Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes


Sometimes even a clearly modern context will not deter the enthusiast. When an A.D. 63 Roman coin was found in 1976 in a ditch near Heavener, Oklahoma, its propinquity to the Heavener “runestones” was compelling enough to keep it from being dismissed as a recently lost collector’s item—despite the fact that it was stuck to a pop bottle. A much-celebrated Roman coin from the Seip mound site in Ohio turns out to be a commemorative token issued by the Elgin Watch Company. Other mistaken identifications and deliberate plants join the scatter of lost or discarded collector’s items, most of which have found their way into the ground since World War II. That they are taken seriously by some people illustrates better than any other example the sharp contrast between antiquarianism and scientific archaeology. Antiquarian enthusiasts, with their interest in artifacts as intrinsically and individually valuable objects, and with their love for interpretive embellishment, are inclined to accept such finds in the absence of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Archaeologists, with their scientific skepticism and demands for excavation documentation and context, are compelled to reject them. Enthusiasts chide scientists for dismissing possibly significant evidence and the scientists’ colleagues chide them for wasting their time if they do not. Meanwhile, metal-detector sales are brisk, and farm boys with holes in their pockets continue to scatter evidence across the American landscape.


Coins, of course, are not the only evidence promoted by those who believe in ancient Roman visitors. A Roman lamp has been found in Connecticut, the sort of thing picked up by tourists. Of the tens of thousands of figurines excavated in Mexico, one found near Toluca in 1933 appears to one antiquarian to have Roman features. A Latin inscription in the coastal rock of Ogunquit, Maine, turns out to be a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid and an obvious romantic reference to Boon Island. The inscription is most likely attributable to an aroused classicist, but popular speculation about visiting Roman trade ships continues unabated.

Apart from forged runestones, the Ogunquit inscription is one of the most legible of the many championed by modern antiquarians. In contrast, the celebrated Dighton Rock on the Taunton River in Berkley, Massachusetts, bears actual Algonquian Indian petroglyphs overlaid by more recent graffiti.


The Dighton Rock inscriptions are such a mess that virtually anything can (and has) been made of them. Pictures of the rock have been published repeatedly, each time with a different subset of the incised lines highlighted so as to produce evidence of that particular author’s hypothesis. The rock was once promoted as a runestone, complete with a translation in response to Rafn’s nineteenth-century request for Norse evidence. Others have conjured Phoenician, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese—even Mongolian—messages out of its tangled surface. At the moment, the Portuguese hypothesis has greatest currency, mainly because of the large Portuguese-American community that lives nearby, and there is a full-scale copy of the inscription in the museum of the Sociedad de Geografia in Lisbon from which all markings not relevant to the supposed Portuguese message have been carefully omitted.

Prehistoric Algonquian Indians have supplied us with many artifacts and petroglyphs which excite modern imaginations. Their decorative art is often characterized by linear geometric designs. To these nature has added rock, particularly limestone, that tends to crack and weather in linear, sometimes crosshatched, patterns. The result is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the Ogam (or Ogham) alphabet, a written form of Old Irish that was used for a time in Ireland and the Celtic areas of Wales and Scotland. Ogam writing is essentially a single long line with short hatch lines intersecting it in groups, each group representing a different Roman letter; it was invented no earlier than the fourth century A.D. , probably by someone who had studied linguistic theory at a Roman school in Britain, and it did not survive for very long. Fewer than four hundred Ogam inscriptions are known in the British Isles. Nonetheless, Barry Fell, currently perhaps the most popular writer on such matters, has “translated” numerous supposed Ogam inscriptions from North America for his book America B.C. Since not one of his American inscriptions can withstand a test for authenticity, and most yield only gibberish, Fell has been obliged to improve the odds by three devices. First, he assumes that his inscriptions lacked vowels, even though the Ogam alphabet is supplied with them. Second, he assumes that several languages were involved and draws upon forms of Basque, Norse, Celtic, Semitic, and other languages used before, during, and even well after the fourth century. Third, he suggests that his inscriptions might be in code and thereby require deciphering as well as translation. His assumptions, in other words, allow him to make pretty much anything he wants of the litter of fake and imaginary inscriptions scattered across America.