Beck on Bat Creek

Beck on Bat Creek September 6, 2010

Glenn Beck does a lot of talking about God. The odd thing about that is that he does it while surrounded by Christians – most probably evangelicals – while Beck himself is a Mormon. The Mormons may believe in the same God as the rest of Christianity, but they believe he has a very different nature. How Beck handles having such differences with his primary audience is an interesting question.

James McGrath points out how many in Beck’s audience have co-opted the Progressive Christian arguments for ecumenical co-existence. But every now and then, Beck still puts his foot in it. He did so a couple weeks ago, when he mentioned an odd item called the Bat Creek Stone. Beck believes that the Stone is evidence for the Mormon version of North American pre-history.

The Stone

The Bat Creek Stone was discovered in 1889 in a burial mound at the confluence of the Bat Creek and Little Tennessee River. It was discovered by John Emmert, a semi-trained archaeologist working for the Smithsonian. Emmert claimed to have found the Stone along with some copper bracelets, wood fragments and skeletons in the mound. Later tests would date the wood fragments to the first CE.

The most notable feature of the Stone was the eight characters engraved upon it. Emmert claimed that these were Cherokee. This caused some obvious problems, since the Cherokee alphabet was only created by Sequoyah around 1828, and the mound was clearly much older than that.

Emmert’s superior at the Smithsonian, Dr. Cyrus Thomas, already believed that the mounds had been created by the Cherokee or their ancestors. Thomas was willing to argue that the symbols used in the Cherokee language were actually a great deal older than previously thought. He later seemed to abandon this argument, and may have decided that the Stone was a forgery.

Despite the initial flurry this generated, the Stone seemed to disappear off the radar. It continued to attract very little attention up until the 1970s. That’s when Dr. Cyrus Gordon (yes, another Cyrus), a professor of Mediterranean Studies, claimed that when you inverted the stone it became clear that the characters were actually Hebrew. He admitted that three of the characters were problematic, but suggested that the stone might read “for the Jews.”

The Current Debate

Gordon was a proponent of a very old idea: that the Old World and the New World had been in contact after the migration of the Native Americans and before Columbus. He suggested that the Stone proved that people had migrated to America during the Roman Empire. Most other proponents of the theory have different ideas, and the stone is frequently mentioned by people who argue that it shows a connection between ancient Jews and modern Native Americans. You can imagine the connections with the Lost Tribes of Israel or Mormon pseudo-history.

The debate has continued, most prominently in the pages of the Biblical Archeology Review, where Huston McCullough argued for its authenticity. One of the best responses to Gordon was an article by Robert C. Mainfort and Mary L. Kwas in the The Tennessee Anthropologist, available online here.

In order to understand the symbols, the authors contacted Frank Moore Cross, at that point the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard. Dr. Cross is famous for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, being one of only two Americans on the scroll-publishing team.

Cross’ verdict is pretty damning: of the eight characters on the stone, six cannot be identified as paleo-Hebrew script. Faced with that, the most probable conclusion is that the Stone is a fabrication, rather than evidence of Hebrew contact with the New World or the preexistence of the Cherokee alphabet. Since there are no photographs or reports from the dig, it is impossible to say with any certainty that the stone wasn’t placed by Emmert or someone else at the time.


There’s a fair bit of speculation as to why a forgery would be created. Mainfort and Kwas suggest that Emmert was trying to gain support from his boss, who believed that the mounds were the work of the ancestors of the Cherokee. Another theory has it that Luther Meade Blackman, a Union veteran and local stone cutter, was trying to set Emmert, a former Confederate soldier, up to be fired by planting a fake stone.

I don’t know how much this kind of speculation is going to gain us. My inclination is to rest on Cross’ statements about the stone. It’s a forgery, and finding out who created it and why is less important than making sure its nature is understood.

But let’s set its nature aside for the moment, and look at the arguments that it’s used for. Let’s assume that it does, as Gordon suggests, read “for the Jews.” What does that tell us?

Not nearly as much as many pseudo-archeologists would often like. It would presumably show some contact between the Middle East and North America, but contact does not equal influence. Consider the Maine Penny(above). While its exact provenance is still unknown, it seems likely to be a real Norwegian silver penny. But no one is going to suggest that it proves the Natives Americans are really descendants of Vikings. At most, it’s a sign that the Vikings who may have briefly settled in Vinland might have traded south farther than expected.

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