Double-crossed — or a mystery of archaeology?
Discovery of ‘John Smith cross’ raises more questions than answers
Coastal geologist Darrin Lowery, among the Bay region’s premier finders of ancient artifacts, tells cautionary tales about how discoveries are not always as they seem.
There was the fork inscribed “Davy Crockett” that he found poking out of an eroding Delmarva Peninsula coastline — dating merely to a 1955 Disney commemorative production; and a 4,500-year-old spear point penetrating a castoff Frigidaire — go figure.
“Proving anything from the archaeology of a single day is virtually impossible,” Lowery said.
But then there came the blistering, buggy day Lowery and two colleagues virtually tripped over a small brass cross as they surveyed one of the Bay region’s remotest shorelines on Mockhorn Island, VA.
If the little cross was what they had reason to think it might be, it would be one of the most significant archaeological finds made around the Chesapeake.
They found it on June 20, 2010, exactly 402 years and 17 days after Capt. John Smith sailed into the area near the Chesapeake’s mouth. A day out from Jamestown, Smith had just embarked on his famous voyages of exploration during the spring and summer of 1608 that literally put the Bay on the map.
His map, remarkably accurate by standards of the time, was further distinguished by showing where Smith had nailed up metal crosses to mark where he had actually explored.
Before this, none had ever been found. According to the map, though, one such cross had been placed just south of the modern-day town of Oyster on Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore mainland.
For years, Lowery had been developing a hypothesis that Smith had not gone ashore near Oyster, as historians had long assumed, but a few miles east, on Mockhorn.
An authenticated John Smith cross where Lowery’s team found it would have dramatically boosted his theory. As Lowery would have been the first to tell you, though, there would prove to be many a slip between the discovery of that day and events since that have raised at least as many questions as they’ve answered.
It was a compelling discovery. As a coastal geologist, Lowery knew the sandy barrier islands lining Virginia’s Atlantic coast are among the most dynamic of all landforms, shifting shape at the whim of storms, currents and rising sea levels on time scales as short as decades.
By dating marsh sediment cores, old oyster beds, dune soils and other features around Mockhorn and Smith Island, the barrier beach just to Mockhorn’s southeast, he was fairly sure that John Smith had sailed into a very different landscape than exists there now.
Back then, Smith Island (named for the explorer, unlike the Smith Island in the Maryland Chesapeake, which is named for an early settler) was shaped and oriented differently from today. According to Lowery’s research, deep water flowed up the eastern side of Mockhorn, where now it would be difficult to paddle a kayak. On the island’s western side, where a broad channel now separates it from the mainland, only a narrow, barely discernible opening existed in 1608.
By Lowery’s reckoning, Smith most likely came around the tip of Delmarva and ventured up the eastern, Atlantic-facing side of Mockhorn. The island’s forested ridges, shown on Smith’s map, would have prevented his landing party from seeing that it was separated from the mainland by water.
But it all happened a long time ago, in a dynamic, ever-shifting environment. And other than the map, there is no record or description of the 24 or so crosses that Smith said he nailed up (or, in places, carved in trees) throughout the Chesapeake and its rivers.
But despite Lowery’s published theory, and close to a hundred visits to Mockhorn, which is rich in artifacts from 13,000 years of human habitation, the geologist said he was never on a “cross hunt.”
“We were just doing coastal archaeology, surveys under contract to the state of Virginia…doing our business,” explained Norm Brady, a retired arborist and longtime sidekick of Lowery on his expeditions. “We’d kid about it sometimes: ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we found the cross?’ But not seriously.”
Then, in June of 2010, Brady recalled, he literally stepped on it. He was walking along the shore ahead of Lowery and another assistant, and never noticed the ancient-looking brass cross lying there. It was about 2.5 inches in height and width, blackened by exposure and showing the imprint where a barnacle had been attached.
Lowery, coming up behind, plucked it from Brady’s boot print. “They caught up and said, ‘Norm, you just stepped on John Smith’s cross.’ I wasn’t happy because I’d broken it.”
Now, seven years later, Lowery often seems to wish he’d never found that cross. Even the moment of discovery that day in 2010, he explained, was not the “eureka” moment the casual beachcomber might assume.
“I guess after finding tens of thousands of artifacts over the decades, I don’t get excited much anymore, especially when I find an object that is outside of my knowledge base (i.e. historic vs. prehistoric),” Lowery said in an email. “As always, you have to go back home and put all the pieces together before you know what you have.”
Lowery notified Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, which agreed that he should seek to have it tested for possible authenticity. That was when things did get exciting, he said.
In 2011, testing by the Smithsonian Institution found that the cross was old enough to be from John Smith’s time. It was about half copper, a quarter to a third lead, mixed with tin, zinc and iron in lesser amounts. Subsequent research indicated it might even date to the 9th century — possibly a “pilgrim’s badge,” worn by someone making a religious pilgrimage. A hole in the top of the cross might have enabled someone to insert a metal ring and wear it.
Lowery was advised by Virginia officials to hold onto the cross. It was 2014 before he would turn it over to the state, which by law owns artifacts found on public lands like Mockhorn. More testing by Virginia’s historic resources department would confirm the Smithsonian’s finding about its age.
“We had people on both sides of [whether the cross was authentic], but it seemed a real possibility that it might be John Smith’s cross,” said Michael Barber, Virginia’s state archeologist. “It was exciting.”
Last October, though, that excitement turn into something that Lowery said he felt bordered on accusation. He and Brady were in Williamsburg to present results of contractual survey work to archaeologists. The day before, the two had uncovered some previously unknown archaeological sites on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Brady mentioned to Barber that “he wouldn’t believe” what they had found.
“I probably won’t,” Barber replied, according to a lengthy account of the cross affair Lowery has recently published online — Coastal Geomorphology and the Search for John Smith’s First Landing Site. Lowery said he thought the comment “odd, but I shrugged it off.”
Later that day, Barber showed Lowery and Brady an X-ray of the cross done as part of Virginia’s further authentication process. It showed a hole in the bottom of the cross, which had been filled, apparently to conceal it. The X-ray analysis determined that the bottom hole, the same diameter as the visible top hole, was as old as the rest of the cross. But what had been used to fill it was not. More tests had revealed the hole had been plugged with a mix of clay and a modern epoxy, invented in Germany in 1937 and still in use. In fact, epoxy coated the whole cross.
“The meeting took on the aura of an investigation,” Lowery wrote in his online account. He recalled that Michael Madden, a federal archeologist present with Barber during the discussion, advised him that “we know you have a lot of enemies in archaeology and you should find out who might have planted the metal cross.”
In an interview, Madden said, “It [being tricked] has happened to other archaeologists. People screw with people all the time, and archaeology is no different.”
Barber, in a separate interview, added: “All we can say for sure is the science was done, and the cross didn’t stand up as authentic. We’re done with it — time to move on.”
Lowery acknowledged that “my bubbly personality,” as he puts it, has rubbed some people the wrong way in the relatively small and sometimes competitive world of Chesapeake region archaeology. “The one course I failed miserably in all my years of training” — he holds a Ph.D. in coastal geology — “was kiss-ass 101,” he said.
“Darrin is from Tilghman Island, and down there they say what they think, and if you’ve got an ego, you might get pissed off,” said Brady, Lowery’s friend.
Could someone have played a nasty trick? Brady and Lowery both think it’s wildly unlikely someone might have taken a John Smith era cross, cleverly altered it so that it would eventually be found a fake, and then actually have been able to “plant” it in a wave-washed shoreline zone on remote and inaccessible Mockhorn Island, so that it would be discovered that day.
“There was no one else in sight that day… no one even knew we’d be out there looking then,” Brady said.
Lowery wondered out loud in his online paper whether the cross might have been altered once it passed from his hands for testing. The Smithsonian appears to have no documentation of how it did its analysis, and the woman who did the tests retired soon thereafter to Boston. Brady says he was told she was ill, and his attempts to contact her have proven fruitless.
Katherine Ridgway, a conservator with the Virginia archaeologist’s office who handled the state’s analyses, says the Smithsonian testing was a non-invasive process (i.e. it wouldn’t have required drilling a hole or destroying a sliver of the cross). She said it would not have necessarily revealed the second hole or the epoxy.
The epoxy finding, she said, was made by Winterthur, a duPont museum of decorative arts in Delaware that has “some of the best” facilities for such an analysis.
“Their finding is solid,” Ridgway said, “and unfortunately it means there is no way that cross can ever be linked to John Smith.”
No one has ever publicly suggested the almost unthinkable — that Lowery might have obtained and planted the cross, not knowing of the epoxy in it. He has always been a prolific discoverer of artifacts, and from time to time one hears that Lowery seems uncommonly “lucky.”
My own observation, based on trips afield with Lowery over the last couple decades, is that for both work and pleasure he spends more time exploring the region’s coastal edges than most. He uses his considerable expertise in coastal processes, such as erosion and sea-level rise, to deduce where Americans Indians likely ranged through the millennia. He knows where to look and when — after big storms have exposed new soils, for instance.
“I’ve asked Darrin, what is it he looks for to find artifacts — shapes, colors, textures…he basically seems to just integrate it all at once,” Brady explained. “Sometimes I’ll try to fool him, bring him an artifact I showed him years ago, and he always recognizes it.”
Barber said that Virginia will hold onto the cross, “put it with the bottle caps and other detritus of history.” Lowery and Brady, who tried unsuccessfully to get it back for more testing, seem resigned.
“I’ve moved on,” Lowery said. “You find lots of weird stuff along the shoreline…let’s just call it that.”
The Chesapeake Conservancy is sponsoring a project to identify the 24 sites — as precisely as possible — where Smith marked the extent of his explorations with a Maltese cross. And they are replacing the lost markers with new ones, in locations where the public can visit. For details, read the Bay Journal travel article, Cross markers show extent of John Smith’s voyages.
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