The Thruston Tablet: An Erroneous Notion

by Tracy C. Brown

The precise facts and circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Thruston Tablet are enduring mysteries in Tennessee archaeology.  One of these key mysteries is the exact year when the famous engraved stone was found. The other is a closely related mystery that also endures to this day——the inability of various researchers to read and understand the simple text about the Thruston Tablet in Antiquities of Tennessee (Thruston 1890). As a result, in various pieces of archaeological literature, one often sees the statement that the Thruston Tablet was discovered in 1878. I have seen it in both the professional and avocational archaeological literature. For example, while surfing the Internet just this evening, I ran into a Wikipedia article entitled “Castalian Springs Mound Site,” which discusses the archaeology and history of the Mississippian mound site at Castalian Springs, Tennessee.  Here is the salient quotation from that article:

Another more famous engraved stone, the Thruston tablet, was found a short distance away from Castalian Springs site in 1878 on the banks of Rocky Creek in what is now Trousdale County, Tennessee.

This brings us to the classic debate about the unreliability of information presented in Wikipedia articles, which we will now deftly sidestep to examine the specific veracity of the 1878 discovery date for the Thruston Tablet.

Here is the simple money quotation in Thruston (1890:91) that leads some archaeological researchers astray:

The stone was found on Rocky creek, in Sumner county, and was presented, with other relics, to the Tennessee Historical Society about twelve years ago. The society, at that time, not having sufficient room to exhibit its collections, the stone was packed away until 1886, when it was placed on exhibition at the new ‘Historical Rooms, in the Watkins Institute, in Nashville.

The reader should immediately notice that this quotation says absolutely nothing about the stone being discovered in 1878. Instead, it says the Thruston Tablet was presented (i.e., donated) to the Tennessee Historical Society “about twelve years ago.”  The first edition of Antiquities of Tennessee was published in 1890. Researchers get the 1878 discovery date by: (1) subtracting 12 years from 1890, (2) promptly ignoring the word “presented,” and (3) substituting their own word “found.” However, it is really not quite that straightforward. An errant assumption intervenes during this already errant thought process.

With no solid evidence for it at all, it is just assumed that the Thruston Tablet somehow must have been acquired by the Tennessee Historical Society shortly after it was first discovered in the field. You get the modern but errant thought process here:

The Thruston Tablet must have surely been found on a Sunday and just as surely must have been donated to the Tennessee Historical Society on the following Wednesday.

This is a classic example of unconsciously allowing a mental template of the idealized archaeological and museological present time to be inappropriately imposed on an analysis of the historical past.

It would be really nice if people did find artifacts and donate them immediately to a historical society or museum, along with their documented provenience. Some people do. More often. I think it would be fair to say that most Americans over the past three centuries have found and kept such artifacts at their homes as beloved personal curios or collector items, retaining them into their senior years. If they were not sold to an interested buyer at some earlier point in time, most of these Native American artifacts were never donated to a historical society or museum until the owner’s old age or upon the owner’s death——or maybe had it done for them later by their legal heirs. In recent years and back then, the chances such artifacts were accompanied by detailed provenience notes are about as good as those for buying a winning Tennessee lottery ticket. Why one would expect and just assume that an average citizen or artifact collector would have behaved differently in 1878 is somewhat baffling to me.

Here is the bottom line. The Thruston Tablet was donated to the Tennessee Historical Society in about 1878. We have no reason to doubt Thruston on this point. However, we do not have a single, microscopic shred of physical, documentary, or circumstantial evidence that the Thruston Tablet was found in 1878. Any suggestion that it was found in 1878 is pure conjecture. It could have been found that year, but it could just as easily have been found and curated on someone’s farmstead for several decades prior to 1878. No one really knows, and we may never know, the actual year when the Thruston Tablet was first discovered in the field.

References

Thruston, Gates P. 1890. Antiquities of Tennessee. Robert Clarke & Company, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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