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Pre-Columbian Old World inscriptions in the Americas?

Howard Barraclough Fell (1917-1994)

Howard Barraclough Fell (1917-1994)

Howard Barraclough Fell (1917-1994), better known as Barry Fell, has been enormously influential in the United States. He was an accomplished and respected marine biologist from Harvard whose interest in epigraphy (inscriptions) has led him to be described by his followers as “the greatest linguist of the twentieth century” and by sceptics as “a self-promoting pseudo-scientist who threatened to undo more than a century of careful progress in archaeological and anthropological research”. Neither assessment is entirely fair.

Firstly, Barry Fell was a scientist. His training in marine biology meant that he was able to bring what he hoped was a measure of objectivity to controversial areas. However, his pronouncements were often uncompromising, lacking the circumspection and caution that is common in Good Archaeologists’ writings. His certainty in controversial interpretations often served only to enrage Good Archaeologists, making reasoned debate impossible.

Fell’s first foray into epigraphy was a study of Polynesian petroglyphs published in 1940, but it was his book America BC (1976) that really propelled him into popular consciousness. In it, he argued that there are numerous examples of Old World scripts to be found on rock surfaces and objects all over North and South America. This was followed by Saga America (1980), in which he broadened the identifications of both scripts and languages to include Arabic and other scripts as well as maps and a zodiac. The third, Bronze Age America (1982), concentrated on recognising ‘Bronze Age’ Scandinavian texts, two thousand years older than any known runic inscriptions in Europe, at Peterborough, Ontario (Canada). He also published alleged interpretations of the Phaistos Disk and the Rongo-Rongo script of Easter Island as well as an identification of Etruscan as Hittite. According to Barry Fell, there had been numerous pre-Columbian contacts between Europe, Africa and Asia and the New World going back at least three thousand years; none of these (apart from the expedition of Leif Ericsson) was remembered in the Old World.

Many academic archaeologists were more than sceptical of Barry Fell’s claims: they were openly hostile to them. His claims for scientific rigour might hold for marine biology, but when it came to archaeological interpretation, he ignored the usual rules of evidence. Moreover, his publications were largely aimed at non specialists; instead of submitting his papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals (the usual procedure), he preferred to publish either in popular books or through the Epigraphic Society of North America, a society that can be characterised, not altogether unfairly, as being composed of his disciples. In other words, he shows all the characteristics of a Bad Archaeologist.

One of his few academic supporters, David Kelley of the University of Calgary, was one of the first to recognise that the Maya script was essentially phonetic, as opposed to ideographic. He admits that the majority of examples used by Fell are errors of interpretation, but concludes that he has drawn attention to a number of anomalous texts that may indicate some form of pre-Columbian contact. He has even supported some of the claimed Ogham texts, which most mainstream archaeologists dismiss as cracks in the rock face, plough marks or out-and-out forgeries.

There are a number of key sites and identifications that Barry Fell used to bolster his case. Some are superficially impressive, such as the Los Lunas Inscription or the Bat Creek Stone; others, such as the Ogham or Arabic identified in numerous locations, are not.

26 Responses to Barry Fell

  • James says:

    Regardless of whether his translations were completely correct or not, one still comes to the debacle of old world scripts appearing in the Americas. Remember, up until not so long ago it would have been ridiculed to claim that the Vikings had reached North America – now proven. Not to buy into any conspiracies about suppressed information, but it does seem that archaeology today is very set in stone, as if we think we somehow know it all now. Infact, most of the skepticism towards Barry Fell comes from individuals who already have a pre concieved idea about the discovery of the Americas – any alternative theory is therefore ridiculous.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      No, Old World scripts do not appear in the Americas. There are claims that they do, none of which stand up to scrutiny as the products of pre-Columbian explorers: those that actually look like genuine Old World scripts are of recent date, while Barry Fell saw things in scratches that no Old World epigrapher would ever recognise as a script.

      The meme that “archaeology today is very set in stone”, like so many memes, is completely wrong. How do people get academic careers? How do they make names for themselves? Not by parroting the ideas of their tutors: they set out to disprove accepted ideas about the past. The sooner people realise that this meme is just a trope used by Bad Archaeologists to denigrate the hard work of real archaeologists, the better!

      • Bob Brooks says:

        Please stop alluding to those who disagree wilth the “set in stone archaeology” as either bumblers or non-archaelologists! Thousands praise the work of Howard Barraclough Fell (1917-1994), and I have also admired his research and writings through the years (I’m now 75–9/11/37, however not an archaeologist). Calling someone’s ideas a hoax or such is not good professional conduct. I hope you will adopt better manners when speaking of your elders, or of the dead, in Barry’s case.
        BTW please leave the “h” out of Take in the future.

        • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

          Barry Fell was a “non-archaelologist”. That’s the point. I could self-publish all sorts of nonsense about marine biology and get absolutely panned by Barry Fell and other professional marine biologists: by behaving in this way, I would almost be inviting such criticism. Yet so many people seem to think that archaeology is fair game for the non-specialist to make pronouncements about. I can’t think of many other areas of intellectual endeavour where this happens. Yes, there are the occasional cold fusion enthusiasts, the free energy believers and so on, but they don’t get the same sort of reverential treatment from the public and the media that Bad Archaeologists get.

          By the way, I have no idea what your last sentence means!

          • Bob Brooks says:

            “Thake” appears in your response of “7 August 2013 at 6:24 am”.

          • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

            Thanks for that: mistake corrected!

          • Ed Shevlin says:

            Re “Bad Archaeologists” (22 Aug 2013) the Bad Archaeologists are those with professional tunnel vision. They are also bad scientists! Your site is aptly named.
            Granted there are many outlandish theories promoted by amateurs based on speculation and faulty scientific method. However, when a finding by another competent scientist of another discipline (e.g. forensic geologist) is debunked perhaps you stray too far afield. We may not share his hypothesis beyond his physical findings, but to be dismissive of the base scientific evidence without adequate consideration of that evidence is speculation on your part. Collaboration with a forensic archaeologist might lead to a quite different hypothesis. Is there such a thing as a forensic archaeologist? Hmmm … Perhaps that’s the problem!

          • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

            The problem with Fell’s “evidence” is that it is so poor. His ogham, for instance, consists of irregular scratches on flat rock surfaces. Only someone with complete ignorance of real ogham could make that mistake and in doing so, we can work out (in a forensic sense, if you like) that he learned the ogham script entirely from books, where the lines that make up the characters are indeed drawn on a flat surface, with a line through the centre. Familiarity with real ogham stones would have shown him that this line is not an imaginary mid-point (as he seems to have been convinced) but an edge of the stone: true ogham is written across an edge. That is how it works. To see scratches on a flat rock surface as ogham goes against everything we know about the real thing. This is not speculation on my part. These are the uncomfortable facts for anyone who wants to believe in Fell’s supposed ogham.

            The same goes for all the other Old World scripts he claimed to recognise: none of his New World examples follow the same rules of writing, grammar, syntax and so on as their Old World equivalents. Did these ancient sea-farers suddenly forget everything they knew about their writing systems when they arrived in the New World? Why would that happen?

            By the way, forensic archaeology is a well established discipline! Perhaps before you start criticising archaeologists, you could find out a bit more about what we do.

          • Mnrocks says:

            There is no reply button for Keith’s post of 8/26/13. You have obviously not read Barry Fell’s book. You have a very narrow view of Ogam. You seem to think that it is limited to inscriptions on the edges of stone. That is not true. There are many examples in Europe of Ogam with a stem line on the face of a rock.

            The scripts that Fell found were listed in an Irish book. Once the inscriptions in N.A. were found, other inscriptions of the type were found in Europe.

            You may be trained as an archaeologist, but are you a linguist? Why are you so quick to put down the work of linguists?

            For years the Kensington rune stone was thought to be a fake. One reason given was that there were runes that had never been seen before, and therefore it must be a fake. However, once people looked all of the “wrong ruins” were found on Gottenberg Island.

          • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

            There is no reply button because the theme only allows threads four comments deep. It’s not a conspiracy ;-)

            If you look at a very basic reference—Wikipedia in this instance—you’ll find that true monumental ogham (“orthodox ogham”) is indeed written across the edge of the stone. It is a later development, “scholastic ogham”, that derives from a practice that began with manuscript attempts to put ogham onto a flat surface. These attempts are in a Christian context; none of Fell’s supposed flat surface ogham inscriptions is claimed to date from the sixth century CE or later: they are all supposed to be earlier (Fell claims a Bronze Age date!). In archaeology, context is everything: the same holds true for epigraphy (and it is Fell’s poor understanding of epigraphy, not linguistics, that I am critiquing here: if you want a linguistic critique, look here). How can a form of ogham that developed under the influence of writing on parchment, something that did not exist in Ireland before the fifth century CE, be found in the Bronze Age?

            It is also not true that European (i.e. Irish) epigraphers went looking for inscriptions that match the types that Fell claimed to have discovered: no European ogham specialist takes Fell’s claims seriously. Why is that, do you think? It’s certainly not professional jealousy, the reason given by Fell’s acolytes. Any epigrapher or archaeologist would be delighted to investigate evidence for pre-Columbus contact between Europe and the Americas (and, of course, this is what Helge Ingstad did at L’anse aux Meadows, proving the general reliability of the Vinland Saga). But they will only do so if the evidence stacks up. Nothing so far provided by Barry Fell or his followers has been good enough to pique the interest of genuine ogham experts.

            I have no problem with linguists. I respect their work. Barry Fell had pretensions to linguistic expertise (and, indeed, he did have a gift for languages), but he clearly lacked any ability to discriminate between good and bad data when it came to epigraphy.

            As for the Kensington Runestone, that doesn’t hold water as a genuinely medieval Scandinavian inscription.

  • J Stuart says:

    Now Keith, archaeology today IS set in stone … and bone … and … As to academic careers – if you want to get a doctorate (or masters) you’d better hope you get the right thesis committee, and you need to know them well. If your chair is a strong believer in the status quo, you will need to be very creative in disagreeing with the status quo. If your chair believes some side shoot strongly, it will be a lot easier for you as a degree candidate to show strong evidence for what your chair believes. But be careful not to take it further afield than your chair believes. Each doctoral candidate had better change the status quo a bit, but not too much. If not at all, a good committee won’t accept his thesis [correctly speaking, he doesn't have a thesis if it strictly parrots the status quo]. If too much, nobody will hire him. So I believe in conspiracies (but not too big conspiracies). And in lost civilizations (some just don’t know how lost they are, yet). Seriously, I’d like to see serious archaeology done on some of Fell’s sites, by experts for that supposed language. Generally it’s been some expert in Egypt debunking his Scandinavian runes type of work. We can do better than that. But it would involve work (which is what grad students were created for).

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      The choice of external examiners for a thesis is a thorny issue, as most theses are on subjects in which the author is the only expert. It becomes necessary to look around for people who at least know something about the main focus of the thesis, otherwise they won’t even begin to be able to critique it. After all, the process is known as “defending”. I’ve been through the process, when I was working on my PhD (never submitted, to my eternal shame!).

      Yes, it would be good to see some real archaeology done at Fell’s sites. I have seen some critiques of his alleged ogham inscriptions by people familiar with Native American petroglyphs, so I suppose that it’s not only outsiders who do this. But would Fell’s supporters accept the analyses of those who actually know what they are looking at when the supporters believe in the conspiracy to withhold what they see as the truth of ancient transatlantic contact?

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  • john says:

    what about his analysis of these ‘pygmy’ skulls? can anything be deduced from these photos?


  • Just a general perspective, This Old World New World stuff is a bit like the primitive civilised terminology. Very ethnocentric.

    It’s also really, really, unclear for people with a different cultural lens. I’m from Australia and I think 1787 and 1968 were the old worlds. The really old world was what happened after the Hugenots left the continent (lets say 1600). The really, really old world was before the Saxon invasion. The ancient world was before that. Australia was discovered c70,000 ybp and that’s really ancient.

    Why? Old and new are times, not location. But what times are old depends on your relationship with time. So Europeans think America is the new world, even though they’ve been there for at least 600 years or so, and other people have been there for a hellava lot longer. Actually almost as long as the British Isles have been settled, so Britain and America are both the old world.

    Not as old as Africa where we all came from.

    New terms are needed.

  • Edward F. Shevlin says:

    In my eighty years I have seen a lot of what academia had considered History and Archaeology continually evolve through new discoveries and forensic examination. The nabobs of Establishment Archaeology may sneer at new discoveries that have been disclosed by amateurs … sometimes for good reason, but seldom are the dismissive critiques followed up by qualified professionals using a forensic approach. Where the amateurs and those few “acredited” archaeologists fall short is in failing to examine the initial evidence through scienfic analysis by more than one method using a forensic approach.

    I find it interesting that you who consider yourselves the sole arbiters of legitimacy seem to approach every new find with institutional skeptcism as defenders of the profession. Does that not signal a lack of scientifc approach in that you start with the preconceived notion that the evidence or the methodology is suspect, particularly if there are indications that the evidence appears to supports anything contrary to currently accepted theory? Why not approach the matter with an open mind rather than a vacant mind?

    Perhaps an open mind would enable you to weigh in the expertise of professioanls in various disciplines and to explore to plausibility of other contested findings that the new evidence seems to support?

    It seems that too often the question is, “Why are there no pottery shards?”, while ignoring the fact that the site has rock carvings that may be decipherable if subjected to true scientific examination and comparison with known examples of similar graphics elsewhere. Often a premature pronouncement is made that the epigraphy is not consistent with known examples of similar script; then, Ooopps! other verifiable matching examples are discovered! Literally, “it is written in stone”, but those blinded by myopic academic pride & prejudice.

    I find this not dissimilar to case wherein a Coroner certifies a cause of death contrary to the opinion of forinsic investigators at the scene, often to be found to be in error when the crime scene raport and the Medical Examiner (a forensic pathologist) concur as to the actual circumstances and cause of death. The presumed professional often fails to recognize all the probative evidence that the situation has presented. In so doing he has fallen short of his professional responsibility to seek the truth even if it seems contrary to this previous experience and knowledge. Science evolves! Unfortunately many concepts do not!

  • helena says:

    What is it with Europeans that they cannot conceive of any society managing to survive, develop religion. culture and writing all by themselves without some input from the might white man?

    • Bob Brooks says:

      What does “the might white man” mean? Did you mean “the mighty white man”? Be that as it may, does this comment indicate a racial bias you have against whites? This doesn’t bother me as I have always seen biases against what many call “whitey”. Everyone realizes that the white race has contributed much to civilizations over the globe, but this does not say that other races have failed to make contributions to the same.
      Nevertheless, we must constantly try to avoid racial conflict wherever possible. It would help us all to get along on this increasingly shrinking planet. If someone pulled me to safety from a burning building, I dare say that it would interest me not at all as to the color of his skin. Heros spring up from all races as the moment requires it. It behooves us to try to recognize such heros and make sure none of them go unsung.

      • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

        Bob, you are clearly a good proof reader, but drawing attention to helena’s typo doesn’t help in a substantive way. She’s absolutely right that there is more than a streak of racism in a great deal (perhaps even a majority) of Bad Archaeology. The train of thought goes something like this: “the people who live in these places today are savages, therefore they cannot ever have had the capabilities to make such amazing things, therefore a lost civilisation/ancient aliens/Bronze Age European explorers did it”.

        The racism is obvious. The colour of a person’s skin is an irrelevance; race is a discredited concept among a majority of anthropologists and has been for nearly a century, not that you‘d know that from popular discourse!

  • Sam Paellon says:

    Bah, even if any of these questionable examples of claimed “old world” scripts were accurate, any suggested contact between the old and new worlds quite clearly had minimal or no impact on the native cultures that flourished in the Pre-Columbian Americas,

    Luckily various native cultures, civilizations, languages etc. have been very well documented (including DNA analysis), and they quite clearly demonstrate a wide array of uniquely evolved societies and accomplishments, the merits of which cannot be attributed to “old world” sources, be they welsh, viking, phoneician or jewish.

  • Ed Shevlin says:

    So, are you closing the book on legitimate forensic investigation of disputed finds? New scientific methods can sometimes bring new evidence to light that deserves scrutiny in the never ending task of unraveling mysteries. Haphazard theorizing by rank amateurs serves to muddy the waters; however persons such as the late Barry Fell who are accredited in other scientific disciplines serve to bring out evidence that at the very least deserves serious objective investigation rather than dismissive critique by those who haven’t bothered to seriously consider the evidence. There is a point at which professional archaeologists are a critical factor in interdisciplinary investigations. If they are at all open minded, they might even learn something beyond their own cloistered thinking.

  • geoarch says:

    Pity that an accredited scientist chose not to follow the rules of peer review process. If anything it emphasizes the fact that he avoided it. Being a good marine biologist does not confer equal expertise in epigraphy. It could be so, but it is unlikely. Further, when the evidence was reviewed there were errors, some of which were simply outlandish. Nope, sorry, the dismissive critique may sting but at the end of the day the evidence simply did not support his working hypotheses.

  • Mnrocks says:

    Scot Wolter , a forensic geologist, has applied all sorts of tests the Kensington Rune Stone in Minnesota. His scientific analysis of the rock supports the idea that it is genuine. In school, I was taught that this stone practically was the definition of hoax.

  • Frank Anthony says:

    to Keith Fitzpatrick-Nazi:
    You are a mainstream dildo with your head completely stuck up your patronizing arse.
    Anyone who disagrees with the status quo (Fell) must be marginalized and reduced why? Because he is a non professional.
    It is this professionals that Mr. Shelvin addresses to that hinder not advance the course of history. They are so closed minded that they leach their bias against anyone who challenges these dinos. Keep believing Columbus discovered America. Moron.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      Insult me all you want. I won’t return the compliment.

      Columbus did not discover America. Barry Fell was either deluded or a fraud. Get over it.

Agree or disagree? Please comment!