Tennessee Bat Creek Stone Mystery

Two of the most hotly contested issues in American archaeology during the nineteenth century were the existence of an American Paleolithic of comparable age to sites in Europe and hypothetical pre-Columbian contacts with the Old World. Many fraudulent antiquities appeared adding fuel to these already heated controversies.  Some of the hoaxes include the Davenport tablets, the Kennsington runestone, the Calaveras skull and the Holly Oak pendant.  Although largely laid to rest by the beginning of the twentieth century, this culminated in an area of study often referred to as “cult archaeology.”

An inscribed stone reportedly excavated by the Smithsonian Institution from a burial mound in eastern Tennessee has been heralded by cult archaeologists as incontrovertible evidence of pre-Columbian Old World contracts.

The Bat Creek Stone was professionally excavated in 1889 from an undisturbed burial mound in Eastern Tennessee by the Smithsonian’s Mound Survey project. The director of the project, Cyrus Thomas, initially declared that the curious inscription on the stone were “beyond question letters of the Cherokee alphabet.”  Cyrus Thomas later called the stone a forgery and indicated the inscribed signs do not represent legitimate Paleo-Hebrew.

In the 1960s, Henriette Mertz and Corey Ayoob both noticed that the inscription and confirmed it as Semitic, and specifically Paleo-Hebrew of approximately the first or second century A.D. According to him, the five letters to the left of the comma-shaped word divider read, from right to left, LYHWD, or “for Judea.”

He noted that the broken letter on the far left is consistent with mem, in which case this word would instead read LYHWD[M], or “for the Judeans.”

Hebrew scholar and archaeologist Robert Stieglitz (1976) confirmed Gordon’s reading of the longer word, and identified the second letter of the shorter word as a qoph. Mertz (1964) herself had first proposed that the first letter is a (reversed) resh. The main line would then read RQ , LYHWD[M], i.e. “Only for Judea,” or “Only for the Judeans” if the broken letter is included.

In Paleo-Hebrew, words are required to be separated by a dot or short diagonal stroke serving as a word divider, rather than by a space as in English or modern Hebrew. The short diagonal word divider used on the Bat Creek inscription is less common than the dot, but appears both in the Siloam inscription and the Qumran Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll.

In 1988, wood fragments found with the inscription were Carbon-14 dated to somewhere between 32 A.D. and 769 A.D.(McCulloch 1988). This range is consistent with Gordon’s dating of the letters.

The Bat Creek stone long lay out of sight in a back room of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., but currently it is on indefinite loan to the McClung Museum of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where it is prominently on display.

The findspot was about 40 miles south of Knoxville, in what is now a TVA recreational area on the shore of Lake Telico at the mouth of Bat Creek. The mound itself has been plowed flat, and only its approximate location is known.

Perhaps the TVA could be prevailed upon to mark a path from old highway 72 to the approximate site, possibly making a complete loop around High Top, with a spur trail to the summit. A picnic table and a small sign at the approximate site of the mound would make an appropriate memorial for the find, as well as a pleasant destination for hikers and boaters.

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