May not be what you think
Some might call it sheer luck while others would say it was divine timing. For local filmmaker Thom Bell, it was a day out of the blue that captured his curiosity and introduced him to the tale of the Michigan Relics. A story that Bell would devote two years of his time (and money) to telling in his documentary “Hoax or History: The Michigan Relics.” His efforts also earned him an Eclipse Award this year.
“Winning the Eclipse award was a wonderful surprise,” says Bell.
“There were a couple of projects among the finalists that I thought were deserving of recognition so getting the judges votes of support probably wasn’t easily done. I’m really glad that the piece got recognition here in West Michigan.”
If you’ve never heard of the Michigan Relics, get in line. Most folks haven’t. But now you’re about to.
It’s a lost and forgotten story that falls under the strange but true category in Pure Michigan history dating back to the late 1800s. It is a collection of thousands of stone, copper and slate artifacts encoded with ancient symbols representing an early Mediterranean culture. While multiple discoveries were made by individuals, two men, James Scotford and Daniel Soper were responsible for orchestrating most of the findings throughout 17 Michigan counties (in mid and southeast Michigan) from 1890 to the 1920s.
Bell admits that he had heard rumors of the Michigan Relics but despite his efforts to learn more, he could never find enough substantial evidence to produce a valid documentary. But what he did glean from his preliminary research, stuck with him. And one day it finally paid off.
While Bell was on the hunt for a film doc topic with an original Michigan spin, he found himself in the Michigan section at Schuler’s Books.
“I was just going to scan the collection, when sure enough there was this book – and this was the only time I’ve ever seen this book anywhere – it was called Mystic Symbol by Henrietta Mertz,” Bell recalls excitedly.
Mertz, who died in 1986, was a scholar who was also intrigued with the story of Michigan Relics, especially with one of the ancient symbols that was found repeatedly on the artifacts. Bell knew it was referred to as the Mystic Symbol.
Upon examining the book, Bell further discovered that it contained additional research by David Deal, a self-taught Hebrew scholar.
“Her original book along with the companion of Deal’s work made this publication the best historical reference on the topic. She referenced everything so that gave me a lot of research material.”
A man on a mission
From that point on, Bell saw the vision for his documentary.
“The discipline I gave myself on this project was first, I wasn’t out to prove if the relics were real or not, that wasn’t my goal,” he explains, adding that he wanted to make a film that relied on the intelligence of the viewer.
“That’s why I don’t tell you explicitly whether the artifacts are real or a hoax, but all the information is presented to you to determine that for yourself.
“My goal was to tell this really interesting story of Michigan history. I knew that in order to convey the controversy and passion that surrounded this story, I needed to let myself hear and experience everybody’s point of view. And I did.”
For the film, Bell interviewed four experts who knew the story of the relics from their own deep perspective.
“When I was interviewing the archaeologists, they were absolutely clear this collection was a fraud. But when I went to spend time with another expert, it was exactly the opposite. He had a compelling point of view and insights as well.”
For his part, the late David Deal, the self-taught Paleo Hebrew scholar, was able to decipher the markings on the stones as ancient Hebrew or third century Coptic.
“He was the one who deciphered that all the artifacts shared what Henrietta Mertz called the Mystic Symbol,” Bell explains.
Originally thought to spell ‘MHS’ which is a Christian connotation, Deal studied it and realized the deciphering was backwards.
“It spelled ‘Yahew’, a Hebrew word for ‘God,’ which gave the relics a whole different cultural perspective,” says Bell.
While each expert interviewed in the documentary offers compelling viewpoints about the artifacts, Bell himself gets to the bottom line conclusion about their authenticity. When David Deal passed away before the film was completed, his family asked Bell to take all of his artifacts on their behalf.
“I took the tablet that David worked with, and was also in Henrietta’s collection, over to the University of Southern California Long Beach Archeology department. I had them do a luminescence test on it,” he explains. “That’s where they determined the tablet was made in 1895 – quite obviously a hoax.”
And an elaborate hoax at that!
A sign of the times
Think about it – For over 25 years these artifacts were unearthed in mid and southeast Michigan. That means that for that entire time, someone was creating the pieces, going to extreme care to mark them with ancient symbols and taking the time to bury them – thousands of them – hundreds of miles apart!
Who would do such a thing? And why?
As Bell’s documentary reveals, it was the work of James Scotford and his sons along with the aid of Daniel Soper, a shady hustler of sorts with a desire to be rich and famous. But what the documentary doesn’t tell you is this:
“Scotford had joined the British merchant marines earlier in his career,” Bell explains.
“They had a routine route to the Mediterranean which would have required him to stop in Cairo. There, he learned the antiquity trade.
When you take that piece of information and look at the artifacts, he’s taken accurate phrases from the third century and peppered them on these stones. They’re accurate,” assures Bell, “they were just made in the late 1800s.”
For a brief time, Scotford piqued the interest of the Smithsonian Institute and had hoped to make money by selling the artifacts to them. It wasn’t long before experts there declared the findings a hoax. Obviously it did not deter Scotford and Soper from abandoning their scheme. They continued to make the fakes, strategically bury them, and then orchestrate to have unsuspecting town folk make the ‘discovery’ of ancient treasures.
While Scotford made money off it for a while, Bell says he did not get rich. Soper did not get rich either, but seemed to enjoy the attention the claims gave him.
Riches are in the eye of the beholder
Today the majority of the Michigan Relics collection is in Lansing at the Michigan Historical Museum. A portion of it is also at the Smithsonian and an Ohio State museum. Remaining pieces are still held in private collections.
And while this fantastic story holds no monetary value, it is rich with Michigan history and now has added appeal.
“Winning the Eclipse award, I hope, will impact the overall story of this project by gaining a wider audience,” says Bell.
Bell admits that the piece has struggled to find a distribution outlet because of its regional appeal and because he relied on ‘old school documentary storytelling’ techniques. Bell says that historical documentary projects today have adopted a more sensational style of storytelling.
“My goal was to create a piece that required the viewer’s intellect to sift the facts – instead of spoon feeding suspense and answers to the audience,” he says.
“Intelligent story telling is what the piece attempts and I think the Eclipse award will help find the audience that wants to watch that kind of programming.”