Mormon church donates debunked artifacts to Michigan museum

The Associated Press/October 27, 2003

Grand Rapids, Mich. -- Some of the now-debunked Michigan Relics -- once considered by some influential Mormons as evidence of the church's connection to a Near Eastern culture in ancient America -- have a new home.

For decades, the Mormon Church kept a large collection of the artifacts in its Salt Lake City museum, but never formally claimed them to be genuine.

This past summer, after scholars examined the relics and declared them fakes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated the 797 objects to the Michigan Historical Museum, which will display them next month.

The relics were once hailed as the greatest archaeological discoveries since Pompeii. But there are many clues they are really fakes, Michigan State Archaeologist John Halsey told The Grand Rapids Press.

Among the relics are engraved slate tablets. One scene depicts the crucifixion of Christ. The problem is, all the engravings tell stories of the Old Testament.

"It is arguably the largest archaeological fraud ever in this country, and the longest running," Halsey said.

James Scotford claimed he found the first relic -- a large clay casket -- while digging a post hole on a Michigan farm in October 1890. He announced his discovery, touching off a frenzy of digging.

Over the next 30 years, thousands of artifacts were found, including tiny caskets, amulets, tools, smoking pipes and tablets. The items were made of clay, copper and slate, and most bore the mark "IH/," which some interpreted as a tribal signature or a mystic symbol. Some thought it was a variation on IHS, the ancient Hebrew symbol for Jehovah.

A syndicate was formed to corner the market and sell the items to the highest bidder, perhaps the Smithsonian Institution.

Oddly, nearly all the items were found when Scotford, a former magician and sleight-of-hand expert, was present.

Almost from the beginning, skeptics doubted the authenticity of the finds. Francis Kelsey, a University of Michigan Latin professor, called them forgeries in 1892.

The relics, however, had their vocal promoters, chief among them Daniel Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State who was forced to resign because of corruption.

In the early 1900s, Soper teamed with Scotford to sell the objects. They enlisted the support of the Rev. James Savage, a priest at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Detroit.

Historians and archaeologists today believe Savage, who became the most avid collector, was not privy to the scam, but was duped to give the finds credibility. Savage believed the artifacts were left by the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel or a colony of ancient Jews.

In 1911, Scotford's stepdaughter signed an affidavit saying she saw her stepfather making the relics.

Savage died still believing the Michigan Relics were genuine. He bequeathed his large collection to Notre Dame University. When a pair of Mormon missionaries found the collection there in 1960, the university gladly donated it to the church.

In 1977, the church asked Richard Stamps, a Mormon and Oakland University archaeology professor, to examine the relics.

Stamps also concluded they were fakes. The copper relics, he said, were made from ordinary commercial copper stock and had been treated with chemicals to make it look older.

In 1998-99, Stamps again studied the relics in the Mormon collection and reached the same conclusion.

"Poor Father Savage. I feel so sorry for this Catholic father," Stamps said. "I think Scotford was cranking these things out and slipping them into the ground, and I think Savage didn't have a clue."

Through Stamps, the Mormon Church decided to donate its collection to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. It arrived there recently, and workers began preparing the Michigan Relics for an exhibit opening Nov. 15 and running through Aug. 15.

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