Is Burrows Cave for real?

by Frank Joseph

In our previous issue, we published a number of photographs showing alleged artifacts from a Mid-Western location known as "Burrows Cave." Wile some persons familiar with the controversy condemn it as a hoax, others insist items retrieved from the site represent physical proof that overseas visitors arrived in Southern Illinois thousands of years ago.

In an effort to obtain hard evidence of some kind, I took one of the smaller Burrows Cave stones to a professional gemologist for analysis last January. In the person of William Wild, I could not have found anyone more qualified to provide a scientific assessment of the enigma set before him. In addition to his life-long passion for and knowledge of stones, Mr. Wild's unique creations in jewelry have been highly esteemed for nearly 20 years.

His Illinois home is a fully equipped lapidary workshop with an outstanding supporting library. And he possessed four prerequisites which particularly qualified him to pass judgment on the stone in question: As a friend of some years, I was aware of his formidable expertise; he has remarkable artistic abilities as a sculptor and a strong background in Mesoamerican studies. No less importantly, he had never heard of Burrows Cave.

The item I chose for his examination was the oval, black stone representation of a human face, 3.1" from crown to chin, 2.5" from ear to ear and .51" at its thickest point. It weighs 3.7 oz. Mr. Wild submitted the object to several non-destructive tests and observations, mostly using a 30x illuminated magnifier. His attention was first drawn to the holes, one in the center of each ear. He noticed that they were made by drilling first one side, then the other, back and forth, until completed.

He said that such a procedure had been typically employed by pre-Columbian craftsman in both Middle America and above the Rio Grande. Makers of modern replicas would ordinarily drill straight through from one side to the other. He observed, too, that tell-tale marks on the inside of the holes were not scratched by a metal instrument, but appeared to have been made by a harder stone. The face, too, showed the same kind of marks resulting from work with a harder stone tool. Modern forgers generally use steel implements. The ears themselves were unevenly wrought, an otherwise minor mistake but, in this case, revealing point of comparison, with Mesoamerican artistic conventions, which likewise depicted ears unevenly; the tendency of modern replica-makers is to evenly portray all facial features.

Closely examining the figure's mouth under the magnifier, Mr. Wild noticed that the outer ends of the lower lip were slightly turned up, a stylistic detail favored by Olmec artists, especially. He admired the general molding of the face, observing that the artist had achieved some realistic effects through subtle polishing of the stone to suggest more than depict a convincing chin and cheek bones. Perhaps the single most decisive piece of evidence belonged to the patina found in the sculpted elements themselves. Of course, the carving could only have been made before encrustation or calcification took place. The rate patina is laid down depends on many factors, but, generally, the process involves many years, usually centuries, depending on its accumulated thickness.

Patina can be faked, although to achieve a convincing appearance takes skill. The Burrows Cave stone head could be a fake if its modern creator was not only talented in original Mesoamerican artistic conventions down to some very small and otherwise insignificant details. He must also have had to use the same kind of tools used by the ancients and been adept in coating his fraudulent piece with a very persuasive-looking patina.

All this could be achieved today by a knowledgeable and skilled artist after going to substantial trouble, but only if the work was meant to pass very close scrutiny for its genuineness by experts. I such situations, important financial questions are always at issue. But this Burrows Cave item, at least, has been in the private possession of our publisher for the last three years, during which time and before no attempt was made by anyone to promote acceptance of its authenticity. No money was involved in its transfer and no one connected with the object's ownership has ever tried to financially profit from it.

In the view of these extra-scientific facts, Mr. Wild offered his opinion that the item is perhaps a trade good, probably from Olmec Mexico, judging from its characteristic "war-Jaguar" facial features. He was unable to determine the identity of the stone material itself. Nor did he know ho long its patina took to accumulate, which would help to determine when the artifact was sculpted, within general date-parameters. For the answers to these problems, he urged the opinion of a geologist. A useful date from the 13th to 7th centuries, BC. would place the Burrows Cave item within the time-frame of Olmec Civilization and tend to confirm its apparent art style.

Although the small stone face tells us nothing about pre-Columbian contacts from overseas, it does go a long way to authenticating the contents of the Cave itself. Even if it turns out to be the only genuine artifact from that site, its discover is extraordinarily important, because it is the sole object from the Olmec found north of the Rio Grande, certainly in Illinois. Its verification would inaugurate a dramatic reappraisal of the first known civilization in the New World and its unsuspecting relationship with the rest of North America. Just how the artifact got to a cave in Illinois will unleash torrents of inquiry: Was it really a trade-good? Did the Olmecs actually bring it up the Mississippi River themselves? Could some Olmecs have settled as far north as Illinois? Does the stone and its anomalous location tell us something unsuspected about the abrupt collapse of Olmec Civilization in Yucatan? etc., etc.

Reasonably, the little artifact strongly suggests that the literally thousands of other items retrieved from Burrows Cave are no less authentic. Subjecting each one to painstaking examinations for genuineness would be a monumental project that would satisfy hardened skeptics, perhaps. The sculpted black stone at least strongly implies that its numerous companion pieces are no less authentic. To be sure, and ideally, all of them should be tested under the same close scrutiny. But a real start has at last been made, and the first results favor the Cave as a genuine repository for legitimate archaeological materials. Ascertaining their origins and the identity of their manufacturers belong to the next step. All that matters at the moment is the question of their authenticity, which, at this stage, tends to be confirmed in the first of their number to be submitted to professional examination.

We have decided to release Mr. Wild's assessment at this time because Ancient American magazine, from its second issue in 1993, has been covering the Burrows Cave controversy, not without bitter criticism from mostly well-meaning skeptics who naturally demand verification. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, they rightly argue.

Ancient American as an open forum has always made its pages available for both sides to air their views, during which its editorial stance was steadfastly neutral. But with the almost overwhelming accumulation of evidence presented so persuasively in our last issue and the positive results of the latest tests on a Burrows Cave item, the credibility of the site may no longer be so handily dismissed. Thus far, critics have only condemned it as a fraud without explaining their reasons. We sincerely invite their arguments for publication in this periodical, which belongs as much to them as anyone.

In the words of our publisher, "The Cave is real." At the very least, its most humble artifact may be included in his opinion.