Dr. Hilborne T. Cresson, an archaeological field assistant attached to the Peabody Museum, ended his life in suicide in 1894 amid hallucinations of the Treasury Agents hunting him down as a counterfeiter of greenbacks. Dr. Cresson�s suicide note, however, failed to shed any light on what his professional colleagues at the Peabody Museum and scientists seeking evidence of an American Paleolithic most wanted to know: was his find at Holly Oak, Delaware, of a whelk shell incised with a mammoth or mastodon-like creature a forgery? Nineteenth century American paleontologists and archaeologists (using the term understanding that these sciences were in their infancy) had been seeking a North American Holy Grail, an artifact demonstrating that early humankind co-existed in North America with extinct mega-fauna.
In 1890, Dr. Cresson, near the end of a diligent but unspectacular career seeking proof of an American Paleolithic, announced that he and an associate actually had discovered such evidence some thirty-odd years previously in a peat-bog proximate to a railroad station in Holly Oak Dellaware. At this time, Dr. Hilborne T. Cresson and Mr. W. L. de Suralt found a number of curious bone and shell artifacts. In the assemblage that resulted from these finds was a pendant carved from a fossil whelk shell. Incised into the surface of one side of the shell was what clearly appeared to be a representation of a woolly mammoth-like creature. The find has come to be known as the Holly Oak Pendant. The authenticity of this artifact has from its discovery labored under a thick cloud of doubt. Yet despite its dubious authenticity, the artifact has exerted a measurable influence on the debate of the settlement and peopling of the Americas.
Since Eduard Lertet and Henry Christy jointly published their findings of such evidence based on excavations in the cave systems of Dordogne, France, in1865, American scientists had been engaged for some thirty years (by the time of Dr. Cresson�s death) in a fruitless search for evidence commensurate with and contemporaneous to the astounding artifacts and artwork related to the Aurignacian cultural horizon that was estimated to date back to about 35,000 years BCE found in Europe. Indeed, as the nineteenth century�s Belle Epoc drew to a close, American scholars grounded in the findings and work of Lertat and Christy could glance could sit back in their studies and survey an American archaeological science landscape littered with the bones of fraudulent discoveries (Calveras skull, Davenport Elephant pipes, Lanape stone, Nampa Image, etc., latter discussions of these cases will follow).
Dr. Cresson�s announcement in 1890 of his backdated (1864) discovery of the Holly Oak pendant, had all the hallmarks of a fraud, however, its association with a Peabody archaeologist demanded at least a tacit and polite glance from the scientific community. Most of this story covers points that have been well documented by scholars; however, the case of the Holly Oak pendant is worth noting. Advances in European science, particularly in the nineteenth century, cast a long shadow across related disciplines in the United States. In the thirty years that paleontology and archaeology were blossoming into a science in Europe, Americans scientists were being schooled in fantastic European advances and had nothing of their own to offer up but fairly recent collections of worked points, bone, and shell middens.
This is a short two-part sketch of the major points concerning the debate of the Holly Oak artifact�s authenticity and the influence of European influence of European discoveries on North American archaeology and paleontology. During the thirty years between 1864 and 1894, American scientists seeking evidence of an American Paleolithic did so peering through a lens crafted to place the European Paleolithic into focus and the results were chaotic.
Provenance and Site Context for the Backdated Holly Oak Find:
As with many artifacts of questionable provenance, the record of the Holly Oak pendant find�s exact location (its in situ context) at discovery is hopelessly (perhaps intentionally) muddled. The first red-flag has already been noted: Dr. Cresson announced his find in 1890 and backdated the discovery to 1864, itself a self-serving ploy to preempt Lertat and Christy. But there are other problems: one source reports that the pendant was discovered amidst some peat being dug from a �deep� hole on the Delaware River plain opposite the Holly Oak station of the Pennsylvania Railroad (Weslager, 1968). In this instance, farmers are stated to have been digging peat for use as fertilizer. Another report of the Holly Oak pendant�s discovery describes a refinement of the peat story; in this version, the pendant was found within a layer of peat already spread on a farmer�s field located near the Holly Oak station of the Wilmington and Baltimore railroad. In this version, the peat that was spread on the farmer�s field was identified as coming from a �fallen forest layer in one of the adjoining estuaries of the Delaware River (Smithsonian Institution Annual Report, 1891). It is worth noting that there is a drift toward legitimizing the Holly Oak find. The 1891 report states that the pendant was found almost on the surface in a farmer�s field, whereas later sources well into the 20th century report that the find came from a trench of significant depth.
Cresson pursued archaeology in the north Delaware region from 1864 until his suicide in 1894. He was deeply committed to researching and locating evidence of early man in North America. During his career, Cresson located and catalogued over one thousand artifacts associated with prehistoric indigenous cultures in Delaware. Cresson�s assemblages included potsherds, stone knives, arrowheads, stone celts, stone axeheads, shell beads, an a mastodon tooth, as well as numerous bone implements and other artifacts.
The Cresson assemblages, which are divided between the Peabody Museum, and the Museum of Natural History, Smithsonion Institution, contain artifacts that appear to fall into two general periods: the first, to which the lion�s share of the artifacts belong falls within the Archaic period (8000 to 2000 BCE). A second, smaller group of artifacts, which includes the bone implements and the Holly Oak pendant with its incised supposed mammoth image, is said by some modern specialists to date to the Paleo-Indian period (pre-8000 BCE).
In 1987, carbon dating placed the object in a period range dating from 750 to 1000 BCE. The official scientific community concluded that it could not possibly be a representation of a mammoth modeled after a living animal. One must therefore consider it to be a forgery, Cresson himself could have procured a welk shell and have engraved upon it the mammoth inspired by the Madeleine sculpture found in Dordogne in 1864.
The Intellectual Context of the Cresson discoveries.
At this juncture, the discussion must beat a tactical retreat from analysis of the Holly Oak pendant itself and shift focus to the broader issue of the intellectual context that researchers, for in this era there was no systematic science of archaeology, of early man operated within during 1864. Needless to say, science was not static on the subject. In France particularly, great advances were made in founding the science of physical anthropology and paleontology by Monsieur Eduard Letat.
A native of Dordogne, Lartet, whose family had built its wealth on the practice of law (and had somehow escaped the vicissitudes of the Napoleonic Wars) found that he was able to devote himself entirely to the pursuit of his scientific interests. He was heavily influence by the written work of Georges Cuvier on fossil mammalia and, among other notable accomplishments during a remarkable scientific career, he was the first paleontologist to map out primate genera. Lartet�s fascination with the question of whether humans and large mammals cooexisted led him to begin exploring the cave systems of Dordogne, a region that had for centuries engaged in the quarrying of limestone blocks.
In 1834, while exploring in an area around the town of Auch, Lartet made his first major discovery of fossil remains. This discovery caused him to embark on a years-long systematic survey of cave systems throughout France. The results from these examinations (they were not yet really excavations) were the publishing of several works of major importance to the foundation of the sciences of paleontology and physical anthropology. his first publication on the subject being The Antiquity of Man in WesternEurope (1860), followed in 1861 by New Researches on the Coexistence of Man and of the Great Fossil Mammifers characteristic of the Last Geological Period. In this last work, Lartet made public the results of his discoveries in the cave system of Aurignac, where evidence existed of the contemporaneous existence of man and extinct megafauna.
By the mid-1860s, Lartet teamed up with Englishman Henry Christy. Christy, himself a successful businessman, was at the time of his association with Lartet, an accomplished ethnologist and a member of the Royal Geographic society. His wealth and interest in the search for evidence of the antiquity of humankind funded the project that led to the discovery of Cro-Magnon man in 1868. With Christy�s assistance, the two scientists published their joint research describing the Dordogne cave systems they explored along the river Vzre, a tributary of the Dordogne, along with these systems� fossil remains and artifact assemblages in the Revue arch�ologique (1864). The spectacular discoveries from the Madeleine cave, which included the famous mammoth statuette, were published by Lartet and Christy under the title Reliquiae Aquitanicae, the first part appearing in 1865. Suffice to say, Lartet and Christy laid the groundwork for the identification of what is commonly known as Aurignacian culture.
News of these exciting discoveries quickly spread across the Atlantic to a United States largely caught up in the throws of the last year of the Civil War. Nevertheless, Lartet and Christy�s dramatic successes in Dordogne electrified the American scientific community and caught the imagination of some sectors of the war-weary public imagination. In America, there was a strong desire to duplicate the results of Lartet and Christy and find evidence of an American Paleolithic, even if we had to create the evidence. (End of part one. Part two will discuss the history of the Holly Oak pendant in the 20th century as the science of archaeology and paleontology matured).
Early Man at Holly Oak, Delaware
John C. Kraft; Ronald A. Thomas
Science, New Series, Vol. 192, No. 4241. (May 21, 1976), pp. 756-761.
A Mammoth Fraud in Science
James B. Griffin; David J. Meltzer; Bruce D. Smith; William C. Sturtevant American Antiquity, Vol. 53, No. 3. (Jul., 1988), pp. 578-582.
Les Mammouths - Dossiers Arch�ologie - n� 291 - Mars 2004 (excerpt translated by Lubby)
Very Best Regards,