by Tracy C. Brown
The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute is continuing its search for the long lost Madison Tablet and several other long lost Native American artifacts that were discovered in Tennessee. Please read the following revised and updated story about the Madison Tablet and help us find it. You are our eyes and ears. It has to be out there somewhere in Tennessee, the United States, or some foreign country. Please be on the lookout for it, and send us an e-mail message at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org if you know its current whereabouts or have any leads. Thanks!!
Sometimes prehistoric Native American artifacts go missing and are never seen again for several decades or even a century. One good example that has been missing for about 90 years is the famous Castalian Springs Tablet, also known in the Tennessee archaeological literature as the Eagle Warrior stone (Smith and Miller 2009:73). It is a flat limestone slab with a depiction of the famous birdman mythological figure incised into its surface. This stone was found on the ground surface at the Castalian Springs mound site in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, in the late 1800s, and it dates to the Mississippian period (Myer 1894:11). In the late 20th century, a lesser known but equally important incised limestone slab known as the Madison Tablet was found at a large Mississippian village site on the east side of Nashville, Tennessee. This site was known as the Haysboro site in the 19th century, but by the 1960s it was known as the Maddox site (40DV17) [Parker 1980:5-6; Parker and Parker 1982].
The Madison Tablet disappeared from the realm of Tennessee archaeology in 1994 and has not been on exhibition or available for scientific examination for the past 20 years. Its current owner, location, and preservation status are unknown. This essay tells the story of the Madison Tablet, and it kindly asks the many readers of the Archaeology in Tennessee blog to assist with finding this long-missing Tennessee artifact.
2.0 Archaeological Context of the Madison Tablet
The Madison Tablet was found in situ within a human burial on 40DV17. A Nashville artifact collector by the name of Malcolm P. Parker discovered the tablet and curated it in his private collection from the moment it was found in autumn 1968 until the date of his death in 1993, a period of 25 years (Parker 1980:5-6; Parker and Parker 1982).
This burial was a flesh inhumation, and the deceased individual had been buried on their back in a fully extended position. The skeletal remains were fully articulated, and they rested on a single limestone slab that was long enough to accommodate the entire length of an adult male body. Perhaps most importantly, the cranium of this individual was found resting squarely on top of the Madison Tablet, which had been used as a sort of pillow for the head at the time of inhumation. A quartzite ear plug was found near the cranium. In the midsection of the remains lay a large rim sherd from a shell-tempered pot, and a metal knife with a bone handle was present in approximately the same location (Parker 1980:5-6; Parker and Parker 1982). Mr. Parker earnestly believed that the knife was an intentional item of burial furniture, but most archaeologists in the Nashville area have long thought that this artifact was intrusive. Suffice it to say that it has been a matter of some controversy.
Throughout his life, Malcolm Parker was an honest man and a church-going member of several Methodist congregations. In addition, he was a close relative of mine, and I knew him better than almost anyone because he was like a second father to me throughout his long life. I was 16 years old when the Madison Tablet was found, and upon first hearing about its discovery, I immediately requested an opportunity to go to 40DV17 and see the burial in which it was found. Mr. Parker took me straight to the site that afternoon to observe the still-open burial in which it was found. This opportunity to see the burial occurred within approximately 3 days after the tablet was discovered and removed from its burial context.
Mr. John Dowd, a highly respected avocational archaeologist and a member of the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey (SIAS), was a friend of Mr. Parker. A number of months after discovery of the Madison Tablet, he interviewed Mr. Parker and filled out a standard field burial form for this flesh inhumation, which he officially designated as Burial 1. A copy of this burial form and other detailed information about Burial 1 are on file in my home office, and Mr. Dowd’s original SIAS burial form is on file at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.
Today a large retail store and its parking lot sit on top of the burial zone where the Madison Tablet was found, and the surrounding area has been subject to heavy commercial development over the past 60 years. Consequently, a very large portion of the Maddox site has been destroyed, and the rest of its once intact archaeological deposits have been disturbed to varying degrees.
As may be seen from the foregoing information, the Madison Tablet is not one of those infamous artifacts that has been intentionally tagged with a false discovery story to dupe a succession of would-be artifact buyers into thinking it is a genuine Native American artifact when it is really just a fake. Indeed, Mr. Parker never attempted to sell the Madison Tablet during his own lifetime because he had a strict policy of never selling or trading any artifact he had personally found in Tennessee. Unequivocally, the Madison Tablet is an actual dirt find within a human burial on a well-known Mississippian archaeological site in the Middle Cumberland region.
3.0 Description of the Madison Tablet
The Madison Tablet is a slab of native Ordivician limestone, which is a common lithic raw material in the Nashville Basin. It is a hefty stone with an irregular shape. The Madison Tablet measures 35.5 cm (14 in) × 25.4 cm (10 in.) × 7.6 cm (3 in).
At the time of its discovery, the exterior surfaces of the tablet were stained with soil minerals, giving it a somewhat mottled yellowish red color. One broad face of the tablet (obverse side) showed distinct evidence of smoothing and polishing, but this alteration of the surface was executed unevenly because of gentle undulations in the natural surface of the limestone slab. This smoothing and polishing does not look like the smoothing and polishing one would expect from a modern power tool. Instead, it looks exactly like the patinated smoothed and polished areas one normally sees on the bit ends of Dover chert hoe blades and chisels. In two words, it looks distinctively prehistoric.
The obverse surface of the Madison Tablet has intricate incised images on it. No incised images are known to be present on the reverse side.
From the date it was found in 1968 until Mr. Parker died in 1993, the Madison Tablet was never photographed. The only known image of the tablet and the iconography incised into its surface is a drawing he made prior to his death. This drawing is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Madison Tablet
The original drawing and the size-reduced version (Figure 1) are a bit misleading and need some clarification. Malcolm Parker was an amateur artist who preferred to draw with wide-tipped writing instruments such as large-lead pencils and grease pencils. This explains why the lines are so wide and distinctive in his original drawing and to a lesser degree in the size-reduced version shown in Figure 1. Consequently, the thicknesses of the lines on the original drawing and the one shown here do not accurately reflect the true widths of the incised lines on the Madison Tablet. The actual incised lines on the Madison Tablet tend to be mostly narrow and shallow like those on the Thruston Tablet, and many of them are quite faint. Thus, Figure 1 is an idealized view of the overall lineation wherein all lines are portrayed as strong, wide, and distinct.
The irregularly smoothed and polished surface of the Madison tablet bears the incised images of a serpent, a lizard-like creature, and two possibly still-living herbaceous plants with long stems and narrow leaves. The lizard-like creature appears to have already removed the leaves from 14 plants, leaving only the stems, and it is weaving these stems into a lattice structure. The body of the serpent is partially obscured by the two still-living plants. The head of the serpent is poised above the tops of these plants, allowing it to observe the lizard-like creature and its lattice-building process. The body of the snake rests in an extended position at the bottom of the stone, and it is decorated with alternating diamond-shapes, one set empty and one set shaded with cross-hatch incising. Two long, roughly parallel, vertical lines to the left of the lattice work appear (at first glance) to be a possible stream of water, but these lines most likely are the rough top edge of the stone slab rather than an intentional element or motif in the overall engraved image.
4.0 Temporal Context of the Madison Tablet
The Madison Tablet was found in a human burial located among a number of stone box burials on 40DV17. This suggests that it dates to the Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1475) in the Middle Cumberland region (Smith and Miller 2009:38). Admittedly, the incised images on the Madison Tablet are atypical of Mississippian iconography, but one must remember that we still do not know all there is to know about regional Mississippian iconographic traditions (and certainly not those for flat, stone slab media in the Middle Cumberland region). Another matter to consider is whether the local Mississippian culture required all incised themes on in-burial petroglyph stones to represent Mississippian mythological subject matter that uses only widely known Mississippian iconographic elements and motifs. Would it have been socially and ideologically permissible to abandon standard Mississippian iconography on such stones and present an incised theme reflecting a matter of personal, site-level, or chiefdom-level significance? If so, this might explain the observed deviation from typical Mississippian iconography.
Alternatively, this portable stone tablet might date to some earlier prehistoric time period, meaning it was passed down through many generations as an important heirloom item to the Mississippian occupants of the Maddox site. Optionally, it could have been a much earlier artifact that was found by someone during the Mississippian period and curated on 40DV17. Because a bone and metal knife was found in possible association with Burial 1, Mr. Parker always believed the Madison Tablet was a Native American artifact dating to the early historic era.
At the moment, the Mississippian origin and temporal attribution for Burial 1 and the associated Madison Tablet are considered to be the most plausible. However, the door must be left open to the possibility that the Madison Tablet might be a fake artifact that was created in the early or middle 20th century and later planted on the site for some archaeologist or artifact collector to eventually find.
5.0 Potential for Being a Fake Artifact
This section entertains the question of whether or not the Madison Tablet is a fake artifact. Right now, the only argument in favor of this notion is the fact that the incised images on the stone slab do not look Mississippian. Then again, just because an Afrikaner does not look African is no sure indication that she was born outside of Africa. Consequently, if a future archaeologist wishes to test whether the Madison Tablet is fake, he or she will need to go beyond mere appearances; closely examine the actual petroglyph stone (once it is found); develop even more hard evidence; take a look at the hard evidence already presented in Section 2.0 of this paper and in this section (Section 5.0) [including some not presented in this essay], and then take a holistic, objective look at the authenticity of the Madison Tablet.
As previously noted, the incised images on the Madison Tablet do not look Mississippian. Several years ago, Dr. Charles H. Faulkner, professor emeritus of anthropology at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, examined the Parker drawing and indicated that the images do not look Mississippian. However, based on his experience with rock art and cave art in eastern North America, he hastened to add that every element and motif shown on the Madison Tablet exists in American Indian rock and cave art at various times in the prehistory of eastern North America. Based on that fact alone, Dr. Faulkner was unwilling to definitively tag the Madison Tablet as a fake artifact.
The people who produce fake prehistoric incisings on limestone make some rather typical mistakes. For example, all of the engraved lines on their fake images are distinct and easy to see. The incised lines tend to be of uniform thickness and depth. In addition, the interiors of the lines often do not exhibit the same degree of staining and weathering as that on the natural surface of the limestone raw material. In other words, the incised lines look uniformly white and chalky against a naturally gray background.
As already noted, the iconography incised into the obverse surface of the Madison Tablet consists of very narrow and shallow lines quite similar to those on the Thruston Tablet, including the presence of both distinct lines that are easy to see and long-ago faded lines that are difficult to see. Unlike recently faked limestone incisings, the lines on the Madison Tablet exhibit irregular widths and depths. Moreover, the exterior surfaces of this tablet have distinctive soil mineral staining, indicating that the Madison Tablet had been buried in soil for a long time. This staining is evident not just on its exterior surfaces, but also within all of the incised lines.
These observations about the incised lines were made informally in April 1969 when I had an opportunity to briefly view the Madison Tablet under excellent exterior lighting conditions (daylight). Unfortunately, these observations about the incised lines were made 45 years ago, and I was 16 years old at the time. Memories can fade with time, which is one very good reason why the Madison Tablet merits a closer examination today.
Could the Madison Tablet have been an intentionally planted fake artifact? A highly detail-oriented faker who had seen the line variability on the Thruston Tablet might have gone to extraordinary lengths to forge similar lineation on the Madison Tablet. Subsequently, they could have planted the forged tablet in an already known Mississippian burial on the Maddox site, perhaps many decades prior to 1968. In other words, the Madison Tablet could have been planted like the Piltdown man cranium and mandible or the Bat Creek Stone. However, even this fake-and-plant scenario presents several problems. For example, replication of the subtle variability in lineation seen on the Thruston Tablet would have been an extremely difficult, meticulous, and time-consuming task that would have probably far exceeded the time and patience of most artifact fakers. Furthermore, the quartzite ear plug found in situ near the cranium of the Burial 1 individual would pose yet another problem. It seems unlikely that a 19th century antiquarian or 20th century artifact collector would have sacrificed such a nice and valuable ornamental artifact in support of a mischievous archaeological hoax.
People who plant fake artifacts in the ground are usually pursuing some sort of scientific, financial, political, social, or religious agenda. As soon as the planted artifact is found and the story is made public, the people who planted it shift into agenda overdrive and publicly shout about how the new find supports their agenda. As we all know now, a scientific agenda with social connotations was clearly at work in the famous Piltdown fakery. During the entire time since the Madison Tablet was found in 1968, a period of 46 years, not a single person in the Nashville area or outside of it has ever spoken up to link the Madison Tablet to any sort of scientific, financial, political, social, or religious agenda. Indeed, the public silence on this point has been deafening, again making it unlikely that the Madison Tablet was a planted fake.
Based on what we know (or think we know) at this time, if Cyrus Thomas, W.E. Myer, Gates P. Thruston, and P.E. Cox were alive today, I feel certain they would say that the Madison Tablet “bears all of the ancient tell-tale marks of authenticity,” and as a professional archaeologist who has actually seen the Madison Tablet, I would have to agree―at least tentatively—until the tablet can be closely examined one more time.
6.0 Legal Status of the Madison Tablet
It is important to note that the Madison Tablet has not been stolen from a private artifact collection or any museum collection. It was found on private property in 1968. Mr. Maddox was a local realtor who owned the 40DV17 property and was known to allow multiple artifact collectors to dig at will on his property. The Madison Tablet was found immediately after earthmoving had begun for a large box retail store. The prevailing historical assumption has always been that Mr. Maddox still owned the 40DV17 property when the Madison Tablet was found. However, it is potentially possible that land ownership could have been transferred to the retailer or their holding company immediately prior to the beginning of earthmoving operations, meaning the Madison Tablet might have been found and unknowingly removed without retailer or holding company permission. A determination of who owned the property when earthmoving began would require in-depth research. The exact date when the Madison Tablet was found is unknown. Considering this variable, the passage of 46 years, and the uncertain disposition of old corporate construction records, such research might yield no clear answers as to who owned the property when the Madison Tablet was found―and most likely no one would even care about it today.
Excavation of the Madison Tablet occurred on private property and long before 1979, which means the current federal cultural resource management (CRM) statutes and regulations do not apply to this artifact. No federal or state laws pertinent to human burials or artifacts found in human burials apply to the Madison Tablet. The Tennessee CRM statutes and regulations did not even exist when the Madison Tablet was found, which means none of them were violated by excavation and removal of the Madison Tablet. As a result, this is not an artifact that a federal or state agency could legally confiscate from its owner. In other words, the current owner of the Madison Tablet is not subject to arrest, prosecution, fines, or imprisonment by federal or state authorities. It is also highly unlikely that any private or public entity would ever want to confiscate the Madison Tablet—even if they could. It has been privately owned for the past 46 years, and that is not likely to ever change.
7.0 Current Location of the Madison Tablet
In 1994, the Madison Tablet dropped out of sight―meaning off the archaeological radar screen and out of general public awareness. It has not been seen by anyone in the local avocational or professional archaeological communities in the past 20 years, meaning it has never shown up on display at any Nashville or Tennessee area artifact collector show. It is presumed that this artifact was sold to someone shortly after 1994, and it may have already changed hands a couple of times as a result of artifact trades or sales. If it was sold, the purchaser may have been an artifact dealer, artifact collector, or just an ordinary citizen who bought it as a piece of decorative art for their home or garden.
The best-case location scenario is one in which the Madison Tablet is owned by some artifact collector who knows the story of this artifact; appreciates its archaeological importance; takes good care of it; plans to keep it on Tennessee or United States soil; wants to know more about it; is not afraid of owning it; and is willing to let others know that he owns it—thereby sharing it with the general public. Today almost all artifact collectors are adamant in their belief that every ancient American Indian artifact should be made available for public viewing and study.
Sad to say, potential worst-case location scenarios abound. The following are just four of them:
A) The Madison Tablet is owned by a private citizen who has no earthly idea what it is. She bought it at a flea market, believing it was a cute piece of art done by some elementary school kids. It was taken home and now has a lovely place of its own in the Japanese rock garden behind the house.
B) A few years ago, the Figure 1 drawing of the Madison Tablet was shown to several artifact dealers who were asked to state whether they thought it was an authentic American Indian artifact. Most were unwilling to express an opinion without seeing the actual limestone slab. However, a couple of dealers immediately expressed the opinion that it is obviously a fake artifact. They could tell because the incisings did not “look American Indian.” If the Madison Tablet has come into contact with the wrong artifact dealer or appraiser, its last owner may have tossed it into the garbage bin―and if not―this fate may still be waiting for this tablet in the future.
C) The Madison Tablet may have been sold to an obscure artifact collector in Europe, the Middle East, or Japan, which quite likely means it has no chance of ever being studied in the United States. It is gone from Tennessee forever, and the owner may know nothing about it except that he was told American Indians made it.
D) The Madison Tablet might be owned by a timid and very secretive artifact collector who sits in his house in wild imaginings and fear about federal or state authorities beating a path toward his door to confiscate the Madison Tablet and his Chevy Tahoe―or he is afraid to let anyone know he has an artifact collection for fear that someone will break into his house and steal it. Therefore, he will just let time drift by quietly, he will die someday, his surviving wife or children will sell the collection, and the Madison Tablet will end up in the hands of another secretive collector, an artifact dealer who will immediately declare it to be garbage, or someone who will send it to a new owner in a foreign country. Consequently, no one here in the United States will ever be able to examine the Madison Tablet, and the full story it still has to tell will be lost forever, unless the current owner bravely steps forward and allows this artifact to be examined so its full story can be elucidated and told.
8.0 An Appeal for Your Help
The Madison Tablet is an important element in some long-term archaeological research I am doing, and I would very much like to find out who owns this incised limestone slab so I can get in touch with them and obtain permission to photograph it, take some measurements, examine it more closely, and make some notes on it. This is my sole purpose in attempting to find the stone. When I am finished, the owner can take it back home and do with it whatever he wishes.
If you own the Madison Tablet, please send me an e-mail message at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are an artifact collector, avocational archaeologist, museum employee, or professional archaeologist in Tennessee, another state, or elsewhere on planet Earth and you know who owns the Madison Tablet, please send me an e-mail message. If you are just an ordinary citizen out there on the American landscape and you have seen this artifact somewhere, like maybe as a decorative on the mantle above some average citizen’s fireplace, please send me an e-mail message. Your identity will be kept confidential if you wish.
Finally, just to cover all the bases, I know a little bit about how human beings think—well—some human beings. Someone out there will look at the Figure 1 drawing of the Madison Tablet and say, “Oh! I’ve seen that! My best friend Fran has one just like that!” No. Only one of these exists. If your best friend Fran has one, it is the one and the only one on planet Earth. Please trust me and send me that e-mail message. Thank you very much for your help!
Myer, William E., “An Old Shawnee Town in Tennessee.” The Archaeologist. 2(1): 6-13, 1894 (January).
Parker, Malcolm, The Shawnees in Tennessee. Nashville: Central Printing, 1980.
Parker, Malcolm and LaUna Parker, Letter to Tracy Brown (Subject: Excavation of a Human Burial at 40DV17), July 2, 1982.
Smith, Kevin E. and James V. Miller, Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009.