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!


The “megaliths” of New Zealand

Bad Arcaheology logo

By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Earlier this week, I gave a talk to the South-West Hertfordshire Archaeological Society on the subject of Bad Archaeology. Among the questions at the end, most of which were generally supportive of my sceptical tone, I was challenged to explain the evidence for pre-Maori “megaliths” in New Zealand and, more specifically, the work of Martin Doutré, an American citizen living in New Zealand. At the time, I mentioned that I had heard of Doutré’s work and that I was aware of its links with extreme right-wing politics. For me, that ought to be enough to dismiss the implications of his so-called “discoveries”, but it was clearly not enough for my questioner.

Back-track to July 2008. I received an email from a “Badger H Bloomfield” of Dannevirke, New Zealand, in which I was challenged to “check out if you are interested.A find of buried clay sculptures ,siltstone carvings,Script,glyphs, pyramids all in New Zealand at Dannevirke ,Motea .Waione. Horoeka,Tararua District… A very objective find …Obviously out of Africa ..3D.carved face profiles with large lips …Everybody has  been skeptical BUT nobody has come to have a look!!? Remember ..”Seeing is Believing:”…I challenge you to prove this as “Bad Archaeology””. A bit of googling revealed a few websites that contain comments by Mr Bloomfield. He seems to turn up from time to time in discussions of New Zealand prehistory, sometimes promoting his Tararua Ancient Sites Project, which has no real web presence. Indeed, this is what he did in a reply email to me: “While you guys argue and debate the misnomer of “Bad Archaeology “.We are uncovering a dig of enormous proportion …No one wanted to know only wanted to argue whether we were qualified to dig or not ,so we called in some overseas Prof:s,Academics ,and interested researchers .…What we have retrieved to date are hundreds of stone carvings ,sculptures ,ancient script ,settlement sites.We have retrieved a lot ,restoring as we go ,with a lot still in the ground being destroyed by quarry machinery it can’t stay in the ground forever ,it has to be retrieved and analised,So instead of yapping about something you know nothing about ,make the effort to come and view at “Tararua Ancient Sites Projects Restoration Studio“.

Some of Badger H Bloomfield's alleged Neolithic tools

Some of Badger H Bloomfield’s alleged “Neolithic tools”

It’s actually very difficult to find information about the Tararua Ancient Sites Project, although a photograph posted by Badger Bloomfield on a site dealing with dinosaur fossils purports to depict Neolithic tools. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that they are from Tararua; however, this may be confirmed by his comment on the Maori News blog that “the exhibition of Taumata atua sculptures and carved Ma-Uri stones retrieved from Ancient sites by the “Tararu Ancient Sites Project”… want our original “Tangata Whenua”recognised as to whoever they were !!!A culture of Neolithic artisans capable of creating a group{tribe}of very efficient carvers ,seamen,gardeners,builders,all the carved face profiles on the carvings and sculptures only represent “Men”..So!! who did they breed with?? Maeroero ?”. According to the caption of the photograph, “on close inspection carved faces and designs are visible” on the stones. I have to say that I can’t see any evidence for carving, for faces or even for an anthropogenic origin for these bits of stone, although I’m basing my opinion purely on a photograph.

Unfortunately, the New Zealand Archaeological Association declined to comment on Badger Bloomfield’s project when I asked them for further information. A spokesperson did confirm, though, that she was aware of him and had received emails similar in tone to those he had sent me.

Part of the Doutré hypothesis is that orthodox academics are actively suppressing or wrongfully discrediting his discoveries. He manages to get respectful press attention, although some have complained about it. He is also something of a revisionist when it comes to interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Trying to research this subject drags us into the murky subculture of White Supremacists, who are determined to show that Europeans settled various places (in this case New Zealand) before the inhabitants discovered by the first European explorers. Sometimes, these people hide behind innocuous enough (but often poorly designed) websites; sometimes they are more brazen about their beliefs. Now, I’m not suggesting that either Martin Doutré or Badger Bloomfield are white supremacists (indeed, Badger Bloomfield seems to be as enthusiastic about Maori archaeology as his clearly is about supposedly pre-Maori archaeology); what is evident, though, is that the alleged discoveries they are keen to promote are taken up with glee by extreme right wing racists. Moreover, Doutré very publicly endorsed David Irving and holocaust denialism in a comment on a post in the Scoop Review of Books.

However, having neo-Nazi sympathies does not automatically invalidate Martin Doutré’s hypothesis. People can hold vile political views and still make important discoveries. So, what is his evidence for “Celtic New Zealand”? He makes much use of things he identifies as standing stones or megaliths, comparing them with examples known in the British Isles. Many of the stones he claims as megaliths look more like glacial erratics. However, his surveys of their locations have suggested that they incorporate significant astronomical alignments and may even be laid out according to the ‘Megalithic Yard’. His surveying is based on what he has learned in his profession as a carpenter, rather than archaeologist or surveyor, but Alexander Thom, doyen of astro-archaeologists, was an engineer by profession, so this isn’t a damning observation.

However, without evidence that all these recumbent stones were once deliberately arranged in the landscape, some standing upright, they remain boulders that have not been shown to be megaliths. The carved and shaped stones of Badger H Bloomfield resemble nothing more than the “artefacts” from the Bay of Cambay touted by Graham Hancock as evidence for his ‘lost civilisation’; in other words, they are of natural, not anthropogenic, origin. And the precise measurements using ‘megalithic yards’? Well, for one thing, the stones are claimed to have fallen from their original upright positions, so Martin Doutré has to “reconstruct” the original appearance of the “stone circles”, meaning that these precise measurements are based not on the stones themselves, nor on archaeological evidence showing where they originally stood, but on Doutré’s beliefs about where they ought to have stood. Alexander Thom’s ‘megalithic yard’ was debunked in much the same way: his very accurate surveys were of stone circles that were sometimes incomplete or otherwise not in their original forms, or had been ‘restored’ in some way, so his surveys were of the twentieth-century appearance of the circles, not their Early Bronze Age forms. The ‘megalithic yard’ is pretty much the average human pace, not an accurate system of measurement.

A supposedly 150,000 year old carved tree stump from New Zealand

A supposedly 150,000 year old “carved tree stump” from New Zealand

There is more, inevitably. Claims for a 150,000 year old carved tree stump associated with a stone adze have been recycled. A nineteenth-century print of the stump does not inspire confidence in claims that it really was carved by humans. I have not been able to find an illustration of the “adze”; why would someone ‘carving’ a tree stump leave the tool with which they had done the job next to the finished article, anyway?

All in all, Martin Doutré’s “Celtic New Zealand” claims are rubbish. There is no politer way of putting it. Used to bolster some rather unpleasant extreme right-wing political views, it is an hypothesis born of what he wants the past to have been, not what it actually was.

Perhaps one reason for the enthusiasm with which some have taken up the “Celtic New Zealand” hypothesis is the fact that many of the nineteenth-century European immigrants in New Zealand were of Scottish or Irish ancestry. It remains the case, though, that not a single shred of credible evidence for pre-Maori settlement has ever been found; although its proponents claim an academic conspiracy to silence them and suppress their discoveries, not only are they able to publish them, any real archaeologist who discovered pre-Maori settlers on the islands would have their career made in an instant!

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.