Dighton Rock

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by Ayla Schwartz

Dighton rock and Seth Eastman, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's illustrator[1]

Dighton Rock (see also, the Dighton Writing Rock, the Assonet Monument) is a petroglyphic boulder located in Massachusetts along the northwesternly corner of Assonet River[2] in an area that was originally occupied by the indigenous Omamiwinini people. [3][4] Although modern archaeologists agree that the Dighton rock petroglyphs were probably inscribed by the indigenous people of the area, Dighton rock has been a source of controversy due to assertions by pseudoarchaeologists that it is evidence of pre-Columbian contact with indigenous nations in the Americas.[5]


Discovery and Early Reception

Early photo of Dighton Rock[6]

Dighton rock was discovered shortly after the Europeans arrived in Massachusetts and quickly became an obsession of the burgeoning nation.[7] Dighton rock attracted the attention of some of the greatest minds and scholars of colonial America, from the infamous Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to George Washington himself.[1] Pseudoarchaeological beliefs popped up and spread quickly, beginning in the 1680s when the Reverend John Danforth, an early documenter of Dighton Rock, became convinced the petroglyphs inscribed on the rock were written in Phonecian.[7] Danforth sent his theories as well as an illustration of the Dighton rock petroglyphs to the Royal Society of London for their opinions but never received a response.[7] Samuel Mather claimed his father, Cotton Mather, was convinced that the glyphs on Dighton Rock were carved in Hebrew, although Mather himself believed they were Phonecian.[8] In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn proposed that the Dighton Rock was a Norse runic stone marking Massachusetts as the mythical "Vinland" chronicled in the Norse sagas,[7] which a later scholar, Finn Magnusen, translated as "Northmen under Thorfinn took possession of this land."[4] Most famously, psychology professor Edmund Burke Delabarre wrote in his book Dighton Rock: A Study of the Written Rocks of New England that he believed the Dighton Rock carvings to be the work of lost Portuguese sailor Miguel Corte-Real, which he "deciphered" as "Miguel Cortereal by the will of God, here Chief of the Indians."[2] This particular claim has inspired a pseudoarchaeological community based on Portuguese ethnic pride in the United States, giving Portuguese Americans a sense of place in the U.S. in much the same way that purported evidence of Norse settlements originally helped Danish settlers find a place amongst the white settlers.[9] To this day, Portuguese Americans gather at Dighton Rock to celebrate their cultural heritage.[9]

Dighton Rock was (officially) linked to the indigenous population in 1989 with the publishing of Garrick Mallery's 800-page report on the "Picture-Writing of the American Indians," which conclusively linked the indigenous past of Dighton Rock with the Native present of the Omamiwinini.[8] Although discourse about Dighton Rock has settled down since Mallery's report, it is far from dead.[9] As Annette Kolodny admits, "myths die hard."[8] A 2002 book, Gavin Menzies brought back the old colonial belief in Fusang, a Chinese prehistoric settlement purported to have been in the Americas, and proposed the Dighton Rock pictographs were actually a form of archaic Chinese.[7]

Despite continued disagreement between the archaeological community and the public about its origins, and some resistance from the archaeological community, Dighton Rock was removed from its original river bed in 1963 and placed within the Dighton Rock State Park museum.[7] It has since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Various drawings of the Dighton rock petroglyphs[10]

As expected given the countless number of languages individuals have claimed the Dighton Rock petroglyphs are written in, there are quite a few interpretations and "translations" of what the Dighton Rock petroglyphs say.

Dighton rock was deposited in the riverbed towards the end of the last ice age, and is "composed of a gray-brown crystalline sandstone it has the form of a slanted, six-sided block." Its inscriptions are "carved on its trapezoidal face" and "the carved surface is inclined 70 degrees to the northwest and faced the bay."[7] The glyphs themselves are a complex set of images, shaped, and symbols, that even early in Dighton Rock's colonial history scholars agreed were Omamiwinini.[4] A Omamiwinini tribesperson recorded by Chas Rau as being named Chingwauk at one point "plausibly interpreted" the pictograph for Henry Row Schoolcraft on a visit to Dighton Rock, but his indigenous translation was not recorded by Mr. Rau or Mr. Schoolcraft, nor was it referenced in any other later publications on Dighton Rock.[4]

Dighton Rock's inscription was later translated by Professor Finn Magnusen, who believed the glyphs were Norse runes, as reading "Northmen under Thorfinn took possession of this land."[4] However, Magnusen's contemporaries called the legitimacy of his translation into question on the grounds that critical analysis of his previous work had found that the "runes" he looked at were “simply the natural cracks on the decayed surface of a trap dike filing up a rent in a granitic formation,” leading some scholar to as if his translation was genuine or simply a symptom of an overactive imagination.[4] John Davis proposed a more reasonable interpretation in his address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston.[11] Davis pointed to the similarity between the triangles drawn on Dighton Rock and a symbol used by Canadian indigenous tribes to mark the entrance of a particular type of hunting trap. Using that as a jumping-off point for interpretation, Davis suggested that the glyphs might be a depiction of a hunting scene, perhaps used to celebrate and keep track of hunting exploits.[11]

Later pseudoarchaeological work by Edmund Burke Delabarre used the assumption that Dighton Rock was written in Portuguese to translate the inscription as "Miguel Cortereal by the will of God, here Chief of the Indians,” which initiated the Portuguese-American obsession with Dighton Rock.[7]

Some more recent interpretations of Dighton Rock within an indigenous context have pointed out that Rock art created by indigenous Americans was generally created for one of three reasons: as a way of recording spiritual experiences, as a way of recording historical experiences, and as a way of marking territories.[7] Given the location, a territorial marker seems most likely, but lack of access to the creator culture makes it impossible to confirm.[7] Dighton Rock's true meaning is a mystery, for as Karri Springer writes, "archaeologists will never fully understand the past, since no one present today witnessed it...in other words, the archaeological record is incomplete due to its nature."[12]

Pseudoarchaeogical Narrative

Pre-Columbian Settlement of North America

Dighton Rock is part of a larger narrative in pseudoarchaeology of pre-Columbian contact and settlement in the Americas by (usually Western) nations of the outside world. Dighton rock is only one beat in this narrative and examining Dighton Rock alone cannot illuminate the reasons for the construction of pre-Columbian pseudohistory by the West. However, exploring the reasons and motivations behind pre-Columbian contact theories can help illuminate why Dighton Rock has been so stubbornly misattributed, and why the myths surrounding it are so hard to shake.

When European settlers arrived in Ameria, the indigenous people whose land they invaded posed a threat to their world view. Traditionally, Western Christianity had explained phenotypic differences between peoples by ascribing each major "race" to the descendants of a different son of Noah - Shem (Asia), Ham (Africa), and Japeth (Europe).[13] Indigenous peoples of America represented a threat to that Biblical ideology. So instead of listening to indigenous oral history, the Europeans operated on the assumption that Native Americans were recent arrivals to the continent who could then be traced back to one of the three sons.[7] Following similar logic, the theoretical framework the Euro-American settlers saw indigenous tribes through was as a people left behind - abandoned and cut off from 'civilization," an ideology developed that framed indigenous people as "freaks outside historical time," as if frozen at the moment they became disconnected with the Western World.[8] If indigenous tribes were frozen in prehistory, it then stood to reason that, undeveloped as they were, Native Americans could not have possibly developed any sophisticated cultural features like agriculture, stonework, and writing.[7] These two assumptions combined to form an ideology that Euro-Americans clung to even when physical evidence defied it, spawning the Moundbuilder race theories, the pre-Columbian contact theories, anything they could devise that was a "seemingly plausible explanation for physical evidence that ran contrary to their world views."[7]

Pre-Columbian contact theories also had the added benefit of "strengthen[ing]...The legitimacy of the morally difficult conquest, presumably by weakening the territorial claims of Native Americans."[14] If indigenous peoples were recent arrivals to the continent, or (in some narratives) conquerors themselves, perhaps of some ancient, more intelligent European predecessors, then the Euro-Americans could justify any level of indignity and imperialism. Pre-Columbian narratives sought to vilify indigenous groups, framing them as barbaric, destructive, and (most importantly) a threat to civilized culture. Moundbuilder myths in particular situated modern America "in the wake of that barbaric "horde," [where] the mounds and raised earthworks of western New York State...represented"the only remaining monuments of these ancient and exterminated nations.""[8] Through this lens, Dighton Rock and the pre-Columbian contact narrative are colonizing agents, dispossessing indigenous Americans of their cultural heritage, land, history, and accomplishments.[9] In this sense, disputes about the original creators of Dighton Rock serve to displace a sense of belonging from indigenous tribes and rob them of their material history.

Although the pre-Columbian contact narrative is very clearly an intentionally psychically harmful colonial tactic, it was also a very personal way for Euro-Americans, all of whom were immigrants, feel a sense of belonging and connection to an alien land. American immigrants experienced a longing for antiquity upon their arrival in the United States, to combat the loneliness that accompanied the departure from ancestral lands.[8] Additionally, pre-Columbian narratives situated modern America in a "biblical past and a redeemed future" that created a sense of larger cultural identity among disparate European immigrant groups. It gave colonial America a shared identity that guided the States into the War of Independence and to nationhood. Perhaps this is why so many ethnic European groups (both Danish[15] and Portuguese[9]) cling so tightly - because despite being tangibly untrue, despite being harmful to indigenous communities, pre-Columbian contact myths gave colonial America an origin myth that was worth being proud of. One not drenched in blood.

An Archaeological Response

The Flaws and Inconsistencies in Pre-Columbian Contact "theories"

Lithograph of Dighton Rock[2]

Despite their allure, pre-Columbian contact myths do not hold up to scrutiny. Given that the whole body of "evidence" for Norse settlements in the continental United States amounts to only a fraction of the evidence found at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, it is heavily unlikely that Leif Erikson and his lot ever made it south enough to carve Dighton Rock or any other reported American runestone. Moreover, the massive body of archaeological evidence that supports Native American presence and continuity in the United States from prehistory to present practically looms over the meager evidence pseudoarchaeologists can offer as to the presence of Israelites, Portuguese colonists, or Norse Vikings. In the case of Dighton Rock, while pseudoarchaeologists only have highly unscrupulous translations of the glyphs by often unqualified individuals, a member of the Omamiwinini First Nation was literally able to read and interpret the rock when presented the opportunity[4]

Although they may be comforting to some peoples, may help Danish settlers find a place with the white, Anglo-Saxon community[15], may make immigrants far from home feel connected, may bolster national unity and unite a people,[8] the benefits in no way compare to the damage these myths do. Indigenous communities have too long been deprived of rights to belonging, possession, and self-determination over themselves and their histories. For a long time, the pen used to write indigenous prehistory has been in the hands of the colonizer, and as such spots like Dighton Rock become "narrative sites of enduring conflict over claims to the same living space by radically different cultures"[8] as Euro-Americans fight to protect their mythical origin stories, and this has shaped the narrative and how we see it. But seeing stories through only one lens is detrimental to archaeology and history as a whole. Indigenous Americans deserve their narratives sites as well, and when rooted in modern archaeology, anthropology, and their own traditions, prehistory through their lenses is beneficial in burying “romantic fallacies” of pre-Columbian contact.[8]

Hoaxes such as the pre-Columbian mythos are created, as Karri Springer states, "through curiosity, imagination and creativity." They have no way to combat arguments bolstered with scientific archaeology, with logic and factual information. In other words, "what the hoaxes do not have is scientific testing, to bolster their claims. Without this, the hoaxes have no weight.”[12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 New England Historical Society n.d. The Mystery of Dighton Rock – ‘No man alive knows…’. Electronic document, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-mystery-of-dighton-rock-no-man-alive-knows/, accessed December 12, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Delabarre, Edmund Burke 1928, Dighton Rock: A Study of the Written Rocks of New England. Walter Neale, New York.
  3. Native Languages n.d. Omamiwinini First Nation. Electronic document, http://www.native-languages.org/definitions/omamiwinini.htm, accessed December 13, 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Rau, Chas 1878 OBSERVATIONS ON THE DIGHTON ROCK INSCRIPTION. The American Antiquarian: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to Early American History, Ethnology and Archaeology 1(1):38.
  5. Feder, Kenneth L. 2010 Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis To The Walam Olum. Greenwood, California.
  6. Dighton Historical Society 2014 Dighton Rock. Electronic document, https://dightonhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com/, accessed December 12, 2019.
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 Native American Net Roots 2012 Dighton Rock. Electronic document, http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/1217, accessed December 4, 2019
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 Kolodny, Annette 2003 Fictions of American Prehistory: Indians, Archeology, and National Origin Myths. Duke University Press 75(4): 693-721
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Hunter, Douglas 2017 The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America's Indigenous Past. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  10. McDermott, Alicia 2015 Who Made the Petroglyphs on the Mysterious Dighton Rock? Electronic document, https://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/who-made-petroglyphs-mysterious-dighton-rock-004991, accessed December 12 2019.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Davis, John 1809 AN ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN THE INSCRIPTION ON THE DIGHTON ROCK. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston. Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 3(1):19
  12. 12.0 12.1 Springer, Karri L 1999 The Fact and Fiction of Vikings in America. Nebraska Anthropologist 124: 62-68
  13. Haynes, Stephen R 2000 Race, National Destiny, and the Sons of Noah in the Thought of Benjamin M. Palmer. The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997-), 78(2): 125-143
  14. Mackenthun, Gesa 2017 Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Voyages. Electronic document, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199730414/obo-9780199730414-0276.xml, accessed December 4, 2019
  15. 15.0 15.1 Godfrey, William S. 2009 Vikings in America: Theories and Evidence. American Anthropologist, 57(1): 35-43)