The following article originally appeared in the
Columbus Dispatch on December 14th, 2004. It is no longer available on the
Dispatch website, so I am republishing it here. There is growing interest in artifacts such as the Bat Creek Stone and the Newark Decalogue Stone due to the popularity of cable television programs that offer sensationalized views of archaeology and America’s ancient past, so it’s important to make the scientific perspective on these objects widely accessible.
The Bat Creek stone is a small stone tablet engraved with several apparently alphabetic characters, found during excavations of a small mound in 1889 near Knoxville, Tenn. Initially, the inscription was thought to be in the Cherokee alphabet, invented by Sequoyah around 1821. J. Huston MuCulloch, an Ohio State University economics professor, dashed this interpretation when he obtained a radiocarbon date of A.D. 427 for the mound and found that the inscription was written not in Cherokee but in a form of Hebrew.
Image of the Bat Creek Stone from the Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology
He concluded, in a 1993 essay in the Biblical Archaeology Review
, that at least “a few Hebrew sailors” must have made their way to eastern North America more than 500 years before Leif Eriksson. Archaeologists and historians, however, have rejected the Bat Creek stone as a fake. Kyle McCarter, Jr., a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a response to McCulloch’s article that the history of the Bat Creek stone belongs not to some fifth century Israelite odyssey but to “the melodrama of American archaeology in the 19th century.” Robert Mainfort and Mary Kwas, two archaeologists with the University of Arkansas, announced in the current issue of American Antiquity
that they have found conclusive proof the Bat Creek stone was a forgery, and they identify the source of the fraud. The text of the inscription appears as an illustration in the General History, Cyclopedia, and Dictionary of Freemasonry
published in 1870. John Emmert, the excavator of the Bat Creek mound, was something of a ne’er-do-well who once had been fired from the Smithsonian for drinking problems. He or an accomplice must have copied the inscription from the Masonic cyclopedia onto the slab of stone, which they then pretended to discover in their excavation. Emmert might have been trying to impress his boss with a marvelous discovery, or he might have been trying to get revenge for being fired. The Bat Creek stone was accepted as authentic and appeared in the Smithsonian’s final report on the mounds. Ironically, this report finally established that the Mound-Builders were Native Americans, not some lost tribe from the Old World. Richard Lewontin, writing in the Nov. 18 New York Review of Books
, makes the disturbing claim that “we do not know how often scientific fraud occurs, nor can we ever know.” But the historical detective work of Mainfort and Kwas has exposed one famous hoax, and has shed light on a fascinating chapter of American archaeology. Brad Lepper