Raiders of the Academic Ark: The mystery of the missing Dalhousie Stone Tablets

From the Archives: Up close with pieces of Dal's 200-year history

- May 2, 2018

A photograph, dated September 11, 1919, of the Academic Ark that contained the now-missing tablets as part of the Centennial Parade. (Dalhousie Archives photo)
A photograph, dated September 11, 1919, of the Academic Ark that contained the now-missing tablets as part of the Centennial Parade. (Dalhousie Archives photo)

In recognition of Dalhousie’s 200th anniversary, we’re launching a new Dal News feature series in collaboration with Dalhousie Libraries and Archives & Special Collections. From the Archives will highlight the stories behind some of the unique and interesting artifacts, memorabilia, letters and other items of note stored inside the University Archives. Here's our first edition.

In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones races to discover the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, a legendary artifact that supposedly contains the stone tablets of the Biblical Ten Commandments.

But did you know Dalhousie has a lost ark of its own?

In Dal’s case, the ark itself is of less significance than the stone tablets therein: dedication stones from the original Dalhousie College that traveled with the university in two separate campus moves before going missing.

The Dalhousie President’s Report for the year 1919-20 discusses Dal's 100th anniversary celebrations which took place that year. The recorded account of the Centennial Parade states: “Last of all came a motor lorry carrying the Academic Ark of Dalhousie, as the Rev. J.A. MacGlashen termed it, the three dedicatory tablets of stone which formed the central parapet” — a protective wall — “of the original Dalhousie College on the Parade where the City Hall now stands.” 

In a photograph dated September 11, 1919, you can see the wagon used in the procession to carry the tablets from the Grand Parade to the newly-established Studley Campus, which at the time consisted of just the Macdonald and Chemistry Buildings.

The account continues to say: “It is intended that these stone tablets shall be built into the walls of one of the new buildings at Studley as they were built into the walls of the Geological Laboratory of the Forrest Building.”

However, no documentation from that period exists that can verify the specific building the stone tablets were built into.

Where did the tablets go?

The next time they appear in the official record is more than 30 years later, in the minutes of Board of Governors for November 27, 1951. “It was agreed, say the minutes, “that the memorial tablets in the hall of the Macdonald Memorial Library should be transferred to the Founders’ Room and Chapel in the Arts and Administration Building.”

The Arts and Administration Building (later named after Henry Hicks) was set to open three days later, on December 1. But there is no evidence the Board’s motion was ever carried out. The building featured a space on the main level (to your right as you enter through the front doors) established as a Founders’ Room and Chapel; that is where the stone tablets should have been mounted, but we don’t know for sure they were ever placed in that space. The original floor plans show that the room still existed as of October 22, 1959, but the space is now part of the Registrar’s Office, and the Arts and Administration building has been renovated several times (1962, 1992, 2001 and at present) without the stones being located.
The last mention of the memorial tablets we have been able to uncover in the Archives appears in a document sent out for tenders by H.A. Theakston, engineer in charge of buildings and grounds on January 25, 1952, for work to be done in the Macdonald Memorial Library. The document specifies that: “Any equipment removed, and which is not required for the alterations, or which is not specifically mentioned as to be retained by the University, is to become the property of the Contractor, and is to be removed from the property by him.” And on the page 3 of the document it reads: “Remove presently installed Memorial Tablets, and make good the walls.”
So what happened to the stone tablets? Were they stored somewhere they haven’t been found yet? Did a contractor take them? Were they just thrown away? It remains a mystery that may never be solved.

There’s precedent for hope, though. The engraved cornerstone dedication for the original Dalhousie College turned up in 2010, more than 130 years after it first went missing. It now hangs in the lobby of the Henry Hicks Building. Perhaps, someday, the stone tablets may join it there.

Learn more about the Dalhousie Archives at its website.


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