New Light: "Anthon Transcript" Writing Found?

Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1999. Pp. 68–69

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

New Light: "Anthon Transcript" Writing Found?

One of the rarely recognized tragedies of Book of Mormon studies is the failure of substantial earlier research to receive sufficient recognition to make it part of continuing investigation. A good example is a paper first published almost three decades ago by Carl Hugh Jones.1 In it he examined the "Caractors" that Joseph Smith had transcribed from the plates so that Martin Harris could show them to Professor Charles Anthon in New York City. Issues that Jones raised remain today a challenge not yet taken up by scholars. Following Jones's lead should shed light on the plates and the text from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Several copies of the Anthon transcript exist and have been published in various places. What appears to be the oldest version is in the possession of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Independence, Missouri. RLDS historians have reported that this copy of the characters is 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. The sheet was in David Whitmer's possession in 1884, he having obtained it along with the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon from his brother-in-law, Oliver Cowdery, before the latter's death in 1850.

A photograph of the characters was published in a 1908 history of the Reorganized LDS Church.2 Twenty-two years later LDS historian B. H. Roberts published a new photograph of the same document in his Comprehensive History of the Church.3 Whitmer claimed that this sheet was the very one copied by Joseph Smith Jr. to carry to Professor Anthon (however, there is reason to believe that more than one sheet was copied and conveyed by Harris).4 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.

Jones first assigned a code (reference) number to each discrete character. He identified 56 of them that occur a single time and 39 more that appear more than once. Since Jones's study was the first to provide such an apparatus for reference to these characters, further studies should refer to the characters using his numbering system.

He made comparisons among the Anthon transcript characters as a step toward the discovery of possible words or phrases. For example, one pair of consecutive signs appears in three different places in the seven lines of the Anthon transcript, two groups of three characters each appear twice, and a certain sequence of five characters appears twice. Jones thought that recognizing such repetitions might contribute to deciphering the script, although he never attempted any decipherment, considering himself linguistically unprepared to do so. Jones also felt that there was evidence for a simple single-stroke alphabet consisting of 20 to 32 letters depending on how finely one defined a stroke.

He also referred to similar characters that are displayed in a book of family reminiscences of the life of Frederick G. Williams, a Presiding Bishop in the early LDS Church.5 A small feature in the book that came from Williams's papers showed a few more signs said to have been copied from the gold plates. When those are added to the 224 on the Anthon transcript, a significant sample of "reformed Egyptian" characters, as Moroni called them in Mormon 9:32, is available for students of languages to work with in trying to find internal consistencies or make external comparisons. Jones suggested that comparison of some of the characters with the demotic form of Egyptian writing was one approach that seemed promising; others have hinted at the same thing.6

Jones went on to identify Anthon transcript characters on two Mexican seals made of baked clay. One of those objects was first reported in 1966 when Dr. David H. Kelley discussed it in print. This inscribed "cylinder seal" had been found accidentally by workmen excavating soil for use as fill dirt at the famed archaeological site of Tlatilco near the western edge of the Valley of Mexico. Kelley, a renowned linguist and archaeologist, considered that the characters represented a "hitherto unknown writing system."7 Archaeologist John A. Graham of the University of California later commented on this script: "The markings of this seal closely resemble various oriental scripts ranging from Burma and China to the rim of the Mediterranean. If the signs of this seal should be writing, and the seal should be accepted as authentic, we would almost surely be dealing with an instance of transpacific contact during the Preclassic" age (i.e., the period in Mesoamerica preceding AD 300).8 Based on the many artifacts excavated at Tlatilco, a probable date for this seal can be inferred of not later than 400 BC.

Jones also compared the Anthon transcript signs to some found on another clay seal excavated at the famous Olmec site of La Venta, Tabasco.9 The characters on the La Venta artifact are much simpler than those on the one from Tlatilco, hence the comparisons are less interesting. Nevertheless Jones determined that he could see parallels between all the La Venta signs and those on the Anthon transcript.

He concluded that most of the Anthon transcript marks can be seen on these two artifacts. Moreover some of the characters on the Tlatilco seal were grouped somewhat like those on the Anthon document. Jones felt that he had discovered through his comparisons support for the thesis that at least the Tlatilco seal offered a firm archaeological example of the type of script represented by the Anthon transcript.

Unknown to Jones at the time, other archaeological evidence had been uncovered in central Mexico for a system of writing that might be similar to that from Tlatilco and thus to the Anthon transcript. Physical specimens of this evidence are not available to us now. The reason deserves an explanation.

William Niven, a Scottish mineralogist, worked at a number of archaeological sites in the Valley of Mexico between 1921 and 1932. Aside from a scattering of second-hand references in popular media of the time, the rudiments of his story are only found in an article about the man by E. C. Baity and N. K. Owen in a Mexican conference volume in 1989.10 With assistance from Niven's descendants who were still living in Mexico a decade ago, the authors relate that in the course of his digging, Niven excavated some 2,600 inscribed slabs. He reburied these after making drawings of them. Family members still have some of the drawings. Among scholars who collaborated with Niven was the famous Maya archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley, who said that the inscribed characters were totally unfamiliar to him. Some of the artifacts Niven dug up went to such prominent museums as the Peabody at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the British Museum. Moreover, among the thousands of clay figurines he excavated were some he considered to show "strongly Phoenician" or "Semitic" features. It remains to be seen whether any of Niven's materials can now be retrieved for study. J. Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution was impressed enough to propose sending a staff of archaeologists to report on the inscribed slabs, but evidently nothing came of it.

Baity and Owen urged that responsible scholars try to examine those items of Niven's material that can still be located with the help of his family in order to subject them to modern analyses. Inasmuch as most of his excavation sites were only a few miles from Tlatilco, it could well be that Niven found further examples of the writing that Kelley reported some 40 years later.

The results of Jones’s investigation involving the Anthon transcript characters, plus the finds made by Niven in the field, are potentially important. Some enthusiasts who are interested in the subject of ancient writing and the Anthon transcript could now perform a valuable service by attempting to gather available information before the trail again grows cold. If larger samples of these characters could be obtained, cryptographic methods might make progress on the task that Jones began.


1 . “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican Cylinder Seals,��? Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historical Archaeology 122 (Sept. 1970): 1–8.

2. Joseph Smith and Heman C. Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1805–1835, vol. 1 (Lamoni, Iowa: Board of Publication of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1908). Jones referred to the eighth edition of this work.

3. Brigham H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 1:106.

4. John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record,��? in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 414–17, 453–55, 496–98.

5. Nancy Clemens Williams, After One Hundred Years (Independence, Mo.: Zion’s Printing and Publishing, 1951), 102. Two pairs of slightly varying characters that look generally like those on the Anthon transcript are said to have been interpreted by Joseph Smith as “Book of Mormon.��? Another two pairs of characters, again showing only slight variation between the two versions, were read as “The Interpreters of Languages.��?

6. See Sorenson, “Book of Mormon,��? 512 n.162.

7. David H. Kelley, “Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco,��? American Antiquity 31 (July 1966): 744–46.

8. See John A. Graham’s comments on Hanns J. Premm, “Calendrics and Writing,��? in Observations on the Emergence of Civilization in Mesoamerica, ed. Robert F. Heizer and John A. Graham (Berkeley: University of California Archaeological Research Facility, 1971), 133.

9. Philip Drucker, “La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art,��? Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 153 (1952): 202, fig. 43.

10. Elizabeth C. Baity and Nancy K. Owen, “Ancient Maya in the Valley of Mexico?��? Memorias del Segundo Coloquio Internacional de Mayistas, 17–21 de agosto de 1987 (Mexico: UNAM, 1989), 2:823–37.