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  March 5, 2001

Are Archaeological Discoveries a Hoax?

A remote piece of land in the Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown held the promise of harboring one of the greatest archaeological finds in North America. There were copper beads, unusual pendants and intricately carved stone pipes, to mention just a few of the artifacts.

"What we uncovered was amazing," says Nicholas Bellantoni, an associate research professor of anthropology, who headed the excavation team that worked at the site. The team included Kevin McBride, a fellow UConn archaeologist and expert in Native American history.

"This find could have put us on the map and National Geographic would have been knocking on my door," says Bellantoni, who as the state archaeologist is on the staff of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at UConn.

The story started three years ago, when a hunter found a rocky outcropping often used as shelter for Indian encampments. Because it was state property, Bellantoni was called in and the digging began. His crew did not find much at the site other than some arrowheads and tiny pieces of crude pottery - items not all that unusual. So he moved onto more pressing matters.

Later that summer, a group of volunteers trained by him continued the dig and uncovered copper beads and remnants of a clay pipe. Sensing the potential importance of the find, Bellantoni began testing the artifacts in his UConn lab. Light and heat radiation tests, conducted by Cynthia Peterson, a physics professor, determined that the materials were at least 1,000 years old. More help came from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, where McBride is research director, and from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

With those results in hand, Bellantoni and McBride knew they had an obligation to conduct a thorough and expanded investigation. Last August they returned to the forest and, about 40 feet from their original excavation site, it seemed as though they had hit archaeological pay dirt.

"At first I was impressed with what we found. The objects were magnificent! The carvings were unlike anything we had ever seen in North America," Bellantoni says. "But then I became skeptical. It seemed too good to be true and some things just didn't look right."

The meticulous work of the group had dug up more questions than answers. Soil around the objects was loose when it should have been compacted. At the bottom of one pit, an oak leaf was found intact. In another, tree roots seemed to have been unnaturally severed. A snake carved out of copper had not properly corroded.

And then there is a stone pipe which appears to have a machine-made borehole. Bellantoni says the hole is a perfect three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter all the way through. A typical ancient pipe would have a tapered hole. And an x-ray showed the borehole never made it to the bowl of the pipe, rendering it useless. Yet, tobacco residue was found inside the bowl as if the pipe had been smoked.

Bellantoni says his investigation is 80 percent complete, but in his view, the find is looking doubtful. "If it had been a legitimate site, it could have yielded important information about the past we have never had before," he says. "Instead, it appears this is a hoax."

Although testing indicates some of the materials are ancient, Bellantoni says there are a number of scenarios to consider. It is possible some of the artifacts are legitimate and the site is a hoax. Or it could be the artifacts are not legitimate, but the materials used in creating them are ancient.

As for who would have gone to such lengths to mislead history, Bellantoni says he is in no position to point the finger. He will say only that elaborate archaeological hoaxes are usually connected to someone either trying to make money or trying to prove a theory.

The Attorney General's office has contacted Bellantoni to discuss the crimes that may have been committed.

Janice Palmer