- Historic Sites
Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes
A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Fell has also resurrected long-discredited fakes such as an alleged Phoenician inscription from the Paraiba province of Brazil (there is another in New Mexico), the Davenport Tablets from Iowa, and an inscribed gold plate from Ecuador. The first was revived and promoted by Cyrus Gordon in 1968. The last, in Fell’s book Saga America , becomes a trilingual message announcing the accession of a Libyan king and his claim to the throne of Egypt. Mnemonic symbols developed by Roman Catholic missionaries for the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia become derived from Ptolemaic hieroglyphs. Troops of Egyptian, Phoenician, Libyan, Carthaginian, Semitic, and Celtic speakers are alleged to have passed through ancient America, leaving a scatter of words in various Indian languages. Acceptance of these as legitimate loanwords requires ignorance both of the ways in which languages work and of the specific languages in question, as well as a willingness to believe anything. Fell tells us in America B.C. that the Zuni language derives from ancient Libyan, that some New England place names are Celtic, that the Pima language can be read using a “semitic” dictionary.
Fell is not the first to employ selective and unsystematic use of linguistics to promote antiquarian fads. Some older libraries have set of seven volumes, published entirely at the expense of their obscure author, that are dedicated to the notion that algonquian languages are related to the Scandinavian.
In the middle 1960’s another enthusiast stumped the Northeast promoting the idea that the Algonquian languages were not Norse at all but Portuguese. The problem is that Algonquian languages number over twenty and, as a group, predate both Portuguese and Norse by thousands of years. Indeed, there were about two thousand mutually unintelligible languages in the New World in A.D. 1492—more than enough to allow an occasional word in each of them to resemble vaguely an occasional Old World word in both form and meaning. A resourceful advocate can use this open-ended method to demonstrate points of similarity between any two known languages. The number of possible combinations is near enough to infinity to guarantee that pseudolinguistics will be a growth industry.
Advocates with axes to grind consistently underestimate the intelligence of not only their audience but also their sources. Epic poems about Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer, were seized upon by selfserving Tudor historians as a device to challenge Spanish supremacy in the exploration of the New World. The fable has been rediscovered many times, most recently by Richard Deacon in his 1966 book Madoc and the Discovery of America . Deacon has found various Indian languages to be supplied with occasional “Welsh” words and has trotted out an old myth regarding fair-skinned Mandan Indians in North Dakota as additional evidence. (The same story had been used earlier by Hjalmer Holand as evidence of Vikings having made it to Minnesota.) A marker along a southern Alabama road actually proclaims Mobile Bay to be Madoc’s landing place.
Just as it is no coincidence that Richard Deacon is British, it should be no surprise that the primary current promoter of pre-Columbian visits by Africans is himself black. Irvan Van Sertima’s book They Came Before Columbus uses the now familiar technique of stringing together bits of carefully selected evidence, each surgically removed from the context that would give it a rational explanation. Olmec heads from Mexico are cited along with other Native American artifacts as looking Negroid. We are told that there were black captains in the Egyptian navy so that Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki adventure in a papyrus boat can be pulled in as evidence. The findings of professional archaeologists and physical anthropologists are misrepresented so that they seem to support the hypothesis. Botanical connections are also cited. But without the arsenal of fakes available to Viking and Phoenician enthusiasts, the African connection has yet to attract popular attention.
Cyrus Gordon has championed other Near Easterners besides the Phoenicians. Applying some of the techniques used by Barry Fell, he has translated a scratched rock allegedly found in a Tennessee burial mound as evidence that it was deposited there by Jews fleeing Romans. Turkish enthusiasts have had equally good luck finding words that look Turkish to them in the languages of the Mayas and the Aztecs.