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“First, …recognize that it's a penny”: Report on the "Newark" Ritual Artifacts

"If you found a US penny in a trench at a dig that was assumed to contain only ancient items, you wouldn't claim the penny to be a forgery when you saw it. First, however, you would have to recognize that it's a penny." Anon.


    The photograph of an unfamiliar inscribed artifact appeared in the mail one day. The sender had only one question: what was the date of the artifact? The object itself was shaped like an ancient arch-topped tablet of "The" Law. In the center nested a bas-relief sculpture, with clear late-medieval attributes, enclosed in yet another Hammurabi-Jerusalemite arch-topped shape of "The" Law. Running down the sides of the object, between the inset sculpture and the outer edge, was an inscription expertly executed in a consolidated, sans-serif script design based on a Late-Medieval Hebrew font. Incorporated into the consolidated font were Sinaitic, Hebraeo-Phoenician, and Nabatean graphs. The object bore unmistakable evidence that it had been produced during the Late-Medieval period and was a product of probably France or Spain. A short summary report as to date and probable place of manufacture was duly supplied along with the very obvious markers as to both time and place. Upon reading this summary, the correspondent supplied more data.

    Combined amazement and dismay are not the usual response to reading about an artifact. It was amazing that the clear evidence of medieval manufacture was not recognized and that this artifact and its companion pieces had been branded a 19th-century forgery -- simply because it was assumed that the items had to be 1300 years old and, quite obviously, they were not that old. It was dismaying to learn that, because the objects had been found in the United States, this artifact, along with the rest of the set, had been annexed to support the dubious claims of an ancient Israelite presence in pre-Columbian America. This connection was murky enough; worse was to come.

    It was disturbing to learn later that the artifact with the shape of "The" Law ha d been correctly identified as medieval and European in 1861 by Dr. Arnold Fischel.1 It was disgraceful to learn that the Report, issued in 1863 by the committee appointed by the Ethnological Society which stated that they accepted Dr. Fischel's assessment and could not label the items as "fakes,"2 was ignored. Investigation into why the correct identification had been literally swept under the rug only made matters worse.

    Why was the identification ignored? Because neither the committee's report nor Fischel's identification fit the two models erected with regard to these artifacts. On one side, we had a group who maintained that the artifacts were evidence of the presence of the ten lost tribes of Israel in "Ancient America." On the other side, we had a school who declared the artifacts were "modern forgeries." David Wyrick, who found two of the artifacts in 1860, including the one in the shape of the "Law" (now called "the decalog"), was “convicted” by rumor-consensus of forgery. Both Wyrick's reputation and finances were ruined; he committed suicide in 1864. In 1872, Charles Whittlesey published his Archaeological Frauds: Inscriptions Attributed to the Mound Builders. Three Remarkable Forgeries.3 These authentic artifacts were featured as one of the three forgeries. And there matters rested until 1980.

    In 1980, Robert Alrutz carefully investigated the available data and re-opened the subject with his article, "The Newark Holy Stones: The History of an Archaeological Tragedy."4 In 1982, in his Mysteries of the Holy Stones, (Pheasant Run Publications, St. Louis), Joseph Schenck cleared Wyrick of the forgery charges. Between Alrutz and Schenck, the slightly revised position -- now stated as "the artifacts are evidence of an Israelite presence in pre-Columbian America" -- came back to life. The artifacts have been the subject of dispute between the two extremes ever since.

    In 1991, Stephen Williams included these artifacts in his Fantastic Archaeology and still treats the artifacts as forgeries.5 In 2000, Bradley T. Lepper and Jeff Gill, in an article entitled "The Newark Holy Stones," decided that the artifact in the shape of "The" Law is a forgery made for political purposes by someone else they name.6

    In the meantime, the other side was gathering forces. Cyrus Gordon entered the fray in 1995; in spite of the fact that the artifact has a handle and there are no holes with which to mount it, he decided that the "decalog" was a Samaritan mezzuzah.7 In 1996, David A. Deal, published his article, "The Ohio Decalog: A Case of Fraudulent Archaeology," in Ancient American, a magazine title that clearly states Deal's position.8 J. Huston McCulloch opened a web site devoted to proving that the artifacts are pre-Colombian.9 Although Alrutz specifically mentions both Fischel's and the Committee's reports, both sides treat Fischel and Committee as if neither existed. The penny had been identified; but the identification was, and still is, ignored.

    Fischel assumed that the artifacts had been stolen from a European settler and that they had been "planted."10 The artifacts were not "planted," but, writing in 1861, Fischel lacked key information supplied in 1867. He was, however, right about the theft from a European settler in the United States and the medieval and European origins of the artifacts. The amount of information revealed by the artifacts, particularly with regard to the antiquity of certain Jewish traditions and their continued use many centuries after their presumed proscription in 200 CE, is stunning.

    The evidence of continuity with the ancient wide-spread use of "magic letters" is substantial. These aspects demand that this particular penny be made known and recognized for what it is.


    There are five pieces, four of which compose a set of ritual artifacts of two types. The fifth item is a case, made-to-order, to house one of the ritual artifacts. The two types are intended for different purposes.

    Type one consists of head (“rosh”) and hand (“yad”) phylacteries (tefillin), made of black limestone (black is required for phylacteries).11 The hand phylactery is 6-7/8" in length by 2-7/8" in width by 1-3/4" in thickness.12

    A typical Semitic-style profile pose of Moses in bas-relief is on the front (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: The front of the hand phylactery (photo, J. Huston McCulloch)

    The artifact is inscribed in the incantation format and displays a variant of a known condensed version of the "decalogue," with abbreviations and composite graphs, that dates to before the second century BCE.13 The head phylactery, inscribed with two of the four excerpts of Exodus required by halacha (Laws), is also written in the spirals of an incantation format and is also made of black limestone. Now only a lithograph of the head piece remains.14 The phylactery was approximately 3" long by 1-3/4" in thickness and tapered from approximately 1" at the top to a rounded "point" at the bottom (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: The lithograph of the head phylactery (photo, J. Huston McCulloch)

    Type two, made of novaculite, a very hard fine-grained rock, consists of a flow detector, for determining whether water is stagnant or flowing (thus pure), and a bowl for containing the water for ritual purification prior to donning the phylacteries. The flow detector is four-sided and approximately 6" in length by 1-5/8 in thickness and bears a resemblance to a rounded "plumb bob" (Figure 3).15

Fig. 3: One side of the flow detector (photo, J. Huston McCulloch)

    Each side of the flow detector is inscribed in a Hebrew Square Script. The four inscriptions read as follows: D'var YHVH, (Saying/Word/Speech of [the] Lord);16 Torat YHVH (Instructions of [the] Lord);17 Qodesh Qadashim (Most pure/Most Sanctified/Most Sacred/Most Clean)18 and Melekh Aretz (King of Earth).19 Both the “mem” in "Melekh" and the “Aleph” in "Aretz" are expanded to indicate extra duration on "Mel" and "Ar."

    The durational notation on this last inscription shows us how the flow detector was used. The detector was inserted into whatever outdoor water source was available, and the inscriptions were recited in the above order (D, T, Q, M) ending with a resounding "ME-lekh AR-etz."

    The use of durational notation to expand the “mem” in "melekh" and the “aleph” in "aretz" places the inscriptions, at the latest, to the 13th century when durational and stress notation were still in use on parts of the Continent.20 The bowl was professionally shaped on a stone lathe, undoubtedly pedal- or hand-powered. The washing bowl is the "size of a teacup."21

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