Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sigils From a Sealed Book

Part 1 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

This week in SS we discussed 2 Nephi 27 (Isaiah 29) where a book comes forth from the dust and is presented to a learned man who cannot read it. The book is then delivered to one who is not learned. The teacher made the usual parallel in Church history when Martin Harris takes characters from the Gold Plates to learned professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University. As Martin Harris tells the story, Anthon first gives him a certificate of authenticity, verifying that the translation is correct, and that the characters are true representatives of Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic writing. (JS-H 1:64-65)

As always when this story is discussed, I wondered idly what qualifications Professor Anthon had that qualified him to make these statements, and why he seemed so sure of the translation when the study of the ancient Egyptian language was in its infancy in 1828.

In response, I've written a post which is quite long, so I'll break it up into sections and post it over the rest of the week. Many of you may be familiar with these facts, since they are available on the net, but I'd like to discuss them and see what people think. Let's start with the Anthon transcript itself.

The Anthon Transcript was a sheet of paper upon which Joseph Smith copied sample "reformed Egyptian" characters from the plates of the Book of Mormon. In the winter of 1828, Martin Harris showed these characters, along with a translation, to at least three scholars in the eastern United States, including Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, described as a "Magnus Apollo" because of his extensive and broad learning; and Charles Anthon, an acclaimed classicist and lover of antiquities at Columbia College. No one knows what happened to the sheet of paper Martin Harris had in his possession. (Perhaps it is now languishing somewhere along with the 116 lost manuscript pages! :) ) We do have several clues which help us learn more about the Anthon Transcript.

First, Charles Anthon wrote at least two letters describing Martin Harris' visit. I will discuss these letters in their entirety in a forthcoming post. However, in both of these letters Anthon included a description of the paper which was shown him:

"This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived." [1]

"The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, and presented the most singular medley that I ever beheld. Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac." [2]

As I read these narratives, I was taken by the description of the Mexican-looking "circle divided into various compartments."
Pictured at left are a pictorial horoscope chart and a Mexican calendar stone. A Mexican calendar stone was rediscovered in 1791 and Anthon, with his fascination for antiquities, would surely have been familiar with it. But to me the description seems reminiscent of the hypocephalus which Joseph Smith would later obtain from Michael Chandler and include as Facsimile #2 in the Pearl of Great Price Book of Abraham. However, Chandler did not obtain his mummies until 1833, and did not bring them to Kirtland until 1835. Actual historical events and coincidences of this period seem so fantastic that Joseph's metaphysical claims almost pale in comparison.

The Community of Christ possesses a handwritten text which is known as the "Caractors Document." This fragment contains seven horizontal lines of characters apparently copied from the plates, as seen in the image below:

The characters are written on a piece of paper measuring 8 by 3¼ inches. The paper appears to be of the same quality and appearance as that on which the manuscript of the Book of Mormon was written. David Whitmer, who once owned the document, claimed that it was this text that Martin Harris showed to Charles Anthon. [3] But the Caractors Document in no way corresponds with Anthon's description. The characters are not arranged in vertical columns, and there are no images of moons or stars. Neither is there evidence of a circular figure.

Though this document is not the original, it almost certainly represents characters either copied from the plates in Joseph Smith's possession or copied from the document carried by Harris. Twice in late 1844, after the Prophet's martyrdom, portions of these symbols were again published as characters that Joseph Smith had copied from the gold plates. Characters appeared in the December 21 issue of the Mormon newspaper The Prophet. Also, in 1844 the Latter-day Saints published a broadside with the title "Stick of Joseph" which contained supposed characters copied from the plates. [4] These are somewhat different from the Anthon transcript. We don't know who prepared this 1844 sheet.

Considering that we have this sample of the "Reformed Egyptian" characters, I would think that Mormon linguists would be interested in attempting to translate them and match them with the corresponding Book of Mormon text. And indeed I found a few attempts to do this by several authors. Back in 1942 Ariel Crowley, an LDS attorney from Boise, presented evidence that the characters might be of Egyptian origin. He discussed Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic in relation to hieratic and demotic Egyptian, and Martin Harris's report that Anthon mentioned those languages when he reviewed the transcript. He also presented 194 pairs of photographs comparing characters from the Anthon Transcript with similar or identical characters in recognized Egyptian works such as the Book of the Dead and the Rosetta Stone. [5]

In 1970 Carl Hugh Jones published another serious study of the characters. [6] Jones identified more than 224 characters from the various available sources, and assigned reference numbers to each. Though he felt linguistically unprepared to do so himself, he felt that he had found evidence for an alphabet of between 20 and 32 letters and was confident that a translation could be made. Jones also did some work matching certain of the characters with various Oriental and Mexican scripts.

Community of Christ adherent Blair Bryant claims to have found correlation between the Caractors document and the Book of Mormon title page. [7]

Lastly, Stan and Polly Johnson argue that the Anthon transcript corresponds to Ether 6:3–13 in the present Book of Mormon. [8]

Apologist John Gee is more pessimistic about the possibility of translation of the characters. He postulates that the characters came from the text Joseph was then translating--the 116 missing manuscript pages. Additionally Gee feels that the sample of letters is not large enough to render decipherment feasible. [9] Even so, I would be interested to see a comparison of the claims of Martin Harris with those of Charles Anthon. Harris says that Anthon identified Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic figures in the sample that was given him. Anthon writes that he saw recognizable though deformed Greek, Hebrew, and Roman letters. Can we tell, by a study of the Caractor Document, which of these languages are represented?

In this age of computer assisted research, I am baffled as to why cryptographic studies have not yielded results in this area. Unfortunately, to date no Mormon "Robert Langdon" has cracked the code of the Anthon Transcript. Do my readers still think the characters are in fact authentic? Do Latter-day Saints retain faith that translation might one day be done?

In 1980 a document surfaced which more closely resembled Anthon's specifications and appeared to be the original Anthon Transcript. But in 1987, Mark W. Hofmann admitted that he had forged it. The forgery certainly fits the picture I have in my mind of the Anthon transcript! But what does it say about the state of our linguistic study of the characters that Latter-day Saints were so easily fooled?


[1] letter written by Charles Anthon to Eber D. Howe dated Feb. 17, 1834. Originally published in Eber D. Howe, _Mormonism Unvailed_, 1834, chapter xviii. The letter appears in full in B. H. Roberts, _A Comprehensive History of the Church, Century One_ (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT: 1965), pp. 102-104.

[2] letter written by Charles Anthon to Rev. T. W. Coit dated April 3, 1841. Originally published in Rev. T. W. Coit, _Gleanings By The Way_, 1841. The letter appears in full in Roberts, _CHC_, pp. 104-107.

[3] A photograph of the characters was published in a 1908 history of the Reorganized LDS Church. Twenty-two years later LDS historian B. H. Roberts published a new photograph of the same document in his Comprehensive History of the Church. There is little question that this transcript was at least part of the material presented to Anthon to display characters copied from the gold plates.

[4] BYU Studies, vol.20, no.4, p.325

[5] Improvement Era, Feb 1942

[6] “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican Cylinder Seals, Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historical Archaeology 122 (Sept. 1970): 1–8. An online FARMS article New Light: "Anthon Transcript" Writing Found? mentions the study and laments, "Issues that Jones raised remain today a challenge not yet taken up by scholars."

[7] See Blair Bryant's Caractors Translation.

[8] Stan and Polly Johnson, _Translating the Anthon Transcript_ (Parowan, Utah: Ivory Books, 1999)

[9] Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript by John Gee



Zillah said...

Absolutely fascinating. I can't wait to read the rest of the essay.

LDS Truthseeker said...

This document could very well prove that the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient, historical book but yet it is never talked about by the Church and LDS scholars largely ignore it. I can’t help but ask why. The reasons seem to be the same as with the Book of Abraham papyri. The scholarly translation of these documents damage Joseph Smith’s translating ability claims rather than strengthen them. LDS apologist and Egyptologist John Gee immediately dismisses any attempts at translating the Anthon transcript as not feasible given the small amount of characters. That’s a shocking attitude to take for a document that could be help prove the BOM true. It’s much more likely that LDS scholars don’t want the Anthon transcript to get any attention as nonLDS scholars denounce it as gibberish and nothing at all related to Egyptian.

Brad Bryant said...

With the demise of geocities, the content of Blair Bryant's Caractors site has been "rescued" by the folks at Reocities. Find Blair's work at: That rescued site is not-editable, but the core content of Blair's work remains available for your reference. A replacement site is currently under design and development, to help continue the exploration.