I like to tell my students that archaeology is like a giant jigsaw puzzle—with half the pieces missing. One such mystery is close to home: the Ellington Stone. This 8” X 11” piece of limestone was found in Ellington County, Illinois, sometime between 1907 and 1920 by an arrowhead hunter. Someone chiseled the date 1671 and Jesuit symbols (the letters “IHS,” usually interpreted as a Greek abbreviation for Jesus, and two crosses) on the stone, but whodunit? And when?
Is this a marker left by the French explorer La Salle who may have been in Illinois that year? If so, it’s two years earlier than the date of the Marquette-Joliet expedition down the Mississippi. If the Ellington Stone is authentic, then historians will have to rewrite history to reflect the earlier discovery of Illinois by Europeans.
Or is it a fake, carved by a twentieth century forger? How do you prove it? Well, the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle include the archaeological context: the artifact was ripped out of a creek bed and carted home in a bucket, where it was scrubbed and then cleaned by helpful carpenters wielding screwdrivers and metal spikes. You can see the scratches left by the carpenters deep inside the carved letters and numerals. Anything that could have been useful in determining authenticity (older tool marks, lichens, organic material that might possibly be carbon-dated) has been removed or obscured by modern meddling.
A University of Illinois team was able to type the limestone. The texture and fossil content of the Ellington Stone match well with limestone from Western Illinois formations. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t help us with the problem of when the date 1671 and the Jesuit symbols were carved. The other missing piece to this puzzle is the lack of a comparable artifact—if it’s an exploration marker, how come no one has found others like it? Or perhaps we’re on the wrong track altogether and it’s the tombstone of an unknown Jesuit.
Check here for more on the scientific testing of the Ellington Stone.