Cherokee petroglyphs?

My attention has been drawn to a recent article in the New York Times by John Noble Wilford, describing a purported cave inscription in the Cherokee script from Kentucky. If confirmed as accurate, this would be the oldest dated text in Cherokee, and almost certainly would have to be in Sequoyah’s hand or one of the earliest script learners. I’m on vacation right now and don’t have access to all the resources I’d normally have to do a detailed analysis, but here are a few principles to keep in mind as you read the article:

– The photo you see with the ‘characters’ has been highlighted in white in a way that would not be acceptable practice among epigraphers, due to the risk of misreading. We have no way of knowing with any certainty where the boundaries between different characters are.

– The dating is entirely on the basis of a portion of the inscription not shown, which apparently reads either 1808 or 1818 in Western (Arabic) numerals. But we don’t have any knowledge of whether Sequoyah (George Gist) had any knowledge of how to form Arabic numeral dates at this early period. And the fact that we can’t decide, apparently, if the third character is a 0 or a 1, even though the first character is apparently evident as a 1, suggests a problem with the paleography that should make us very wary of the validity of the finding.

– The inscription is not a text in the sense of something that could be deciphered; rather, the signs are a hodgepodge of Cherokee-like syllabic symbols. Kenneth Tankersley, the archaeologist who is making the assertion, argues that this was a sort of practice text, an ABC of the Cherokee syllabary. But this claim raises a warning flag for me – it raises the evidentiary bar needed to conclude that this is, in fact, Cherokee writing rather than some petroglyphs (or natural lines in rock, or a combination of the two) that can be seen to resemble some Cherokee signs post facto by modern scholars. It also makes me wonder why the early design of glyphs would be taking place bye engraving stone (a difficult medium) rather than something easier to work with.

– Even if the signs are (proto-)Cherokee syllabics, and even if the number 1808 or 1818 is written on it, this does not establish that this was the date of the inscription. The number could have a non-calendrical meaning. The number could have been inscribed at a different time from the other characters. The number could in fact have been written at any time in order to give the inscription an earlier date (for purposes of deception or otherwise).

– There are purportedly 15 identifiable Cherokee characters, but there are also many other characters in the cave that do not resemble Cherokee characters. We would need to know a great deal more about the entire sign-inventory before we could conclude that the resemblances were sufficient to identify them as early Cherokee signs.

– Janine Scancarelli, an expert on Cherokee syllabics who is quoted in the article, does not in fact comment on the validity of the interpretation, but simply describes what is known about the resemblance of Cherokee symbols to other symbol systems.

– There is no peer-reviewed research yet on this finding (although I’m hoping that some of you who were at the SAAs this year saw the talk).

Now I’m not saying at all that this is a hoax or fraud. We certainly don’t have any evidence of that. But we also don’t have any good evidence to convince me that this site is radically different from other petroglyphic sites from the 18th and 19th centuries, and certainly not that we have a dated instance of a proto-Cherokee inscription. I’m looking forward to more information coming to light on this very interesting find, nonetheless.

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2 Comments

  1. Is the date “in a portion of the inscription not shown”? I clearly see two 8’s to the right of the labeled glyphs with what could be a 1 or 0 (or anything else) between them. If so, I’ll dare to express an opinion, whereas I wouldn’t presume to comment on characters in Cherokee.
    At least the top left and bottom right of the first 8 and the top right and bottom left of the second are segments of crevices that extend far beyond the numerals. This suggests to me the null hypotheses to be disproved is that the glyphs are entirely natural eroded joints in the limestone (I suppose a case could be made that the carver cleverly incorporated natural features in his work, but that certainly seems unlikely).
    If these aren’t the 8’s of the date, my comment is irrelevant, except to show how easy it is to see meaningful characters where none exist.

    • Dan – I wondered myself whether those markings in the upper right portion of the photo could be the 18(0/1)8, but if so, it strikes me as very odd that they would not be similarly ‘highlighted’ as the purported syllabic characters were. And you are absolutely right that some portions of those “numerals” are natural crevices. I just don’t know whether those are the 8s in question, and I think we would need to see a lot more of the ‘inscription’ before we could decide.

      Now, there are plenty of attested cases where natural crevices were enlarged, deepened, etc. to create petroglyphs, so that isn’t inherently unlikely as an artistic technique when working in engraved stone. If it’s true for the numerals, I’d also suggest it is likely to be true for some of the characters (the white lines all over them make it difficult to say just from the photo). However, this doesn’t seem from the article to be what is being suggested. We ought at this point to be skeptical, awaiting the publication of the inscription and some peer-reviewed scholarship.

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