1950s prankster baited scientists with his homemade ‘artifacts’
Jack Daniel Stirling, somewhere, somehow, is smirking.
Stirling, a World War II veteran who died in 1965, had the deft hands of an artist, the imagination of a novelist and the boldness of a con man.
Picasso would nod in acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, Mark Twain would snicker and slap him on the back, and Bernie Madoff? Well, Madoff would ask to take his correspondence course, at a discount.
Due in no small part to his aptitudes in the former categories, Stirling’s con outlived him —
something Madoff’s did not — even though Stirling confessed, subtly, the whole thing was a scam.
Back in the 1950s, Stirling began salting the rugged country of the Uncompahgre Uplift with caches of faux archaeological treasures.
Pots made from native clay, a tablet with strange markings, arrowheads and eccentrics made from flints, chert and obsidian, a war club, more pots, and so on. He placed literally hundreds of pieces in the area of Cactus Park in hopes of getting one up on Al Look, an accomplished amateur archaeologist and paleontologist who wrote for The Daily Sentinel.
Whether Look ever happened upon Stirling’s salted spots is unknown, but in 1954, a cowboy named O.E. “Roxy” Chambers found one of Stirling’s rhinestone treasure troves.
Sentinel reporter Alan Pritchard called it an “archaeological jackpot” discovered in that fall, but not disclosed until February 1955.
Chambers’ find included a rock rounded to a head shaped roughly like an egg with a menacing stare and tusks for teeth.
Chambers found his site in a small, protected area on what was referred to as the “Whitewater Slope.”
He first saw a jug, Chambers told Pritchard. “I pulled that up and then I saw the two arrows. Then the stone head. I just couldn’t pick it up fast enough, quick as I’d pick up one item, I’d spot another.”
Stirling lived to read about Chambers’ discovery, we know, because he kept a copy of the Feb. 27, 1955, paper tucked away in his house in north Grand Junction.
“He was really tickled by that,” said his daughter, Julia Vernon, who now lives in Grantsville, Utah.
Stirling’s granddaughter, Eleanor Vernon, 27, didn’t know him, but she lives on the same north Grand Junction property on which he tended apple trees. And carved stone heads. And chipped flint. And read up on Mesoamerican and Polynesian societies and writings.
There’s no doubt in Eleanor’s mind why Stirling kept the paper in a safe place.
“He thought it was hilarious.”
Perhaps even more, the editorial that appeared the same day suggested the find might be the equal of the “Piltdown Man” hoax, but left room for the possibility that something among the finds might eventually be considered significant.
And it is, in its way, said Dave Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of the West and the director of the Western Investigations Team, which looks into mysteries of the region.
Stirling’s handiwork came to the attention of the Western Investigations Team when Vic Jensen showed his 1956 finds of an ancient-appearing tablet marked with serpentine writing, as well as several pots and arrowheads, to Rick Dujay, professor at Mesa State College and scientific coordinator of the team.
An ensuing story about Jensen’s find reminded Julia and Eleanor of Jack’s avocation, and Julia called Bailey.
Bailey now plans to use some of Stirling’s handiwork in an exhibit about “The New Myth Makers,” he said.
Stirling, however, was in it mostly for laughs, Julia said. He had hoped to parlay his works into a meeting with Al Look, but as far as she knew, that never happened, Julia said.
He never confessed his plot, either, she said.
“I think he thought it would ruin the fun,” she said.
Stirling didn’t limit his sense of humor to placing odd items in the rocks in hopes of setting off a full scientific frenzy. He liked to have fun close to home, as well.
He delighted in taking the small family dog on walks in a black and white coat.
Picture, for a moment, a rakish character with an Errol Flynn mustache walking a skunk on a leash downtown.
“People would get out of the way,” Julia recalled.
Stirling spoke frequently with his family about his jokes, telling them about placing his creations in what he called “his dog holes.”
“Dog holes” also was the term used by uranium miners to describe their small mines.
Stirling took care to be sure his works were connected together and eventually to him.
The pieces he placed in his dog holes are marked with a strange symbol that looks to be a triangular face with a slight smirk and a duckback hairstyle.
“The triangular symbol with the face in it, which Father referred to as the “Morning Star,” does indeed seem to be a symbol from various Southwestern Indian cultures and has meanings such as morning star, wisdom, guidance, etc.,” Julia wrote. “I think he regarded it as kind of his own personal “Kilroy was here.”
Much as she recalls those days with fondness, her mother, Mary Catherine, was mortified, Julia said.
While her father cherished the story about Chambers’ find, “there was definitely some eye-rolling” on her mother’s part and the hope that “not too many of their friends read the newspaper that day.”
Stirling also carved elegant canes, painted the Grand Valley landscape and a seascape, and read prodigiously.
A book in his library on the rongorongo serpentine writing on Easter Island explains the glyphs on the tablet Jensen discovered.
And of course on Stirling’s property is a slab of flagstone that looks a lot like that tablet.
“He really thought this out,” Bailey marveled.
The shame, said Eleanor, is that her grandfather’s talents have been hidden for so long.
“He was so talented,” Eleanor said, “but he never actually believed he was.”
Stirling looked to the Uncompahgre for serenity, as well as fun, said his daughter, Julia.
He also built and enlarged basins through Unaweep Canyon so they would hold water year-round.
“They became quite a magnet for wildlife,” Julia said. “They were his private, peaceful spot, his happy place.”
Stirling haunted the Cactus Park for about a decade, ending his work on the Uncompahgre about five years before he died at age 60, Julia said.
Oh, the Chambers and Jensen finds are only two of the four caches that Stirling placed in Cactus Park-Unaweep Canyon areas.
That means, of course, that even today, though the truth is known, the hoax is out there.