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.