An 1853 reversed image of Seth Eastman (known for documenting Native American life in the 1800s) on top of the boulder known as Dighton Rock.

Who Made the Petroglyphs on the Mysterious Dighton Rock?

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Are the symbols on the Dighton Rock Native American? Norse? Phoenician? Chinese? Portuguese? Japanese? All or none of the above? There have been numerous theories about who carved the inscriptions found on the 40-ton boulder in Massachusetts, USA. Nonetheless, no one has been able to say with certainty who first wrote on the rock, what they wanted to communicate, or why.

Description of Dighton Rock

The Dighton Rock is a 40-ton boulder that arrived to the Taunton River during the melting of the glaciers during the last ice age. It measures 5 feet (1.5 meters) high, 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) wide, and 11 feet (3.4 meters) long, and is made of gray-brown crystalline sandstone.

What has drawn attention about the great boulder is not the size, but the petroglyphs across one of its six sides. These carvings have been the inspiration for over 1000 books and articles, and the basis for over 35 hypotheses.  Although no one can say for certain who was/were the maker(s) of the inscriptions on the petroglyph, it has been agreed that they certainly are very old and very real.

1893 photograph of Dighton Rock.

1893 photograph of Dighton Rock. ( Public Domain )

Early History of Dighton Rock

Many scholars say that the mystery of Dighton rock began in 1680, when Reverend John Danforth visited the rock. After seeing it, he decided that the carvings on it were made by Native Americans (the Wampanoag Indians to be exact), and told the tale of a ship arriving, then the battle between the locals and the newcomers. Danforth drew the symbols visible on the top half of the petroglyph (possibly because the rest was under tidal water while he worked) and then wrote:

“It is reported from the tradition of the old Indians, that there came a wooden house (and men of another country in it) swimming up the river Assonet, that fought the Indians and slew their Sachem. Some interpret the figures to be hieroglyphical. The first figure representing a ship, without mast, and meer (mere) wrack cast upon the Shoales. The second representing a head of land, possibly a cape with a peninsula. Hence a golf.”

Danforth’s drawing was requested by the Royal Society of London in 1732 and is now preserved in the British Museum.

John Danforth’s interpretation of the Dighton Rock petroglyphs.

John Danforth’s interpretation of the Dighton Rock petroglyphs. ( E.B. Delabarre )

In 1689, Reverend Cotton Mather (who may have or may not have seen the famed boulder himself) wrote that it had a certain undesirable feel about it. He supposed that the engravers were Satanist explorers who arrived and perished in America before the Puritans came along. Mather described Dighton Rock in a sermon, which was later published in The wonderful works of God commemorated […] He wrote :

“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.…”

Since then, numerous scholars, amateur archaeologists, students, and tourists have all made the trip to visit the strange rock, and to try to decipher the markings.

Early Hypotheses: Phoenicians, Asians, and Vikings

Following Danforth’s 1680 belief that the Native Americans depicted a great battle on Dighton Rock, and the 1690 supposition by Mather about Satanist explorers, came the suggestion that the characters were Phoenician script.

This hypothesis was put forward by Ezra Stiles in 1767, while he was the president of Yale College. Stiles claimed that the famous seafarers, the Phoenicians, had made their way all the way to North America on at least one voyage. Stiles believed that the writing was left by them to simply show that they were once there.

Stiles’ idea was a popular one in Europe for some time and was advanced by Antone Court de Gebelin, a French scholar (who never saw Dighton Rock in person). He said that the carvings on the rock should be split into three sections – the past, present, and future. Some of the images he identified were: An Oracle and butterfly (the future), a horse and a beaver meeting (symbolical representations of the two contents interacting in the present), and the divine figures (or symbols of them) Minerva, Telesphore, and Priapus (in the past).


I vote for the Portuguese story. Is there any other stories about a Miguel Corte Real? Sounds like an interesting fellow.

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