The Newark Keystone

The ‘keystone’, the first of the so-called Holy Stones to be discovered

In 1860, amateur archaeologist David Wyrick (1806-1864) discovered a number of unusual objects while excavating a series of Native American mounds 16 km (10 miles) south of Newark (Ohio, USA). The first object to be found, today known as the ‘keystone’ was found in a pit some 3.7 to 4.3 m (12 to 14 feet) deep (although the stone itself was said to have been found near the surface) and was encased, apparently deliberately, in a clay ball; it is carved from novaculite, 152 mm (6 inches) long and 41 mm (1.625 inches) thick and is inscribed on each of its four faces with standard Hebrew letters. Wyrick took the stone to his friend Israel Dille (1802-1874), a local judge. On the day that Wyrick called, Dille was entertaining the geologist Charles Wittlesey (1808-1886), also an amateur archaeologist with an interest in the mounds of North America. The three men agreed that the lettering was Hebrew but as none of them could read it, they took the stone to Reverend John Winspeare McCarty (1832-1867), who was known to be able to read Hebrew.

The four faces of the ‘keystone’ (which are displayed clearly here) read קדשקדשים (QDŠ QDŠYM, “Holy of Holies”) | מלךארץ (MLK ’RṢ, “King of the Earth”) | תורתיהוה (TWRT YHWH, “The Law of God”) | דבריהוה (DBR YHWH, “The Word of God”). These letters are of a form that was current in the nineteenth century, which ought to raise suspicions.

Harper's Weekly, 1 September 1860

Harper’s Weekly, 1 September 1860, dismissing the ‘keystone’ as a fraud

The discovery was reported in Harper’s Weekly (1 September 1860, 545-6) by David Francis Bacon, whose story ‘The Ohio “Holy stone”’ included illustrations of the four sides of the object. It was dismissed as a fraud, Charles Wittlesey having pointed out that the Hebrew letters were modern, while a Newark Mason had suggested that the object was a Masonic keystone (which is how it derived its name). In his article, Bacon commented “no stone, whether novaculite or any thing else (even granite), can be buried in that soil for so much as half a century without becoming covered by a calcareous incrustation… or acquiring a ferruginous or other stain from the earth which encloses it. And yet this Newark Holy Stone comes up from its entombment of some thousand some hundreds and some odd years as clean and bright and slick as a new whistle!

In November 1860, just a few months after the first discovery, a sandstone box was found, containing a carved black limestone slab 175 mm (6.875 inches) long, 73 mm (2.875 inches) wide and 44 m (1.75 inches) thick. It depicts a man surrounded by a inscription, again in Hebrew letters, although of an eccentric form. Nevertheless, these letters were of an archaic type, unlike those on the ‘keystone’. The inscription, which runs covers the entire surface of the stone, with the exception of the human figure (labelled משה, “Moses”), is a contracted version of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. A sandstone bowl, this time uninscribed, was also found, apparently associated with the box.

It is known that the Newark mounds had been dug over during the early nineteenth century in a search for the reputed treasure of the Scottish pirate William (“Captain”) Kidd (1654-1701). Although the box, the inscribed slab it contained and the cup were said to have been found under a stack of stone forty feet (12.2 m) high, the stack had been completely removed before 1832. In 1850, a group of farmers digging on the site discovered a wooden coffin embedded in clay, which Wyrick excavated ten years later. Clearly, the site was not undisturbed.

The Decalogue stone

The ‘Decalogue’ stone

Wyrick is said to have been a believer that the so-called “Moundbuilders” were of Israelite origin (one of the so-called “lost tribes”), although no evidence has been produced to show that this was the case. Indeed, he failed to mention this idea in an 1861 pamphlet that he published about the discoveries. However, Charles Wittlesey believed that Wyrick was the fraudster and this has long been the accepted explanation. As Wyrick overdosed on laudanum (which he was taking to relieve the severe rheumatoid arthritis that had led to his early retirement as County Surveyor in 1859) on 16 April 1864, it has been thought that his suicide was in prompted by his shame at engaging in the fraud. This seems grossly unfair: it seems more likely that Wyrick was driven to this extremity by the pain of his arthritis.

More recently, Rochelle Altman has suggested that the objects are of late medieval type and belonged to a Jewish settler in North America during the early nineteenth century. Her reconstruction of the circumstances of deposition connects the surviving objects with another found by the banker and amateur archaeologist David M Johnson (1837-1914) in 1867, which was apparently found attached to a damaged skull. This object, now lost, is identified by Altman as a head phylactery; the ‘Decalogue’ would be a hand phylactery, with carrying case to prevent it becoming ritually tainted, the cup a special vessel for ritual ablutions and the ‘keystone’ a water flow detector. Their owner was murdered and thrown into a pit that contained Native American remains disturbed by the earlier digging around the Newark mounds.

This is intriguing. It would explain many of the anomalous features of the inscriptions, but it does not explain why the second inscription answered the objections raised by the first. Nor does it explain various anachronisms in the second inscription, such as letter forms apparently borrowed from Greek and Sabataean, or the presence of a blasphemous image of Moses.

Instead, the work of Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill has pointed the finger of suspicion at the Reverend McCarty. He certainly had the knowledge to create Hebrew inscriptions and was in the right place to plant objects for discovery. They suggest that he was influenced by the 1839 prediction of his Bishop, Charles Petit McIlvane (1799-1873), that ancient Israelites had built the mounds of North America and that it was only a matter of time before artefacts proving him right would be found. McCarty was young and ambitious; he was also deeply involved with the abolitionist cause. As Lepper and Gill point out, proving his bishop correct in the view that Native Americans were descendants of the ancient Israelites would undermine the idea that they, along with negroes, were a separate creation from European humanity, and could be enslaved or exterminated.

The Newark “Holy Stones” are thus not evidence for an ancient Israelite migration to the New World, as envisaged by those who believed that the mounds could not have been constructed by Native Americans. They are irrelevant to the mounds of the Adena-Hopewell culture complex (a purely indigenous phenomenon), whether one accepts Rochelle Altman’s ingenious explanation or that of Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill. Given the discovery of marks on the ‘keystone’ that appear to have been made with a mechanical grinding wheel, the objects can hardly have been made before the nineteenth century.