A sketch of the obverse of the medallion from Lawn Ridge

A sketch of the obverse of the medallion from Lawn Ridge

During the drilling of an artesian well at Lawn Ridge, 31 km (20 miles) north of Peoria (Illinois, USA), in August 1870, one of the workmen, Jacob W Moffitt (1841-1922) of Chillicothe, discovered a coin-like object (usually referred to as a ‘medallion’, although it lacks any hole or loop by which it might have been suspended) when the bit had reached a depth of about 35 m (114 feet, or 42.5 m according to Peter Kolosimo). The object was made from an indeterminate copper alloy, about the size and thickness of an American quarter dollar of that period and was decorated on both sides. On one side there were two human figures, one large and one small; the larger is wearing a headdress. This is usually described as a crowned woman holding a crowned child, but the sketch does not bear this out: it looks more like a warrior in a feathered headdress about to strike a fallen enemy. The other side is said to have depicted a central crouching animal with long, pointed ears, large eyes and mouth, claw-like arms and a long tail, frayed at the tip, with a horse below it and to the left; again, the drawing seems to show something slightly different from this. Around the edges of the ‘medallion’ were obscure symbols that are usually described as hieroglyphs, although they resemble no known script. It was of uniform thickness and appeared to have cut edges.

A sketch of the reverse of the medallion

The reverse of the medallion Source

According to an account by Professor Alexander Winchell (1824-1891, State Geologist for Michigan) in his book Sparks from a Geologist’s Hammer, he received a statement from another eye-witness, Dr William H Wilmot, dated December 4, 1871, of the deposits and depths of materials made during the boring. The numismatist William Ewing Dubois (1810-1881) gave a report to the American Philosophical Society, in which he suggested that it had passed through a rolling mill, the edges showing evidence for machining. The figures appeared to have been etched with acid.

Professor Winchell presented the object to a meeting of the Geological Section of the American Association at its meeting in Buffalo (New York, USA) in 1876. One participant, a J R Lesley, suggested that the artefact was a practical joke and that it might have been dropped into a hole by a passing French or Spanish explorer centuries earlier. He also suggested that the figures on either side of the object represented the astrological signs of Pisces and Leo, and claimed to find the date 1572 in the symbols. Winchell was adamant that the symbols were indecipherable in terms of any known script and that the practical joke hypothesis failed on the grounds that no-one could have dropped an object into a hole in the expectation that someone several hundred years later would happen to drill at that precise spot. He was convinced the coin had been in the deposit at a depth of 35 m before its discovery and had not fallen into a hole.

It is difficult to know what to make of this curious object when we have only descriptions and an inadequate sketch. It was clearly not a coin of recent date, but there are problems in accepting it as being ancient or pre-Columbian in date. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, coinage is an historically specific development, beginning in the first millennium BCE in the eastern Mediterranean region: all coins and coin-like medallions derive from these original models. Secondly, copper alloy production was unknown in pre-Columbian North America. If it was not a hoax, which is possible, it may have been a curio or souvenir of nineteenth-century date.