Regular readers will remember that I have no particular patience for people who proclaim that the Tucson Lead Artifacts are a genuinely medieval archive of records from Jewish colonists who fought the Toltec in eighth-century Arizona. That has not stopped generations of fringe theorists from proclaiming them proof of European diffusion into America during the European Dark Ages. The latest to make the claim is Donald N. Yates, whom regular readers will recall as the founder of DNA Consultants, a company that sells DNA testing kits of dubious value and which proclaims that DNA evidence proves that Yates’s Native American ancestors were actually Jews and thus America is, by implication, the new and true Promised Land of God.
Yates’s claims are hardly different than those that preceded him, but he uses his academic credentials to suggest that his interpretation of the Lead Artifacts is more academically grounded than those of his critics. Yates, who has previously presented himself as a fringe historian and a DNA expert, now falls back on his doctoral degree in Classics from the University of North Carolina, in which he says he specialized in Dark Age Latin. Yates earned a Ph.D. in 1979, and his dissertation was on the “Isengrimus” attributed to Simon of Ghent, who flourished in the 1300s. Such qualifications, Yates says, qualify him to determine the authenticity of the artifacts.
“To make that decision, you have to have credentials in certain areas—in medieval Latin and paleography (the study of ancient manuscripts) and epigraphy, which is the study of inscriptions,” Yates told the Epoch Times on Saturday. “I’m a classicist, I have a Ph.D. in classical studies specializing in medieval Latin and paleography. I have a whole row of publications in that very, very tiny specialized area.”
Normally such a pedigree would demand that we defer to Yates’s expertise, but his claims are so heavily dependent on a combination of unsupported assumption and special pleading that it seems almost as though he is intentionally deceiving and using his expertise to cover the deception, or else is blinded by belief and fitting evidence to ideology.
Yates is promoting his short (50 page) new book, The Tucson Artifacts: An Album of Photography with Transcriptions and Translations of the Medieval Latin, viewable in full at the link.
Some of his claims simply do not make much chronological sense. For example, he argues that the artifacts describe a Romano-Jewish colony called Calalus, which he believes was under the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Empire and battled the Toltec, whose name was preserved on the artifacts as Toltezus. The Holy Roman Empire, assuming we are referring to revived Western Empire under Charlemagne (“Holy” wasn’t added to its title for centuries), commenced in 800, but the artifacts themselves allege that the colony had been founded in 775, when Charlemagne was merely King of the Franks, and the only “Roman” empire was centered on Constantinople. Other artifacts suggest that more colonists arrived in 800 (though they might have been the same people, writing later), though by definition they couldn’t have left before Charlemagne took his crown on Christmas Day. (The “Great Cross” gives a date of January 1, 800 that Yates wishes us to identify as 801.) This might be a matter of semantics, you could say, but the colonists would not have had contact with Europe and could not have known about the revival of the Roman Empire. Yates argues that the colonists were the Jews given a kingdom in southern France under Charlemagne’s father. Regular readers will remember this kingdom as the Septimania that Andrew Collins mistakes for the Aztec underworld.
The trouble with this claim is that it leaves virtually no room for error. Sepitmania was a Jewish kingdom for only a short time. In 719, the Moors of Spain conquered Gothic Septimania, then a Christian province, and added it to their emirate. The province returned to Christian hands in 759, and the Jewish state said to have been proclaimed by Pepin III in 768 in repayment for Jewish support against the Moors in Narbonne, elected its prince, or nasi, in 770. Carolingian chronicles state that these were Goths, not Jews, however; and the general scholarly consensus seems to be that while there was a Jewish leader who was a prince in Narbonne, who governed the Jews, there was not an explicitly Jewish principality there. Even if there were, we have a precious short time between the establishment of the Jewish principality and its alleged expedition to America undertaken under its patronage and without any record existing. It’s not entirely impossible in chronological terms, but almost vanishingly improbable. (My view is that the story may have been modeled on the Spanish myth of the Seven Cities, allegedly populated from Spain in 734 or 714.)
This is important because Yates claims that a petroglyph found in Arizona vaguely in the shape of the letter “R” stands for “Romans” from this colony. The Jews of Septimania never considered themselves Romans, either in the Muslim period or the Carolingian, nor would their Christian counterparts, even after the restoration of the Western Empire. Earlier speculators made the Calalus Jews hail from Rome itself (where only 1,000 Jews lived), but Yates wants them to come from Septimania.
Similarly, the name “Toltec” can’t be shown to date back before the 1200s CE. It’s a Nahuatl word for the legendary inhabitants of Tula, Hidaldo (Tollan) at the time of the Aztec migration into Mexico. The Toltec themselves—by whatever name they spoke of their own people—flourished between 900 and 1200 CE, a bit too late to have been the opponents of medieval Jews. Even the most expansive claims for the Toltec, which identify them with the people of Teotihuacan from the fifth century CE, do not put them farther north than central Mexico, let alone Arizona.
But even if we accept that Yates is no expert on chronology, his work on the Latin of the artifacts oversimplifies the challenges that the illiterate writing presents. For example, look at this sentence from one of the artifacts: “Provehimur pelago ad Romam Calalvs terra incognita. Venervnt Anno Domini DCCLXXV et regnavit popvlorvm Theodorus.”
In either Classical or medieval Latin, this sentence is badly written, with a number of grammar errors. Yates translates it smoothly this way: “We are transports on the sea bound for Rome. Calalus was an unknown land. They came in A.D. 775 and Theodore ruled the peoples.” The trouble is, as he well knows, the grammar of the sentence doesn’t support this. A more literal translation would say “We were carried (or sailed) by sea to Rome Calalus, an unknown land. They came in the Year of Our Lord 775, and the peoples’ Theodorus reigned.” Surely “from” Rome was meant, but the wrong preposition is used. Similarly, Theodorus is probably meant to have reigned “over” the people, but the genitive plural case demands a possessive translation.
Yates, however, has a vested interest in pretending that the texts are more coherent than they are, because he wants to absolve them of charges of plagiarism. Shortly after the discovery of the artifacts in the 1920s, scholars noted that chunks of the text were borrowed from Classical authors, often out of context and badly copied. Yates claims this isn’t true, and he says that only three of four experts in all of America can truly appreciate the artifacts’ early medieval Latin.
Here is where Yates begins to stretch the facts. When asked about claims that the text on the artifacts was copied from nineteenth century Latin textbooks, Yates denies this: “Yeah, [the inscriptions] quote half of a verse from Virgil. Well, everybody else did too. Virgil was used throughout the Middle Ages and was memorized by schoolboys.” This is a half-truth, and it greatly underplays the extent of the copying. Vergil and some of the other authors appearing on the artifacts were standard medieval curriculum authors, but among the quotes is the more obscure Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline 60.4, where the text is copied verbatim: “Catilina in prima acie versari, omnia providere, multum ipse pugnare, saepe hostum ferire” (“Catiline was active in the front line, he attended to everything, fought much in person, and often smote down the enemy,” as Albert Harkness translates). On the so-called Josephus cross, the sentence occurs with one alteration: “Catiline” is replaced with “Josephus.” Yates obscures the similarity by amending the spelling error of multem (for multum) to multitudinem, which the inscription does not support, and he makes no notes about the literary dependence of this inscription on Sallust, an unusual omission given his habit of comparing other lines to texts both famous and obscure elsewhere in his translations.
Now, in the interest of disclosure, Sallust was often taught in the Middle Ages as a text for learning Latin, and it’s worth noting that a British text, the Historia regum of Symeon of Durham (c. 1129 CE) plagiarizes this very passage from Sallust in section 127. But here, Symeon in plagiarizing by necessity needed to alter the verb forms to fit the new passage. The lead artifacts are absolutely verbatim. So, it is not beyond all probability that a theoretical Arizona Jew with a dusting of ungrammatical Latin might have happened to use this phrase, but it is again almost vanishingly improbable.
When we look at the quotations, obvious and obscure, occurring on the Tucson Lead Artifacts, it stretches credulity that the vast majority would appear by coincidence in Albert Harkness’s popular Latin Grammar (1881), and the rest in other Latin primers of the era. Harkenss even uses the line from Sallust. The collection of coincidences begins to become too great.
For Yates’s position to be correct, we must posit a massive coincidence on the part of Harkness, and a Romano-Jewish population simultaneously impeccably educated in memorized Classics and utterly ignorant of Latin grammar to the point that they couldn’t compose a full sentence.
But here is where Yates provides another untruth to obscure this extremely unlikely scenario:
Yates gave another example of the nuances missed by critics: “They didn’t catch the fact that there are some biblical verses that came from the old Latin version of the bible used in the Middle Ages.” This version of the bible was only recently recovered, so would not have been available to a hoaxer in the 1920s, Yates said.
Here Yates appears to be referring to the Vetus Latina (“Old Latin” version), the early set of Latin translations (rather than one single translation) in general circulation before St. Jerome’s Vulgate of 382 and not officially repudiated until the Church canonized the Vulgate as the official Latin translation at the Council of Trent in the late 1500s. The Vetus Latina was never lost, and even a cursory search will demonstrate that it was available in the 1920s. Specific quotations from it need not have come directly from scholarly editions of the text; the early Christian Fathers quoted from the Vetus Latina, and Biblical phrases might thus have appeared on the Tucson Artifacts from consultation of standard editions of their Latin texts, available in most libraries at the time, and not necessarily from the Vetus Latina. Other readings from the Vetus Latina are maintained in Catholic liturgy (e.g. V.L. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” vs. Vulgate “Gloria in altissimus Deo”) and might thus have appeared on the artifacts from a Catholic liturgical source. Without specific examples, however, I cannot provide the specific lines of transmission, and Yates did not provide a specific example either in the article or the book, nor does he identify in the book specific Bible quotes. Instead, he compares some phrases to Biblical phrases, though they are not direct quotations, but most of these (like fama semper vivat) are stock phrases.
His other piece of evidence in the article is that one lead artifact allegedly uses the word urhe, which he says means “ore” in medieval Latin, but which scholars have misread as urbe (“city”) in Classical Latin. Yates says he’s one of only a handful of people to know of the word, and it must be a well-kept secret since it doesn’t appear in any Latin dictionary I’ve seen, or any medieval Latin text I have been able to find. The spelling, with the redundant “h” in the middle is very unusual. Here we must defer to Yates’s doctoral familiarity with medieval Latin, but it would strengthen his case to provide an example of the word. Beyond this, he would do well to tell us what inscription he reads “urhe” upon that we might confirm that the “h” is not a “b” as literally everyone else who has ever looked at it, by Yates’s own admission, believes.
So vexing was this problem that I looked it up in Yates’s book where he gives a different answer altogether. There he transcribes a phrase as Urre renatus Iacobus, or “Reborn in gold was Jacob” in Yates’ translation. The word urre Yates claims to be cognate with the Old French urhe and Old Spanish urro, being ancestral forms of oro, the Spanish word for gold. These words derive from the Latin aurum, “gold,” and I am unaware of a medieval Latin text using the French-inflected form. He also compares the word to the Basque urre, also meaning “gold,” which would be an odd coincidence if a respected Spanish work on the Basque language didn’t inform me that it was likely borrowed from an Indo-European tongue.
The accompanying photograph of the Great Cross found September 13, 1924 shows the word to be “VRRE” but where the two “R’s” are very different, the first being a standard R but the second having a curving leg, making it look like an unfinished or misshapen B. All of the other “R’s” have a much straighter leg. For this reason, even true believer in Calalus Cyclone Corey holds that the word in question is urbe, or “city.” As mentioned, Yates holds to urre because it would make the text seem more medieval.
The trouble is that it requires a bit of special pleading on Yates’s part. In the notes to his own book he identifies a number of spelling errors on the artifacts, some of which are, frankly, bizarre, explicable only if the inscriber(s) had virtually no knowledge of Latin. He has no trouble identifying these as spelling errors by the inscriber(s). What reason do we have to declare this spelling error not just an authentic early medieval word but the sole example of one in the collection and diagnostic for the age of the entire assemblage?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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