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The boulder has the form of a slanted, six-sided block, approximately 5 feet (1.5 m) high, 9.5 feet (2.9 m) wide, and 11 feet (3.4 m) long. It is gray-brown crystalline sandstone of medium to coarse texture. The surface with the inscriptions has a trapezoidal face and is inclined 70 degrees to the northwest. It was found facing the water of the bay.
In 1767, Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale, declared that the figures on the rock were Phoenician – theorizing that the Phoenicians – mainly known for their sea-faring trade in the Mediterranean – had managed a visit to North America and left the writing as a calling card.
That idea gained traction in Europe, as well, where Danforth’s drawing was receiving fresh attention among British and French historians. Others concluded the markings were from Armenians who made their way to America via Siberia. And another camp, which had been trying to connect the origins of Native American tribes with Asia, proposed that the characters were from explorers from Japan, China or other parts of Asia.
In 1837, the controversy was reignited when Danish writer Charles Christian Rafn published his Antiquities Americanae, which contained more than 40 pages of analysis of the Dighton Rock. Rafn concluded the markings on the rock were Norse, and found in the writing the inscription: “Thorfinn and his 151 companions took possession of this land.”
In 1781 Count Antoine Court de Gebelin of Paris announced that he had fathomed the secret. Dighton Rock commemorated the visit to Massachusetts “in very ancient times” of a shipload of seamen from Carthage, who lived for a while on Mount Hope Bay and established friendly relations with the Indians there. The drawings on the rock, De Gebelin explained, portray the leaders of the expedition consulting an oracle in order to select an auspicious moment for the perilous voyage back to Carthage.
In 1807 Samuel Harris, Jr., a Harvard scholar, declared that he was able to decipher on the face of the rock three ancient Hebrew words in Phoenician letters: “king,” “priest,” and “idol.”
In 1831 Ira Hill, a Maryland schoolteacher, concluded that the rock was engraved in the second month of the tenth year of the reign of King Solomon by an expedition of Tyrians and Jews such as the one described in the Old Testament, I Kings 9:
And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber… And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon.
The drawings on the rock, Hill firmly believed, mapped in detail the voyage from the eastern Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules, past the Canary Islands, and on across the Atlantic to Assonet Neck.