Regular readers will know that I hate leaving loose ends. One of the many things that bothered me about Saturday’s episode of America Unearthed was the claim that the French explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye discovered a rock covered in “Tartarian” script, and that this script could be mistaken for Norse runes. This material the show apparently derived from Kensington Rune Stone investigator Hjalmar Holand, who as early as 1911 wrote:
Tartarian and runic characters have a remarkable similarity and would look alike to one who was not a specialist in either. As the Tartarian origin is out of the question and as the inscription was of neither Indian nor any known European origin, the conclusion is more than probable that this was a runic inscription. This belief gains emphasis when we remember that this stone was found near the home of the Mandan Indians who showed unmistakable signs of being the offspring of a mixture with a blonde white race.
He would hold to these claims for the rest of his life and repeat them across his many books.
Scott Wolter showed an image of what he asserted represented “Tartarian” characters like those he believed may have been carved on the stone. (No image of the stone exists.) I do not know where this image came from, but the characters, as best as I can tell, are copied from the Old Turkic Script, a rune-like alphabet used in the eighth through tenth centuries in Central Asia, the area known as Tartary in the 1700s.
As you will recall, the warrant for this came from a story supposedly told by Vérendrye but recorded not by him in his own works but rather by the Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm, who in his 1748 Travels to North America that Vérendrye and others told it to him:
At last they met with a large stone like a pillar, and in it a smaller stone was fixed, which was covered on both sides with unknown characters. This stone, which was about a foot of French measure in length, and between four and five inches broad, they broke loose, and carried to Canada with them, from whence it was sent to France, to the Secretary of State, Count de Maurepas. What became of it afterwards they know not, but think it is preserved in his collection. Several of the Jesuits who have seen and handled this stone in Canada unanimously affirm, that the letters on it are the same with those which, in the books containing accounts of Tataria, are called Tatarian characters; and on comparing both together they found them perfectly alike.
On Saturday, I observed that modern Kensington Rune Stone writers ascribe the Tartarian tongue to Old Hungarian, a runiform script related to Old Turkic that can easily be mistaken for runes. However, I did not have the time to investigate further whether this is what scholars of the eighteenth century meant by the word “Tartarian.” As it turns out, it isn’t. Scott Wolter should know this because the previous week he displayed an early modern map he claimed to be of Chinese provenance that clearly labeled Manchuria as “Tartaria.”
As far as I can tell, most modern writers on the subject of the Kensington Rune Stone have accepted Holand’s premise without question that “Tartarian” script was rune-like and therefore Old Turkic or Norse. I believe they do so because of images that Holand used from Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg’s An Historico-geographical Description of the North and Eastern Parts of Europe and Asia (1730), which (in the English edition) attributes to the Tartars of modern Asiatic Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia the following symbols on their ancient monuments:
(The original 1730 German edition does not include any additional rune-like illustrations, only Arabic, Syriac, and Mongolian style scripts.)
Since Strahlenberg says these are artifacts of ancient times (and indeed no one studied or deciphered them until the 1890s, when their medieval origin was noted), and not the living modern language, they cannot be what anyone meant by Tartarian characters since the Tartars were living people with a living script.
I went back to eighteenth century texts to see what was usually meant by “Tartarian characters” and I learned that they referred to the Mongolian alphabet, specifically as used to record the now nearly extinct Manchu tongue, then the official court language of the Manchu emperors of China. Material translated into English in the 1740s from Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s General History of China (1738) and from the missionary Jean-Baptiste Régis specifies that such references are to the “Manchew, or Tartar language” and notes that the Mongolian characters, uniquely written in vertical columns but with horizontal orientation, made as much sense upside down as right side up: “The Tartar Characters are of such a Nature, that they are as legible the wrong End upwards as the other way.” It is quite clear that “Tartary” was the name of Manchuria and Mongolia, and this comes from no less an authority than the Manchu crown prince, the son of the Emperor of China, who engaged with a Jesuit missionary in a debate over the virtues of the French and Tartarian tongues.
In other eighteenth century sources, Tartarian refers to languages spoken around the Black Sea, beyond Armenia and in the Crimean region—but is clearly distinct from Hungarian. Still others call Turkish a Tartarian tongue, or call Siberian one. According to one account, there were more than “fifty dialects” of Tartarian spoken “between Moscow and China, by the many kindred tribes.” In short, Tartarian is too broad a category to ascribe any actual meaning—it covers everything from Istanbul to Vladivostok.
All agree, though, that any “Tartarian” characters going by that name have to be of recent vintage, since the scholars of the eighteenth century believed that the Tartarian alphabet was created by Tibetan scholars in the employ of Genghis Khan, before whom there was no written version of Tartarian. Others argued that the Tartarian alphabet was either a derivative of Syriac or even related to runes—but only as much as Latin and Chinese also were derived from the same common source!
But what is most interesting is that the learned men of Europe are documented as having a great deal of trouble figuring out which scribbles and letters were actually Tartarian. In the 1788 “Dissertation on the Tartars,” Sir William Jones—the polyglot scholar who launched the study of the relationships among the Indo-European family of languages, no less—notes that when an alleged Tartarian manuscript arrived in Europe it proved to be no such thing, despite scholarly claims to the contrary:
The page exhibited by Hyde as Khatayan [i.e. southern Tartarian] writing, is evidently a sort of broken Cusick; and the fine manuscript at Oxford, from which it was taken, is more probably a Mendean work on some religious subject, than, as he imagined, a code of Tartarian laws. That very learned man appears to have made a worse mistake in giving us for Mongal characters a page of writing, which has the appearance of Japanese or mutilated Chinese letters.
In other words, if the great men of Europe couldn’t tell Asiatic languages apart (much less actually speak or read them), how can we with any certainty determine which—if any—such language was supposedly recorded on the stone sent from America back to France? My guess—an educated one—is that the stone had Native American geometric petroglyphs which the scholars in Europe, ignorant of such ancient art, wrongly compared to Asiatic alphabets they could barely distinguish from squiggles and scribbles. Given that the scholars of the age believed “Tartarian” to have 202 characters, a coincidental similarity in forms is almost guaranteed. However, some writers, like historian Theodore Blegen, feel that the stone might only have had traces of glacial or animal activity resembling runes and not had any carving on it at all.
Anyway, the characters Scott Wolter showed on America Unearthed as “Tartarian”—undoubtedly at the behest of episode writer Will Yates, adapting them from Holand’s Kensington Rune Stone speculation—are quite unlikely to be what the learned Jesuits were referring to. Drawing as they would on contemporary literature (as Kalm asserts), they could only have meant that it was a living form of Tartarian, like Manchu-Mongolian; i.e., scribbles that were easily confused with petroglyphs. Indeed, before Holand most Victorian scholars concluded that the stone bore misunderstood Native petroglyphs.
Now here’s the kicker: Why would the Jesuits seek out Tartarian alphabets to compare to a Native American stone? It’s because the 1740s were also a time when scholars began to recognize that Native Americans were not a Lost Tribe of Jews or a separate creation but had in fact come to America from Asia, likely through the Bering Strait. Comparing Native American works to those of “Tartary” (i.e., East Asia) was a way of providing (spurious) support for this scholarly hypothesis. A bit later, Thomas Jefferson would draw on similar linguistic research to connect Native American and East Asian languages, though he thought America to have the older tongues. This, in fact, was one of the objects of the mission of Lewis and Clark, to collect vocabularies to help Jefferson make this case. It is this mission that Scott Wolter mistakes for an effort to find lost Welsh tribes.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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