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The Bat Creek inscription

The Bat Creek inscription is an inscription carved on a stone found in a Native American burial mound in Loudon County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee, in 1889. The inscription consists of characters loosely resembling the Cherokee alphabet invented by Sequoyah in the early 1800s.

In the early 1970s, the inscription became a source of controversy when linguist Cyrus Gordon argued it was actually a Paleo-Hebrew inscription, and thus provided evidence of Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. However, University of Tennessee archaeologists and other experts reject Gordon's assertion, arguing instead that the inscription is a fraud typical of late-19th century archaeological hoaxes.

The stone was initially found in 1889 by a burial mound survey team led by John W. Emmert of the Smithsonian Institution. The mound was located at the confluence of the Little Tennessee River and Bat Creek, a few miles north of modern Vonore. The mound had been leveled by the time University of Tennessee archaeologists conducted salvage excavations in the area in the 1970s.


Geographic and historical context

Bat Creek

The Little Tennessee River enters Tennessee from the Appalachian Mountains to the south and flows northward for just over 50 miles (80 km) before emptying into the Tennessee River near Lenoir City. The completion of Tellico Dam at the mouth of the Little Tennessee in 1979 created a reservoir that spans the lower 33 miles (53 km) of the river. Bat Creek empties into the southwest bank of the Little Tennessee 12 miles (19 km) upstream from the mouth of the river. While much of the original confluence of Bat Creek and the Little Tennessee was submerged by the lake, the mound in which the Bat Creek Stone was found was located above the reservoir's operating levels.

The lower Little Tennessee Valley is one of the richest archaeological regions in the southeastern United States. In the 1880s, the Smithsonian Institution team led by Emmert conducted several excavations in the valley, uncovering artifacts and burials related to valley's 18th-century Overhill Cherokee inhabitants and prehistoric inhabitants. The Tellico Archaeological Project, conducted by the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology in the late 1960s and 1970s in anticipation of the reservoir's construction, investigated over two dozen sites and uncovered evidence of substantial habitation in the valley during the Archaic (8000-1000 B.C.), Woodland (1000 B.C. - 1000 A.D.), Mississippian (900-1600 A.D.), and Cherokee (c. 1600-1838) periods.[1] The expedition of Hernando De Soto likely visited a village on Bussell Island at the mouth of the river in 1540 and the expedition of Juan Pardo probably visited two villages further upstream (near modern Chilhowee Dam) in 1567.[2]

The Bat Creek site, designated 40LD24, is a multiphase site with evidence of occupation as early as the Archaic period.[3] According to Emmert, the site consisted of one large mound (Mound 1) on the east bank of the creek and two smaller mounds (Mound 2 and Mound 3) on the west bank. Mound 1— which had a diameter of 108 feet (33 m) and a height of 8 feet (2.4 m)— was located on the first terrace above the river, and is thus now submerged by the reservoir. Mound 2, which had a diameter of 44 feet (13 m) and height of 10 feet (3.0 m), and Mound 3, which had a diameter of 28 feet (8.5 m) and height of 5 feet (1.5 m), were both located higher up, on the second terrace. According to Emmert's notes, the Bat Creek Stone was found in Mound 3.[4] The stone consists of "ferruginous siltstone", and measures 11.4 centimetres (4.5 in) long and 5.1 centimetres (2.0 in) wide.[5] The inscription consists of at least eight characters, seven of which are in a single row, and one located above or below (depending on which way the stone is turned) the main inscription.

Archaeological excavations

John Emmert located the mounds in the 1880s, and excavated all three. He concluded that Mound 1 was little more than a shell deposit. Emmert recorded eight burials in Mound 2—one of which included metal "buckles" and a metal button. Excavations of Mound 3 revealed nine skeletons, seven of which were laid out in a row with their heads facing north, and two more skeletons laid out nearby, one with its head facing north and the other with its head facing south. The Bat Creek Stone was found under the skull of the south-facing skeleton. Along with the stone were two "copper" bracelets (later determined to be brass) and "polished wood" (possibly earspools). Radiocarbon dating of the wood spools returned a date of 32-769 A.D. (i.e., the middle to late Woodland period).[6] [7]

In 1967, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced plans to build Tellico Dam, and asked the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology to conduct salvage excavations in the Little Tennessee Valley. Litigation and environmental concerns stalled the dam's completion until 1979, allowing extensive excavations at multiple sites throughout the valley. Emmert's "Mound 1" of the Bat Creek Site was excavated in 1975. Investigators concluded that the mound was a "platform" mound typical of the Mississippian period. Pre-Mississippian artifacts dating to the Archaic and Woodland periods were also found. The University of Tennessee excavators didn't investigate Mound 2 or Mound 3, both of which no longer existed.[5] Neither the University of Tennessee's excavation of the Bat Creek Site nor any other excavations in the Little Tennessee Valley uncovered any evidence that would indicate Pre-Columbian contact with Old World civilizations.[8]

Analysis and debate

Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian Institution initially cataloged the Bat Creek Stone inscription as a Cherokee inscription.[6] Since the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah did not invent the Cherokee alphabet until around 1820, a Cherokee inscription could not have been made before this period. The report showed the stone turned so that the detached 8th character was below the main inscription.

The Bat Creek Stone received scant attention (even in Thomas' later publications) until the 1960s when ethnologist Joseph Mahan, puzzled by Thomas' conclusion that the inscription was Cherokee, sent a photograph of the inscription to Cyrus H. Gordon— a professor of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University and a well-known proponent of Pre-Columbian transatlantic contact theories. Gordon published a series of articles in the early 1970s arguing that the first five characters and the last character in the inscription— when turned so that the detached 8th character is above the main inscription (Chicago lawyer and author Henriette Mertz had previously suggested the stone as it appeared in Thomas' report was upside down)— are actually a version of Paleo-Hebrew text used in the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. Gordon suggested that the characters spelled out "for the Jews" or "for Judaea." His findings were published in Newsweek and in newspapers across the nation, sparking a renewed interest in the inscription.[9][10]

In 1979, University of Iowa archaeologist Marshall McKusick published an article rejecting Gordon's interpretation of the inscription as Paleo-Hebrew. McKusick argued that the inscription actually bore similarities to an early version of Sequoyah's alphabet that was occasionally used before the standard, or "Worcester" version of the alphabet was published in 1827. Like Thomas, however, McKusick made no attempt to interpret the inscription.[11]


Revival of the Bat Creek Stone debate

In 1988, J. Huston McCulloch, an economics professor at Ohio State University, wrote in the Tennessee Anthropologist an article supporting Gordon's interpretation of the Bat Creek inscription as Paleo-Hebrew. McCulloch compared each character in the Bat Creek inscription with certain known Paleo-Hebrew letters. Using a scale of "Good," "Fair," "Conceivable," and "Impossible" to describe the quality of the matches, McCulloch determined the matches between the Bat Creek Stone characters and various letters of Paleo-Hebrew to be (from left to right, with the stone turned so that the detached eighth character is on the bottom) "Fair," "Fair," "Good," "Good," "Good," "Fair," "Conceivable," and "Fair." Using the early ("Foster") version of the Cherokee alphabet mentioned by McKusick, McCulloch determined matches of "Fair," "Fair," "Fair," "Impossible," "Fair," "Conceivable," "Good," and "Impossible." A similar analysis using the Worcester version of Cherokee fared no better. The best version of Cherokee fared no better in McCulloch's analysis than English, an alphabet that all parties agreed was not used in the inscription.[12]

McCulloch pointed out that the brass bracelets found along with the stone had the same ratio of lead to zinc as bracelets manufactured throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. McCulloch also points to historical evidence that Judaea had a capable navy before A.B. 68, and notes the widely accepted research of Charles Hudson that shows that the first two major post-Columbian expeditions to the southeastern United States—those of De Soto (1540) and Pardo (1567)—ended up in the Little Tennessee Valley at some point.[13] McCulloch stated that the radiocarbon date of the wooden objects "rules out" a post-Columbian date of the associated artifacts, including the Bat Creek Stone.[14]

Criticism of McCulloch

In 1991, archaeologists Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas published a response to McCulloch in the Tennessee Anthropologist. They denied assertions that the Bat Creek Stone was of pre-Columbian Old World origin, stating that such assertions were the work of "cult archaeologists." Mainfort and Kwas pointed out that fraudulent stone inscriptions purporting to show evidence of such contact—such as the Kensington Stone and the Davenport Tablets—were not uncommon, especially in the late 19th century. They took particular issue with Cyrus Gordon, whom they went so far as to call a "rogue professor" desperate for evidence to support his theories of pre-Columbian transatlantic contact.[15]

Mainfort and Kwas consulted Paleo-Hebrew expert Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University, who contradicted Gordon's assertion that the inscription was Paleo-Hebrew. Cross stated that only two letters of the entire inscription could conceivably be considered Paleo-Hebrew of the period in question (1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D.). Cross also said Gordon's reading of the inscription ("for the Jews") was based on the Aramaic alphabet rather than Paleo-Hebrew.[16]

Mainfort and Kwas agreed that the zinc composition of the brass bracelets was similar to that used in the 1st-century Mediterranean region, but showed that this particular zinc composition was used in the manufacture of brass bracelets in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. They also argued that the radiocarbon date of the associated wooden objects was not conclusive, and pointed out the possibility of contamination by groundwater. Mainfort and Kwas suggested that Emmert planted the stone (with his own attempt at an inscription) to amplify his own credibility, because he recently had been fired and rehired by the Smithsonian. Cyrus Thomas had been working on a pet theory that stated that the builders of prehistoric mounds in America were ancestors of the Cherokee, and Mainfort and Kwas suggest Emmert planted the stone with this in mind (i.e., a Cherokee-esque inscription in a pre-Cherokee tomb). They also presented evidence showing Thomas may have doubted the stone's authenticity.[17]

Continued debate

McCulloch responded to the criticisms of Mainfort and Kwas in an article published in the Tennessee Anthropologist in 1993. McCulloch pointed out errors in Cross's analysis, and cited certain examples in recent research of Paleo-Hebrew letters resembling the characters on the Bat Creek Stone. McCulloch disagreed that the type of brass bracelets (i.e., wrought and C-shaped) found at the Bat Creek site was common at archaeological sites in North America, and faulted Mainfort and Kwas for not providing a specific example.[18][19]

In its July–August 1993 issue, the Biblical Archaeology Review featured the Bat Creek Stone debate with two articles—one by McCulloch, who elaborated on his previous arguments presented in the Tennessee Anthropologist, the other by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who concurred with Cross's assessment stating that the characters on the Bat Creek Stone were not Paleo-Hebrew. McCarter suggested that, while the stone's characters looked similar to Paleo-Hebrew letters— especially to the "untrained eye"— certain subtle details in the stone's characters "do not correspond to their proposed paleo-Hebrew prototypes closely enough to be considered authentic".[20]

Recent commentary

In 2004, Mainfort and Kwas published an article in American Antiquity[21] showing an inscription in an 1870 Masonic reference book that bore striking similarities to the Bat Creek inscription. The Masonic inscription was an artist's impression of how "Holy to Yahweh" might have appeared in Paleo-Hebrew. Mainfort and Kwas suggested that Emmert probably based the Bat Creek inscription on this earlier Masonic inscription. The following year, McCulloch (in an article published on his website) noted that while there were similarities between the two inscriptions, they weren't exact matches, and that there was evidence that inscriptions similar to the Masonic inscriptions occurred in ancient times.[22]

The Bat Creek Stone remains the property of the Smithsonian Institution, but is currently on loan indefinitely to the University of Tennessee. The stone is currently on display at the Frank H. McClung Museum in Knoxville, Tennessee.

See also


  1. ^ Jefferson Chapman, Tellico Archaeology: 12,000 Years of Native American History (Norris, Tenn.: Tennessee Valley Authority, 1985).
  2. ^ Charles Hudson, The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Explorations of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 106-107, e.g.
  3. ^ Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas, "The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans in Tennessee?" The Bat Creek Stone (Tennessee Anthropological Association, Miscellaneous Paper No. 15, 1992), 3. Originally published in Tennessee Anthropologist 16, no. 1 (Spring 1991).
  4. ^ Cyrus Thomas, 12th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, 391-393. Cited in Charles Faulkner (ed.), The Bat Creek Stone (Tennessee Anthropological Society, Miscellaneous Paper No. 15, 1992).
  5. ^ a b Mainfort and Kwas, 3.
  6. ^ a b Thomas, 391-393.
  7. ^ J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Inscription: Cherokee or Hebrew?" The Bat Creek Stone (Tennessee Anthropological Association, Miscellaneous Paper No. 15, 1992), 103-108. Originally published in Tennessee Anthropologist 13, no. 2 (Fall 1988).
  8. ^ Chapman, 97-103.
  9. ^ McCulloch, 81-82.
  10. ^ Mainfort and Kwas, 5-6.
  11. ^ McCulloch, 82-83.
  12. ^ McCulloch, 83-99.
  13. ^ McCulloch, 99-101.
  14. ^ McCulloch, 108.
  15. ^ Mainfort and Kwas, 1-3.
  16. ^ Mainfort and Kwas, 5-7.
  17. ^ Mainfort and Kwas, 7-14.
  18. ^ Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas, "The Bat Creek Stone: A Final Statement." Tennessee Anthropologist 18, no. 2 (Fall of 1993).
  19. ^ J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Stone: A Reply to Mainfort and Kwas". Tennessee Anthropologist 18, no. 1.
  20. ^ Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas, "The Bat Creek Stone: A Final Statement". Retrieved: 5 June 2008.
  21. ^ Mainfort & Kwas "The Bat Creek Stone Revisited: A Fraud Exposed" American Antiquity 69.4 (Oct 2004): p761
  22. ^ J. Huston McCulloch, "The Bat Creek Stone." December of 2005. Retrieved: 5 June 2008.


  • Faulker, Charles H. The Bat Creek Stone. Tennessee Anthropological Association, Miscellaneous Paper No. 15, 1992.
  • Gordon, Cyrus H. Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America. New York: Crown Publishers, 1971.
  • Griffin, James B., D.J. Meltzer, B.D. Smith, and W.C. Sturtevant. American Antiquity, 1988. "A Mammoth Fraud in Science."
  • Mainfort, Robert C., Jr. and Mary L. Kwas. Tennessee Anthropologist, 1991. "The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans in Tennessee?"
  • Mainfort, Robert C., Jr. and Mary L. Kwas. Tennessee Anthropologist, 1993. "The Bat Creek Fraud: A Final Statement"
  • McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. Biblical Archaeology Review, 1993. "Let's be Serious About the Bat Creek Stone."
  • McCulloch, J. Huston. Biblical Archaeology Review, July-August, 1993. "Did Judean Refugees Escape to Tennessee?"
  • McCulloch, J. Huston. Tennessee Anthropologist, 1988. "The Bat Creek Inscription: Cherokee or Hebrew?"
  • McCulloch, J. Huston. Tennessee Anthropologist, 1993. "The Bat Creek Stone: A Reply to Mainfort and Kwas."
  • McKusick, Marshall. Biblical Archaeologist, 1979. "Canaanites in America: A New Scripture in Stone?"
  • McNeil, William F. Visitors to Ancient America: The Evidence for European and Asian Presence in America Prior to Columbus. McFarland, 2005. ISBN 0786419172
  • Schroedl, Gerald F. Archaeological Investigations at the Harrison Branch and Bat Creek Sites. University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology, Report of Investigations No. 10, 1975.
  • Thomas, Cyrus H. Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1890-91, 1894. "Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology." Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

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