Why would a museum collect fakes? Archaeological fakes are sometimes mistaken for actual antiquities and find their way into collections. That is not the case for this object, however. It is one of a remarkable group of archaeological frauds that were created and “discovered” in large numbers in earthen mounds and fields across central and southern Michigan between 1890 and 1920. There was much excitement over the discovery of copper and slate slabs and earthenware ceramic pipes, vessels, and tablets inscribed with characters resembling ancient Phoenician, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek scripts. U-M professor Francis Kelsey played an important role in debunking the authenticity of these so-called relics. In an article in American Anthropologist in 1908, he identified the “scoundrel” and “manufacturer of these spurious objects”: James O. Scotford, a Detroit sign painter. Scotford’s co-conspirator in perpetuating the hoax was Daniel E. Soper, a former Secretary of State of Michigan who had resigned after being charged with embezzlement. The UMMAA holds a collection of several dozen Michigan relics (also known as the Soper Frauds). In the center of the inscribed slate slab shown here (9.5 inches high x 5.25 inches maximum width) is a distinctive three-character mark found on almost all of the objects. Although they are frauds, these objects capture an important period in Michigan history and demonstrate the commitment of U-M faculty to public engagement.
In honor of the University of Michigan’s 2017 bicentennial, we are celebrating the remarkable archaeological and ethnographic collections and rich legacy of research and teaching at the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology by posting one entry a day for 200 days. The entries will highlight objects from the collections, museum personalities, and UMMAA expeditions. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is also posting each day for 200 days on Twitter and Facebook (follow along at #KMA200). After the last post, an exhibition on two centuries of archaeology at U-M opens at the Kelsey. Visit the exhibit—a joint project of the UMMAA and the Kelsey—from October 18, 2017 to May 27, 2018.