A “Celtic Dolmen in Oregon?” – well, at least it’s a question!


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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The supposed "Celtic dolmen" in Oregon (USA)

The supposed “Celtic dolmen” in Pike Creek Canyon (Oregon, USA)

I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw this “story”. It seems to be constructed partly from quotations from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary and “Wickipedia” (sic) and is based on research using Google Earth. In fact, it’s written by the “Oregon Nature Examiner” for The Examiner (the “insider source for everything local”), one Dave Sandersfield, who has a degree in Technical Journalism, so we can excuse the lack of archaeological knowledge displayed by the article.

It’s actually quite difficult to understand what the article is really about. It seems that, somewhere in Pike Creek Canyon, north-west of Alvord Hot Springs in Oregon  (USA) (the article says that Pike Creek is west, but it’s clear from Google Earth that it isn’t), there is a dolmen that can be seen as “a big pile of rocks”. It is in the canyon, close to Baltazar Spring. Trawling Google Earth, there are plenty of piles of rock in the canyon, but I can’t make out one that resembles a dolmen. What is interesting (to me, at any rate) is that in the canyon, there’s a photograph by timland (a photographer with an eye for interesting landscapes), showing glacial erratics.

Unfortunately, Dave Sandersfield doesn’t include a screenshot of the right bit of Google Earth, so I can’t be certain that I’ve located the right area. Mind you, he does say that it’s best “to physically walk along side this oddity and touch these unmovable rocks placed together by some prehistoric hands”, so that might well be why I can’t see anything. However, he does include a photograph showing “the round red rock pinched by the horizontal roof stone against the orange boulder on left to make the roof rock shed rain water”. Most of the photographs on the website appear to have been taken with a camera phone, to judge from the poor quality and camera shake, so there isn’t a great deal that can be judged about the nature of the alleged dolmen.

However, the one decent photograph, reproduced at the start of this post (and originally named, bizarrely, Copy_of_Celtic_shack.JPG), shows a group of reddish rocks with a larger flat slab perched above several others. This fits the definition quoted from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary that a dolmen consists of “two or more large, upright stones set with a space between and capped by a horizontal stone”. However, the photograph doesn’t really resemble anything that might be regarded as a dolmen by a European archaeologist (quite what Dave Sandersfield’s “Palaeo-archaeologist” is supposed to be isn’t explained in the article). Dolmens are found in a number of locations in western Europe and were once thought to be evidence for the diffusion of farmers from Syria-Palestine into Europe. Radiocarbon dating demolished that particular hypothesis back in the 1970s, but the monuments remain as a phenomenon of the earliest Neolithic and are part of the wider phenomenon of collective burial in stone-lined tombs.

The dolmen de Saint-Nectaire (France)

The dolmen de Saint-Nectaire (France)

So far, so good. Dolmens are the denuded remains of such tombs, whose original coverings of earth or stone have long since been lost. There is a possibility that some were built as free-standing structures, but this remains unproven. It is untrue to suggest, though that “later they were built for seasonal, especially winter equinox, observation stations”, as many early examples incorporate astronomically significant alignments; none was built principally as an “observation station” as they were always tombs. The fourth photograph, showing “Dolmen’s View looking east towards winter solstice” is presumably meant to reassure us that, like other dolmens, this one incorporates the most important of these alignments. There is no evidence, as Dave Sandersfield claims, that they were “placed near geothermal pools”.

Astérix the Gaul

Astérix le Gaulois: the fictional archetypal Celt

According to the author, dolmens “are associated with an ancient Celtic culture that built Stonehenge and other odd standing rock structures” and his quotation from Wikipedia gives us a slightly old-fashioned view of Celtic culture. There are two problems with this view. Firstly, even the latest phases of Stonehenge pre-date a recognisably Celtic culture by almost a thousand years; it’s even worse for dolmens, which pre-date it by more than two thousand. The equation of dolmens with Celts might have been put to entertaining use by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in the Astérix comic books, but it’s utterly unhistorical. It belongs to a time before prehistorians were able to date the pre-Roman monuments of Europe and is thus more than a century and a half out of date.

The second problem is with the entire concept of the “ancient Celtic culture”. Yes, there was a common élite culture across western Europe during much of the first millennium BC and the label given to it by art historians and archaeologists is “Celtic”. However, that is simply a descriptive label. A century ago, when prehistoric cultural change was thought to be associated with the migrations of ethnically distinct groups of peoples, that “Celtic culture” was assumed to be associated with a group of peoples described by classical authors as living north and west of the Alps. There are enormous problems with associating material culture forms with ethnic identity, which I summarised in an article published ten years ago. The so-called “Celtic culture” includes too much diversity to be associated simply with one single ethnic group. A simple example will suffice: we know that the people called Celts by their contemporaries in the classical world lived in rectangular houses; the Britons and Irish, whose descendants think of themselves as “Celts”, lived in round houses, as their ancestors had done for several thousand years. No classical author ever describes the inhabitants of the British Isles as Celts (indeed, the late fifth-century writer Zozimos actually contrasts the Britons with the Celts) and it was on purely linguistic grounds that the identification was first made.

The supposed "Celtic Empire"

The supposed (but non-existent) “Celtic Empire”

This does not worry popular writers, such as Peter Berresford Ellis, who treat “Celtic culture” as if it is a monolithic phenomenon. It also rouses the anger of self-identifying “Celts” in Britain, Ireland and Brittany, who see any attempt to examine the concept critically as a phenomenon of English imperialism or, worse, as racism. However, it is clear to the disinterested observer that the claims made for a unified “Celtic Empire” are just plain wrong: there never was any such entity, just lots of warring tribes and kingdoms, who spoke closely related languages, valued similar artistic styles but whose basic cultures were quite distinct.

Promoting a myth of North American Celts

Promoting a myth of North American Celts

There is a more sinister and worrying aspect to the author’s identification of a purported “Celtic” monument in North America. Similar claims are made by white supremacist groups (only follow the link if you are prepared to read falsifications of the past promoted by racists; here is a resource for dealing with this type of hate-mongering). Some of the claims seem innocuous enough and often quote Professor Barry Fell as an authority. Fell was an invertebrate biologist who became enthused by epigraphy, claiming to detect traces of ogham inscriptions across the United States of America, and he developed a wide following. His work has not been well received by academics but is accepted uncritically by many amateurs as well as by those with a religious or political interest in seeing European settlers in North America millennia before Columbus. The plain fact of the matter is that there is not a shred of credible evidence for the settlement in North America of large numbers of people from western Europe before 1492.

So, are these rocks in Oregon the remains of a “Celtic dolmen”, if we leave out the bit about astronomical observations and the bit about the Celts? It should be obvious by now what my answer is going to be. The solution comes in the second paragraph. timland’s landscape photographs demonstrate what this “Celtic dolmen” really is: it’s a group of glacial erratics, left after the ice that carved out Pike Creek Canyon had melted. It wasn’t “ancient Celts” who put the “capstone” in place, but Mother Nature.

17 comments

  1. EXCELLENT and well thought-out article.

    Glacial Erratics, please. You better go above Alvord hotsprings and check this site out for your self. I simply can’t explain why its there.

    I lived in the Rocky Mountains and these rocks of rhyolites are not glaciated.

    Excellent thoughtful article here though!
    Oregon Nature Examiner

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    1. Dave

      Thanks so much for commenting! I really do worry that I might offend people when I write these opinionated posts.

      I still think that the rocks look like morainic material from a central moraine, deposited after the ice melted. Boulders carried in the central moraine are less subject to friction and grinding, so they tend to retain sharper edges. This piling up is exactly what I’ve seen in parts of the world I’m familiar with that were affected by Pleistocene glaciations (Wales, Scotland, the Lake District in England and The Alps).

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  2. No problem Keith. You do a great service!

    Really sad thing is Steen’s Mountains in SE Oregon desert had very little glacial acttivity and one can see these rhyolite flat rocks a half mile up on a ridge above the hotsprings. Freeze/thaw makes rhyolite sharper. Ok so rocks slid down this slope! What stacked them?????And How

    Alvord Desert in old glacial lake at base of Steens; but not flash flooding a mile up slope?

    I wish you could see it someday!

    keep up your excellent critical eye, Pardner! Keep us honest!

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  3. I have enjoyed reading your skeptical blog. So many fantastical claims out there. You may want to beware of broad generalizations like the following though.
    [quote]”The plain fact of the matter is that there is not a shred of credible evidence for the settlement in North America of large numbers of people from western Europe before 1492.”[/quote]

    I am pretty certain there are Norse settlements on Greenland. Wiki told me. I am fairly certain that the Norse qualify as Western Yurps, and also fairly certain Greenland is part of North America. Wiki told me that too.

    L’Anse aux Meadows is definitely in North America, and according to the experts, was settled during the last Medieval Warm Period.
    I suppose you covered your bases by saying ‘large numbers’.

    After crossing the open Northern Atlantic, even during this balmy time period, I find it easy to imagine an adventurous, fearless, sea faring group easily capable of moving up and down the coast from a permanent settlement. The implication these voyagers become land locked scared little villagers, tied to this one location upon choosing it for a permanent base is as funny as saying that Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad, an archaeologist “found the site”. In fact they were led to it by locals, who were quite aware the site was there. Interestingly enough, their names are not listed in Wiki. :-/

    Maybe that is why America didn’t exist until Columbus planted a Spanish flag on some Caribbean Isle either. Probably the Natives living here, didn’t know it existed and definitely shouldn’t be credited with discovering it, since they failed to submit their findings to the proper authorities. Silly ignorant brownskins.
    That will teach them to not do their paperwork. :-)

    Funny how someone important connected to another important organization has to declare a thing exists for it to be real.

    Perhaps our POV is colored by our historical empire forbears beliefs.
    Christopher Columbus didn’t set foot on, nor discover North America. More importantly he didn’t call it Vineland back in Yurp. That may have caused some legal issues.
    He claimed it as property with a flag and guns, (also called armed robbery if you don’t use a flag). But saying ‘discover’ in the historical record (legal jargon) makes it easier to dismiss others common law property rights and with no record- the mass murder that enabled it, didn’t happen.

    Written word is the only place where you can make what happened-unhappen, and what didn’t happen- magically occur.
    Since you enjoy the word churnalism, I will let you come up with one for the legal adepts who steal with false truths written in ink.

    Beware those who want to make records.

    It doesn’t change The Fact that western yurpeans WERE in North America half a millennia before Columbus, regardless of the proof of their spread or numbers.

    Why do archaeologists resist Vikings in North America so much? Its a fact. Your teacher and educational materials lied to you in elementary school. Get over it.

    I am not sure why the establishment has so much argument over when or which whities first found a -new to them- piece of land, other then trying to create a false reality about sovereignty domain and tracing of property rights.

    The Tocharians were Caucasoid. Ancient buddhist paintings showing redhead blue eyed priests were accurate. So what. People traveled. People mingled. They were buried in the desert with large quantities of marijuana. Its a fact. Get over it.
    The only people that care are politicians and lawyers and racists/nationalists.

    When ‘scientists’ start following facts and stop trying to create theories -or worse force facts to fit in current crumbling theories, for fame and glory, that fit their miniscule POV on the world, then they will start regaining trust, and start earning the name ‘scientist’.

    Regards

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    1. I wouldn’t try to deny that there were Norse settlements in North America. The point about them is that they were few in number and very short-lived (if I recall correctly, they are supposed to have been abandoned within ten years of foundation).

      Your point about not trusting what is written is something that I agree with wholeheartedly. Documents are written for a purpose, not as objective records. Some are less likely to contain bias than others (boring things such as bills, deeds of sale and so on) but many have to be read with a great deal of scepticism. This is why I’m an archaeologist, not an historian!

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      1. I hope you extend your distrust of the written word, to the theory of the cradle of civilization, and social evolution as well– required reading for your FOI, I assume.

        Since you aren’t a historian, Hvalsey was a Norse settlement that was populated for ~300 years on an ice free Greenland. 300 years. Take a second to ponder that. What could those seafarers have accomplished in 300 years? Hard to say definitively, since they were men of action -Do’ers -not paper shuffling bureaucrats or record keeping librarians. They raised cattle there, something impossible to do now, even with *cough* global warming.
        If Greenland was devoid of ice, covered in grass… what does that say for the northwest passage? Where else may the Norse have ventured to, that are now covered in Ice and glaciers, evidence inaccesible? How difficult would it have been for them to sail across upper canada? Context is everything. Thinking our world was their world is a restricted paradigm and a lack of imagination, the Uniquely Human tool that allows us to follow invisible tracks.
        On their forays, hunting trips, and pillaging of eastern NA tribes, they probably didn’t cross the imaginary line between Canada and the U.S, I am sure the border patrol was on full alert for Invading Vikings. ;-)

        Our empire rewrites history and excludes paradigm damaging facts as surely as the Babylonians and the Egyptians did. It usually takes a minimum of 50 years for it to become common knowledge.

        I look forward to your blog about the Nasca Cone Heads/Elongated Skulls, and their world wide counter parts. Comparing them to bas relief depictions of Nefertiti is… the feeling it causes is odd.

        Actually seeing the massive skulls displayed in Peru, and realizing the jawbone would easily encompass my own very large jaw puts things in perspective. To imagine they had twice as much brains as me, boggles my extraordinary ego. :-)
        I am also interested in your thoughts on Caral and its place in diffusionist theory and musical evolution.

        Deeds of sale are some of the most biased documents of all. They are Pieces of Paper, with magical inscription, granting you a concept, but more accurately enslaving you to debt or taxation. Possession is real. Consumption is real. Ownership is imaginary/magical thinking. The king wants you to think you own things, so he can collect his levies. He keeps all the authority, retains actual ownership as evidenced by armed seizure at whim, and you pay him for the privilege of responsibility.
        Its good to be the king.

        Regards

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  4. The term ‘Celtic’ applies only to language, not to ethnicity or culture. If academics start using the word ‘Celtic’ to describe certain Iron Age (or even modern) cultures, then we may as well go the whole hog and use other nonsensical terms such as ‘The Aryan Race’, or ‘Atlantean Culture’. ‘Celtic’ in this sense is just another wholly romantic but inaccurate (and often racist) term used in ignorance.

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    1. I think that the problem is that the person promoting this as a “‘Celtic’ dolmen” isn’t doing it from an academic standpoint, but a popular one. You just have to look at the vast literature on “Celtic Ireland” (or wherever) to see how popular writers simply don’t make a distinction between the language group, art styles, settlement patterns and so on.
      Use of the term ‘Celtic’ in academia has been severely curtailed in recent years following the critiques of people like John Collis and Simon James.

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  5. Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick-Matthews,

    Sir, I was wondering where you acquired your map of the Celtic Empire between 700 to 100 B.C.? I’m currently writing a paper comparing modern-day identity politics with skewed historical interpretations, and I found that map on Google, but I haven’t been able to successfully trace the source of it. Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated (you have my email address, or you could simply respond on this thread if that’s more convenient). I hope to hear from you!

    Sincerely,

    Michael

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    1. Your link, which takes me to a page called “Evidence of Sophisticated, Ancient, Unknown Cultures in North America” does nothing to convince me that anything on that page has anything to do with the supposed dolmen I wrote about. The assertion that this page documents “sites of such great antiquity; sites so enigmatic, so sophisticated and seemingly inexplicable, serious scientists and archaeologists have denied their study because of their monumental implications: It would force them to throw away their pre-conceived notions about the achievements of ancient man into the historical garbage can” is wrong in so many ways.

      FIrstly, if these sites were real (and some of them clearly are, more of which shortly), then any archaeologist embarking on a career would be catapulted to fame by demonstrating the antiquity the page alleges for these sites. Contrary to what so many Bad Archaeologists claim, professional archaeologists love to discover new things and entire careers are made through genuine discoveries. The reason that places like Mystery Hill are sites “of which many have never heard a whisper” is not because knowledge of them is suppressed but because they are highly problematical as ancient sites. Mystery Hill is unique, but uncontrolled digging and reconstruction by people who have no skill in archaeological excavation has rendered the site impossible to understand. The Palaeoindian artefacts found there appear unconnected witht he structures; some of the structures closely resemble those of early European colonists. Others appear so bizarre that they look like a joke.

      And here is my second criticism of the page. The “dry masonry chamber at Upton, Massachussetts” may superficially resemble a Mycenaean tholos tomb, but it also resembles a post-medieval European ice house. Which is it? Which explanation is the most plausible? The same goes for all these other supposed sites.

      Like

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