Saturday, April 18, 2015


Negative image of the Holly Oak Pendant from the cover
of Science Magazine, 21 May, 1976. Note, the mammoth
image has been picked out from background details.
It is easy to see the lack of feet.

In this column I have periodically presented examples of what have been claimed to be very early examples of art in North America. These examples have included some rock art, but also other images in different media. So far, I fear, the extant examples have all proven to be hoaxes.

The Holly Oak Pendant is a fraudulent artifact created as a shell gorget bearing the image of a mammoth on the converse side. It was originally presented in 1889 as an authentic Paleolithic artifact from North America, given the image of the mammoth engraved on it.

 An engraving of the mammoth carving from La Madelaine,
France. Note this image is missing its feet.

Late in 1863, Edouard Lartet, the paleontologist, with Henry Christy, his friend and benefactor, had turned a few shovels of earth in the rock shelter of La Madeleine by the side of the Vezere River in France. They found remains of stone, bone and ivory tools so they returned in the Spring of 1864. That May, Lartet’s dig crew recovered five fragments of an ivory plate. When reassembled they displayed a wonderful engraved mammoth with almost all of the details of its appearance clearly defined. All this engraving lacked was the feet, which may have been on an un-recovered piece of the plaque or may have never existed because of lack of space on the surface.

Illustration of the Holly Oak pendant

In 1889, an archaeological assistant at Harvard's Peabody Museum named Hillborne T. Cresson, announced that he had discovered a prehistoric seashell pendant/gorget that bore the engraving of a woolly mammoth on one surface. He stated that he had discovered it near Holly Oak railroad station, in northern Delaware, in a layer of peat in the forest. This find was suspected of being fake by some establishment figures. One reason for suspicion was the unusual circumstance of its discovery. Cresson claimed he had discovered it in 1864, when he was a teenager, in the company of his music teacher, Mr. Saurault. He offered no explanation for why he had waited twenty-five years to share the discovery, even though its significance should have been obvious to him — especially since his music teacher was himself a student of archaeology. (
“The Holly Oak Pendant was accepted as authentic by many when it was discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century. The pendant, found in Delaware, appeared to be an incised drawing on shell of a prehistoric woolly mammoth. It reminded many of the Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings of the Europe of 20,000 years ago, convincing some of the existence of a similar – and similarly ancient – artistic tradition in North America.
The Holly Oak Pendant, if genuine, should have dated to more than 10,000 years ago, since that is about the time that woolly mammoths became extinct – obviously, people would not have been drawing mammoths long after they had disappeared. In fact, the shell turned out to be only about 1,000 years old. The artifact was a fake, though cleverly carved on an old piece of shell. “(Feder 2010:139)
Mammoth carving on mammoth ivory,
La Madelaine, France. Note in this ink
drawing the mammoth's feet are missing.

The 1864 Holly Oak Pendant/Gorget bears a very similar engraved mammoth to the one portrayed on the ivory plaque from La Madeleine – even down to the missing feet. That is the first detail that gave rise to suspicion that the image was fraudulent. The mammoth on the Holly Oak Pendant/Gorget had been copied from a published image of the ivory plaque from La Madeleine and the feet could not be included, even though there was sufficient room on the shell, because the forger did not know what they should have looked like.

“Thus something is terribly wrong with the context Cresson provided or created. Occam’s Razor slices right through this one – the Holly Oak Gorget, with its wonderful wooly mammoth, is not a genuine prehistoric artifact of any significant age. Indeed, the shell gorget itself, with no engraving on it, may well be from the very late Fort Ancient culture of Ohio. Cresson dug on one such site, and he was fired for stealing artifacts in Ohio. A radiocarbon date recently run on the shell gorget dates it to less than a thousand years ago. Even (Barry) Fell’s Epigraphic Society Occasional Publication volume branded it a fake based on the carbon 14 finding!” (Williams 1991:127)
This strongly suggests that the shell gorget in question was one of the artifacts stolen by Cresson, with the mammoth image later added to manufacture the evidence that would ensure his fame. The dating was carried out by Accelerator Mass Spectrometer C14 analysis, and resulted in a date of AD 885 within a range of AD 750 to AD 1000. (Meltzer 1990:55) The irony of this all is, of course, that we now know that not only were there also mammoths here in the New World, but there were people here hunting and eating them – only somewhat earlier than Cresson claimed, and just not carving their pictures on shells.

Note: Readers who find these subjects to be of interest will be well served to read the books referenced above, and listed below in my References list.

Feder, Kenneth L.
2010    Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum, Greenwood, Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford.
Meltzer, David
1990    In Search of a Mammoth Fraud, New Scientist, July 14, 1990, Volume 127, No. 1725, p. 51-55.
Williams, Stephen
1991    Fantastic Archaeology, The Wild Side of North American Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.


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