Originally identified as letters of the Cherokee alphabet, invented by George Guess (Sequoyah) in the 1820s, the Bat Creek inscription (drawing above) actually resembles paleo-Hebrew more than it does Cherokee. Based on the translation offered by Semitic languages scholar Cyrus Gordon in 1970 and slightly modified by author J. Huston McCulloch, the letters of the top line (from right to left) have been tentatively identified as a backwards resh (r), qoph (q), lamed (l), yod (y), heh (h), waw (w), daleth (d) and a trace of a broken mem (m). The highlighted paleo-Hebrew letters in the chart (opposite), compiled by Mark McLean under the supervision of Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross, show the form of the letters that McCulloch believes most closely resemble those in this line. (In the case of the waw and daleth, even closer parallels can be found, respectively, in a fourth-century B.C. seal of the governor of Samaria (below) and in the Dead Sea Scroll called 11Q paleo Lev, according to McCulloch.) A commalike word divider separates the first two letters from the others on the first line. As rq lyhwdm, the inscription would read, “But for the Judeans.” Alternatively, if the first two letters are zq, as proposed by Robert R. Stieglitz, the line would read, “A comet for the Judeans.” If either of these readings is correct, the inscription would date to the first or second century A.D.

The problematic lone letter in the second line could, McCulloch believes, be an aleph (’), a waw (w) or even a samekh (s). As an aleph or waw, the letter might signify, respectively, “Year 1” or “Year 6” of one of the Jewish revolts against Rome, in the first and second centuries A.D.

According to Professor P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., however, the five best letters (lyhwd) exhibit too many irregularities to be genuine, and the proposed spelling (lyhwdm) omits a necessary vowel (y) between the d and m (see “Let’s be Serious About the Bat Creek Stone,” in this issue).