the following decades, the Church stored the collection in a dark warehouse. Many of the brethren wished to donate the collection to Michigan State University, however, they were afraid of offending my grandmother, Fern Hunter, who was still living. According to former LDS Museum Curator Michael Smith, there was a rumor that the brethren were deciding to wait until Sister Hunter passed away, and then would donate the collection. She passed away in 1998.
In 2000 the LDS Church notified my family about a possible donation to Michigan, stating that the collection would be studied by Michigan archeologists. This seemed like a good move to my family since the collection was sitting in a dusty warehouse. If Michigan archeologists were going to properly study them, then great, we gave our approval.
In 2001 Professor of Anthropology Richard Stamps of Oakland University (and also LDS member) published “Tools Leave Marks: Material Analysis of the Scotford-Soper-Savage Michigan Relics” in BYU Studies. Essentially, Stamp claimed that the artifacts were made using modern tools, meaning metal tools. Stamp, an active member of the Church, made this claim despite the Book of Mormon clearly discussing metal usage. Although a member, Stamp couldn’t publish anything that went against the standard academic doctrine that the Pre-Columbians did NOT use metal. That would have been career suicide.
Dr. Stamps’ “stamp” of disapproval was the final nail in the coffin for LDS leadership regarding the collection. In 2003 the brethren decide to donate the Soper-Savage collection to Michigan State University. Upon receiving the artifacts, the museum immediately showcased the collection under the banner of fraudulent archeology, despite my family having been reassured that the collection would be properly studied and not mocked.
Our family was extremely upset but left with no legal recourse because we had given our consent for the donation in 2000. Fast forward to June 2014. I had become very interested in the Michigan artifacts. I contacted the Church museum about how the donation to Michigan “went down”, and was finally referred to the LDS Church’s lawyers at Kirton and McConkie.
Eventually realizing I was not going to get help from the Church or its lawyers, I took my battle to Michigan. I scheduled an appointment with Eric Perkins, the Michigan archeologist overseeing the collection at the Michigan Historical Museum on the campus of Michigan State University. As a PR guy, I of course wanted to generate some publicity around this “problem”, so I took with me Ryan Fisher of Nephite Explorer, a popular show that explores Book of Mormon history in North American and runs on KJZZ every Sunday.
I must give credit where it’s due: the museum rolled out the red carpet. They set up photography lights and displayed many pieces of the collection for us to handle and photograph. Eric spent three hours with us answering our questions. At one point I pinned him down about why he feels the Michigan Artifacts are frauds. Ultimately, this is what he kept coming back to: “It’s a mish-mash of cultures and languages, and so it doesn’t fit in the archeological timeline anywhere. We don’t know what to do with it.”
In other words, there’s a mixture of languages on the tablets and we can’t translate them. But if one studies the Book of Mormon, this is exactly what one would expect: Mormon tells us that their language had become confounded, and that they wrote in a language he called reformed Egyptian.
I then addressed several reasons why I believed the Michigan Artifacts could not have been a giant hoax:
- The total number of artifacts containing the Michigan Mystic Symbol range from 10,000 to 30,000
- These artifacts were found across 20 counties in Michigan
- These artifacts were found in seven different states over nearly a 100-year stretch
- Astronomical descriptions inscribed on several stones pinpoint events that took place around 325 A.D – the accused forgers could not have known this
- No 19th century settler on the frontier would have access to Egyptian and Cuneiform dictionaries
- The characters on the Michigan tablets match almost exactly many characters of the Anthon Manuscript (Book of Mormon characters)
There are many more supporting evidences I could list; the above is just a sampling.
After studying the Michigan Artifacts, Professor J.O. Kinnaman, a non-Mormon scholar, stated that, “Tentatively speaking, we may say that historically and geologically, when the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair extended many miles inland from where they do now, a Caucasian race, with civilization developed to a point equal to any developed in the valleys of the Nile and Tigro-Euphrates, existed all over the present continent of America. Our knowledge of the Caucasian race will likely extend thousands of years back of the wildest dream of the most enthusiastic archeologist.”
According to author Wayne May, “The mystic symbol is written in the script style known as ‘cuneiform’ which is common throughout the Middle East. This symbol has been found in many North American states such as; Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Utah. A Native American of Minnesota identified this symbol as a name for the Creator’s Son “Yod Hey Vau”.
Now, here’s where the Michigan Artifacts get really complicated. There is evidence that James Scotford did forge some of the artifacts. There is testimony of this from his daughter, and many of the copper artifacts are suspect because they appear to have been made by modern smelting methods. This does NOT mean that the thousands of artifacts bearing the Mystic Symbol are forgeries. That would be impossible. But, one these artifacts are polluted by some fakes, then most scholars don’t want anything to do with them.
Yes, FAIR Mormon and several BYU scholars believe the Michigan Artifacts are fakes. FAIR loves to denounce anything that’s not “Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica”, and they deploy many of the same tactics that anti-Mormons do – the very group FAIR was designed to defend against. Despite skeptics of the Michigan Artifacts, the evidence is not enough to convince me that all of these artifacts could have been forgeries, due to reasons given above. Many prominent scholars believed they were genuine, including Henrietta Mertz and my grandfather, Elder Milton R. Hunter, who had a PhD in History from UC Berkeley.
If I were Satan and genuine Book of Mormon artifacts were surfacing, what would be the best way to discredit them? Introduce a few fakes into the mix. Classic tactics used by the Adversary – half-truths, scripture mingled with the philosophies of men, and so forth.
Regarding whom to blame for the Soper-Savage collection being donated to Michigan State – it’s important to not blame the LDS Church or my family. Both parties made the decision they thought right at the time given the information they had. We’re all just trying to do our best in this life.
Before leaving the museum, I pulled Eric Perkins aside and asked him the question:
“Is their any way my family can get the artifacts back?”
“No,” responded Eric.
“We are able to raise significant money for the museum. If we gave a sizable donation, could we get the artifacts back?”
“No.” Eric wasn’t just being obstinate. Once a donation is made it legally becomes the property of the people of Michigan. No matter how much money was offered, the Museum cannot legally return the collection to my family, or to anyone else.
Eric did give one glimmer of hope, however. He promised that anyone who makes a request can go see the collection. Again as a PR guy, this gave me an idea. We need to continue to build awareness among members of the Church and overwhelm the museum with requests to see the artifacts. Then, God willing, they will perhaps put the collection on permanent display. In a few months the Nephite Explorer program, using the footage from our trip to the museum, will feature the Michigan tablets. I will continue my presentations to public forums about the collection, and word-of-mouth awareness will continue to spread. Eventually, we’ll get the Michigan Artifacts on permanent display!
Contact Eric Perkins!
Michigan State archeologist