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By: Thomas Fleming, U.S.A.

From ancient Inscriptions, newly deciphered, comes startling evidence that Europeans had settled in America as early as 800 BC

THOUGH most people believe that American history began with Christopher Columbus, historians have lately discovered hard evidence that Leif Ericson and his fellow Norsemen were exploring Canada and the northern tier of the United States as early as AD 1000. But before that date, the history of the New World north of the Rio Grande has been a virtual vacuum, inhabited by a few Indian legends.

Now, thanks to the genius of a single man from another hemisphere, all this is about to undergo a vast change. In his recently published book, America BC,* New Zealand-bred Barry Fell, a marine biologist at Harvard University, offers astonishing evidence that there were men and women from Europe not merely exploring but living in North America as early as 800 BC.

They worked as miners, tanners and trappers, and shipped their products back to Europe. In temples in the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont in the north-east, and in river valleys south-west of the Great Lakes in Iowa and Oklahoma, they sang hymns and performed sacred rituals to honour their gods. When their kings or chiefs died, they buried them beneath huge mounds of earth in which they left steles - written testimony of their grief carved on stone.

Some of these were discovered in the nineteenth century: strange inscriptions carved on cliffs from Maine in the north-east to the Rio Grande in the south, or on stones which lay in obscure museums. But archaeologists could not read the writing, and dismissed these mysteries as forgeries or accidents of nature. Fell's expertise in this recondite field (called epigraphy), which requires many of the gifts intelligence men bring to code cracking, is the tool which has enabled him to add a thousand years to America's past.

A large, genial man in his late fifties, Fell first became interested in ancient languages when he was a student at the University of Edinburgh. He learned Gaelic, and began investigating Celtic tombs and ruins in Scotland. Then, in a study of the marine biology of Polynesia, he found hundreds of unreadable inscriptions engraved on rocks and painted on cavern walls.


Intrigued, Fell went to Harvard in 1964 and spent eight years there ransacking the Widener Library's unique collection of texts on obscure languages and writing systems. He acquired a working knowledge of half a dozen ancient alphabets, including Egyptian hieroglyphics; Punic; Carthaginian script (used by several ancient peoples); and Ogam, an almost forgotten script used by pre-Christian Celts.

Fell finally found that the Polynesian inscriptions were written in the native language, Maori. But its vocabulary was derived from a mixture of Greek and Egyptian spoken in Libya after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. The alphabet came from Carthage.

The most remarkable of these Libyan texts was found in a huge cave in New Guinea. There, a navigator named Maui left drawings of ancient but sophisticated astronomical and navigational instruments, as well as a depiction of a solar eclipse which enabled Fell, with the help of Harvard astronomers, to identify the year of the drawings as 232 BC.

If there were Libyans visiting Polynesia at that time, Fell reasoned, perhaps they sailed on to South America. He accumulated evidence for such landfalls, and began lecturing on the subject at Harvard.

His talks attracted the attention of a group of dogged investigators led by James Whittall, an archaeologist who had noted the similarity between many crude stone buildings in New England, which farmers often called root cellars, and similar ruins in Spain and Portugal. The European buildings had been identified as creations of Celts who ruled that part of Europe during the Bronze Age, the period of prehistory which dates roughly from 3500 BC.

Whittall asked Fell to take a look at the Bourne stone, which had been discovered near Bourne, Massachusetts, around 1680. No one had ever been able to make any sense of the writing on it. Now, Barry Fell was able to read it. The letters were a variation of the Punic alphabet found in ancient Spain, for which Fell has coined the word "Iberic." It recorded the annexation of a large chunk of present-day Massachusetts by Hanno, a prince of Carthage.

Fell joined in a search for additional inscriptions at one of Whittall's favourite sites, Mystery Hill in North Salem, New Hampshire - a series of slabstone buildings variously attributed to Norsemen and wandering Irish monks. Fell began studying the inscribed triangular stones which had previously been found at the site by Bob Stone, the owner of Mystery Hill, and found a dedication to the Phoenician god Baal, written in Iberic Then suddenly, people began seeing hitherto unnoticed inscriptions.

"A shout from Bob Stone told us that he had found another tablet in an adjacent drystone wall," Fell recalls. "As he brushed away the adhering dirt, there came into clear view a line of Ogam script that read 'Dedicated to Bel. '"

Students of ancient mythology had long suspected that the Celtic sun god Bel and the Carthaginian-Phoenician god Baal were identical. Here, for the first time, was evidence not only of this fact, but of a Celtic-Carthaginian partnership in exploration and settlement on a scale never even imagined with dozens of Ogam inscriptions on another more remote site in central Vermont. Fell says,

"It became clear that ancient Celts had built these stone chambers as religious shrines, and the Carthaginian mariners were visitors who were permitted to worship at them and make dedications in their own language to their own gods."

Next, Whittall showed Fell a 1940 photograph of an inscription engraved on a cliff above Mount Hope Bay, in Bristol, Rhode Island. Discovered and recorded in 1780, it had been severely vandalized, making it necessary to work from the photograph. Fell soon read a single line, which was written in Tartessian Punic: "Voyagers from Tarshish this stone proclaims. "

Tarshish was a biblical city on the southern coast of Spain, and its men were among the boldest sailors of antiquity. About 533 BC, Tarshish was destroyed by the Carthaginians and its trade was taken over by them. Here was evidence of how the partnership between the Iberian Celts and the Carthaginians began.

On Monhegan Island, ten miles off the coast of Maine, another inscription was brought to Fell's attention. Written in Celtic Ogam, it read: "Cargo platforms for ships from Phoenicia." From these and other inscriptions, as well as an intensive study of historical data on the seafaring ability of the men of Tarshish and Carthage, Fell concluded there was a highly developed trade route between America and the Mediterranean for at least 400 years before the birth of Christ. The chief products from North America were probably copper, furs and hides.

"American data," as Fell calls it, now began to multiply. Most important was his decipherment of the Davenport stele, which some people compare to the translation of the Rosetta stone the nineteenth century breakthrough which enabled men to read hieroglyphics and grasp the awesome sweep of Egyptian history. On this inscription, which was found in a burial mound near Davenport, Iowa, in 1874, Fell was able to read three kinds of writing. At the top were Egyptian hieroglyphics. Below them was the Iberic form of Punic writing found in Spain. The third line was in Libyan script.

What does this mean? "It means there were Egyptians, Libyans and Celtic Iberians living together in a colony in Iowa in 800 BC," Fell says. "It means we have to revise a lot of our ideas about American history in general and American Indian culture in particular."

Fell next turned his attention to native Indian languages. He reasoned that if these pre-Christian visitors colonized parts of America, they must have left behind a deep impression on the language and beliefs of the people they encountered. He soon found evidence to support this conclusion.


From Harvard, one of Fell's colleagues brought him a book by a missionary priest, published in 1866. It contained a document entitled "The Lord's Prayer in Micmac Hieroglyphics." Fell saw that at least half of these hieroglyphics were Egyptian. He was able to prove from the written testimony of other priests that the Micmacs were using this writing when the first missionaries arrived. In fact, all the north-eastern Algonquians, the family of tribes to which the Micmacs belonged, apparently used it, having acquired this language from Libyan mariners and preserved it for 1000 years.

As Fell began studying the Algonquian language, he found hundreds of Egyptian words in the dialects of the north-eastern Algonquians. The verb na, to see, is the same in both languages. So is nauw, which means to be weak, and neechnw, which means child. Celtic is also plentiful. The names of many New England rivers, once thought to be Indian, turn out to be Celtic. Merrimack, for instance, means "deep fishing" in Algonquian. It is too close for coincidence to the Gaelic Mor-riomach, meaning "of great depth."

In the next few years, Fell expects archaeologists and interested amateur explorers to report new discoveries and inscriptions from all parts of North America. These findings may help to explain exactly what happened to the continent's earliest settlers after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC and the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD.

No longer can we think of America as developing in cultural isolation. For the first time, fighting Celts from Spain and daring Semitic seafarers from Carthage, Libya and Egypt must be included in America's heritage. Who knows how many others will be added before the end of Barry Fell's epic voyage into the past?

* 'America BC', by Barry Fell. 1976.
Article, Courtesy of 'Readers Digest' 1977.

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