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 date when the famous engraved stone was found. In my mind, a closely related mystery that endures to this day is 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 professional and avocational archaeological literature. 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 quote 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.
Here is the simple quote 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 will immediately notice that this quote says absolutely nothing about the stone being discovered in 1878. Instead, it says that the 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. This assumption is that the stone somehow must have been acquired by the Tennessee Historical Society shortly after it was first discovered. You get the picture: “It was surely found on a Sunday and just as surely must have been acquired by the historical society on the following Wednesday.” In my opinion, this is a classic example of subconsciously allowing a mental template of the idealized archaeological and museological present to be inadvertently imposed on an analysis of the historical past.
It would be really nice if people did find artifacts and donate them immediately to museums, along with their documented provenience. Some people do. More often today, I think it would be fair to say that people keep such artifacts as collector items for most of their lives and either never donate them to a historical society/museum or do so only in old age or upon their death—or maybe have it done for them by their heirs. The chances that such artifacts will be accompanied by provenience notes these days are about as good as those for buying a winning lottery ticket. Why one would expect and just assume that an ordinary 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, microfine shred of documentary or circumstantial evidence that the Thruston tablet was first found in 1878. Any suggestion that it was found in 1878 is pure fantasy.