Indigenous artifact or relic from space: What is the Utopia Medallion?
Short answer, no one knows for sure, but it's probably not alien
On the third floor of the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John sits a mystery.
It's a large stone medallion with the image of a person in profile carved into it.
The Utopia Medallion was found at Lake Utopia, in Charlotte County, around 1875.
But other than that, not much is certain about the object.
The medallion was "discovered" by James Laney, a stonemason from the St. George area. He was in the area looking for stone that he could use to build a step in front of his home.
Laney claimed a layer of moss had grown over the medallion when he found it.
He took the large circular stone back to his home. But his wife was not impressed by the find and didn't want it on display.
"His wife was not very comfortable with this profile staring at her so she asked him to get rid of it," said Peter Larocque, curator of New Brunswick cultural history and art at the museum.
Laney would sell the medallion to a St. George customs officer who would later go on to donate it to the Mechanics Institute Museum in Saint John.
When that museum closed the piece made its way into the N.B. Museum's collection.
The usual suspects
A couple of plausible theories have been postulated as to the origin of the stone medallion.
One possibility is that the stone is of Indigenous origin, specifically Passamaquoddy.
Larocque said there is evidence that the tribe did stone carving and many Passamaquoddy are now using the medallion as an example of their culture.
"We know that Indigenous people, according to some of the early accounts of Champlain himself, as well as the Jesuits who had arrived soon afterwards, that Indigenous people were doing stone carving in representational forms of animals and birds and people," said Larocque.
Another theory is the medallion was carved by French colonists who came to the area with Samuel de Champlain.
It is believed that the medallion would have been carved when Champlain started a settlement on Saint Croix Island in 1604.
It is known that Champlain brought stonemasons with him, so it was definitely possible, but they may have had bigger things to worry about.
"Now our understanding of the first winter is that it was quite terrible," said Larocque. "There were a number of deaths of the French that had arrived. And so whether anybody would have either had the time or taken the time to do this, there's the question."
The scientific evidence supporting the French case is mixed.
William Francis Ganong, the noted New Brunswick historian, sent a sample of the medallion to be tested and found that it best matched stone found on Saint Croix Island.
But the museum also did its own tests and found it better matches stone found at Lake Utopia, 25 kilometres away from St. Croix Island.
"So a hundred years later there's a different finding, essentially looking at the same question," said Larocque.
The unusual suspects
There are unconventional theories as well.
Some people believe that the medallion is of Egyptian or Phoenician origin.
There is a theory, although it's not widely accepted, that Phoenicians traveled to North America sometime in the first millennium B.C.
"There's a sort of an Egyptian cast to the iconography, the way that the figure is drawn is suggestive to some people of something Egyptian," said Larocque.
But that's not the most outlandish theory that Larocque has heard about the medallion.
"We've had somebody come into the museum and assure us that it was alien — that extraterrestrials had come and had made this and had deposited it here," he said.
Larocque said he puts the possibility of the medallion being of Phoenician, or extraterrestrial, origin at the bottom of his list.
One theory is that the medallion is a hoax.
Laney was a stonemason and would have been capable of carving the stone. Plus, he was alone when the medallion was discovered.
It wouldn't be the first time an artifact had been debunked.
But Larocque doesn't believe the Utopia Medallion is a hoax.
"The hoax part seems a little out there, a little on the edge," he said.
"They would really be wanting to pull the wool over other people's eyes in a very major way to have let it got to that state."