Has the Declaration of Independence been defaced?
Did someone rewrite and enhance signatures on the hallowed parchment?
And is that - and the grimy handprint on the document --the result of 20th century bungling?
Two retired experts with the National Archives who have carefully scrutinized the Declaration believe the answers are,yes.
Sometime between 1903 and 1940, officials with access to the Declaration of Independence marred the treasured document, rewriting or overwriting famous signatures and leaving behind the left handprint, the experts believe.
The two scholars contend that it was also during this period that the handwriting on the Declaration was mysteriously diminished, costing it more of its already-dwindling original ink. Little of that ink now survives.
"Between 1903...and 1940 someone...took drastic steps that altered the document significantly...(in) what can only be described as the defacement - even if unintentional --of the Declaration," the authors wrote in the Fall issue of the National Archives quarterly magazine, Prologue.
"The defining damage that made the Declaration what it is today was not the result of 19th-century copying or excessive exhibition, but occurred in the 20th century," wrote Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, the Archives' retired chief of conservation, and Catherine Nicholson, the retired deputy chief.
"Something happened after 1903 that caused that damage, and made people... enhance the signatures," Ritzenthaler said in an interview Friday.
Perhaps it was a botched mounting technique or a flattening procedure, she said.
"Somebody might have tried something and didn't have very good results, and this was their reaction," she said.
The handprint is also a mystery. "A dirty hand. An inky hand. Why would you do that?" she said.
"The document is sufficiently big that...if it's on table, when someone's leaning over, it's kind of a natural action to put your hand down in that corner," she said. "So you can envision how it happened."
The 240-year-old Declaration, housed in a special case in the National Archives rotunda in Washington, is now extremely faded, and much of it is barely legible.
In 2002, the authors removed it from its 50-year old encasement and examined it in preparation for a new case.
"We did a whole lot of close examination and photography," Ritzenthaler said. "It was like being a detective."
While the the handprint is clear, the alterations are scarcely noticeable, she said.
But for conservationists, they are crucial, and something that would never be done today. "Nowadays it would be considered defacement," she said.
The authors reached their conclusions by examining old photographs , mainly one taken in 1903 that shows few of the current flaws in the document, which gave birth to the United States on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration was written out by Timothy Matlack, a clerk in the Pennsylvania State House --now Philadelphia's Independence Hall - between July 19 and August 2.
Photographs of the Declaration were commissioned by Congress in 1922, but they have never been found.
It was only during research in 1940 that the image of the handprint in the lower left corner was first mentioned, the authors wrote.
"There had been some kind of folk history that it happened in the 1870s or 1880s when the document was in a print shop in Philadelphia to be mounted," Ritzenthaler said.
"But then you see the 1903 photograph...and it's clearly not there," she said.
She said it also looks like someone may have tried to rub out the handprint. She said she did not know if fingerprints could be obtained from the image: "Maybe a forensic person could look at a print like that and try to discern something."
In addition, the changes to the signatures, first noticed in the 1940s, do not appear in the 1903 photograph, the authors wrote.
Fifty-six men, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, signed the Declaration.
Many of the signatures, including Jefferson's, are either gone or barely visible today, and the enhancements were likely done to to try to reverse that.
In particular, the "J" and the "H" in John Hancock's ornate signature were enhanced, Ritzenthaler and Nicholoson wrote.
Other names visible in the center columns "show evidence of partial enhancement or recreation of missing signatures," Ritzenthaler added in an email.
In the interviews, Ritzenthaler said there was nothing in the public or official record about the alterations or the hand print.
"You would think...that if something so astounding had happened, like enhancing the signatures that are pretty iconic, or a mistaken handprint, that someone would have noted that," she said. "And there might have been an outcry in the press."
"We don't really know under whose watch these things happened," she said. "I suspect in response to this damage that people probably felt terrible."
By 1903, the Declaration, already well traveled, worn and fading, was being held in protective storage by the State Department.
That April, at the request of Secretary of State John Hay, it was photographed by Levin C. Handy, a relative and protege of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
In 1921, it was transferred to the Library of Congress and placed on display in the Great Hall of the library's Jefferson Building, on Capitol Hill.
There, in 1940, it was examined by a conservator from Harvard's Fogg Museum, who first mentioned the handprint.
The Declaration came to the National Archives in 1952.
"Something happened to the Declaration between 1903 and 1940 that was not documented or has not yet been uncovered," the authors concluded. "It is like a puzzle for which some pieces...are missing" and may one day emerge.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Michael E. Ruane