Experts: Declaration of Independence 'defaced' in the early 20th century

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The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important artifacts in American history, but time has not been kind to the 240-year-old document, reports the Washington Post.

According to the Fall 2016 issue of the National Archives' Prologue magazine, experts suspect that it was manipulated sometime between 1903 and 1940.

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The specific time frame has been identified because in 1903, detailed photographs of the document were taken, and in 1940, its condition was thoroughly recorded by a Harvard museum representative.

As the article states, "Today the document looks different from how it appeared in the detailed 1903 photograph...looking closely at the lower left corner of the Declaration, you will see the distinct image of a handprint—first noted in 1940—that is not present in the 1903 photograph. The mystery of the handprint—how it occurred, when, and by whom—has not yet been solved."

The piece goes on to say, "One also notices the tide lines and a blurring and overall loss of legibility of many words in the text. A further substantial alteration is in the signature section. Some signatures, such as John Hancock's, were enhanced while others were rewritten in efforts to make them more visible. It is significant that the handprint, the tide lines, the blurring and illegible ink text, and the changes to the signatures are not seen in the 1903 photograph."

While the authors of the article call the mysterious changes 'defacement,' they acknowledge that the document has been loved and protected even though "...the techniques used to keep it safe and accessible sometimes took their toll."

Related: See some of the most pivotal figures in American history:

15 PHOTOS
Iconic American figures and founding fathers
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Iconic American figures and founding fathers

14. Betsy Ross - 163 in USA; 17 in Florida 

(Photo by Lambert/Getty Images)

13. Thomas Paine - 179 in USA; 20 in California

(Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images)

12. Alexander Hamilton - 269 in USA; 25 in New York

(Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

11. John Jay - 282 in USA; 38 in Texas

(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

10. John Witherspoon - 309 in USA; 36 in North Carolina

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

9. Benjamin Franklin - 401 in USA; 38 in California

(Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

8. Thomas Jefferson - 522 in USA; 52 in Texas

(AP Photo)

7. James Madison - 753 in USA; 55 in California

(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

6. Patrick Henry - 1,004 in USA; 100 in Florida

(AP Photo)

5. Samuel Adams - 1,100 in USA; 75 in Georgia

(Photo by Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images)

4. George Washington - 1,513 in USA; 133 in Texas

(Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

3. John Hancock - 1,616 in USA; 184 in Texas

(Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

2. Robert Morris - 7,367 in USA; 587 in Florida

(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

1. John Adams: 9,893 in USA; 789 in Florida

(Photo by Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

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