In the town of Berkeley, Massachusetts on the eastern seaboard of the United States, can be found an artifact like no other. There, lying on the riverbed of the Taunton River, a large rock was found that was named for the town that used to stand here: Dighton.
From the 17th century this strange object has sparked interest, and to this very day it still provokes debates. But it is not the rock itself that is unusual, but rather the strange inscriptions carved onto its surface.
Nobody knows who inscribed these strange markings upon the rock, and nobody knows why they did it. It seems to be a language, maybe some kind of warning or marker, but nobody has ever been able to satisfactorily decipher the text, and nothing else exists like it anywhere.
The petroglyphs, primarily made up of straight lines and geometric shapes, are accompanied by very basic drawings of people along with writings that are both known and not known. It appears, inexplicably, to be a mix of both ancient and uncertain sources.
It was first discovered in modern times in 1963 by the constructors of the nearby Coffer Dam and has been installed in a nearby park since 1971. But who wrote on it, and what does it all mean?
The History of the Rock
The stone itself is a rough, six-sided block, slanted on all sides. It is squat and low, approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) high, 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) wide and 11 feet (3.4 meters) long, composed of a crystalline sandstone that is grey and brown with a coarse and medium texture.
Estimated to weigh around 40 US tons (36,250 KG), the rock was found where the river widens suddenly on its way to Mount Hope Bay and thus into the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing of its location seems to offer any conclusive evidence as to why there are carvings on the rock.
One of the first mentions of the Dighton Rock can apparently be found in 1680 by the Reverend John Danforth, an English colonist, who made a drawing of the markings. He returned home with this sketch, which has been preserved and is currently housed in the British Museum.
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However, even at this early stage the story is complicated. Danforth’s drawing conflicts with other reports on the rock at a similar time. In 1690, another local named Cotton Mather described the rock as “on a perpendicular side, whereof by a river, which at high tide covers part of it, there are very deeply engraved … strange characters”.
The rock remained a local curiosity until the 19th century, when it started to become famous as popular public figures and publications began to mention the rock. James Russell Lowell, a well-known poet, even urged presidential candidates should encourage a project to decipher the meaning of the rock.
Sadly, this never came to pass and as such, there has been no definite answer provided. The rock largely remains as mysterious today as when it was first discovered.
There are a number of different theories about the origins of the markings on the stone.
One of the more popular theories is that the carvings were from the indigenous peoples of North America: there are known examples in the past of Native Americans inscribing petroglyphs across the continent. This is extremely prominent in Eastern Vermont, reasonably near where the rock is located.
Carving on rocks is known to be a way of recording a spiritual experience, such as a hallucinogenic vision quest. As well as this, rocks were used to record historical experiences, commemorate deaths, and mark boundaries in Native American culture. Potentially, the location of the Dighton Rock in the middle of a river indicated a territorial marker of a particular Native American tribe.
Another, perhaps more outlandish suggestion is that the inscriptions come from ancient Phoenicians or Norsemen. These were both suggested in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but they have been rejected by archaeologists as requiring too large a reconsideration of history, and being eminently impractical.
Another more recent theory has been that the inscriptions may have been made by the Portuguese. This theory was originally proposed in 1912 by Edmund Delebarre who spotted Portuguese writing on the rock.
His theory is not without problems however. It requires the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real reaching New England in the 16th century. He was an explorer who is known to have sailed around the coast of Labrador in the area, but who went missing in 1502.
Delebarre has claimed that there is abbreviated Portuguese-style Latin on the stone, which can be translated to say “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians”. However, this has faced a recent attack in 2017.
Because of this, the monument has a particular popularity in Portuguese culture where it is known as the “State Explorer Rock”. However, this theory also has its fair share of critics who cite the unusual abbreviations and the vagueness of some of the lettering as reasons for rejecting this hypothesis as unproven.
What Do the Symbols Mean?
Sadly, without being able to identify which culture is responsible for the carvings then it is very difficult to ascertain what they mean. This leaves the rock open for misinterpretation as can be seen by the many theories that exist for the rock’s origin. Without having access to these intentions then it falls to the viewer to make their own conclusion on the Dighton Rock’s meaning.
One meaning that has been suggested by Delabarre is that the rock has a hypnotic effect on those who study it over intense periods of time. It has been compared to the Rorschach test, or inkblot test, used by psychologists to access the subconscious of the mind.
He implied that those who study the rock are often bemused by the marks and as such are able to see what they are looking for within the carvings. This has likely not helped his theories as to the origin of the inscriptions towards mainstream acceptance, as it appears to fall broadly into pseudoscientific speculation.
But, nobody has come up with any real concrete conclusions and the Dighton Rock remains a mystery to modern archaeology. Its carvings have been investigated many times, but no consensus as to its creation or purpose has been reached. More and more theories are beginning to surface but without an indication of which culture the rock belongs to, the answer will likely remain unfound.
It is perhaps most likely that it is a Native American marker. They have both the proximity and method in order to perform such symbols and rituals. This does not rule out that travelers will have seen it throughout the years and added to it themselves. This is not to say that the carvings are fake but to suggest that perhaps there is no one theory that fits all but multiple ones that converge to reveal the truth.
Top Image: Dighton Rock in 1853, with the carvings highlighted. Source: Horatio King / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman