After a great deal of hard work, I am not only a few pages away from finishing my book on the history of the Mound Builder myth, but in doing so, I ran into a couple of small issues that I haven’t been able to resolve, for all my efforts at research. I am going to present them here, and perhaps one of you reading this will have an answer.
The first question surrounds the provenance of a quotation. In his 1968 book on the Mound Builder myth entitled, oddly enough, Mound Builders of Ancient America, Robert Silverberg asserts that the eventual debunker of the Mound Builder myth, Cyrus Thomas, who led a Smithsonian team investigating 2,000 mounds and authored its monumental 1894 report on the subject, was originally a believer in the myth that the mounds had been built by a lost race. According to Silverberg, Thomas said that he had been a “pronounced believer in in the existence of a race of Mound Builders, distinct from the American Indians.” Silverberg didn’t give a source for the quotation, and as I poked around, I found that basically everyone who repeated the claim later got it from Silverberg.
Eventually, I found Silverberg’s source. It was Neil M. Judd’s Bureau of American Ethnology: A Partial History from 1967, where Judd gives the same quotation and concludes that Thomas was hired to debunk the mound myth precisely because he was a believer, thus making his eventual conclusion all the more powerful. I haven’t seen a copy of the book, but the Google Books excerpt shows no footnote, and I have been unable to determine the source. It is also unclear form Judd’s wording whether these words were meant to be those of Thomas or someone describing him at a later date.
The trouble is that I can’t find an independent source confirming that Thomas began as a lost race believer. I will throw this out there for all you: Is there a primary source for this quotation? If anyone knows where to look, I would be greatly interested.
The second question is more of a philosophical one, and it revolves around the infamous Bat Creek Stone. Most of you are aware that the Bat Creek stone was uncovered in 1889 and sent to Cyrus Thomas at the Smithsonian. Thomas read the inscription as Cherokee, a syllabary developed in the early 1800s, and therefore concluded that either the mound it was found in dated to after 1820, or the stone was a fraud. (A third conclusion, that the Cherokee syllabary predated its own creation, he dismissed as illogical.) He put the stone into storage where no one much cared about it until the 1960s, when Cyrus Gordon realized that Thomas had held the stupid thing upside down and that the inscription was in Hebrew. Thereafter, it became a touchstone of hyper-diffusionist studies, and remains one of Scott Wolter’s favorite pieces of supposed evidence for Old World colonies in the New Word.
As most readers accept, this slab of stone inscribed with a crude rendition of Paleo-Hebrew writing is actually a forgery. I’m sure that many readers will also agree with the conclusion put forward in 2004 that John W. Emmert, the Smithsonian agent who conducted the 1889 excavation that allegedly uncovered the stone, was the forger, or had the stone forged on his behalf. Emmert was also a suspect in an 1883 set of archaeological forgeries, and several of his other Smithsonian digs contained artifacts that modern researchers have called into question.
But I am not entirely comfortable with the conclusions drawn by the authors of that 2004 article. In “The Bat Creek Stone Revisited,” Robert C. Mainfort, Jr. and Mary L. Kwas identify the Bat Creek inscription as an incomplete and rough copy of a startlingly similar inscription appearing in an 1868/1870 encyclopedia of Freemasonry, representing the inscription placed on a plate worn by the High Priest of the Jews in Exodus 39:30. This much is pretty convincing, and I don’t have any problem with it. But the next step of their argument doesn’t make sense to me.
Mainfort and Kwas believe that Emmert forged the inscription in order to get in good with Thomas, who had recently published a paper explaining his view that the ancestors of the Cherokee were the Mound Builders. They claim that since Emmert didn’t know Cherokee writing, he fabricated it by using Paleo-Hebrew:
Emmert was personally acquainted with the Cherokee of western North Carolina and expressed interest in their history (Emmert to Thomas, December 19, 1888). Thus, he may have had some familiarity with the Cherokee syllabary. It is very unlikely, however, that he could write acceptable Cherokee, so a passage in contemporary Cherokee script was not an option for the Bat Creek forgery. What was needed was an inscription containing several characters that superficially resembled some Cherokee characters. The Bat Creek inscription, whether viewed in the original published orientation (Thomas 1890a, 1890b, 1894) or in the "proper" Paleo-Hebrew orientation, fits the bill.
I don’t think it does. This raises several problems for me. First, it suggests that Emmert could research ancient characters in a library, but wasn’t able to obtain or copy a sample of Cherokee, despite being friends with actual real Cherokee. Second, it suggests hat Emmert was able to plot an elaborate forgery with the intention of mimicking a presumed ancient Cherokee script, otherwise unattested, but made virtually no changes to the inscription he copied. Third, it suggests that he put all of his faith in the guess that Thomas would read the inscription upside down and that no one who saw it would Jewish, biblically literate, or a Freemason and thus recognize it for what it is.
That just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
But what does make more sense to me is that Emmert meant for it to be read as Paleo-Hebrew. At the time, the Cherokee were widely believed to be descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Perhaps the partially educated Emmert had read recent books on the subject and thought that Paleo-Hebrew would have been the language of the ancestors of the Cherokee. Or maybe he was actually trying to the tie the mounds to the Lost Tribes.
I’m not sure which is right, but I have a hard time imagining that he could copy from a Masonic book but not one with Cherokee script in it, or that he couldn’t have just made up some random characters if he wanted something unusual or unknown.
Finally, I have been able to trace back to the early 1960s the claim that William Gladstone, the British prime minister, requested funds for a Royal Navy expedition to search for Atlantis. But the various sources say that he asked Parliament, Cabinet, or the Treasury, and that one or more of these refused him. I can’t find a contemporary account proving it, though. If anyone has seen one, please let me know.
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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