Native Insight: Could the Mystery Stone be a hoax?


Recorder Staff

Published: 04-16-2018 3:00 PM

That Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone wearing fancy carvings of a face or mask, moons, arrows, teepees, an ear of corn, a deer leg and other finely-executed images is a gift that just keeps on giving. Thus, I have addressed it three previous times here. Well, make that four. Please bear with me.

I do sincerely hope I’m not spending too much time on this interesting artifact of hard, non-native siliceous sandstone that was unearthed in the spring of 1872 by laborers digging post holes for a fence overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, N.H. When landowner Seneca A. Ladd shared the find with townspeople and newspapers that spring, it ignited a media firestorm for its day, and has lured experts from near and far ever since in an attempt to explain its function, who made it and how it got to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.

Enter Dr. Richard Michael Gramly, a well-known paleontologist and anthropologist to whom I introduced the Mystery Stone, which is on display at the New Hampshire Historical Society Museum and Library in Concord, N.H. After Gramly had viewed photos, I quoted this Harvard-trained archaeologist and Native American artifact appraiser along with two other experts as harboring serious doubts that it could have been carved without metal tools or by a Native American artisan. Nothing has changed since then, except that an excited Gramly called last week to share a discovery he had uncovered quite by accident.

Friend Bob Trotta of Pembroke had sent Gramly a familiar deaccessioned Rockford (Ill.) Public Library copy of Charles Conrad Abbott’s well-known 1881 book titled “Primitive Industry: Illustrations of the Handiwork in Stone, Bone and Clay of the Native Races of the Northern Atlantic Seaboard of North America.” Paging through it and studying the illustrations, Gramly arrived at Chapter XXV titled “Ceremonial Objects” and, lo and behold, it contained an illustrated, six-page report about our Mystery Stone. He couldn’t wait to share his discovery with me. It wasn’t the primary reports written on the peculiar stone, but it did rely on published observations made within weeks of the discovery.

“When I found it, I thought I was going to have kittens,” Gramly joked on the phone before promptly reading the analytic narrative to me, and citing a key reference. “I’ll get this book out in the mail to you next week. You must read it. If you want to own it, I’ll get a price and you can send the money to Bob.”

The book was delivered to my door on April 5, carefully packaged to avoid shipping damage. I read the narrative to see if it was consistent with contemporary online reports, and to follow the footnoted lead to what appears to be the primary reference.

Sure enough, there was an interesting reference to an 1872 report by Dr. D.J. Tapley of Danvers in American Naturalist, an illustrated natural history magazine published by the Peabody Academy of Science (now the Peabody Essex Museum) in Salem. Further digging uncovered another related report, also written by Tapley, in the July 1872 issue of the Essex Institute’s monthly “Bulletin.”

Tapley, who had travelled to Meredith, N.H., to visit a trout hatchery and stumbled onto the artifact found by Ladd the previous week (“about the first of June”) buried inside a ball of clay dug up from a depth of two feet by workers Ladd was watching. The clay clump was washed off with water, exposing the finely carved, egg-shaped artifact with a hole drilled from top to bottom.

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The “Bulletin” and “Naturalist” reports were nearly identical, excluding the latter’s precise description of the site from which the artifact was extracted, which I had not previously read anywhere.

Plus, both reports agreed that the stone had come from a depth of two feet, not the five feet described in the online reports I was familiar with. Tapley writes: “The stone was found at a depth of about two feet, in the sandy drift at the head of the lake, where the ground apparently had not been disturbed for centuries.” Then, in the “Naturalist,” the same man pinpoints the site as “the point where Lake Waukewan originally emptied into Lake Winnipiseogee, and was, no doubt, a favorite fishing ground for the primitive tribes that formerly inhabited that region.”

Tapley then provides additional extraction-site detail that I had not previously seen, writing: “The water has been diverted from this channel, and now flows through a canal furnishing a remarkable water power of a 40 feet perpendicular fall, which carries on the hosiery and other manufactories here.”

Tapley gives the stone’s dimensions and speculates it was a gorget — that is jewelry worn on the chest. Could it have fallen to the ground when it’s cord broke? Was it intentionally planted as a grave good? Could it be a Ladd hoax? All possibilities.

Interesting is the fact that there is a unique assessment of the Mystery Stone in the “Bulletin” piece that is not included in the “Naturalist” narrative. When Tapley shared his drawings of the stone’s carvings with expert Frederic Ward Putnam, the curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology identified them as “far more elaborate” than anything that had been found in New England, and suggested the stone may had been the product of the “Mound Builders of the South and West,” who “were good workers in stone and often made elaborate carvings.”

Many subsequent, highly credentialed experts have examined the relic since Fuller’s observations and have been able to come up with nothing better. Perhaps Ladd, who supposedly inspected the curious clump of clay while watching the laborers digging holes for fence posts, should be thoroughly vetted. He is identified in Tapley’s primary descriptions as “quite a naturalist,” who already had “an extensive private collection of relics and specimens” and “was delighted with the new discovery, and exhibited and explained the really remarkable relic with an enthusiasm which only the genius student can feel.”

Could this Native American artifact collector have hired a 19th-century stone carver to make up the Mystery Stone and perpetuated a hoax? Yes, possible, but let’s not jump into the accusatory realm just yet. Gramly said the stone should be tested with new, 6- to 8-year-old technology called infrared spectrometry, patented in 2012 by David Hunter Walley. This cutting-edge technology capable of dating artifacts would compare the light value stored on the stone’s surface to that of its deepest crevices. It would tell you if the stone had been buried in dark earth for a long time or was a recently worked phony.

If the stone was indeed a birthing stone buried with an important indigenous tribesman or woman, as speculated by Northfield’s Joe Graveline, then the inner and outer workings would be contemporaneous. Perhaps the New Hampshire Historical Society should employ this new technology to rule out or confirm a Ladd hoax and put the 150-year-old mystery to rest.

Gramly said that, if it’s a phony, it’ll be obvious. If not, well, it’ll be back to the drawing board.