Daily Archives: August 21, 2010

Glenn Beck’s Excellent Pseudohistorical Adventure Continues

There was a time when I thought that Glenn Beck’s history lessons couldn’t get any weirder than his invocation of the Washington prophecy.

That was before August 18, when he left the shallows of pseudohistory behind him and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

First, he pointed out that American history didn’t start with Columbus.  Indians had their own civilizations, some of them quite impressive by any contemporary standard.  No argument there, although Beck did his customary routine of arguing that he was imparting some type of arcane, forgotten knowledge.  (Ever read any history books published in the last thirty years, Glenn?)

Then he cited the theory, tossed around in some circles during the colonial and Revolutionary eras, that Indians were descended from prominent Old World civilizations.  That’s when I started to wonder where he was headed.

That’s when things took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.  Beck pointed out some superficial similarities between ancient Native American earthen structures and Egyptian pyramids, and started arguing that Hebrew artifacts have turned up in Native American archaeological sites.  The scholarly community, he claimed, had engaged in a cover-up to hide this from the public.

I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what was coming next, and I was right.  Beck spoke three little words which descended like a credibility-shattering sledgehammer: Bat Creek Stone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bat Creek Stone, you’re not alone.  It’s a deservedly obscure artifact, an unimpressive slice of rock less than six inches long with an inscription that looks like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

It first turned up during a Smithsonian excavation of some East Tennessee Indian mounds back in 1889.  For about eighty years, nobody gave it a second thought.  Then along came Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University, who claimed that the inscription was actually an ancient form of Hebrew.

Now, Gordon was hardly an impartial observer when it came to this sort of thing.  He was a firm believer in the notion that there was substantial contact between the Old and New Worlds well before the time of Columbus.  The possibility of an ancient Hebrew inscription in a Tennessee Indian mound offered possible corroboration for his pet theory, the sort of corroboration which is quite scarce indeed.

As you can imagine, archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers were unconvinced.  Eminent Hebrew paleographers have dismissed the inscription, arguing that most of the characters could not possibly correspond to Paleo-Hebrew letters of the period in question and bear only a superficial similarity to ancient Hebrew script.  Frauds of this sort were common in nineteenth-century America, and in fact the Bat Creek Stone’s inscription is similar to a speculative reconstruction of some ancient Hebrew writing that appared in a late nineteenth-century Masonic publication.  Two of the stone’s critics have made a case that the leader of the Smithsonian’s original excavation may have forged the stone and planted it in an attempt to boost his troubled career.  (You can read their analysis here.)  It’s worth noting that the stone’s most prominent modern-day proponent is actually an economist, who lacks any professional qualifications in paleography, archaeology, or ethnology.

In short, the Bat Creek Stone probably belongs in the realm of Bigfoot and the Mothman, not serious scholarly inquiry.

I was only aware of the stone because for several years it’s been residing at one of my favorite haunts.  It’s on indefinite loan to the University of Tennessee’s fantastic McClung Museum, where its display label quite rightly explains why it’s a dubious artifact.

Beck, by contrast, never mentioned that anyone doubted the Hebrew inscription at all, let alone that it’s pretty universally discounted by experts in every relevant field.  He simply stated that the inscription was in Hebrew.  Case closed.

It took me, an ordinary schmuck with no expertise in this sort of thing, a few seconds to find a slew of evidence debunking the Bat Creek Stone with a simple search engine.  Just typing its name into Google is sufficient to demonstrate that it’s a troubled artifact.  Yet Beck never gave any indication whatsoever that its status was in any doubt.  This omission bothers me much more than his belief in the inscription’s authenticity.

I don’t expect Glenn Beck to be an expert in early American ethnography, archaeology, or paleography.  I do, however, expect him to employ the most basic kind of fact-checking before he assumes the responsibility of educating millions of Americans in history.

Did anybody from Beck’s show even bother to Google the darn thing?  Who in the world is he paying to be his fact-checker, and does he have any inkling how badly he needs to fire them?

Maybe the notion of an ancient Hebrew inscription in America excited him because of his own religious convictions.  That’s fine, but since the scholarly community discounts the inscription, he has the responsibility to at least acknowledge that a controversy exists.  He didn’t, and his presentation was therefore inaccurate and misleading.

Beck omitted critical information, whether out of simple ignorance that it existed or a dishonest attempt to cover it up.  Neither possibility is reassuring, and I think the American people would be much better off if he would stop trying to educate them about their own history.  Physician, heal thyself.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory, Tennessee History