The Enigma Of Dighton Rock

Dighton Rock is a mysterious tide-washed boulder that juts up out of the Taunton River at Assonet Neck, just across from the town of Dighton, Massachusetts, and the Dighton Yacht Club. To yachtsmen sailing the river and even to some residents of Assonet Neck, it looks like just another rock, about eleven feet long and five feet high, standing where the river widens abruptly on its way to Mount Hope Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently, no road has led to it, and few travelers ventured to follow the unmarked path which took them to the site. Yet to historians and archeologists, the rock has been a focus of marvel and speculation ever since the year A.D. 1690, when the Reverend Cotton Mather, of witchcraft and brimstone fame, described it and the curious message engraved on its weathered, red-brown sandstone face.

“Among the other Curiosities of New-England ,” Mather wrote 268 years ago in The Wonderful Works of God Commemorated , “One is that of a mighty Rock, on a perpendicular side whereof by a River, which at High Tide covers part of it, there are very deeply Engraved, no man alive knows How or When about half a score Lines , near Ten Foot Long , and a foot and half broad , filled with strange Characters: which would suggest as odd Thoughts about them that were here before us, as there are odd Shapes in that Elaborate Monument.…”

Who carved the baffling message into the face of the rock? And what does the message say? From Cotton Mather’s day to ours, there has been no lack of imaginative theories. For example:

In 1781 Count Antoine Court de Gebelin of Paris announced that he had fathomed the secret. Dighton Rock commemorated the visit to Massachusetts “in very ancient times” of a shipload of seamen from Carthage, who lived for a while on Mount Hope Bay and established friendly relations with the Indians there. The drawings on the rock, De Gebelin explained, portray the leaders of the expedition consulting an oracle in order to select an auspicious moment for the perilous voyage back to Carthage.

In 1807 Samuel Harris, Jr., a Harvard scholar, declared that he was able to decipher on the face of the rock three ancient Hebrew words in Phoenician letters: “king,” “priest,” and “idol.”

In 1831 Ira Hill, a Maryland schoolteacher, concluded that the rock was engraved in the second month of the tenth year of the reign of King Solomon by an expedition of Tyrians and Jews such as the one described in the Old Testament, I Kings 9:

And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber… And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon.

The drawings on the rock, Hill firmly believed, mapped in detail the voyage from the eastern Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules, past the Canary Islands, and on across the Atlantic to Assonet Neck.

Underlying such nonsense are lour solid facts:

Dighton Rock, unlike some dubious, more recently discovered “written rocks,” cannot be a modern forgery. It shows some trace of vandalism—the initials of tourists, for example—and an inscription reading (perhaps) “Injun Trail to Spring in Swomp → yds. 167.” But the bulk of the writings cannot be similarly explained. The Reverend John Danforth made a sketch of the marks engraved in the rock in October 1680. This sketch has been preserved in the British Museum. A comparison of Danforth’s sketch with the appearance of the rock today leaves no room for doubt that the inscription Danforth saw in 1680 is still there.

The lines on the rock were carved by human hands. They arc not mere cracks or products of freezing and weathering.

If the markings are just doodles, casually carved by Indians who had nothing better to do, they are surely among the most laborious doodles of all time. Even with a modern steel chisel it would take many hours, even days, to duplicate the inscription. The rock is partly submerged much of the time, so that doodlers might have had to stand in salt water up to their knees or waists. More convenient rocks were available for casual doodlings.

The message is blazoned on the offshore surface of the rock, facing the water; and the rock itself stands at a point where it would be conspicuous to any small vessel exploring the coast or putting into the Taunton River for fresh water. Through the centuries, therefore, most speculation has sought to interpret the carvings as a message left by visitors to the coast, intended to catch the eye of subsequent maritime explorers passing that way.