“Transatlantic Crossings: A New Look,” Ensign, Jan. 1975, 50–51
“I tell you flatly this phase of study is no longer open to debate. The air of dogmatic dismissal is gone. The possibility is reluctantly accepted that Africans, Mediterraneans, and Orientals may have sailed before Columbus. …”
These were the words of Dr. Joseph Mahan as he convened a seminar entitled “Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Crossings” in Lumpkin, Georgia, in 1973.
Four Brigham Young University professors—Monte Nyman, Robert Parsons, Ross Christensen, and myself—were among the 150 who heard more than 25 scholars from all over the United States discuss what the Book of Mormon told the world in 1830—that the American Indian descended from ancient immigrants whose origins were in the Old World.
A wide variety of evidences of pre-Columbian transatlantic crossings were discussed during the three-day seminar, including ancient coins, iron objects, and messages written on stone or metal plates.
Three conclusions that are all significant to the study of the Book of Mormon were drawn from analysis of materials presented at the symposium.
The first conclusion states that the ancient Americans were literate and did indeed keep records. One of the key findings discussed at the seminar was the Hearn Tablet. Dr. Y. Lynn Holmes, professor of ancient history at West Georgia College, discussed the small lead tablet that was unearthed in a Georgia flower bed in 1933. The script is a type called Sumerian-Cuniform, and the translated message has been found to deal with sheep transactions. Although the message is unimportant, the significant fact is the presence of that ancient script on a metal plate that was found in North America.
Dr. Mahan, director of the symposium, and Manfred Metcalf then discussed a similar finding, the “Metcalf Stone,” discovered in 1966 at Fort Benning, Georgia. The stone contained a script common in the Near East around 1400 B.C. No translation of the 10″ x 9″ x 8″ stone has yet been made.
Another discovery, the Bat Creek Stone, was discussed by Dr. Cyrus Gordon, a well-known archaeologist and researcher from New York City. Found in Tennessee in the 1880s, the stone includes a Hebrew inscription made in about 100 B.C., and is traceable to the Roman-Mediterranean area.
A second conclusion at the seminar of special interest to students of the Book of Mormon concerned the attention given to the use of iron objects by the pre-Columbian Americans—these early Americans apparently did have the technology necessary for the production of iron. The Book of Mormon specifically mentions the manufacture and use of iron objects.
Dr. Douglas T. Holden, academic dean of Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, shared his research concerning metal artifacts found in the United States. Dr. Holden reported on some significant finds made by John Heywood, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee:
“Heywood … found that their [the Cherokees’] oral tradition underlined such thoughts as people coming from the east, stories similar to Cain and Abel as well as the account of the Tower of Babel. There was also the story of a white man bringing a book back to them that had become lost or somehow obscured by history. Heywood turned up many artifacts, but perhaps the most interesting objects were made of iron.”
Dr. Holden then explained how pre-Columbian iron axes and hammers have been found in Missouri and North Carolina. In New York, iron anvils and an iron hatchet edged with steel have been found in the same vicinity. Several ancient iron furnaces have been found in Ohio; a short pre-Columbian sword of iron was discovered at Fayetteville, Tennessee; in Kentucky, hatchets of iron were unearthed as well as iron bracelets, four of which were on the left arm of a female skeleton; and a hatchet was also found in Kentucky in the center of a tree over 200 years old and 6 feet in diameter.
According to Dr. Holden, Cyrus Thomas published his findings in 1880 concerning ancient iron, which included the discoveries of a chisel, a knife, and bracelets. There have been iron ornaments found in Georgia, and iron nails, rivets, washers, spikes, and chisels have been found in Virginia. These discoveries are very reassuring inasmuch as the Prophet Joseph Smith was declared by many to be a fraud because iron—thought to have existed in America only in modern times—was mentioned in his translation of the Book of Mormon.
The seminar’s third and most important conclusion—that ancient Americans actually came from the Old World via the Atlantic as well as the Pacific—is supported by the first two conclusions and by several other interesting links between the land of the Jews and North America.
Dr. Holmes reported on two recorded instances where phylacteries (rawhide boxes tied around the arm) were found among the Indians. Inside the boxes were found pieces of parchment with sections of scripture from the Book of Moses. One, with the parchment written in Hebrew, was found in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The other phylactery contained parchment of Hebrew extracts from Exodus and Deuteronomy; these were found in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1854.
Dr. Douglas C. Braithwaite discussed and commented upon photographs of Roman and Hebrew coins that have been found in North America since 1803, including Roman coins found in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Oklahoma; Hebrew coins unearthed in Kentucky; and Syracusean coins discovered in Alabama. Dr. Braithwaite remarked that “… it is now no longer logical for students of North America prehistory to ignore the references to the discoveries … of … coins.”
Such discoveries as these coins from the Mediterranean area and the iron objects and smelters lend substantial validity to the theory of pre-Columbian transatlantic crossings.
While at the seminar, I was asked to represent the contingent from Brigham Young University in presenting a few points. I attempted to acquaint the listeners with the Book of Mormon, and was even asked to present a film on early America and the Book of Mormon entitled, “Ancient America Speaks.” (Mormon Media, Ensign, October 1974.) We were all received graciously, and many questions concerning the Church were answered.
Paul V. Lutz, editor of the research magazine Manuscript, summarized some of the seminar’s findings:
“Even though many will doubt the genuineness of some or all of the evidence discussed at the symposium, the wealth of evidence gives anyone with an open mind much food for thought.”
As I think back on the experiences of the seminar, I am amazed at the changes in viewpoints that many scientists and scholars have been making, even in this past decade, on the evidences of pre-Columbian transoceanic travel. As a result of the seminar’s conclusions, many of the higher critics of the Book of Mormon who have challenged it on the aforementioned points should now take a second look at this ancient record.
These findings will not necessarily convert, but they can stimulate processes of reasoning and give us the desire to read the Book of Mormon, the most important and electrifying record of our time.