The sword in the stones
Lessons from a spectacular museum fraud
It is hard to forget the excitement and drama when, in 2002, the Royal Ontario Museum displayed an ancient ossuary, a funerary bone box made of limestone, in a special exhibition. This was no ordinary receptacle: carved into one side was an Aramaic inscription identifying the bones as those of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” For religious and secular visitors alike, this appeared to convey hard, physical evidence of the existence of central figures in the Christian New Testament. Or did it?
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) had given its imprimatur to a controversial biblical archeology find. Scholarly sceptics were quick to pounce. They questioned the grammar of the ossuary’s crudely incised letters. They pointed out that the Hebrew names for James and Jesus were widely used and might not have belonged to the Biblical brothers known as James and Jesus. They asked hard scientific questions about organic patina residues and chemical tests for dating. But still the crowds lined up; I confess to being one of those eager museum-goers.
Was the James ossuary a hoax? The legal authorities in Israel, on the lookout for illegal sales of antiquities, took possession of the box, submitting it to examination; its owner was charged with fraud. A five-year trial ensued. With conflicting testimonies, the owner was acquitted but the judge stressed that his legal decision did not mean the ossuary’s historical claim was upheld. The origins and purpose of this ossuary remain shrouded in mystery.
The ROM is in good company: Many museums, galleries, and private collectors have been fooled by artful forgeries. There are entire commercial operations in China that specialize in the creation of outstanding fakes. Artisans in other countries have made a good business from developing “ancient” documents, furnishings, and similar material treasures. There are also legitimate museum specialists who create top-quality reproductions. When shown in a public museum, reproductions are supposed to be clearly labelled, but in a private venue the distinction between genuine and fake can be easily obscured, perhaps deliberately.
Some forgeries are positively laughable, such as P.T. Barnum’s skeletal remains of a “Feejee Mermaid” (in reality, a fanciful creation made from a monkey’s skull sewn to a stuffed fish tail; it was displayed in American circus shows). Others are seriously important to people seeking hard evidence for their core spiritual beliefs. In early medieval times, pieces of what was called the “True Cross” circulated among pilgrims and fearsome Crusaders. In other religious cultures, objects of veneration include body parts believed to come from holy persons. Are these genuine? Or, more profoundly, is it the role of outsiders to question the authenticity of another culture’s totemic objects?
In our own society we greatly value the ability to distinguish between facts and fancies. Museums are ranked highly by the public as presenters of authentic information. (In Canada, especially, they enjoy extraordinary levels of public trust, according to polling.) Material objects, documents, and intangible traditions are given immense weight for intellectual, cultural, and even legal purposes. How shocking, therefore, when an institution committed to authenticity is itself both a target and an active participant in perpetrating a major hoax. The institution that found itself in this situation was the Royal Ontario Museum, and this hoax began in 1934—many years before the museum’s exclusive display of the “James Ossuary.”
Beardmore: The Viking Hoax that Rewrote History could be a Nordic saga; it is a tale of intrigue, power, and conflicts, of heroes and villains. Douglas Hunter has painstakingly examined this hoax, from its soggy origins in a mining claim close to Beardmore, Ontario, until its finale on the curated display shelves of the ROM, in Toronto. Hunter has dug into many archives, sifting through internal memos and correspondence, eyewitness affidavits, scholarly articles, and newspaper reports. He has constructed what he describes as a “detective story,” opening with five pages of dramatis personae to help identify who’s who.
The tale of discovery begins in Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario), where a local prospector, Eddy Dodd, told several friends that he had uncovered an unusual sword, an axe, and other metal objects while dynamiting on a mining claim. Dodd’s story did not generate much interest until a visiting schoolteacher reported the find to Charles Trick Currelly, the director of archeology at the ROM. Currelly’s experience during the swashbuckling period of early archeology had been vital to building the ROM’s fine collection of Egyptian and other ancient artifacts, making him a celebrity at the museum and in Toronto society. He became intrigued by the Beardmore discovery and its possible link to Viking mariners who, hopeful speculation went, might have been present in North America—in northern Ontario, no less—some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus.
With hindsight we can argue that warning bells should have sounded for C.T. Currelly and his colleagues in the University of Toronto and the Ontario government. But there was a mood of wishful thinking in the air, encouraged by a core of respectable journalists and educated amateurs who wanted to believe that the discovery was genuine. Hunter slowly unwraps the jealousies, personal conflicts, and publicity hunting that grew around Beardmore. He reveals inconsistencies in the reports and sworn affidavits that remain on file. He shows especially how the weight of institutional inertia, secrecy, and administrative controls made things so difficult for independent experts to assess the Beardmore objects and their significance.
Eventually, it was outsiders to Toronto’s little museum community that pried opened the doors. An American anthropologist demonstrated what should have been obvious: there was no factual basis for the Beardmore “discovery.” Other individuals also came forward, including the finder’s son, and solemnly affirmed that the find was a hoax: the mining site was, to use a prospector’s term, “salted” with the Viking-era sword and axe. Hunter constructs a convincing story of how a Norwegian immigrant had brought these ancient pieces to Canada and how Eddy Dodd gained possession when they were used as security for a debt. Eventually, the objects were brought to the Beardmore prospecting site, where the saga began.
Archeology is exciting, tedious, and quite dirty. The process of surveying, gently digging, sifting, measuring, and recording is painstaking. Findings of materials, however small, must be related to previous knowledge, whether in archives, literature, or collections stored from past explorations. Valuable sites must be preserved to enable undisturbed investigations. Archeological research aims to create data where hard facts are scarce or unknown. The glory business of speculating, weaving intriguing narratives, and mounting museum shows or television documentaries comes much later, if ever.
What stands out in the ROM’s acceptance of the Beardmore “find” was how the basic procedures of archeological study were not followed. Neither Currelly nor any other professional carried out a thorough search of the northern Ontario site. There were no follow-up digs, no surveys, and no detailed photographs. The items offered by Dodd were accepted and he was paid $500 (the equivalent of $9,000 today). Currelly did seek opinions from a range of non-Canadian scholars, but Hunter points out that the questions he posed did not provide essential contextual information: Where had the items been found, under what circumstances, and in what conditions? Speculation continued to grow among both researchers and popular writers. The site came to be known in the press as a Viking grave, an unsubstantiated description that Currelly himself began to use. Hunter concludes: “Far from pursuing a rigorous site investigation, Currelly had actively dissuaded any closer consideration of Dodd’s mining claim.”
The major portion of this lengthy book records Hunter’s search for the tale behind the hoax, peeling back many confusing layers of claim and counterclaim that unfolded from the 1930s to the 1960s. When did Dodd obtain these items? How did he spread the story of his supposed discovery? Who believed him and who were doubters? Why was Currelly inclined to believe Dodd? Why didn’t he apply a more rigorous assessment? Why were others in the Toronto academic nexus so reluctant to entertain contrary views?
Hunter is not sensationalist in his writing or his judgements. He is an experienced writer, one of Canada’s solid non-academic historians whose works fill important spaces in painting the canvas of our past. The book’s extensive details build a case that unfolds slowly, methodically, with twists of personalities, conflicting recollections, social circumstances, and institutional hubris.
At its heart, the hoax succeeded because people wanted to believe it was true. Who were these people? Eddy Dodd, of course, because as a prospector in the hard times of the Depression, he wanted to attract attention to his mining claim in Beardmore. His apparent discovery also led to a substantial payment from the ROM, and to some personal recognition. Dodd was endorsed publicly by a number of people, notably an energetic editor and publisher in Sault Ste. Marie, Jim Curran, who used the Beardmore story as a theme for a book and public lectures.
Dodd’s find was also welcomed by Scandinavian immigrants who were pleased to assert that their new roots in North America might be connected to hardy ancient explorers from back home. The Beardmore objects fed a lively vision that extolled the Vikings as the first Europeans to travel into the North American heartland. In this alt-history version of exploration, the Vikings were said to have travelled from Greenland into the Hudson Strait and then down into James Bay. After beaching their heavy, seagoing longboats, they supposedly managed to travel along the river system, navigating rushing rapids and crossing land portages (including the Beardmore site, although it wasn’t close to any evident route) reaching as far west as Minnesota, complete with traditional armour, with perhaps some assistance from Indigenous guides.
Belief in early Viking explorers was not merely the whim of enthusiastic amateurs. Considerable scholarly support existed for the idea that the ancient Norse had been present along the coast of New England or further inland on the continent. Some questionable archeological findings contributed to this historical tale, notably the so-called Kensington Runestone in Minnesota and the Newport Tower found in Rhode Island. The Beardmore relics gave added weight to this speculation, with the extra thrill that they were found here in Canada, and almost in the ROM’s backyard, close to the main railway line across northern Ontario.
The Viking version of North American history also carried an implicit racial subtext, granting to solid men of Nordic stock and their British cousins the honour of exploring the continent some four or five hundred years before the rival French or southern Europeans. Canada’s pre-eminent historian, Donald G. Creighton, underlined the significance of the Beardmore relics in his seminal 1944 work, Dominion of the North. Hunter cites Creighton’s stirring words: “perhaps the deeply corroded Viking sword and axe…belonged once to some members of a defiant expedition which struck out south-westward on an incredible overland journey from James Bay.”
While Currelly and the ROM had been hasty, even careless, in accepting the Beardmore relics as evidence, we can see how this fit into a pattern of acceptable speculative historical thinking. Where the issues become darker, and even nasty, is when they mustered their academic and social connections, and institutional weight, to thwart contrary arguments. In one particularly unpleasant episode in 1941, the Canadian Historical Review chose to publish Currelly’s version of the “findings” while simultaneously softening and downplaying a critical article that questioned the provenance and discovery of the objects. Skepticism was not welcome and Hunter deplores with evident sadness “the scholarly world’s…hostility and obstructionism.”
The ROM’s orthodoxy held sway until 1955 when a young American anthropologist, Edmund (Ted) Carpenter, brought the hoax into the open. Hunter credits Carpenter’s open-minded, scientific outlook for his insights into the Beardmore files. Carpenter’s approach “had none of C.T. Currelly’s enthusiasms for history rooted in British imperialism, and he was not a product of Victoria College or the greater University of Toronto.” In articles over several years, Carpenter argued that Beardmore was a hoax, similar to the famous “Piltdown Man” fabrication that had riveted British archeology.
During these postwar years the ROM itself was undergoing organizational changes. These paralleled modernizing efforts in the wider museum world, with a greater emphasis on openness, public accessibility, and scientific credibility. The next generation of leadership did not discard the Beardmore relics entirely. One authentic object—the sword—was even included as part of a large exhibition in 2017. But the museum had adopted more accurate ways of describing its significance by dropping the Viking explorers story, and acknowledging the truth about its origins. (Similarly, Donald Creighton’s 1957 edition of his important textbook retreated from his past support for the Vikings theory and he also muted his previous imperial heroic language.)
What should we make of Douglas Hunter’s foray into a controversy that was settled more than fifty years ago? At more than four hundred pages, plus footnotes, his book should be the final word. It does not read like a detective novel, although Hunter drew the detective parallel to describe his sleuthing in the documentary files. It presents a detailed reconstruction. At times the book is a challenging read, as it recounts so many exchanges and arguments. It is also a social history, with long asides on the biographies and interconnections of many characters. We gain some feel for the hardscrabble lives of prospectors and railroaders in northern Ontario, and for class distinctions, whether in Port Arthur or in Toronto. Hunter’s core argument could have been made in half the length, but it would have lost some of its colourful commentary.
The Beardmore saga should generate discussions on challenges that preoccupy today’s curators, writers, and readers. This would reflect one purpose of writing history: to explore current concerns through the prism of past issues. In the 1930s and ’40s, was the Toronto academic-social nexus far too kind to one of its own sons? Are academic historians still prone to dismiss writers and researchers who don’t come from their tenured ranks? Did the ROM accept the Beardmore relics because its small staff were predisposed to a racialized interpretation of the past? Are today’s museums, like some forms of media, overly inclined to focus on populist issues of the moment for exhibitions, research, or publication? All good questions, with no easy answers.
Hunter draws the conclusion that a successful hoax like Beardmore is less likely today, with our more stringent standards of scholarship, numerous competing centres of knowledge, and opportunities to share information through digital publishing. There is also more inclination to challenge information, resulting in corrections or even retractions. But I would caution that this optimism should be tempered by realities. Today we are operating with a double-edged sword (to apply a Viking metaphor): on one side, we are more apt to question and reject undue deference, but on the other side there is far more opportunity to share unsubstantiated stories, theories, and rumours—feeding the pseudoscience of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” whether ancient or recent in origin.