A hiker near Lake Powell found something last summer that could complicate the history of European exploration of the Americas.

Or, maybe it’s just a hoax. Or a misidentified artifact.

While hiking in an area close to the Halls Crossing Marina on Lake Powell, a hiker from Colorado spotted two coins lying in the dirt a bit off the trail. At first assuming they were simply pieces of trash, he picked them up. When he looked closer he realized they appeared to be old coins. Very old.


The coin on the left is the one that might be as much as 700 years old. On the right, the larger coin matches those made in the 1700s. Photo: screenshot from KSL.

The hiker researched the coins and realized they fit the description of coins minted hundreds of years ago. One of the coins matched patterns associated with Spanish coins produced in the late 17th century. The other, smaller coin resembles those made in the 13th century, long before Columbus was even born, let alone sailing around the Americas.

At that point, the hiker, who wishes to remain anonymous, brought the coins to the park service where park service archeologist Brian Harmon and his team are bringing their significant research resources to bear. They’re keeping the coins under wraps, for the most part, as they work to figure out just how old they are and, if indeed are as old as it first appears, how in the world they got to Utah.

Radiocarbon dating is not typically possible with metal artifacts unless they’ve a good deal of organic matter in or on the artifact, but even then, only the organic matter is being dated, not the metal itself. So the only real way to know the age of the coins is to have experts associate them with comparative coins or use their markings to piece together when and where they were made.

So, uh, assuming these are real, how did they end up in Utah? The first known Spanish exploration of the area wasn’t until the 1770s when two priests traveled north into southern Utah. Yet these coins were found in an area nowhere near the priests’ route. Probably the most likely explanation is the coins were traded with Native Americans who brought the coins into what became Utah.

It’s less likely, but more interesting because it would be a total mystery as to the circumstances, that some Spanish travelers made their way into the American Southwest without anything being known about their trip well before the 1770s. Still though, it is a little odd they’d be carrying a coin minted 400 years earlier.

“This is very exciting,” Harmon said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my career.”

Even if it’s just a hoax or a totally misidentified bit of nothing, these sorts of finds remind us that the Southwest’s past is still awash in mystery.

In the meantime, the NPS is working with coin experts to determine what these things really are.

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