Is the evidence strong enough to support a medieval Welsh settlement in North America?

The plaque at Rhos-on-Sea, recording the alleged departure of Madoc for North America

The plaque at Rhos-on-Sea, recording the alleged departure of Madoc for North America

First recorded almost four hundred years after the lifetime of Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd, there is little to indicate that the story was known before Humphrey Llwyd. While there certainly were medieval stories about a Madoc, who seems to have been more well known in Flanders than in Wales, it is by no means certain that the Madoc of the stories and poems was Madoc ap Owain. All that can be said of the medieval romances is that they concern a sea-farer of some renown. That is as far as the medieval sources go.

Where Humphrey Llwyd got the story is unknown. It is in none of the sources he translated into English and it is so far from the medieval versions that they cannot have been the sole inspiration. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that he simply made it up. As a proud Welshman at a time when the English government was doing its best to anglicise the recently-created province (following An Acte for Lawes & Justice to be ministred in Wales in like fourme as it is in this Realme of 1536), making a claim that the Welsh had discovered the New World long before the English (and, indeed, the Spanish) had ever set foot there would have been a strike by Llwyd in favour of national pride.

The flawed evidence of the Bat Creek Stone

In 1991, archaeologists Robert C Mainfort Jr. and Mary L Kwas, writing in The Tennessee Anthropologist 16 (1) identified the hoaxer of the Bat Creek Stone as John Emmert, the assistant who claimed to have found it. Cyrus Thomas had doubts about Emmert’s abilities, believing his judgement to be impaired by the drink problem that eventually led to his sacking. Following a series of begging letters to Thomas, Emmert was reinstated in 1888, promising to give him “greater satisfaction than I ever did before” and agreeing with Thomas’s hypothesis that the Cherokees were the moundbuilders. Emmert certainly had the motive for producing a spectacular find and despite Cyrus Gordon’s identification of the script as Hebrew, it is passable for the Cherokee syllabary. Alas, the Cherokee syllabary was invented in 1819 by the native American silversmith Sequoyah (c 1767-1843, also known as George Gist/Guess/Guest) and a radiocarbon date on material from Mound 3 of 1605 ± 170 bp (409 ± 174 CE) is much too early.

Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Edward Williams (1747-1826, better known as Iolo Morganwg), the inventor of Coelbren

So, could Blackett and Wilson be right in identifying the inscription as sixth-century Welsh, in the Coelbren script? Once again, we find Coelbren to be a modern invention, having been first published in 1791 by Edward Williams (1747-1826, better known as Iolo Morganwg), a serial forger. Although claims have been made for an earlier origin (such as in the “Welsh runes” attributed to the scholar Nennius or Nemnivus and said to have been invented because an Englishman had taunted him that the Welsh had no writing system), nothing like Coelbren is attested before the time of Edward Williams. It is also evident that if it incorporates symbols for mutated consonants and such mutations are not written before the period of Middle Welsh orthography (twelfth to fourteenth centuries CE), long after the date claimed for the Bat Creek inscription by Wilson and Blackett, then Coelbren can be no earlier that the twelfth century CE.

Dismissing the recent claims

Wilson and Blackett are keen promoters of an alternative Arthurian archaeology that uses some very poor evidence that does not stand up to critical scrutiny. Indeed, there is even a suggestion that some of the evidence they use is fraudulent. Their frequent complaint that they are not taken seriously by academe is typical of Bad Archaeologists: they tell their readers that the reasons for being ignored are professional jealousies, an inability to see beyond accepted ideas and even darkly political conspiracies. Like so many other Bad Archaeologists they seem incapable of recognising that the real reason the professional archaeologists do not give them the recognition they believe they deserve is that their ideas are poorly thought out, supported by inadmissable evidence and, ultimately, rubbish.