Faith and Forgeries

Faith and Forgeries

by Brant A. Gardner

(Edited by Douglas K Christensen)

The early Latter-day Saints were eager to bolster their faith in the Book of Mormon with secular evidence. They accepted the popular evidences for the presence of remnants of the ten tribes in the Americas and uncritically applied that evidence to the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, that tendency to uncritically support belief in the Book of Mormon through history and archaeology can lead to more than misapplication of historical information. At times, it has led to the attempted promulgation of faith no matter how erroneous based on forgeries.

Faked artifacts are an unfortunate part of the corpus of Mesoamerican art. They find their way into respected articles and books. Nancy L. Kelker (professor of art history at Middle Tennessee State University) and Karen O. Bruhns (director of the Cihuatán/ Las Marías Archaeological Project for the Fundación Nacional de Arqueología in El Salvador) explain: “To a museum professional, ‘fake’ is the ultimate F-word, and saying it in the midst of an exhibition is the supreme blasphemy. The ugly, oft-swept-under-the-rug truth is that fakes abound in an art world built largely on unprovenanced (looted) works, and no exhibition or collection is unassailably free of their contamination.”[1] That situation creates problems for all reconstructions of Mesoamerican art history. When faked artifacts appear to have a particular relevance to the Book of Mormon, they no longer cloud historical reconstruction, they become potentially detrimental to faith if eager Saints pin their testimonies on them.

When the forgery is unknown to an author, its inclusion in an article or text is forgivable. It is unforgivable when the author understands that the items have already been declared to be forgeries, and nevertheless presents them as support for the Book of Mormon. There is a pattern in the use of such artifacts. First, the artifacts (if they were genuine) would be spectacular demonstrations of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Second, they are presented as controversial, but only because academic types have dismissed them out of bias. There is an intentional division made between uncaring and biased scholars and the true believers who understand truth that the scholars simply don’t wish to see. Also common is the claim that the artifacts would be verified if only the scholars would just test them instead of dismiss them—or, since tests have usually been done—if scholars would just test them again.

The Michigan Artifacts

The Michigan Artifacts refer to a large collection of clay tablets and metal items that were discovered in Michigan in the late 1800’s.[2] The most spectacular of the artifacts were those that included an apparently complex writing system and artistic representation of late Christian themes. All of them also bore a symbol consisting of five markings that appear similar to the stylus used to impress cuneiform into clay (some appear on clay, but even on slate, the markings are etched to resemble the result of the stylus), which to modern eyes might look like a two dimensional picture of a thin golf tee. The five markings form three “letters,” the first is vertical, the next three from an “H” and the last is slanted (as this keyboard character— / ). They form a set that some have seen as, and transliterated as, “JHS,” (IH/) a not unintentional (in my opinion) connection to Jesus Christ. IHS was a common Christogram among early Christians, representing the first three letters of the Greek spelling of Jesus; IHSOVS. This was pronounces yesous. The letter we see as a capital H was an “E” in Greek.

The history of the Michigan artifacts is somewhat difficult to trace, as the readily available literature comes from their apologists. A basic beginning point is noted by Fred Rydholm, public school teacher by profession, Michigan historian by avocation:

The “Michigan Tablets” tale begins around 1885, in Big Rapids, where James O. Scotford, one-time sleight-of-hand performer turned sign-painter, was displaying an almost clairvoyant ability to discover Indian artifacts in prehistoric mounds. He sold Indian “relics” (some of them authentic), and was assisted by a Mr. Soper. No one was suspicious until 1890, when Soper was elected Michigan’s Secretary of State, not a very important job in those days. He got into trouble accepting kickbacks, and was promptly fired by Governor Edwin B. Winans, in 1891.

Soper dropped out of sight until 1907, when he re-appeared in Detroit, living near Scotford. At that time, he was selling rare Indian artifacts to collectors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Canada. He offered hundreds of objects—copper weapons, ornaments and all kinds of copper implements as well as clay pipes and bowls which he claimed had been unearthed by Scotford in Isabella County, near Big Rapids, at sites within three miles of Lansing, even in back of Palmer Park.[3]

The version from Edwin Goble and Wayne May’s This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, provides the basics without the more interesting aspects of the backgrounds of the principal discoverers:

Public awareness of the Michigan Mounds Artifacts began in 1874, in Crystal, Michigan, where a farmer, clearing some land, uncovered the large replica of a shuttle ground black slate and highly polished. One surface displayed the incised drawing of a man’s head wearing a helmet and the obverse showed two lines of writing; a group of cuneiform and a line of an unknown script. Over that 19th Century summer, more pieces were found in the surrounding countryside, including a copper dagger, a clay box, and some slate tablets, each item showing an unknown grouping of script but each one bearing on it the grouping of cuneiform, the same as that on the slate shuttle.[4]

The “discovered” artifacts were disputed from the beginning: “When the University of Michigan was given an opportunity to buy ‘two caskets, a prehistoric beer mug, a bowl, three goblets and some copper coins’ at $1,000 and refused, the items were offered at $100, and when the University declined, Soper left them in Ann Arbor.”[5] Nevertheless, they did acquire some notoriety. At least one scholar provided a translation of one of the texts. John Campbell, a philologist, was sent photographs of some of the artifacts. He noted:

On a careful examination of the workable material before me, I saw that I had to deal with something that was only new in the matter of grouping, in other words, with the old Turanian syllabary. This syllabary I was led into acquaintance with through Hittite studies, and, having mastered its various forms and their phonetic equivalents, I have published many decipherments of inscriptions made in its protean characters.”[6] He reported that “The Association accepted my explanation, and Japanese and Basque scholars favour my translations, in the east of the Latin Indian and Siberian inscriptions, and in the west of the Etruscan, Celt-Iberian, and similar documents. Unfortunately, among philological ethnologists there are few Basque and Japanese scholars.[7]

It was perhaps fortunate for Campbell that there were so few Basque and Japanese philological ethnologists. When Alex Chamberlain, a linguist, examined one of Campbell’s translations of a different language, with which Chamberlain was familiar, he found: “Careful study during some nine years of a greater mass of Kootenay linguistic material than is in the possession of any other philologist entitles him [the writer] to an opinion on the questions involved in Professor Campbell’s comparisons, which, as presented in this paper, violate the known rules of the phonology, morphology and syntax of all the languages concerned.”[8]

Campbell’s translation and Chamberlain’s repudiation become a microcosm of the continuing controversy over the entire set of artifacts. They still have their adherents who, like Campbell, come up with reasons to accept them. They still have scholars who, like Chamberlain, deny the proffered reasons for acceptance. There are yet those, as did the curators of the University of Michigan, who find the Michigan Artifacts to be fabrications. The issue has become one of fierce amateur advocacy against universal scholarly dismissal.

The possible Christian content of these artifacts garnered interest from the Church and James E. Talmage went to examine them. It was after his visit that artifacts began to appear that were much more closely aligned with the Book of Mormon story. Talmage did not believe them to be authentic.

The modern history of LDS connections to these artifacts appears to follow Wayne N. May, publisher of Ancient American Magazine. The artifacts figure prominently in a work he co-authored with Edwin Goble entitled This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, and again in Wayne N. May, This Land: They Came from the East  (Editor's note:  Goble has since become convinced of the Mesoamerican model, though he still maintains the hill in upstate New York is Ramah/Cumorah). 

Wayne May is certainly aware of the controversy concerning the Michigan artifacts, though he just as clearly dismisses contrary evidence. In This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, he notes (apparently using some caution Goble encouraged):

We are quite careful in the way we treat controversial artifacts. The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies makes mention from James E. Talmage’s journal the story about the step-daughter of Scotford (the discoverer of some of the Michigan relics), who stated that he had fraudulently manufactured many of the relics. They call this “critical evidence.” The fact is either the girl is fabricating the story, or she was telling the truth. It can go one way or the other, especially if she had something against him. In our own families, we have seen false accusations made, and it is certainly not out of the question.[9]

Although the confession of the daughter-in-law might not be sufficient by itself, May’s suggestion that she was fabricating the story doesn’t seem to fit with a similar story from a different person (published in Wayne May’s Ancient American magazine):

Perhaps it was Granny Mary Robson who really gave the “Dawn Race of Caucasians” [a tabloid name for the putative people behind the Michigan artifacts] their quietus. She told The News on September 6th, that one winter she had a room at 313 ½ Michigan, next to the one occupied by Percy Scotford and his brother, Charles, age 21. She said “Hammering went on day and night.” She went to the boys’ room to borrow something and “they warned me out.” Then they relented and told her that she was in Detroit’s ancient relic factory. Next day, Charles denied this and said that Percy had hypnotized Granny Robson using skills gained in a correspondence course. “Never hypnotized me in their lives,” said Granny firmly.[10]

J. Golden Barton and Wayne May say of the responses to the Michigan artifacts:

The so-called “men of letters” in America’s contemporary scientific community condemned Soper and Savage as conspirators of an archeological hoax. For every published report even mildly in favor of the two hapless investigators, some university-trained scholars would issue a charge of fraud. So unrelenting was the official campaign of academic hysteria that anyone even remotely associated with the Michigan artifacts distanced themselves from the bitter controversy. Eventually, any discussion of the artifacts’ possible genuineness was no longer considered. And over the decades, the Michigan Tablets fell into almost complete oblivion. Today, however, they are being re-examined in the new light of unprejudiced investigation. Many collections private and public are being photographed and catalogued for the first time. Their illustrated texts have been preserved for present and future researchers into the lost history of North America.[11]

The battle lines have thus been drawn between scholars and some ardent amateurs, with the implication of some cabal on behalf of the scholars that requires them to dismiss what the amateurs are finding to be more convincing. This is behind the plea in This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation: “We have shown things that are controversial and have not been redeemed by science yet. We recognize that these cannot be regarded as ‘evidence’ yet. In spite of that, these artifacts still demand further research and cannot be dismissed out of hand, as they have a high probability of being real. Just test them is all we ask.”[12]

Unfortunately for Goble’s association with May, he was unaware that such testing had already been done. This is unusual for two reasons. In the same article that discussed the daughter-in-law, it notes that Talmage sent samples of one of the artifacts that he participated in retrieving for scientific analysis, and the results were that it was factory-smelted copper, hardly the type of material that could have been used by an ancient pre-industrial population.[13]

More importantly, whoever entered the information about James Talmage (and I presume it would have been May) neglected to mention the very next article in the very same issue of BYU Studies. That very next article was precisely the modern scientific examination of the artifacts, just as May requested be done. The results were certainly nothing May wanted to reproduce.

Richard B. Stamps ran several types of examinations on multiple examples of the Michigan artifacts. When examining the clay artifacts he found that the type of clay and temper was not representative of that found in Michigan. In addition, several of the clay pieces have the “IH/” symbol on one side, and marks of saw-cut wood on the other. As Stamps notes: “Because modern tools leave modern marks, it is logical, with these additional examples, to agree with Kelsey and Spooner that the clay artifacts having the “IH/” symbol on one side and historic period woodprints on the other date to the historic period.”[14]

Further evidence of the impossibility of the clay objects’ antiquity is that they dissolve in water, and thus could not survive in Michigan ground:

. . . with its rainy springs, humid summers, and cold, snowy winters. The winter frost action, combined with the day thaw-night freeze sequence in early spring destroys low-fired prehistoric ceramics from the Woodland period. Water penetrates the porous pottery and, when the temperature drops low enough, it freezes, forming crystals that split the pottery. Many of the unfired Michigan Relic clay pieces have survived for more than one hundred years only because they have been stored in museums or collectors’ cabinets, protected from the harsh Michigan weather. If placed in the ground, they would not survive ten let alone hundreds of years.[15]

Stamps also examined some of the copper pieces, yielding the same microscopic conclusion as the report to Dr. Talmage. The pieces are modern smelted copper.[16] In addition:

In cross-section, I observed that the temperature difference on the surface differs slightly from the temperature at the center. This difference is another evidence that the piece was made from smelted ingots that had been hot-rolled. Additionally, the piece I studied was too flat to have been built up by the cold-hammer, folding, laminating process that we see in Native American artifacts. This piece clearly has no folds or forging laps. It is also seen. im extremely regular in thickness, with a range of .187 to .192 inches. A measurement of .1875 equals 3/16 of an inch – a Standard English unit of measurement and common thickness for commercially produced rolled stock. Even the edges have been peaned (hammered to remove the straight edges), the sides are parallel, and the corners are right angles. The cross-section is rectangular, whereas most traditional pieces are diamond shaped with a strong ridge running down the center of the blade or point. The blank piece of copper from which this artifact was made appears to have been cut from a larger piece with a guillotine-style table shear or bench shear.[17]

Stamps notes that criticism of the metal artifacts in their early days centered on the need for files and chisels to produce the artifacts, tools not in evidence in prehistoric North America. After the criticisms were leveled, exactly those artifacts were produced. Stamps examined a “file” and some “chisels.” He notes that the “file” is “something that looks like a file but has no cutting capability.”[18] Similarly, the “chisels” have the mushroomed-out end that one expects of a chisel that has been hit with a hammer, but the chisel end itself could not cut, and shows no sign of the wear that would have caused the mushrooming of the blunt end of the “chisel.”[19]

Many of the artifacts are on slate. Earlier, Talmage saw clear evidence of modern saw cuts on a slate artifact, an observation Stamps confirms.[20] Michigan does not have slate quarries, but there was a large business importing slate roofing tiles during the time of the appearance of the Michigan relics. Many of the “relics” clearly demonstrate the markings of commercially cut and milled slate.[21] On this point, May is clearly aware of the problem, and provides the following “solution.”

The black slate which is very common in the collections comes in all sizes. Some items are thin, others are quite uniformly thick. The claim was made that ancient men could not have produced such uniformity of surface to leave their history upon. And secondly, the slate must have been cast-offs of the printing industry or slate roofers in the state who both get their slate from New York or the Carolinas. The slate does indeed come from Michigan. The ancient open-pit mine is located at Baraga, Michigan. I have been there and by reaching in with little effort, broken off pieces of black slate that were uniformly even and smooth as glass. The shaping of the tablet would have to be cut by some means. The saw marks that show up on the tablets are claimed to be modern cuts, yet we find hardened copper saws all over the ancient world and here in the Michigan collection too.[22]

May neglects to mention that the slate is from the Upper Peninsula, not close to where the slate was found in southern Michigan. The task of importing the slate from the Upper Peninsula to southern Michigan would be just as arduous as importing it from states farther east. It is interesting to note that May’s defense of the saw marks refers to other places in the world. The only place we find the New World “saws” is in the Michigan artifact collection itself, and Stamps tells us that the tools were “discovered” right after their lack was noted. The “saws” have never done any work, nor could they. Using a forged collection to prove that it isn’t forged is a fascinating piece of logic.

Nevertheless, in May’s argument, it is still the scholars who dismiss the artifacts without sufficient consideration: “They dogmatically reject the Michigan Relics based on an extremely flawed methodology. A careful examination of that article reveals that FARMS scholars continue to dismiss the Michigan Relics based not on any evidence, but on the claims, allegations and hearsay of the people that dismissed the tablets in the first place almost 100 years ago.”[23] May continues to ignore Stamps’ scientific testing of the materials in spite of the fact that it was the article immediately following the one he cites as dismissing evidence “not on any evidence.” May has since learned that the evidence for forgery is so strong that even he cannot deny it. The newer approach is slightly different.

Did the Scotford brothers make some fake artifacts? Somebody did. All the men I have visited who have seen the collection in Salt Lake City or now in Lansing, Michigan, agree there are fakes in the collection. The Scotfords may or may not have been forgers, but someone surely was. However, just as courts of law require two or more witnesses to convict or identify the accused, so we have witnesses who have testified on behalf of some of the Michigan relics. Thanks to Rudolf Etzenhouser, we have signed testimonials by several witnesses as to the discovery and disclosure of such artifacts.[24]

It really isn’t surprising that there were witnesses to the “discovery.” This was nothing new. When James E. Talmage went to see Soper and Father Savage, he was taken to a site where an artifact was successfully found. Thus Talmage himself could witness the discovery, just as the testimonials May cites indicate. Nevertheless, the test isn’t the finding (though modern archaeologists would consider it the highest of luck to be able to dig and find on demand precisely what they were looking for). The test is the artifacts themselves. It is on that point that May appears to be deliberately blind. The scientific studies have been done. Stamps’ examination is devastating. Every artifact examined bore marks of modern manufacture.

Even more devastating is a more recent examination of one of the clay tablets. Archaeologist Bradley T. Lepper describes the result:

Recently, however, Thom Bell, a documentary filmmaker with access to some of these artifacts, submitted one of the clay tablets to the Luminescence Dating Laboratory at California State University, Long Beach. Luminescence dating is a relatively new technique that can be applied to materials including sediment and ceramics. The method is based on the principle that charged particles, created by cosmic ray bombardment or the radioactive decay of certain elements in rocks and the soil, might become trapped within flaws in crystals. The longer a crystal is exposed to these various sources of radiation, the more particles accumulate. When the crystals are exposed to direct sunlight, they are "bleached," meaning the reservoir of particles is emptied and the "hourglass" is reset. When a clay tablet is manufactured, for example, crystals in the grit temper are exposed to light and bleached. But when the clay hardens, those crystals sealed inside the clay begin to accumulate charged particles once again. Technicians can carefully remove those crystals and measure their luminescence to determine how long ago the clay tablet was made. The results obtained by the CSU team are illuminating if not surprising. Assuming the tablet was buried for some part of its history, it was made at around AD 1905. This is precisely the period when these bizarre objects were being planted in mounds and then "discovered."[25]

May might call for scientific study, but he ignores those studies which have been done. We are left with the question of why May would continue to believe that some artifacts are real when every expert who has examined them has declared them forgeries; when every piece that has been tested is demonstrably a forgery. If every expert and all scientific analysis show them to be forgeries, which specific pieces are so different that they might be the only ancient ones?

Perhaps even more telling is the story of the artifacts that May doesn’t tell. As part of his conclusions on the artifacts, Stamps provides the following information about the discovery of these artifacts:

The finds appeared only when Scotford or Soper were on the scene. Gillman, who worked extensively in southeastern Michigan, reports that none were found before 1890. From 1890 to 1920, they were found only by Scotford, Soper, or family and associates. The Michigan Relic phenomenon follows Scotford in time and space. After Scotford’s death and Sopers’s retirement to Chattanooga, Tennessee, no new examples were dug up. Al Spooner, long-time member of the Michigan Archaeological society who as a youth dug with Soper; John O’Shay of the Anthropology Museum at the University of Michigan; and John Halsey, state archaeologist of Michigan, all concur that no new finds have been reported since the 1920s. Halsey’s office has documented some ten thousand prehistoric sites in Michigan. None of them have produced Michigan Relics.[26]

The insistence on using the Michigan Relics as evidence for Book of Mormon peoples in Michigan is indicative of the difference between the way May handles artifactual evidence and the way scholars do. It is not a question of whether there are “gee-whiz” appearances, but whether an actual case can be made to associate the artifact with the argument.[27] May has continued to use these relics in presentations at least as late as November 2013.[28]

The Padilla Plates

Jerry L. Ainsworth’s The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, chapters 4 and 5, describe as set of artifacts collected by Dr. Jesus Padilla Orozco.[29] They include some carved stones, an awl for inscribing plates, and a set of small gold plates with an unknown script on them that is remarkably similar to the script known as the Anthon transcript.[30] José Dávila purchased the plates from Dr. Padilla and presented them to the Church. Ainsworth notes that “the Church didn’t accept [Dávila] as enthusiastically as he had hoped, though they treated him cordially. . . . Eventually BYU professor Paul Cheesman, Ray Matheny, and Bruce Louthan issued a negative report concerning the authenticity of the twelve plates originating with Dr. Padilla.” [31]

Ainsworth realizes that the Padilla plates are both controversial and the subject of a negative report concerning their au­thenticity. Nevertheless, he declares: “While this report didn’t rule out the authentic­ity of the gold plates, it nevertheless discred­ited those who believed the plates were valuable as evidence for the Book of Mormon. In fact, no clear-cut, convincing argument for or against the plates appeared in the report.”[32]

Ray Matheny, archaeologist at Brigham Young University, provided two arguments that do, in fact, appear quite convincing. The first is an examination of the variation in thickness among the different plates. Matheny notes:

These plates were measured with a micrometer at five points free from engraving. . . The plates average .0125” in thickness and show an average difference in thickness of .00018. The latter measurement is such a small quantity that to manufacture a set of gold plates by hand methods within these minute tolerances is truly a marvelous achievement.

Since the human eye cannot detect such small differences in thickness as those noted for the small plates examined above, one must conclude that a sophisticated measuring device was required to produce a gold sheet in close tolerances. . . .

It should be clear that our sophisticated measurements show we are dealing with gold sheet that has been manufactured by the most precise means known. The plates were cut out of a gold sheet stock that gives every indication of having been manufactured on a metal ZSS ZZZroller press and not by any known hand method. (The sheet metal roller press was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century and was not generally used in Europe until the nineteenth century).[33]

Ainsworth responds to this issue in his book. “Objections that authors of the BYU report had toward the Padilla plates included the probabil­ity that several were made of rolled, not ham­mered, gold. No one in archaeological circles believed that pre-Columbian peoples possessed the technology to roll gold, though admittedly they had technologies in which they were as advanced as ourselves. Unbeknownst to the authors of the report, however, there are on dis­play today a number of heavy, smooth stone roll­ers taken from excavations of Mayan ruins. One appears in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Another appears in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.”[34]

There is a very good reason why this marvelous “gold roller” was unbeknownst to the professional archaeologists from BYU. It is guaranteed that they knew this artifact (and the many just like it), but that they knew it as a metate, or a utensil for grinding corn. Metates are quite common, and very well known. They are not known to have been used to roll gold, and it is highly doubtful that they would produce anything like the Padilla plates, particularly with their very fine tolerances in thickness.

Ainsworth has responded to this particular criticism of his “gold roller”:

When I initially read Mr. Gardner’s comments about the metate photo in appendix D of my book, I just assumed that he had skimmed the page and not actually read what I had written. What I recalled writing was that the metate was an example of craftsmanship showing that a similar device to roll gold could easily have been produced. 

It was not until I read Mr. Gardner’s reference to the metate the second time that I concluded that I should go to that last page of my book and re-read what I had written in 1999, as what he was saying did not comport with what I had written. When I finally did read that page, I was chagrined to discover that it was just as Mr. Gardner had indicated. 

I immediately went to my original draft of the manuscript to make sure I had written what I just described, and indeed that is what I had written. At some point an editor changed this, and I did not catch it in my final proofread. Since no publisher would publish my book, I created my own publishing company, PeaceMakers, and raised the $400,000 it cost to prepare, print and distribute it. This means that I, as the publisher, was also responsible for the final proof read. 

Therefore there is no one to blame but myself for this over-sight. Even the confluence of demands that culminated on me at this very same time, does not justify such an over-sight. For proof that I did a poor job of proof-reading, anyone who has read my book has observed the numerous typos, (all undetected by me), toward the latter part of my book. So, this metate error was not the only oversight on my part, nor was it the only textual error. One very important reference was edited out, and I did not catch that omission either.

So, there are two points I wish to make regarding this issue. FirstMr. Gardner is correct in his criticism of this error in appendix D of my book. I was unaware of this error until he pointed it out to me. I appreciate him doing so. Second, the point that I was making, albeit errantly, is that any culture that can produce a metate with the quality of the one on page 269 of my book can certainly produce a device that can roll gold plates.[35]

While this is certainly a different argument, it is no closer to producing the method of creating the qualities of evenness that Matheny noted. It also continues to ignore the important saw marks that do not correspond to any ancient Mesoamerican tool.

Matheny’s second point stands without rebuttal from Ainsworth, though it appeared in the same article as the information on the nearly uniform thickness. Matheny notes that the marks on the edges of the plates indicate that they were cut from a sheet with a fine-toothed saw of a kind unknown in the New World. [36] Matheny shows two photographs enlarging the edges of two of the plates. Both show saw-tooth marks, with the second “showing marks on one edge which match those found on plate 10.” In other words, the saw cut the two apart from the same larger sheet.[37]

Apart from the scientific analysis of the plates, an artistic analysis also suggests that they are late forgeries based on known models.[38] The author of the Padilla plates made some mistakes in iconography that are clearly undetectable to the uninitiated in Maya iconography, but which would never have been made by a native. One of the plates shows a drawing that is obviously modeled after the tree-cross found at the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. This basic iconographic symbol is very well known from multiple Mesoamerican sources. There are three important elements of the tree figure in authentic Mesoamerican art. The first is the tree itself, represented as a cross-like drawing. The other two important elements are a bird at the top of the tree, and the earth monster at the bottom. In the Padilla plate, the bird and the monster are missing. Thus two-thirds of the meaning of the symbol is left off. In their place is some squiggling that attempts to represent the design, but lacks any meaning. It is an error that would be impossible for a native artist, but quite understandable for a forger who did not truly understand the baroque forms of Maya art.

In the case of this particular engraving modeled on the panel at Palenque, the original has two figures flanking the tree. The piece is too narrow for them, so they were removed from their correct location, but their heads were relocated to panels above and below the tree, where they serve no purpose. They do retain the features of the original model and face in the same direction. At the top of the tree we should see a bird. What shows is an X figure that appears to be a remnant of the legs of the bird. In the original, the bird’s right leg is in the fore, and the left leg behind. The crossing of the X makes that same arrangement of elements, but without the essential part of the bird. The next problem is at the bottom of the tree. For the native Maya artist, this is the earth monster. Although the art form is complex, knowing that there are two eyes, a nose, and a bone jaw along the mouth, makes it clear to even a non-specialist that a face is being represented. The forger has rendered this important element unintelligible.

What makes the Padilla plates most significant for the Book of Mormon is the engraving of the script on some of the plates. Matheny reports that “a total of thirty-eight Anthon transcript-like symbols appear on the Padilla Plates. Of these, twenty-three are compounds, and fifteen are single symbols, recognizably the same or greatly similar to the transcript rendered by Joseph Smith.”[39] That high correlation means that we have either a confirmation that the Anthon transcript represents authentic Mesoamerican characters, or that the Anthon transcript served as the model for the forger. Two things point to the latter. The first is that: The engraving technique was analyzed by Don J. Christensen of Las Vegas, Nevada, a professional jeweler and engraver, who asserts that modern methods were used in engraving the metal plates and in attaching the hinge onto the sheet metal. Christensen notes that the sheet metal is uniform in hardness and thickness, and that the attached hinges have been made with modern tubing dies. The hinges themselves have been attached to the plates by a soft solder which on Plate 9 shows a crack at the point of attachment. This soft solder can only be a lead base, probably mixed with tin, which melts at around 350 degrees F. No other use of soft solder has been found from pre-Columbian America; only alloyed types are known.[40]

Second, Matheny also notes:

How do we account for the fact that so large a number of the Anthon transcript symbols appear on the Padilla Plates in almost identical style? Recall the Mexican missionary tract that has the top four lines of the Anton transcript reproduced by an artist. An analysis of these four lines of symbols and those found on the Padilla Plates reveals a curious fact: 66% occur on the plates. An analysis of the symbols found on the bottom three lines of the Anthon transcript shows that of those symbols that were not already displayed in the top four lines of the missionary tract, only three (.031% — one only in part) are found on the Padilla Plates. Forty that do not appear in the top four lines do not appear on the Padilla Plates. If even one complicated compound symbol from the bottom three lines of the Anthon transcript appeared on the Padilla Plates, one would be forced to consider some source other than the missionary tract, but since the only symbols that can be correlated are a simple dash, a dot, and one zig-zag line, then we must look at these as being purely accidental correspondences.[41] There was a readily available model from which to copy the characters. Similar to the copied art, some elements have been copied and other elements mixed in, perhaps in an attempt to disguise the extent of the copy.

Both the physical composition of the plates and the artistic representations upon them declare them to be forgeries.[42] The story of the plates is perhaps worth documenting. However, any representation that they even might be authentic does a disservice to the LDS reading audience. It is also important to note that the rest of Ainsworth’s book does not depend upon the controversial artifacts and should be judged separately from them. (Editor's note:  One can't help but wonder why Ainsworth included them)

The Bat Creek Stone

John Emmert discovered the Bat Creek Stone in 1880 during the excavation of three mounds near the confluence of Bat Creek and the Little Tennessee River. It has gained fame for its inscription, which was originally classified as Cherokee, but after Cyrus Gordon’s examination in the 1970’s has been declared to be Paleo-Hebrew.[43] The possibility of a Hebrew inscription in the New World that dates to between a.d. 32 and 769[44] is obviously of interest to Latter-day Saints. [45]

The Wikipedia description of the stone notes: “The stone consists of ‘ferruginous siltstone’, and measures 11.4 centimetres (4.5 in) long and 5.1 centimetres (2.0 in) wide. The inscription consists of at least eight characters, seven of which are in a single row, and one located above or below (depending on which way the stone is turned) the main inscription.”[46]

Although controversial from the beginning, and certainly since its inscription was declared to be Paleo-Hebrew, it has recently been re-emphasized in some literature targeted to the Latter-day Saints. Rod L. Meldrum, an independent researcher, declares:

Many of those critical of the Church have pointed to the lack of written Hebrew language in the Americas as evidence against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Some LDS students of the Book of Mormon contend that the rather sophisticated glyph language system of the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica is evidence that the Book of Mormon history occurred there. However, the written language of the Maya is neither Hebrew nor Egyptian. Mayan is as unrelated to Hebrew or Egyptian as Chinese is to Latin. Still some tenaciously hold that at least there was a written language. While true, it was not the language specified in the Book of Mormon which does not help in validating the Book of Mormons claims. There has never been found any evidence for ancient Hebrew or Egyptian written language in Mesoamerica or South America and this archaeologically well-established fact has been used to dismiss and reject the Book of Mormon...until now.[47]

The Bat Creek Stone is presented as that conclusive evidence. After setting the stage by indicating that “Until now, such artifacts have been relegated to the realm of forgeries and fakes, most often by individuals and organizations having an agenda to maintain the status quo against any evidence suggesting advanced civilization or capabilities of the ancient Native American peoples,” Meldrum affirms: “Now, for the first time, independent scientific verification of an archaeologically excavated stone with ancient Hebrew inscribed into its surface has been completed in the America’s.[sic]” [48]

The proposed proof comes from an electron microscope examination of the stone and the inscriptions, performed by the American Petrographic Services. That report concludes:

1. Our geological findings are consistent with the Smithsonian Institute’s field report written by John W. Emmert.

2. The complete lack of the orange-colored silty-clay residue in any of the characters of the inscription is consistent with many hundreds of years of weathering in a wet earth mound comprised of soil and “hard red clay.”

3. The inscribed stone and all the other artifacts and remains found in the mound with it, can be no younger than when the bodies of the deceased were buried inside the mound.[49]

In spite of the presentation of these conclusions as scientifically valid, these conclusions are less than convincing. The first is absolutely dependent upon the validity of the second. The third simply assumes (and does not demonstrate) that the stone was not planted. A planted artifact could easily be a modern forgery and be “found” with other legitimate artifacts.

The real question is the only one that is susceptible to testing. The report specifically indicates: “All nine of the carved characters present when the stone was discovered, extend all or partially through the 1–2 mm thick dark-brown-colored weathering rind and into the tan-colored, non-weathered silty-clay matrix.”[50] The suggestion is that the letters must therefore pre-date the silty layer. However, the report ignores the fact that side with the letters has been polished and the silty layer removed. Thus the report can accurately indicate that there is a “new” scratch through the silty layer, but that information cannot apply to the letters. It is, of course, the engraved and polished side that is the question, not the age of the stone itself.[51] A modern engraving would cut through the authentically old silty layer. Evidence for antiquity might be if the silty layer were deposited in the letters, but it is not.

Although the report is presented with scientific descriptions, there is also a discernible non-scientific bias in the presentation. The report specifically places itself in contrast to what it admits are mainstream archaeologists. “It is appropriate to provide comments on the arguments forwarded by Mainfort and Kwas (1991, 2004) in their response to McCulloch (1988). Typical of many other mainstream archaeologists’ arguments about other controversial artifacts, they cite speculation and opinion in place of factual evidence to prove the artifact fraudulent.”[52] Thus, even though we are dealing with a forensic examination, we are still embroiled in the common antagonism between the advocate and the experts. The presentation is designed to appear that there is now an expert on the side of the amateurs. Unfortunately, the main researcher’s degree is only claimed to be honorary, and even the honorary degree does not show in the records of the University from which it was claimed to have been awarded.[53]

One of the claims of authenticity for the excavation comes not from the stone, but from brass bracelets that accompanied it. Meldrum notes that “Additional Hopewell diagnostic artifacts recovered with the stone include bone and wood pieces and two brass bracelets whose metallurgical properties nearly match those of ancient Jews in the Levant (Israel) portions of the Mediterranean.”[54] Hence there is yet another proposed scientific demonstration of authenticity. Nevertheless, Kenneth L. Fedder, professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University, responds:

Mainfort and Kwas have demolished this argument entirely. Metallurgical analysis of the bracelets (the proportion of copper to zinc) shows similarity to brass objects made anytime between the last few centuries bce right up until the nineteenth century ce, so that proves nothing at all. Bracelets made in ancient Rome have proportions similar to those discovered in Mound 3 at Bat Creek, but brass bracelets made in England in the nineteenth century have exactly the same copper-zinc proportions. The style of the bracelet (made with a hollow core and exhibiting a seam) is common across a broad stretch of time as well, so that doesn’t narrow down their age, either. The point is that the bracelets certainly could date to the nineteenth century and could have been inserted into the mound along with the fake tablet with writing. Again, as Mainfort and Kwas point out, there are no photographs of the artifacts in situ, no reliable field notes or records, no detailed mapping, and, in fact, no eyewitness corroboration of the discovery by any other fieldworker or Smithsonian employee, so no way of knowing whether Emmert actually found them or planted them.[55]

Most important, however, is the inscription itself. Robert C. Mainfort, Jr. (professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas) and Mary L. Kwas (research associate for the Arkansas Archeological Survey) reported in 2004 that the inscription on the stone matches, save for a single character, a “paleo hebrew” inscription printed in a widely available 1870 Masonic reference book, giving an artist’s impression of how “Holy to Yahweh” might have appeared.[56] Previously (1993) they had consulted with Frank Moore Cross. They report:

In an earlier article, McCulloch encouraged readers of this journal to “seek out the views of qualified Semitic . . . scholars” concerning the Bat Creek stone. This we did. Frank Moore Cross is recognized as the authority on paleo-Hebrew. Yet McCulloch, an economist by profession, claims that Cross “makes no less than three elementary and readily documentable errors of Hebrew paleography” and goes on to accuse Cross of “shooting from the hip” in his (Cross’s) assessment of the inscription. What is one to make of these statements? Here we have an economist, lacking professional credentials in paleography and ancient languages, accusing a highly regarded professional Semitist of making “elementary errors” and worse.[57]

Based on Frank Moore Cross’s examination, Mainfort and Kwas note the presence on the stone of a character that is “impossible for Paleo-Hebrew.”[58] The combination of a ready model showing all but one of the characters on the stone made by a non-expert, and the evidence of errors in Paleo-Hebrew noticed by Frank Moore Cross compellingly suggest that the inscription comes from the modern model rather than an ancient original.[59]

A documentary entitled “The Lost Civilizations of North America” [60] included the statement: “Many artifacts are shown throughout this film. Some artifacts are accepted as authentic by the scientific community today, and some are not. In many cases authentic artifacts may be shown alongside controversial ones. This is done in part to underscore the difficulty in determining authenticity, and also to illustrate a conflict that exists between mainstream anthropologists, and those who have been termed ‘diffusionists.’”[61]

Archaeologists, some of whom were cited in the documentary, felt it important to respond to points made in the documentary with which they disagree. In particular, Bradley T. Letter, Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, and Deborah A. Bolnick respond to this idea that there might be scientific controversy about some of the artifacts used in the documentary: (Editor's note:  see "Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part One: An Alternate Reality" at, also "Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part Two: False Messages in Stone" at  and "Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History - Part Three: Real Messages in DNA"  found at ) 

There are numerous problems with this justification for intentionally blurring the distinction among verifiably ancient artifacts, objects of questionable authenticity, and objects that are demonstrably fraudulent. First, it falsely suggests that there is a legitimate scientific controversy over the interpretation of these artifacts. . . . We are not aware of any contemporary anthropologist who thinks there is scientific validity to the infamous artifacts featured in this documentary, such as the Michigan Relics, the Grave Creek Stone, the Bat Creek Stone, and the Newark “Holy Stones.”

The effect of presenting these bogus objects in juxtaposition with ancient masterpieces, such as the Adena effigy pipe, also shown in the documentary, is to validate infamous frauds at the expense of the authentic artifacts. It appears deliberately obfuscatory and is demeaning to the achievements of the ancient Native American artisans.

Second, we believe that the documentary’s justification for mixing authentic with “controversial” artifacts wildly exaggerates the “difficulty in determining authenticity.” In any archaeological analysis, the key to determining the authenticity of a putative ancient artifact is to establish its context. For virtually none of the disputed artifacts shown in the documentary is there any reliable information about its archaeological context. To begin with, none of the artifacts shown, nor any similar pieces that might lend support to the authenticity of the objects highlighted in the video, has been recovered in any modern archaeological excavation using the tools and techniques of late twentieth-century archaeology. This is a crucial point: by and large, artifacts with putative ancient Old World writing were found in New World sites during only a rather narrow window of time (primarily from the mid-nineteenth into the early twentieth century), a period during which there was enormous controversy concerning the origins of the mound builders of the American Midwest and Southeast. In the far more extensive archaeological fieldwork accomplished between 1930 and the present, no such artifacts have ever been discovered by professional archaeologists. We can think of no legitimate artifact category in which archaeologists ceased finding examples of an artifact type once the field became professionalized with applied scientific methodology.[62]

While the idea of Hebrew script in the New World is clearly enticing for believers in the Book of Mormon, it is wise to be cautious in the acceptance of such evidence, particularly when scholars with expertise in the field do not accept it; particularly when it appears too good to be true.

[1] Nancy L. Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns, Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, 11.

[2] The information in this article is slightly recast from Brant A. Gardner, “This Idea: The ‘This Land’ Series and the U.S.-Centric Reading of the Book of Mormon,” 150–60. See also Brant. A. Gardner, “Too Good to be True: Questionable Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” 1–5.

[3] Fred Rydholm, “Trashing America’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Prehistory,” 230.

[4] Goble and May, This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, 21–22. I note that Wayne May contributed the discussion of the Michigan artifacts in this book, per personal conversation with Edwin Goble.

[5] Rydholm, “Trashing America’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Prehistory,” 230.

[6] John Campbell, “Recently discovered relics of the American mound-builders (Read 25th May 1898).” 3,, accessed September 2008.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Alex F. Chamberlain. 196–98, untitled articles in: Review of Historical Publications Relating to Canada, 197. Earlier on this page, Chamberlain speaks specifically of Campbell’s translation of the artifact, but dismisses it with generalizations.

[9] Goble and May, This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, 19. Unfortunately, while May suggests that he has been “quite careful in the way we treat controversial artifacts,” he is less careful in his citations. This information does not appear in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, but is rather a reference to Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Mormonism’s Encounter with the Michigan Relics,” 174–209.

[10] Rydholm, “Trashing America’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Prehistory,” 230–31.

[11] J. Golden Barton and Wayne May, “The Michigan Tablets: An Archaeological Scandal,” 36.

[12] Goble and May, This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, 12.

[13] Ashurst-McGee, “Mormonism’s Encounter with the Michigan Relics,” 193.

[14] Richard B. Stamps. “Tools Leave Marks: Material Analysis of the Scotford-Soper-Savage Michigan Relics,” 217.

[15] Ibid., 217–18.

[16] Ibid., 220.

[17] Ibid., 221–22.

[18] Ibid., 224.

[19] Ibid., 225.

[20] Ibid., 226–7.

[21] Ibid., 228.

[22] Wayne N. May, This Land: They Came from the East, 150–51.

[23] Goble and May, This Land: Zarahemla and the Nephite Nation, 47.

[24] May, This Land: They Came from the East, 148.

[25] Bradley T. Lepper, “New Light Shone on ‘Old Relics’.” (no page).

[26] Stamps, “Tools Leave Marks,” 231.

[27] Wayne May is also an acquaintance and apparently consultant with Rod L. Meldrum. The Michigan artifacts were prominently displayed in some of Meldrum’s early work promoting his Book of Mormon geography. To Meldrum’s credit, he has been removing those references after he was made aware that they are not only controversial, but clearly forgeries.

[28] Wayne May, “Book of Mormon Archaeology in North America,” Youtube video of the November 2013 Vernal, Utah Book of Mormon Evidence Conference, accessed January 2014 from The use of the “cuneiform/mystic symbol” from the forgeries begins about minute fifteen of the video.

[29] The information in this section is a revision of material that first appeared as Gardner, “Too Good to be true: Questionable Archaeology and the Book of Mormon.”

I should note that I am focusing only on the fraudulent artifacts that are favorably represented. I am making no explicit judgment on the rest of the content of the book. Those interested may see reviews of the book. T. Lynn Elliott, “Discovering Mormon and Moroni,” 1–8. Joe V. Anderson, “Review of Jerry L. Ainsworth’s Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni.”

[30] Jerry L. Ainsworth, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, 18.

[31] Ibid., 19–20. See Ray T. Matheny, “An Analysis of the Padilla Gold Plates,” 21–40

[32] Ainsworth, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, 267.

[33] Matheny, “An Analysis of the Padilla Gold Plates,” 25–26.

[34] Ainsworth, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni, 268.

[35] Jerry L. Ainsworth, “Response to Brant Gardner’s Article Regarding The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni.” Bolding silently removed.

[36] Matheny, “An Analysis of the Padilla Gold Plates,” 23–24.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Kelker and Bruhns, Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, 17–18 note that the most common form of forger is the direct copy, with the second being a pastiche, or a selection of elements from different sources. Using their categories, the art represented on the Padilla plates is a pastiche of inexpert copies.

[39] Ibid., 38.

[40] Ibid., 29–30.

[41] Ibid., 38.

[42] Ainsworth, “Response to Brant Gardner’s Article,” explains his position with respect to the Padilla plates:

In one of Mr. Gardner’s emails, he stated that I probably did not know that the Padilla plates were fake. He is certainly correct in that statement. Nor do I know if they are authentic. I know there are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue. 

I also know that I have spent over twenty-five years gathering information about these plates. So, although I may not know if they are fake or not, I know a great deal about them. It is possible that I know more, (at least as much), as anyone else alive today. Time and space will not allow me to share all that I have discovered in those twenty-five-plus years, but I will share enough to show why I am undecided about whether they are fake or authentic.

 And I wish to add, I really don’t have a dog in this fight, as I don’t think I really care if they are fake or not. As a Latter-Day-Saint, there is a piece of me that would be pleased to show the world that there are other sources of Reformed Egyptian in existence, but I know that would not convince anyone of anything.

Mr. Gardner states that my purpose of including the Padilla plates in my book was an “attempt to bolster our understanding of the Book of Mormon,” and in support of the Book of Mormon. That is nonsense. I never stated or implied any such thing. It appears that another credential Mr. Gardner seems to have, is that of psychic, explaining why I included the plates in my book. 

When publishers first considered my book for publication, they, along with some good LDS editors, advised me to make two changes. The first was to disassociate myself from Jose Davila, as he carries a lot of baggage. The second was to omit any mention of the Padilla plates, because of the negative reports, etc., that existed about the plates. After a lot of consideration, I rejected both suggestions and included both in my book. 

Not to do so would have been a dishonest representation of my experiences that lead to my writing this book. Plus, by the time the manuscript was ready, I had ample reason to doubt the testing and report(s) given about the plates. I therefore considered the issue of authenticity of the plates to be unresolved, and I still do. [Bold and underlining silently removed.]

If I might respond to the response, the problem of publication is that the artifacts are presented in a positive light without serious consideration of the evidence against their authenticity. As scholars, I believe we have a responsibility to the LDS readership to present reasonable evidence rather than evidence that is not only known to be controversial, especially when qualified scholars have already declared it fraudulent. Had Ainsworth argued for their authenticity with more than an analogy to a metate he might make a better case for making these artifacts public (and displaying them prominently in his book). As it stands, the contrary data are compelling and nothing Ainsworth has presented overcomes the rather clear indications of forgery.

[43] Mandel Cook, Bat Creek Stone At a Glance, 26.

[44] Ibid. Radio-carbon dating requires organic materials, so this date comes from wooden ear spools from the site rather than from anything specifically related to the stone. Because the dating comes from another artifact, the mound date is probably accurate, per Kenneth L. Feder, Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum, 39.

[45] Cook, Bat Creek Stone At a Glance, 8. “Religious groups, such as the Latter-Day [sic] Saints, used the stone as proof that members of a lost tribe of Israel were the ancestors of the Native Americans. Even with the positive response of the stone by the Latter-Day Saints, others still did not believe it was authentic, including the Smithsonian Institute.”

[46] “Bat Creek Inscription,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.

[47] Rod L. Meldrum, “Hebrew Confirmed in Hopewell Civilization!”

[48] Ibid.

[49] American Petrographic Services, Inc. “Report of Archaeopetorgraphy Investigation,” 19.

[50] Ibid., 15.

[51] Jason Colavito, “Bat Creek Crazy: Can Scott Wolter Rehabilitate a Hoax?” Note that Scott Wolter is the principal signatory on the research done by the American Petrographic Services.

[52] Ibid., 6. Certainly not probatory of bias, but perhaps suggestive of it, is the presence of Scott Wolter, a television personality hosting a History Channel show that concentrates on examining the unusual and controversial. It is entertainment, but not scholarship.

[53] Jason Colavito, “Scott Wolter’s Apparently Non-Existent Degree.”

[54] Meldrum, “Hebrew Confirmed in Hopewell Civilization!”

[55] Fedder, Encyclopedia of Dubious Archeology, 39.

[56] “Bat Creek Inscription,” Wikipedia. Reference is to Mainfort & Kwas “The Bat Creek Stone Revisited: A Fraud Exposed,” 761. As Kelker and Bruhns, Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, 17 suggested, “The crudest form of fakery is the copy, which replicates an existing work without alteration.” In this case, the clear model wasn’t even authentic Paleo-Hebrew, but an artist’s idea of what it might have been.

[57] Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., and Mary L. Kwas, “The Bat Creek Fraud: A Final Statement.”

[58] Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., and Mary L. Kwas, “The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans in Tennessee?”

[59] J. Huston McCulloch, “The Bat Creek Stone Revisited: A Reply to Mainfort and Kwas in American Antiquity”, attempts to respond to Mainfort and Kwas’s examination of the Bat Creek Stone. Perhaps the most important critique of the paper is posted on the title page: “This paper was submitted to American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology, as a comment on an article there by Robert C. Mainfort, Jr. and Mary L. Kwas, but was summarily rejected as being ‘far outside the expertise and interests of the readership’.” If a peer review journal that did publish Mainfort and Kwas on the Bat Creek Stone declined this paper on the same subject, it would appear that there is no scholarly acceptance of its premises.

[60] Rick Stout, Steven E. Smoot and Barry McLerran, The Lost Civilizations of North America, Accessed October 2013.

[61] Bradley T. Lepper, Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, and Deborah A. Bolnick, “Civilizations Lost and Found: Fabricating History—Part Two: False Messages in Stone,” (no page).

[62] Ibid. Internal references silently removed.


Gardner, Brant A.