The Enigma Of Dighton Rock


Dighton Rock, Delabarre concluded, was in all probability just one more example of the essentially meaningless markings often scratched into rocks by Indians. And as a psychologist he was able to explain why so many scholars had been deluded through the centuries. The rock, he declared, has an almost hypnotic effect on those who study it intently. In this respect it resembles a device known as the Rorschach test used by psychologists to dredge up unconscious levels of the mind. The Rorschach test presents lor interpretation colored ink blots printed on white cards. One man sees in these essentially meaningless blots a series of catastrophes—ships sinking, churches burning, volcanoes erupting. Another sees scenes of personal conflict—mothers scolding their children, brother fighting against brother. Dighton Rock, Professor Delabarre concluded alter long and intensive study, had since Cotton Mather’s day been serving as an ink blot for researchers, enabling them to see on it not what is really there but rather representations of the thoughts they have brought with them to the rock.

To illustrate this theory of “psychic projection,” Professor Delabarre told the story of a nineteenthcentury anthropologist, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who like many others was convinced that the inscription was of Indian origin. Schoolcraft took a drawing of the rock to the learned sage Chingwauk, an Algonquin Indian skilled in ke-kee-win , or Indian picture writing.

Chingwauk and a friend examined the drawing briefly, after which Chingwauk announced: “It is Indian; it appears to me and my friend to be a muz-zin-na-bik [rock-writing]. It relates to two nations.” He then disappeared into his tepee with the drawing and emerged the next day with a complete translation of the inscription into Algonquin! Chingwauk’s rendition was as preposterous as all the others.

Professor Delabarre could readily explain such aberrations of the human mind.

“Everyone knows,” he wrote, “how easy it is to see pictures that at least almost seem real things in clouds, in flames and embers, in wall-paper patterns, in the graining of wood and the veining of marble, in frostcovered window-panes.… Whenever we can, we tend to find something definite in the faint and orderly in the confused and to trust what we find.… There is a pleasure in seeing uncertainties and irregularities resolve themselves into definite form, and the forms take on connected and acceptable meaning. If the critical attitude be not aroused or find no support, if no conflicting appearances or beliefs occur to mind, if rival possibilities arouse no liking, the apperceptively constructed object must be believed to be external.”

Dighton Rock, Delabarre continued, is an ideal stimulus for such subjective apperceptions; it presents “an abundance of lines that are faint and doubtful, and a vast confusion of other marks that are clearly observable and may or may not be artificial. There are numberless little pittings and protrusions, irregularities of texture, almost eroded remnants of undecipherable characters, minute cracks, light-reflections varying from dark to bright forming dots and blotches, small differences of color. Such materials can be woven together apperceptively into a thousand varying forms.” Indeed, at the end of a long day spent poring over his collection of Dighton Rock drawings and photographs, Delabarre jotted this conclusion in his notebook: “After prolonged and close searching, I got so that I could find any given figure almost anywhere.”

Delabarre completed his monumental history of the rock in 1918 and was assembling the illustrations for publication, when—wait a minute!—what was that ?

Looking once more, very intently, at an eleven-yearold photograph of the rock on his desk, Delabarre made a most curious and unexpected discovery.

“It may well be imagined,” he later wrote, “with what astonishment, on examining the photograph for the hundredth time … I saw in it clearly and unmistakably the date 1511. No one had ever seen it before, on rock or photograph; yet once seen, its genuine presence on the rock cannot be doubted.”

Further study thereafter enabled Delabarre to decipher, along with the date, the emblazoned shield, or quinas , of the Kingdom of Portugal, and these graven letters:


Even a first-year Latin student could puzzle out the meaning: “Miguel Cortereal, by the will of God, here leader of the Indians.”

Who was Miguel Cortereal? He was the son of a Portuguese official, João Vaz Cortereal. According to family tradition, João sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1472, two decades before Columbus’s first voyage. Whether or not João actually made that voyage, there can be no doubt that his son Caspar set sail from Portugal for the West in Columbus’s wake, with three ships, in 1501. Caspar’s vessels coasted along Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. Then, while two of his ships returned safely home, he turned his flagship south along the coast for further exploration. Nothing more was ever heard of Gaspar.