Old World people in the New World before Columbus?


Cristoforo Colombo

Cristoforo Colombo (1451-1506); not the discoverer of America or even the first European discoverer of America

In posing the question, I’m not asking about Native Americans: although their origins in East Asian Upper Palaeolithic populations is not in doubt (even if the date of their arrival in the Americas remains hugely controversial), it is claims that people from Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean before 1492 that I want to examine. It’s a huge area, with claims ranging from Magdalenian hunter-gatherers to late medieval fishermen from Bristol (England), and supported by a variety of evidence, from artefacts to inscriptions. Claims have been made both by professional archaeologists and by amateur enthusiasts, often with a murky overlap in white supremacist subcultures.

In this post, I won’t be looking in detail at the claims made by academic archaeologists, for whom the first peopling of the Americas is still very much open to serious debate. The long held orthodox view, that the users of Clovis Points were the earliest humans in the New World, is coming increasingly under fire as new sites are discovered that appear to pre-date the earliest sites with Clovis Point technology. Even the origins of the points arouses controversy, with some suggesting a West European origin for the technique of production; there are certainly no a priori reasons why small numbers of Late Upper Palaeolithic Europeans could not have crossed the Atlantic, hugging the ice sheets that extended much farther south than today and subsisting on fish, seal and whale meat. However, ideas like this are currently just speculation: evidence to back them up is required before they will become accepted.

Barry Fell

Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994)

Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994)

The one name that you are perhaps more likely to come across than any other as a proponent of pre-Columbian contact with the Old World is Howard Barraclough (Barry) Fell (1917-1994). Born in England, he emigrated with his mother to New Zealand in the 1920s, but returned to the UK to gain a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1941; his thesis was titled Direct Development in the Ophiuroidea and its Causes (Ophiuroidea are the class of brittle stars). By then, he had already developed an interest in petroglyphs, publishing ‘The pictographic art of the ancient Maori of New Zealand’ (Man 61, 85-8) in 1941. After a spell in the British army, he returned to New Zealand in 1946, where he took up a post as Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the Victoria University College in Wellington, being promoted to Associate Professor in 1957. He became a world authority on echinoderms and in 1964, he was offered and accepted a post as Curator in Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at the University of Harvard. Later, he became Professor of Invertebrate Zoology.

In 1973, he made a life changing decision to abandon his echinoderm research and turn to the study of epigraphy, founding the Epigraphic Society in July 1974 with his wife Rene and their friend Peter Garfall. Barry Fell was elected as the Society’s first president with the historian Norman Totten of Bentley College (now Bentley University) in Boston as vice president (he is now the Society’s president). His book America BC: Ancient Settlers in the New World, first published in 1978, brought him to wide attention and he soon developed a following of devoted supporters. He claimed to recognise a variety of Old World scripts in rock-cut inscriptions across the USA, supposedly created by transatlantic voyagers from Egypt, the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland, Carthage and elsewhere. This was followed in 1980 by Saga America, an exposition of supposedly Viking era remains, and in 1982 by Bronze Age America, concentrated on recognising ‘Bronze Age’ Scandinavian texts, two thousand years older than any known runic inscriptions in Europe, at Peterborough, Ontario (Canada). His supposed abilities ran to a translation of the unique Phaistos Disc and the Rongorongo boards of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), neither of which has won acceptance among linguists.

America BC: Barry Fell's best known work

America BC: Barry Fell’s best known work

One of the claims made by his supporters is that mainstream academics reject his findings because he was an amateur and lacked the long experience necessary to master the variety of scripts he claimed to be able to decipher. This is true to the extent that there are few, if any, linguists competent in as many ancient languages and scripts as Fell claimed to be, even though there is no denying that he was multilingual. His amateur status, though, is a red herring: Michael Ventris, one of the co-decipherers of Linear B, was an amateur and professionals listened to him because his arguments were based on solid evidence and were convincing. Fell’s arguments are not. His analysis of supposedly Celtic elements in Native American placenames and languages is fanciful; his identification of scratches on rock surfaces as Irish Ogham script shows his lack of familiarity with real Ogham. It is possible to go on, but the point is that Fell’s belief in his own linguistic abilities was not matched by genuine linguists’ faith in him; indeed, Fell worked in a scholarly vacuum, not engaging with genuine experts, publishing in his own society’s journals and monographs not subject to peer review by professional linguists. Rejection of his ideas is not because other scholars are closed-minded and unwilling to accept such ideas but because the evidence on which he based his radical hypotheses about widespread contact between the Old and New Worlds long before Columbus does not stand up to even the slightest critical scrutiny.

The Kensington Runestone

The Kensington Runestone

The Kensington Runestone

In 1942, Matthew Stirling, Director of the American Bureau of Ethnology, described this stone, unearthed in Minnesota in 1898 as “probably the most important archaeological object yet found in North America”. It appears to relate a story of exploration deep into the heart of the continent by a party of Swedes and Norwegians in 1362; if genuine, it would certainly deserve Stirling’s fulsome praise. Although the stone still has its supporters, especially in the area where it was found, the opinion of the majority of scholars since 1950 has been that the inscription is a crude fraud. How did it go from being regarded as one of the greatest discoveries of North American archaeology to something tainted with fraudulent origins in so short a time?

Considerable doubt exists surrounding the circumstances of discovery, which has been exploited by sceptics, but it is likely that it was unearthed by Olof Ohman, a farmer of Swedish origin, on his farm in rural Minnesota in November 1898 (doubts exist about the precise date and accusations have been made that the inscription was made after the slab was uncovered). Ohman was clearing poplar trees from a hillock in the swamps to the north-north-east of Kensington on land that he had owned since 1890. Although there was initial excitement at the discovery, the stone faded into brief obscurity after scholars expressed their scepticism about it. In the meantime, Ohman seems to have forgotten about it and the stone was used as a step.

In 1907, the social historian Hjalmar Rued Holand (1872-1963) ‘rediscovered’ the stone. He allegedly started out as a sceptic but was quickly convinced by the authenticity of the inscription and spent the remainder of his long life trying to win it mainstream acceptance. The high point came when the stone was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum in 1949, and although the Institution was careful to avoid endorsing it as a genuine Viking artefact, its supporters see its temporary exhibition in the capital of the USA as evidence that scholars were treating it seriously.

Hjalmar Holand (1872-1963)

Hjalmar Holand (1872-1963): the Runestone’s greatest champion

Nevertheless, the linguistic peculiarities of the inscription have dogged it since it was first examined by Olaus Breda (1853-1916) in 1899. He pointed to its strange mixture of Swedish and Norwegian forms, its apparent inclusion of English words and its use of a word not attested before the nineteenth century, opdægelse, to mean “voyage of discovery”. Supporters have claimed that advances in scholarship since 1899 have shown these peculiarities to be normal for the fourteenth century. While this is true to a limited extent, it is also over-stating the case: the mixture of languages still needs to be explained away, while there is still that niggling opdægelse. This is not to mention the lack of case endings: fourteenth-century Norse nouns were still declined, but not one is on the Runsetone. Then there are the numerals. Although they are claimed to be types found on primstave, runic calendar sticks, they are not: they are a form not attested before the nineteenth century, when they were used in Swedish folk contexts.

There is the very odd coincidence that the inscription claims that ten Norse explorers were killed by Native Americans in Minnesota in 1362, while ten Scandinavian settlers were killed by Native Americans in Minnesota exactly five hundred years later, in 1862. This is odd, but not conclusive evidence for fraud. The biggest problem is in explaining what Scandinavians were doing in the middle of the North American continent in the middle of the fourteenth century. This was a period when the Norse settlements in Greenland were in decline, when contact with the Norwegian homeland was sporadic and failing. Moreover, it was a period when voyages of exploration were at an end. Hjalmar Holand was forced to construct an elaborate (and implausible) scenario for the presence of Scandinavians in Minnesota that ignores their known mode of coastal exploration. No archaeological evidence for these explorers has been found beyond a series of claimed “anchor stones” said to mark mooring spots. We are not given details of the distribution of these stones or accurate drawings of different types; instead, we are asked to accept on trust that they resemble similar stones found in Norway. The problem with these stones is that the holes were not chiselled (the standard practice in Norway) but were drilled, using the one-inch (25.4 mm) bit that was standard for blasting operations in the nineteenth-century USA.

The Paraíba Inscription

Transcript of the Paraíba Inscription

Transcription of the Paraíba Inscription: the sole evidence for its existence

While the Kensington Runestone undoubtedly exists, the same cannot be said for the so-called Paraíba (or Parahyba) Inscription, for which the sole evidence is a transcription accompanying a letter sent to Cândido José de Araújo Viana (1793-1875), the Visconde (later Marqués) de Sapucahy, President of the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasiliero in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in 1872, who passed it to Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94). Although Netto was a botanist, he was also the interim director of the Museum Nacional and had a knowledge of Punic archaeology and the Hebrew language. The following year, the discovery was reported by the newly formed London Anthropological Society in Anthropologia (1, 208) in a letter sent by A F Jones from Rio de Janeiro, who said that “[t]he published accounts of this find are so vague and unscientific that I can form no opinion of my own about it”. At a meeting of the Society on 6 January 1874, three translations were compared and there was considerable discussion about its authenticity; on the 11 August 1874, A F Jones wrote again to the Society, saying that Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the Semiticist, considered it a hoax. Other experts in Semitic languages, including Konstantin Schlottmann (1819-1887) and Julius Euting (1839-1913) were also of the opinion that the supposed inscription was a fake.

Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94)

Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94)

In the meantime, Netto had tried to locate the original inscription. The letter writer was one Joaquim Alves da Costa, a plantation owner from a place named Pouso Alto, near Paraíba; several places called Pouso Alto were found, while two places named Paraíba are known (one in the province of the same name, the other near Rio de Janeiro). Alves da Costa and his estate proved impossible to locate and Netto concluded that the whole affair was nothing more than a hoax, publishing a report as Lettre à Monsieur Ernest Renan à propos de l’Inscription Phénicienne Apocryphe soumise en 1872 à l’Institut historique, géographiqe et ethnographique du Brésil (“Letter to M Ernest Renan concerning the fake Phoenician inscription submitted in 1872 to the Historical, Geographical and Ethnographic Institute of Brazil”) in 1885. Netto blamed the hoax on foreigners who were trying to discredit Brazilian scientists and although he claimed to know the identity of the hoaxer, declined to reveal it.

However, the story was revived more than eighty years after Netto’s debunking work was published in 1885, when Jules Piccus (1920-1997), professor of Romance languages at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, USA), bought a scrapbook at a jumble sale in Providence (Rhode Island, USA) in 1967. It contained correspondence sent by Netto to Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937), a librarian at New York Public Library, which included a copy of the alleged inscription and a translation made by Netto in 1874. Piccus, who seems to have been unaware of Netto’s 1885 report, sent a copy to Cyrus Herzl Gordon (1909-2001), head of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham (Massachusetts, USA) and an expert in ancient Semitic languages. Unlike Renan, he thought the Paraíba inscription contained elements of Phoenician style that were unknown in the nineteenth century and concluded that it was genuine.

Gordon was quick to release the story to the media, with a report appearing in The New York Times by the science writer Walter Seager Sullivan (1918-1996) that was widely syndicated to other newspapers, and a sensational report by A Douglas Matthews in Life. This is a tactic widely used by pseudoscientists and regarded with suspicion by scholars. Despite Gordon’s certainty about the genuineness of the inscription, he failed to find support from other linguists. He conducted a long and acrimonious dispute with Frank Moore Cross Jr (born 1921), Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard. Cross was scathing in his criticisms of Gordon, pointing to problems with the script, vocabulary and spelling. Gordon continued to champion this text and others as evidence for numerous transaltantic contacts in Antiquity but failed to convince sceptics.

Like the Kensington Runestone, the Paraíba Inscription was quickly denounced by linguists, subsequently to be revived by those claiming that its peculiarities could be explained by more recent discoveries that would have been unknown to a nineteenth-century hoaxer. Unlike the Runestone, though, there is no artefact to examine, no physical evidence and not even an accepted findspot. It has all the hallmarks of a crude fraud.

The Newark “Holy Stones”

The Newark 'keystone'

The first of the Newark “Holy Stones”, debunked within two months of discovery

During investigations of a group of mounds south of Newark (Ohio, USA), the retired surveyor and amateur archaeologist David Wyrick (1806-1864) discovered an unusual wedge-shaped object with Hebrew writing on each of its four faces. He immediately took the stone to his friend Israel Dille (1802-1874), who happened to be entertaining the geologist Charles Wittlesey (1808-1886), also an amateur archaeologist with an interest in the mounds of North America. Although the three agreed that the lettering was Hebrew, none of them could read it. They knew that the young local Episcopalian Minister, Reverend John Winspeare McCarty (1832-1867), could read the language fluently, so they took it to him. McCarty read the stone as saying קדשקדשים | מלךארץ | תורתיהוה | דבריהוה, which translates as “Holy of Holies” | “King of the Earth” | “The Law of God” | “The Word of God”. Its discovery was reported in Harper’s Weekly by David Francis Bacon, who dismissed it as a fraud, Charles Wittlesey having pointed out that the Hebrew letters were modern.

Within five months of this discovery, a second inscription turned up in a coincidence that seems almost too good to be true. Again, it was David Wyrick who made the discovery, this time of a sandstone box containing a carved black limestone slab. On the centre of the front of the slab is the image of a man surrounded by an inscription, again in Hebrew letters, although this time of an archaic type, unlike those on the earlier find. The text, which covers the whole of the stone not occupied by the figure (labelled in Hebrew as Moses), is an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments.

The Newark Decalogue

The Newark ‘Decalogue’: the second discovery, which countered the objections to the first stone

These discoveries appeared to confirm a belief long held by a number of American antiquaries that the mounds found throughout the watershed of the Mississippi/Missouri were not of Native American origin but were built by Israelites who fled the destruction of their kingdom by the Assyrians. It also appeared to confirm the Book of Mormon’s contention that a vanished people of Israelite origin had settled in North America. Unfortunately, the letter forms of the two inscriptions were too modern (although both of different date) to support these ideas and the inscriptions were soon dismissed as outright frauds. Wyrick, as the discoverer of both, was naturally the principal suspect, his suicide in 1864 seeming to lend weight to the accusation.

However, it is not as clear-cut as it appears. Nothing ever is in Bad Archaeology! Wyrick took an overdose of laudanum, which he was using as a painkiller for the crippling arthritis that had led to his early retirement in 1859. His publication of the two inscriptions in a pamphlet in 1861 included his own illustrations that were so riddled with errors that it is impossible to believe that he could have created both the muddled drawings and the much better – if fraudulent – inscriptions on stone. Nevertheless, the first stone was undoubtedly of nineteenth-century date (both the letter forms and the use of a mechanical grinding wheel to create its smooth surface make an earlier origin impossible), while grave suspicion must fall on the second.

Although the epigrapher Rochelle Altman has suggested that the objects may be of late medieval date and imported to North America by a nineteenth-century Jewish settler from Europe (her reconstruction of events is highly detailed but entirely circumstantial), this does not explain the mechanical tooling on the first stone to be discovered. Instead, a more plausible scenario is that the hoaxer was unhappy that his first attempt to fool Wyrick had been detected and therefore planted a second object that met the objections raised to the original stone. More convincingly, the research of Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill during the 1990s suggests that the hoaxer was the Reverend McCarty, an ambitious young man with the knowledge to create fake Hebrew inscriptions. They link the inscriptions with his political views, shared by his local bishop, Charles Petit McIlvane (1799-1873), that Native Americans were descendants of the ancient Israelites, which would help to undermine the idea that they, along with negroes, were a separate creation from European humanity, and could be enslaved or exterminated.

The Newark “Holy Stones” are not evidence for an ancient Israelite migration to the New World, any more than the Kensington Runestone is evidence for Vikings in the centre of North America or the Paraíba Inscription is evidence for Phoenicians in coastal Brazil. Their context is that of nineteenth-century politics and antiquarian speculation and they, like the two previous examples, are quite clearly hoaxes designed to promote particular views of the past.

Why this sort of evidence doesn’t work

I could be accused (and quite possibly will be) of cherry-picking three objects that are easily debunked. Supporters of widespread contacts between the Old and New Worlds before 1492 will point to other inscriptions, finds of Roman sculptures, Jewish coins, mysterious structures and so on, which they believe I have not dealt with here because I can’t dismiss them so easily. That’s not the case at all.

The purpose of this lengthy post is not to criticise every piece of supposed evidence for transatlantic contact: I don’t deny that such contact before Columbus was possible (and, in the case of Vinland, certainly did happen). What I do believe, though, is that, with one significant exception, the evidence is far too weak to support the claims being made. Much of the evidence brought forward is epigraphic in nature; it depends almost entirely on inscribed texts. Any supporting artefacts are recovered either without context or with very dubious context. These artefacts are rarely unambiguous.

Herein lies my objection. Archaeology is all about the material culture of human beings. We create a lot of stuff and we are generally quite careless about how we dispose of it. Even if we are careful, we still lose things accidentally. We litter the world with our creations. From potsherds to ocean-going ships, from butchered animal bones to weapons of slaughter, we make things and dispose of them. If we are careful, we dispose of them in special places (middens, rubbish pits and so on); if we are careless, we simply toss them aside when we are done with them. Ancient Old World explorers of the New World (whether they arrived by design or accident) would have been no different. They would have had the material culture they brought with them, especially if, like the purported Phoenicians of the Paraíba Inscription, they had come as merchants in search of objects to trade; they would have created new material culture in forms familiar to them from their homelands, using their accustomed technologies.

Thus, if there were Scandinavians in Minnesota in the fourteenth century CE, we would expect to find their material remains. Not just a Runestone and some highly dubious “anchor stones”, but things like ironwork, timber-framed houses, glazed pottery and so on. In the short-lived site at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada), iron ring-headed pins and typical Viking houses were found: truly exotic material that confirmed the Vinland Sagas. Where is this sort of material around Kensington?

Too much of the ‘evidence’ consists of inscriptions (or purported inscriptions, such as Barry Fell’s ludicrously over-interpreted scratches that resemble Ogham to no-one but his followers). This is textual evidence, the stuff of historical documents. It appeals to people who believe in the power of words, in the authority of texts. Unsurprisingly, many of the fraudulent inscriptions, like the Newark “Holy Stones”, have a politico-religious sub-text. They hold great sway among people for whom the Bible or the Book of Mormon is inspired, authoritative, unchallengeable; these discoveries not only confirm the religious texts but provide additional information, which was particularly important for Christians who needed to understand how the Americas were filled with people who apparently went unmentioned in the Bible. By linking the indigenous peoples of the Americas with Old World peoples, it becomes possible to draw the New World into a Biblical world view.

This becomes all the more worrying when there is the possibility that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints has a chance to become the president of the United States of America. I don’t discuss politics on this blog (and, being English, the politics of the USA is something I do not pretend to follow closely), but we must ask ourselves how far we can trust the opinions of a man whose religious beliefs include such easily falsifiable ideas as synagogues in first millennium BC North America. Other American politicians have expressed support for the Newark “Holy Stones”; there is a movement in Lebanon that seeks to use the Paraíba Inscription as evidence for a Phoenician diaspora preceding the Jewish; white supremacists have used the Kensington Runestone and Barry Fell’s supposed Ogham inscriptions to insinuate that there were large numbers of Europeans in North America in the first and second millennia BC and perhaps even before the Native Americans. These can be dangerous views: who thinks that archaeology is irrelevant to the contemporary world?

To return to the main subject of this post, why do I find the evidence for all pre-Columbus contact between the Old and New Worlds unconvincing, with the one exception of L’Anse aux Meadows? Because of the lack of rubbish. If there is one thing that humans do well, that is to litter the surface of our home planet (and we’re beginning to spread out litter to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere…). If there were large numbers of Europeans (or Asians, or Africans) in the Americas before Columbus, they couldn’t have avoided leaving their litter. Forget texts: they are too easily forged. It’s rubbish that we need!

    • JG
    • September 22nd, 2012

    What a great essay, and in particular what a great concluding section to it. Many thanks.

  1. Bravo! An excellent piece.

  2. “Fell worked in a scholarly vaccuum”

    As with any alternate theorist with zero training they refuse to do so because they know from the outside they can point to “The Great Conspiracy”.

  3. There is also an interesting piece, called “THE “ROMAN” HEAD OF CALIXTLAHUAJA, MEXICO: ”

    http://foros.paralax.com.mx/discus/messages/590/119404.jpg

    It was uncovered in an unaltered precolumbian tomb in 1933, at the valley of Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca state of Toluca in Mexico by the archeologist José Garcia-Payón

    It´s a small clay head, because of the beard it was called roman, but termoluminicense analysis in 1995 by P. Schaaf and G.A. Wagner at the “FS Archaeömetrie unit” dated it from the IX to XIII century, so clearly is not roman.

    How it got to that tomb is still a mistery, unfortunatelly there is very little material to speculate about it´s origin.

    More info at:

    THE ROMAN HEAD FROM TECAXIC-CALIXTLAHUACA, MEXICO: A REVIEW OF THE EVIDENCE (1)
    (1) This is an extended and revised version of a paper presented by Romeo H. Hristov and Santiago Genovés T. at the 66th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in New Orleans, LA, April 22, 2001)
    http://www.unm.edu/~rhristov/calixtlahuaca.html

    NEARA JOURNAL VOL. 28, #3 &4, 1994
    THE LITTLE “ROMAN” HEAD OF CALIXTLAHUAJA, MEXICO: SOME REFLECTIONS
    ROMEO H. HRISTOV
    http://www.neara.org/CARLSON/romehead.htm

    And a little article I wrote in spanish
    http://mundo.paralax.com.mx/ciencia-y-tecnologia/150-iromanos-en-el-mexico-prehispanico.html#comments

    • The head is really interesting. I wasn’t aware of the thermoluminescent date, which complicates matters! I’ll do some research into this…

    • Mickey Mortimer
    • September 27th, 2012

    Ophiuroidea is actually the class of brittlestars, not a genus of brittlestars.

    Btw, is there any way to know which pages have been most recently added to the main website? I’d love to read new pages as they become available, but don’t want to go looking through the whole thing for parts I don’t remember.

    • These is an RSS feed, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I’ll have a look at it.

    • Thanks for that. The main text is now corrected!

    • dan scott
    • September 28th, 2012

    your comments at the end are really not much different than other forms of paranoid racism from some of the very groups you fear! If you are concerned with the influence of religion on this candidate, you should have rejected the current president long ago , whether over the radical church he attended, or Obama’s mis-cues on fundamental Islam. (He is treated like a messiah by far too many otherwise intelligent types).

    I urge you all to simply apply the same rationale to BO that has given you pause in others and WAKE UP! he is right about one thing… Forward IS change!

    Besides, if he blames bush after the last four years, who could he blame after the next failed years? : print more money, dilute more services, fabricate and falsify, betray allies of true democracy such as the people of Libya and the suffering children of Syria. we really can’t take much more of the BS by those who are dedicated to apologizing and covering for the means because somehow you have bought into the end game.
    it doesn’t hold up.

    Oh, and by the way, he is NOT BILL CLINTON! (and neither is Hillary) – Get over it already!

    • I’m not sure that I understand what you’re talking about (as I say, I don’t follow American politics). I suppose that my criticism is to do with the overt religiosity of politics in the USA. Here in the UK we have a Deputy Prime Minister who is an atheist: it is unimaginable that this could happen in the USA. Yes, Barack Obama has been a member of a church with some very bizarre beliefs and is to be condemned for using religion in his political life.

      My comment was more to do with the fact that Mitt Romney is a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, a religion that is founded on the demonstrably false idea that North America was colonised in the first millennium BC by Israelites fleeing the destruction of their kingdom by the Assyrians. That is a plainly false assertion and it worries me that someone who could be in control of what is still the most powerful country on the planet could believe (and, in his position as a bishop, promote) what is plainly untrue.

      As I say, I’m not writing a political blog. I used this example purely because it fits in with the theme. Please don’t attribute political views to me that I don’t hold!

        • Just some guy….
        • April 21st, 2013

        Not to defend the Mormans, but in my experience most (if not all) religions promote falsehoods. Wasn’t the King James Bible (I believe the most common bible) written by a king for pretty much political purposes? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a religion created in the last 200 years is “the” right one (I doubt any of them all), but I don’t think they can be pointed at as much more looney than most.

    • dan scott
    • September 29th, 2012

    You may not have meant to politicize, but ya did- though I respect you for your thoughtful answer, most certainly! I have a great deal of tolerance toward others’ beliefs, no matter how ‘disproven’ they seem to be to outsiders. the greatest schism in this thinking seems to be intolerance by atheists. why? There may be many flaws with how my parents and/or neighbors, or yours, followed their heritage- but it’s theirs, they follow with good hearts, and it’s fine!
    I urge people to judge on action and not by fear. By the very nature of our existence, and how we can’t know certainly everything about the universe, that NO ONE is completely “right”! There is plenty of room for many theories and folks need to openly explore them, in my opinion, and ‘practice what is preached’ especially by the ‘enlightened left’.

    I have a much bigger problem with intolerance- and the idea that a mormon is incapable of leadership because of supposed historical imperfection… that is patently more intolerant.

    I think you have to face a greater bigotry these days- that faith at any level is beneath the intellectual, and worse, that having faith is, somehow, a disqualification from leadership or discourse.

    The far left seems to have propagated an entirely new wardrobe of the “Emperor’s new clothes!”

    Thank you for your blog, and your open approach.
    best wishes, Dan

      • JG
      • September 29th, 2012

      You may not have meant to politicize, but ya did

      Twaddle. Actually, Dan Scott, I think it’s you who’ve politicized this discussion.

      the greatest schism in this thinking seems to be intolerance by atheists. why?

      This would explain why all the polls show US voters would cheerfully vote for atheists, and the consequent plethora of atheists in high office.

      It’d be real nice if you stopped regurgitating Fox News talking points at the rest of us.

    • As for the idea that “having faith is, somehow, a disqualification from leadership or discourse” goes against everything we get from our politicians in the UK these days. They are emphasising the importance of ‘faith’ in public discourse and the supposed Christian culture of our four nations, all the time giving special treatment to ‘faith’ schools, which are removed from the control of the local authorities who have traditionally regulated state education. We have ill-informed religious leaders who rail against laws that protect gay people from discrimination yet refuse to condemn the endemic child abuse among the priesthood, sheltering their culpable priests from prosecution for as long as they can. We have government ministers who over-rule the rights of non-believers. We have unelected religious leaders in our parliament.

      Your ideas about the role of religion in daily life are just plain wrong.

    • Dr. Rochelle Altman
    • October 22nd, 2012

    I just stumbled upon your site. With regard to this posting of September 2012.

    There is nothing “circumstantial” about the actual pieces that compose the Newark Holy Stones. Nor is there any question about the objects being late Medieval and originating in South France or Catalonia in Spain. One does need to know about Medieval art to instantly see what these artifacts are. Further, these artifacts were correctly identified as being Medieval back in 1841 by Dr. Fischel, a highly respected expert on medieval artifacts — and whose assessment was accepted by the Ethnological Society. The report was published by the Society in 1863.

    I find placing the onus of forgery on someone who has been dead for more than a century and, thus, unable to defend himself, revolting.

    There are so many fakes out there that to denigrate what is authentic, if not what people want to hear, is equally unfortunate.

    Instead of a knee-jerk siding with an archaeologist who is totally innocent of any knowledge of Medieval art and artifacts, how about asking someone who is an expert in the field of Medieval Art. You could do what was done to me. I was sent a photo of the “Decalogue” artifact and asked to identify its period without being given any other information whatsoever. My instant response was: Medieval, South France of Spain. Why not give this a try before condemning an authentic set of artifacts as forgeries?

    As far as Hebrew epigraphy goes, I am an expert. There are composite double purpose letters on the Decalogue that were completely unknown in the 19th century. Such composites did appear in antiquity and in the Medieval period and appear (particularly in “magic,” i.e. incantation formulas) and not only in Hebrew or Aramaic. Further, two of the artifacts use the incantation format for the inscriptions. Nobody in the 19th century knew about the incantation formats. For instance, boustrophedon writing is an incantation format; however, in spite of its appearing only on religious artifacts in Greek and Latin, it was called an “early” form of writing that only later became linear.

    Before making such judgments about authenticity, it might be a very good idea to learn a great deal about Hebrew Epigraphy and Medieval art, and, of course, the meaning of the various formats used from Sumer and Akkad on down the centuries to today.

    BTW, yes, I am a PhD, but I am also a trained graphic artist — a script designer and historian of writing systems. I do believe that I know more about those inscriptions than archaeologists faced with inscriptions outside their field.

    Oh, I forgot one other point. I have what the police call a “nose” for reconstructing a scene from the evidence. Not that you need much a nose to see what happened to the original owner — not with that chip out of the head piece and the crumbling of the back of the “fragile” skull.

    • Dr Altman, many thanks for your reply.

      I fear that I may have offended you with my use of the word “circumstantial” and for that I apologise. However, in a forensic sense, the scenario you propose is circumstantial, as it lacks many of the connections between individual pieces of evidence that would support it. In particular, it cannot be demonstrated that all the artefacts came from a single undisturbed archaeological context. This does not mean that your scenario is wrong or even that it is implausible (indeed, I think that it accounts for the evidence very well); however, it remains at the level of an hypothesis that links the phenomena observed. If you care to look at the page on the main site devoted to the stones, you will see that I try to present your hypothesis in a perfectly fair light, although I take issue with your dating of the objects (of which more, below). You may find accusations of forgery made against someone long dead “revolting”; I also find them disgusting, which is why I go out of my way to exonerate David Wyrick of the charge that is usually made against him. It is Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill who have suggested that the Reverend McCarty had the knowledge, means and motivation to commit a fraud: I present their case alongside yours.

      I think you mean that the objects were identified as medieval in 1861 (as stated in your paper), not 1841. I do not dispute that Dr Fischel identified them as medieval, nor do I doubt his expertise. Nevertheless, his assessment was based purely on the style. Whilst style is an important element in dating an object, it is not the only data that can be used.

      For a start, the so-called “keystone” is carved from novaculite, a mineral found in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas but not available to a late medieval carver in the Old World. The presence of marks made by a mechanical grinding wheel places its manufacture in the nineteenth (or to be generous, late eighteenth) century. Thus, while the art historical data suggests a late medieval date, the archaeological data suggests one one earlier than 1750.

      You chide me for “a knee-jerk siding with an archaeologist who is totally innocent of any knowledge of Medieval art and artifacts. Without entering into petty tu quoque arguments, I have to say that in the case of a controversial artefact, it is necessary to look at the data from all the relevant specialisms. This includes the geological data that indicates that, despite its style, it cannot have been made in southern France or Spain during the Middle Ages because the relevant stone was simply not available. It also includes the technological data that, despite its style, the object was shaped with a mechanical grinding stone, which was not available in the European Middle Ages.

      It is, however, possible to manufacture an object that conforms precisely to an earlier style given sufficient knowledge of that style. The person making the object may unwittingly employ the wrong stone and use the wrong tools. These might well have been irrelevant: your analysis of the text indicates that it was composed very carefully, using letter forms that were appropriate to their context. I bow to your expertise in this area (and I know this to be considerable, as I watched the controversy over the “James the Just” ossuary unfold: yours is the most cogent account of the inscription that I have read). However, what your analysis of the text on the “keystone” and other artefacts cannot show is that the artefacts on which they were carved were of a particular date: the Rabbinic tradition is rightly proud of its careful copying of texts without error (insofar as this is humanly possible) and I see no reason to suppose that a competent carver versed in this tradition could not have made the artefacts to order around 1800.

      Nevertheless, the weight of evidence precludes a medieval origin for the “keystone”: the geological data seems to me to be conclusive evidence for manufacture after 1492. This does not, of course, preclude your scenario of the murder of a Jewish settler. What it does suggest to me, though, is that his phylacteries and other equipment were of relatively recent manufacture, copying older designs that may have been current in the areas where his medieval ancestors had lived.

  4. I personally wish to bookmark this particular article, “Old World people
    in the New World before Columbus? ” on my web page.

    Would you care in case I actuallydo? Thx -Ren

  5. I have to admit that I giggle when people assert that Henry Ford created the assembly line. Of course, not many people have seen the beautifully preserved artifacts produced ca. 300 BCE in an assembly line at a pottery factory that was discovered in Athens when they were digging out the new line for the Metro back around 1999.

    Similarly, it is a mistake to assume that people did not have mechanical equipment in Europe before the late 18th-early 19th centuries.

    Mechanical grinders, run by treadles, were available in Europe at an early date. In fact, treadle machines were used in Rome. Lucretius refers to the insilia as the treadle of a weaver’s loom. In ancient Greece, a podo-troxilos was the person who turned a wheel with his foot. In French, the noun is pedale — specifically applied to “pedale” looms and grinders.

    The Old English *verb* tredan, meaning 1, is to press with the foot. Among other meanings for the *noun* tredel is the sole of the foot. A wine or oil press was a trede (e.g. wintrede). (Here’s the feet-connection again.

    The use of treadles to run machinery — from looms to grinders — is ancient and rather widespread. The earliest written mention of treadle stone grinders comes from China ca. 900 BCE.

    So, I don’t think we can rule out an expert stone worker who had a pedal operated grinding machine. In fact, I assumed as much. I just did not realize I had to explain this facet.

    What I found very odd were the assertions that the Hebrew letters were modern. Oddly enough, Hebrew Square script is just that, Hebrew Square script whether dated 150 BCE or 2013 CE.

    Now, these Newark Stones are Sephardic in style, not Ashkenazic. That makes a difference. This note is long enough — I can detail what those differences are later, if you wish…

    I do apologize. It is quite unfair to take out my exasperation with Lepper and Gill on you.

  6. Talk about bad archaeology. It just occurred to me that I have never questioned the accuracy of the designations assigned to the materials used. I did examine one of the exact copies of the “Decalogue” (heavy thing to cart around). But the light-colored stone used for the water tester and the case for the decalogue? Is the light-colored stone really novaculite?

  7. I am a frequent visitor to both of your sites and enjoy them very much. Being an armchair internet archaeologist with little means and no formal education in archaeology I would like to ask you as an expert how to find the latest updated information on any area of study for example Machu Pichu where they seem to be finding new things all the time or Gobekli Tepe (sp?).

  1. September 23rd, 2012

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