The Curious Case of Dr. Fell
By Larry Larason
With my Scandinavian surname, when I was young I was fascinated with the idea that Vikings had found their way to North America before Columbus. In my home state, Oklahoma, was the Heavener Runestone. The runes there seem to spell out “glomedal.” This has been translated as possibly meaning “the valley belonging to Glome.” It’s not a very informative message. The most famous runestone in America is the one found near Kensington, Minnesota that tells the story of a massacre of part of an expedition of Norsemen by local Indians. Although the archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada proves that Norsemen had a colony in North America for a short period of time 500 years before Columbus left Spain, most all other claims for Viking exploration in the New World are widely considered bogus, including the two runestones mentioned above.
A book by Charles Michael Boland, They All Discovered America, was published in 1961. The author told tales of pre-Columbian visits to the Americas by Phoenicians, Chinese, Irish, Romans, Portuguese, and so on. It’s out of print now, but still influences some people’s thinking about such things. I don’t believe that Boland wrote any more about the topic, but others picked up his ideas.
One of them was Dr. Barry Fell [1917-1994]. In three books, the first being America B. C. , Fell contended that various Europeans and Egyptians had colonies in North America during a period from about 1000 to 3000 years ago. He based his contention on questionable evidence from linguistics, inscriptions, and architecture. Fell compared individual words from European languages with those of Native American vocabularies. Linguists point out that human languages are all constructed from the same phonemes, so it is likely that some words will sound alike. Coincidences are expected. A better case for cultural influence would be to look for similarities in grammar.
Probably Fell’s most controversial claims relate to epigraphy – the decipherment/translation of ancient scripts. He claimed there were hundreds of ancient inscriptions across North America in Old World alphabets. Let’s look at just one example.
The Horse Creek Petroglyph, located in southern West Virginia consists of scratches in some fairly soft sandstone protected by an overhang of more resistant rock. Fell proclaimed the scratches to be ogam [or ogham], an ancient Celtic script used mainly in Ireland during the early middle ages. Ogam used groups of vertical marks across a horizontal “stem line” to denote consonants. At Horse Creek there are many vertical lines, but no obvious stem lines, and the groupings of the slashes are vague. Without groupings an interpreter has free reign to invent whatever he wishes to find in the inscription. [I don’t think it was an inscription; it appears to be random slashes on the rock face.] Fell’s reading of the marks tells the story of the birth of Christ. He mentions that St. Brendan, an Irish monk also known as “the Navigator,” was reported to have made two voyages to a land far to the west across the Atlantic before 561 CE. He then says that the inscription might have been made by Irish missionaries who came to the New World following St. Brendan’s discovery.
Casting doubt on Fell’s version is an alternate interpretation by Edo Nyland. Nyland agreed with Fell’s reading of the ogam script, but felt the language was Basque instead of Old Irish. The story he found in the slashes told of running a herd of bison off a cliff into a ravine where they were slaughtered. His tale also includes a mysterious figure: the “clan mother.” You can find full texts of both of these interpretations on the Internet.
One bunch of gouges on a rock face – two completely different messages! Can you believe either of them? Messages on rock are, I believe, a kind of graffiti. Think about what kind of note you would make if you were a graffitist. Probably you would say “I was [we were] here” the way travelers from Oñate to modern times left their marks on El Morro. Or maybe you would simply inscribe your name. Most ogam inscriptions in Ireland are just someone’s name. Also, consider who the message is for. Obviously, someone who can read your script. If they can read it, they already know the story of Mary and Jesus, so why tell them again?
Fell also took an interest in an inscription here in New Mexico: the Los Lunas Decalogue. It is supposedly an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments scratched on a rock face in a ravine on the east side of Hidden Mountain west of State Highway 6. It was first mentioned by archaeologist Frank Hibben in 1933, who said that an unnamed guide led him to it. The inscription has some odd features, including punctuation that scholars say was unknown in Paleo-Hebrew [some say that the language is Phoenician], although Barry Fell disagreed. Hibben said that his guide had found the rock in the 1880s, which would mean that it was Pre-Columbian because Paleo-Hebrew was all but unknown at that time. However, Hibben had a poor reputation [he was accused of faking some of his data], and since he never named his guide, the whole thing is highly suspect. Most people now believe that the inscription is a hoax made by UNM students in the early 1930s.
Fell’s take on architecture is equally suspect. Again, let’s look at one example. All across New England there are old stone structures. Dr. Fell lists several as having been built by pre-Columbian Celtic immigrants, who were building in the Megalithic tradition of Europe. Some of these sites have become tourist attractions; one in New Hampshire, “Mystery Hill,” now renamed “America’s Stonehenge,” is touted as being 3000 years old. It may have been built by Celts, but they were modern ones, who immigrated during the colonial period. The tradition of building with stone continued in Europe from Megalithic times until well into the twentieth century. Many people who came to America would have known how to build such structures, and, in addition, there were guides or manuals available in written sources to explain how to do it. Archaeologist Giovanna Newdorfer spent three years studying remains of stone buildings in New England, including several that Fell claimed were Celtic temples. In one case she actually found the name of the builder of one of Fell’s ruins. By a process of cultural amnesia combined with fervid imagination, old buildings become ancient ones, and stone basins once used to make soap have come to be viewed as sacrificial altars for pagan rituals. Some excavation was undertaken at Mystery Hill, but only a few modern artifacts were found. The archaeologist stated, “It’s spooky; I’ve never seen a site as clean as this one.” Those who believe in its antiquity say this only reinforces the ritual significance of the place.
Where did Dr. Fell gain his expertise? Was he an historian, or an archaeologist? No. He was a marine biologist who specialized in starfishes and sea urchins. On anthropological topics he was an amateur. Some archaeologists said he “read” plow marks on rocks. As a biologist he was familiar with the scientific method. So, why didn’t he employ any scientific skepticism in his study of pre-Columbian America? Recycling old myths, as well as creating some of his own, makes people question his sincerity, and accepting as ancient many artifacts that are well known to have been fakes also makes him seem quite gullible.
Pre-Columbian/ pre-Viking contact from overseas is certainly in the realm of possibility. Personally, I’m sure it happened, but bogus epigraphy and pseudo archaeology do not prove anything; it only makes people more skeptical of such claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the burden of proof is on the claimant. So far no authentic, datable artifacts that couldn’t have been manufactured in the Americas have been found.