Tag Archives: Bat Creek Stone

The Bat Creek Stone rolls onward

It’s a source of both surprise and amusement to me that the post on the Bat Creek Stone continues to get passionate comments almost two years after it went up.  Whenever I glance at the search terms that bring people to the blog, “Bat Creek Stone” is invariably near the top of the list.  I can understand that, since it’s a pretty obscure topic and thus there are only so many places on the Interwebs a Google search will take you.  But the fact that people continue to post replies is unusual, since this blog gets very modest traffic and it’s rare for any of my posts to generate more than a few comments.

I’m also surprised at the diversity of these reactions.  Some people take issue with specific points, while others just seem irate that I was critical of Glenn Beck.  Some readers want to use the post as an opportunity to make a case for pre-Columbian contact in general, or for the validity of Mormonism.

I’m not qualified to make a case for or against the Bat Creek Stone.  I’m neither an archaeologist nor a linguist.  But I have a real problem with a public figure like Beck taking it upon himself to educate his audience about the past and making such a mess of it.  Getting one’s facts straight is the first responsibility of the public historian.  When it comes to the Bat Creek Stone, it simply won’t do to present it as an undisputed artifact.  That’s what Beck did.

I’m not complaining about the reaction the post has gotten, mind you.  Far from it.  I wish readers would pitch in like this all the time.  I just think it’s interesting that of all the subjects we toss around here, this is the one people want to discuss the most.

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Nice blog! Which way to the weird Glenn Beck rock?

“I have always found revisiting my novels painful work,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the Foreword to a collection of his essays, “and the novels, after all, are the marriages and great loves of one’s imagination.  In comparison, the columns and articles which follow are quick tricks and one-night stands, the offspring of opportunity rather than passion.”

If an essay is a one-night stand, then a blog post must be something quite ephemeral and tawdry indeed.  Perhaps it’s a drunken French kiss in a back alley, if we were to extend McMurtry’s metaphor.

Such an insubstantial format probably doesn’t merit much of importance, which is why it seems fitting that my most-visited post of 2010 wasn’t one of my lengthy meditations on the nature of historical memory, nor one of my carefully composed site reviews, nor one of my periodic reflections on the historiographical state of a given subject.

No, the post that got the most traffic (by far) in 2010 was an irritable rant on Glenn Beck and the Bat Creek Stone.  In fact, I continue to get irate comments on that post from readers who take my skepticism toward an obscure Tennessee artifact very, very personally.

Oh, well.  I suppose that if you’re going to go Googling for historical information, it’s best that you do it for something like spurious archaeological finds rather than more substantial topics like the origins of the American Revolution.  For the latter, you’re better off reading a book, anyway.

I wish all my readers, both frequent and occasional, a happy and prosperous 2011.  I hope you’ll continue to make this blog one of your regular online stops, no matter what brings you here, and whether you agree with these unsolicited observations about history or not.

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Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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