The Michigan Relics Revisited

One of the most enduring archaeological hoaxes, the Michigan relics, a series of copper, slate, and clay forgeries, were “discovered” throughout counties in Michigan from the late 19th century until 1920. James Scotford and Daniel Soper apparently worked together to create and sell the forgeries. Scholars and archaeologists were skeptical from the outset, but interest in the objects persisted. In 1911 James E. Talmage studied the relics, recognizing the impact they could have on the perception of the Book of Mormon if they were genuine. In a detailed report, Talmage dismissed them as blatant forgeries.

However, interest revived in 1984 when a series of authors began writing about the relics, attributing their engravings to Zoroastrian, Christian, and other Old World influences (see JBMS 7/1 [1998]: 78). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had acquired almost 800 such objects through a donation from the University of Notre Dame. Richard Stamps, Latter-day Saint professor of archaeology at Oakland University, examined the collection in 1977 and again in 1998 and 1999. He likewise declared the relics to be forgeries (see his article “Tools Leave Marks: Material Analysis of the Scotford-Soper-Savage Michigan Relics,” BYU Studies 40/3 [2001]; also see Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Mormonism’s Encounter with the Michigan Relics,” in that same issue of BYU Studies).

While the items clearly are not evidence of an ancient civilization, they are artifacts of Michigan’s history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently donated the collection to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, where pieces were on display through August 2004. The exhibit, “Digging Up Controversy,” included commentary depicting the objects as fraudulent but nevertheless reflective of earlier Michigan citizens’ fixation with archaeology and ancient civilizations.