Dighton Rock, Explorers on the Narragansett Bay

Dighton Rock, September 1, 2014. Photo: ©Mary Ames Mitchell

There is a large rock protected in a small museum by the shore of the Taunton River near Fall River, Massachusetts, that has caused much speculation about who were the first Europeans to sail to America. Was it the Vikings? How about Michael Corte-Real and his fellow Azoreans? Or could it have been the Phoenicians in their galleys?

The origin of the petro-glyphs engraved on the side of this rock is as much of a mystery as the origin of Leif Erickson’s Runestone on Noman’s Land, which is not far away. [We told you about that in our article on The Vikings.] We will show you the rock and describe the theories and you can tell us what you think.

The red-colored sandstone marker has been known as Dighton Rock since as early as 1680. It is 5 feet high, 9.5 feet wide, and 11 feet long. Until 1963, it was embedded in the mud of the Taunton riverbed. The flat side with the petro-glyphs faced the water. The petro-glyphs were clearly visible to someone sailing a boat up or down the river. They were engraved in a logical place for someone trying to leave a message to other seamen.

The following photograph was taken by a person named Davis [probably Andrew M. Davis, who studied Massachusetts history] and dated December 31, 1892. The photograph shows the rock in the location where it used to sit on the riverbank. Someone filled the petro-glyphs with white chalk to highlight them.

Davis, 31 December 1892.

For centuries, maybe millennia, except for four hours each day, tidal waters covered the boulder, sometimes by as much as four feet. The good new is that the water protected the glyphs from vandalism. The bad news is that the water wore away at the engravings.

In 1954, the State of Massachusetts created Dighton Rock State Park from the 101 acres encompassing the boulder. In 1963, the rangers raised the rock so that it was eleven feet above the water level [most of the time] and surrounded by a somewhat protective chain link fence. In 1974, with the help of an act by the Massachusetts State Legislature, a six-sided museum was built to house, protect, and display the rock to the public. Two one-inch scale models of fifteenth century ships are also on display in the museum: Vasco de Gama’s San Gabriel and Ferdinand Magellan’s Victoria. We have shown you photos of those models in earlier articles.

Dighton Rock Museum at the edge of the [still navigable] Taunton River, August, 2015.

The Taunton River, as it passes by the rock is [and probably was] navigable by an eighty-foot galley, caravel, or carrack. The cove would have been a logical stopping place for an explorer seeking a safe harbor to pull his ship to shore and camp for the night. The site has similar features to other colonial landings, particularly Jamestowne Colony on the River James, and the Popham Colony on the Sagadahoc River.

Displayed along the museum walls, informative panels explain the dozens of theories purported since 1680 about the petro-glyphs’ origins. The four most popular theories are listed below. We have copied the images from the Dighton Rock Museum website at http://www.dightonrock.com/
where you can find more detailed explanations for each theory(1).

Theory No. 1: The petro-glyphs were engraved by the local Wampanoags during their 12,000-year occupation of the area. On our map above, you can see how close Dighton Rock is to the former home of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit at Pokanoket [Mount Hope]. A Pilgrim minister named Reverend John Danforth drew the following sketch of the rock back in 1680. Danforth thought the images depicted foreign men coming up the river and attacking the natives.

Theory No. 2: The glyphs are runic letterforms carved by Vikings from the eleventh century. The cove was the location of the settlement called Hop described in the Icelandic Sagas. If you look at our map again, you can see the proximity of the rock on Narragansett Bay to Martha’s Vineyard Island and Noman’s Land.

Theory No. 3: The petro-glyphs were engraved by the crew of a wayward Phoenician bireme or trireme two to three thousand years ago.

Theory No. 4: The petro-glyphs were engraved by the Portuguese explorer Michael Corte-Real or his crew in 1511.(2)

And the Winner Is…

Theory No. 4, the Portuguese Theory, is currently the star player, according to the Dighton Rock website and museum. It is the most recent theory, and it was developed by men who actually visited the rock. The men who developed Theories No. 2 and No. 3 based their conclusions from photographs and Danford’s sketch.

The Portuguese Theory was introduced in 1916 by Professor Edmund B. Delabarre of Brown University. After scrutinizing the pictographs, he declared he found the inscription of the date 1511, along with the graven letters MIGUEL CORTEREAL V. DEI HIC DUX IND. Let’s translate that from Latin:

“V” means “FIVE”
“DEI” means “GOD”
“HIC” means “HERE”
DUX” means “LEADER”
“IND” is thought to signify “INDIANS”.
Put that together and you get: “1511 Michael CorteReal five god here leader Indians
In other words,

Michael Corte Real was here in 1511 and led the Indians as a god.”

Photo on display in the museum showing location of the date 1511.

The Portuguese Theory was encouraged in 1951 by Joseph D. Fragosa, a language instructor at New York University. He noticed that one of the V-shaped engravings looked like the symbol of the Portuguese coat of arms, and that several other shapes looked like the Portuguese Cross of the Order of Christ.

In 1960, the Portuguese Theory was further encouraged by Manuel Luciano da Silva, a physician from Bristol, Rhode Island, who would be instrumental in building the museum and preserving the rock. Da Silva compared Dighton Rock to other Portuguese markers in Africa, Asia, and America – markers that anthropological experts declared were authentic. Da Silva concluded that “the similarity of these land makers created so many thousands of miles away from each other, is indeed striking. They have engraved on them the same Portuguese coat of arms, the same Cross of the Order of Christ, and the same style of numerals. … They were made by Portuguese navigators who received the same training and education at the Nautical School of Prince Henry the Navigator in Sagres, Portugal.”(3)

In the June 1958 issue of American Heritage Magazine, Edward Brecher wrote an article titled “The Enigma of Dighton Rock,” in which he described the following “solid facts” about the rock:

  1. Dighton Rock, unlike some dubious, more recently discovered “written rocks,” cannot be a modern forgery. It shows some trace of vandalism – the initials of tourists, for example – and an inscription reading (perhaps) ‘Injun Trail to Spring in Swomp → 167 yds.’ But the bulk of the writings cannot be similarly explained. The Reverend John Danforth made a sketch of the marks engraved in the rock in October 1680. This sketch has been preserved in the British Museum. A comparison of Danforth’s sketch with the appearance of the rock today leaves no room for doubt that the inscription Danforth saw in 1680 is still there.
  2. The lines on the rock were carved by human hands. They arc not mere cracks or products of freezing and weathering. If the markings are just doodles, casually carved by Indians who had nothing better to do, they are surely among the most laborious doodles of all time. Even with a modern steel chisel it would take many hours, even days, to duplicate the inscription. The rock is partly submerged much of the time, so that doodlers might have had to stand in salt water up to their knees or waists. More convenient rocks were available for casual doodlings.
  3. The message is blazoned on the offshore surface of the rock, facing the water; and the rock itself stands at a point where it would be conspicuous to any small vessel exploring the coast or putting into the Taunton River for fresh water. Through the centuries, therefore, most speculation has sought to interpret the carvings as a message left by visitors to the coast, intended to catch the eye of subsequent maritime explorers passing that way.

Mary Mitchell’s Opinion on Dighton Rock

Unable to make heads or tails of the petro-glyphs from the images on the website, I went to see the boulder for myself. It is very dark inside the enclosure where the rock is located. A bank of lights at the bottom of the well lights the surface at an angle that helps enhance the view of the engravings. I took as many photos as I could and have included the best of them below. I would be happy to send hi-resolution images to anyone who requests them.

My first impression was that there was one style of engraving that dominated the other scratchings. The dominant style had a consistent stroke width that could easily have been made by the rounded tip of a steel sword or knife.

My second impression was that the drawings seemed primitive, not child-like, not medieval – especially the drawings of people and a four-legged creature.

As Edward Brecher wrote in his article above, some of the scratchings were clearly graffiti made at a later time. There was no problem ruling those markings out of the equation.

I wanted to isolate the dominant stroke style from the crevices and other markings on the rock. Using Photoshop, I traced only those markings to see if any images or style “popped out at me.”

My favorite was the image of a four-legged animal. The animal seemed to have antlers, or spiked ears and big jowls. Is it a horse? A deer? How about a moose?

You can see the same animal in the earlier drawings:

I also liked two figures who seemed to be holding hands and dancing. Roy D. Hough wrote to say they “strike me immediately as a battle – a sword fight. Or, the figure in armor is firing a gun which blows the native backwards” [killing the figure on the left].

Regarding the Portuguese theory, here are my uneducated opinions:

[1] The date 1511 is visible, but barely. I wondered why the Portuguese would use modern numerals. During my research on Medieval history, I have found Roman numerals were more commonly used to record dates.

[2] I could not make out letterforms that were supposed to spell out Miguel CorteReal.

[3] There is a shape that could be a Portuguese crest which was easy to pick out. But I thought it looked more like the fin of a fish or the wing of a bird.

[4] The image to the right of the “crest” that was supposed to be part of a cross did not look like a cross to me. I thought it looked like a figure in a suit of armor?

My final conclusions were:

  1. This rock is a genuine display of art carved by humans a very long time ago.
  2. Several cultures contributed to the glyph collection.
  3. The glyphs are already worn and difficult to decipher. A professional should study them more closely soon.

Write and tell me what you think!


  1. The man who helped organize the building of the museum to protect the rock, and who apparently created the Dighton Rock website, Manuel Luciano da Silva, passed away a few years ago. Now it is up to the State of Massachusetts, you, and me to make sure the rock is preserved.
  2. For more detailed explanations of each theory, the Dighton Rock website is located at [http://www.dightonrock.com/
    dightonrockitsmusuemanditspark.htm] and the article “The Enigma of Dighton Rock,” by Edward Brecher in American Heritage magazine, June 1958, Volume 9, Issue 4 is located at [http://www.americanheritage.com/content/enigma-dighton-rock]
  3. Luciano da Silva M.D, Manuel. Dighton Rock: Its Museum and It’s Park,
    Fall River, MA, website [http://www.dightonrock.com/

The End

Stay tuned for the sequel, Before Winthrop