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Barry Fell and His Big Idea: Wherein a Harvard Zoology Professor Tells the Tale Of All the Folks Who Got Here Before Columbus

By Peter Frawley

"Oh, the problems with being famous!"

Mrs. Fell sighed in mock exasperation. She had just struggled through the ice and snow to bring in a load of groceries that morning, and now she had to brave the arctic-like weather again to cart off three more autographed copies of her husband's new book, America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World.

And poor Mrs. Fell's husband. Appearances on television and radio talk shows, interviews with journalists, a deluge of fan mail since the recent article about his work in Reader's Digest--all were taking their toll. To make matters worse, the first edition of his book had already sold out. Now there was no way to satisfy the growing demand for copies until the second printing.

Howard Barraclough ("Barry") Fell, professor of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, brought the three books to his wife waiting at the door.

"This weather's likely to give one a cold," Fell said to me as we walked to the living room to resume the interview. "However, my wife and I find that taking a large dose of vitamin C at the first sign seems to work. You know," he said to me confidenially, "that fellow who discovered this about vitamin C?"

"Linus Pauling, you mean."

"Yes, him. Well, they said his idea was crazy, too."

If not crazy, Fell's ideas are no less than fantastic. In his book he argues that Columbus and Leif Erickson were merely the most recent in a long line of ancient adventurers to the New World that includes Celts, Basques, Phoenicians, Libyans, Carthaginians, and Egyptians. Since America B.C. was published Fell has added Arabs and Minoans to his list.

With a line-up like that, you'd think he was describing a meeting of some ancient United Nations. The only contingent that seems to be left out is a host of von Daniken's ancient astronauts.

However, Fell is no von Daniken, sensationalizing about beings from outer space. Fell says those South American inscriptions and artifacts, which von Daniken attributes to spacemen, are really the work of ancient voyagers from Libya.

Fell's evidence for his theories depends almost entirely on linguistics. He claims to have deciphered what he says are inscriptions left by ancient visitors in all parts of the North American continent. In addition, he says that some modern American Indian languages contain elements of, or are directly descended from, ancient European and North African tongues.

Fell says ancient Celts ruled over kingdoms in New England, where they inscribed their peculiar script, Ogam, on temples at supposedly ancient sites such as Mystery Hill in New Hampshire. According to Fell, Celtic names of certain rivers and mountains in New England have been preserved in Indian languages.

Fell maintains that Carthaginians were traveling companions of the Celts, and he says one inscription even records the annexation of a large chunk of Massachusetts by the Carthaginian prince Hanno.

Phoenician traders and Egyptian miners became part of the Wabanaki tribe in New England, Fell says, and the script used by an Algonquin tribe, the Micmacs, is derived directly from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fell says there is an inscription on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine that reads (in Celtic Ogam) "Cargo platform for ships from Phoenecia."

Basque sailors supposedly came to Pennsylvania and left their names on grave markers.

Fell writes that Libyans and Egyptians traveled up the great rivers to Iowa and the Dakotas; he says the ancient burial mounds found in many parts of the Midwest and the East are actually the work of the same ancient voyagers. A clay tablet found in a mound in Iowa carries identical messages in three languages: Egyptian, Punic, and Libyan, Fell claims. The publicists for America B.C. like to compare Fell's translation of this tablet to Champollion's 19th century translation of the Rosetta Stone, which enabled archeologists to read Egyptian hieroglyphics.

According to Fell the Pima Indians of the Southwest speak a Semitic tongue acquired from Iberian Punic colonists who came 2500 years ago, and the Zunis of Arizona speak a language derived directly from Libyan, with a vocabulary composed of elements from Coptic, Middle Egyptian, and Nubian.

One's first reaction to all these amazing claims is to wonder how, if Fell's theories are correct, the entire American archeological profession could have missed the boat. How can a marine biologist know so much more than archeologists and anthropologists who have devoted their lives to the study of American Indian cultures?

Fell says it is because his work is based on linguistic evidence, and particularly on the decoding of ancient inscriptions--a discipline known as epigraphy. He says that because Americans speak a dominant world language, both comparative linguistics and epigraphy have been slighted here, and authentic ancient inscriptions are variously dismissed as the meaningless marks of savages, the result of plows scraping against stones, or tree roots pressing against rocks. Fell describes the prevailing attitude as "If you find it in America, it can't be writing."

But leaving aside for now the question of Fell's claim to a unique competence in linguistics, there are other aspects of America B.C. that raise doubts. To the layman, Fell's theories seem well-constructed and scholarly at first. But after a while a certain pattern develops. Time after time the internal consistency of his argument depends upon the acceptance of ad hoc hypotheses that strain the limits of credibility.

For example, Fell advances one particularly convoluted hypothesis that links Iberian Celts with Ogam writers in Ireland and Celtic kingdoms in New England. Part of Fell's argument depends upon linking megalithic structures in both Europe and America with the ancient Celts. But Fell notes that Celtic Ogam writing is found only on stone buildings in America, and not in Europe. The reason, he says, is that the early Christian missionaries obliterated all traces of the pagan writing from hundreds of similar megalithic structures in Europe.

In another instance, Fell says that although the ancient Phoenicians claimed that their raw materials came from Gaul, they really got them from North America, for which they used Gaul as a code name to deceive their commercial rivals.

In another place he argues that Basque sailors left their names on gravestones. However, New England farmers dragged all those alleged gravestones away from their original sites, thus explaining why no bones or other artifacts have ever been found with them.

Fell argues elsewhere that Phoenician voyagers populated their American colonies with Iberian workers whose "rude manner of life" accounts for the lack of sophisticated material objects at the sites he says they occupied. Nevertheless, these hypothesized, uncultured people supposedly learned to read and write the Phoenician language. Fell says the inscriptions they left prove this.

These last examples bring up a very major objection to Barry Fell's theories. With so many mini-kingdoms all over the North American continent, with all those traders bustling about, and even mining settlements in many places, why is there no hard archeological evidence other than Fell's alleged inscriptions?

Archeologists came to accept that Vikings traveled to North America only after material evidence--artifacts such as tools and pottery--and settlement ruins were found in Nova Scotia. But Fell's book includes no hard archeological evidence that has not either been declared a fraud by professional archeologists, established as something other than what Fell says it is, or been considered in the context of a more plausible hypothesis than the one Fell constructs.

Several of Fell's decipherments are based on inscriptions that professional archeologists say are frauds. The most interesting is a tablet found by one Reverend Jacob Gass in an Indian burial mound in Davenport, Iowa in 1877. (Among other errors in Fell's discussion of the tablet, he says it was found in 1874.)

The Davenport tablet, which is one of the tablets discovered in the mound, is none other than the breakthrough Readers' Digest compared to the Rosetta Stone.

Effigy pipes in the form of elephants were found in other mounds nearby. Fell claims these are proof of contact with North African civilizations in ancient times.

The Davenport finds were immediately claimed by some to be frauds, and for several years a debate raged among archeologists all over the world. Science magazine carried letters both supporting and rejecting the authenticity of the tablets and the effigy pipes. Ultimately, investigations by officials of the Smithsonian Institution conclusively established that the tablets, and many other supposed artifacts, were frauds planted alongside authentic American Indian artifacts and skeletons of the Hopewell people.

In 1970, Marshall McKusick, state archeologist of Iowa, wrote a book called The Davenport Conspiracy in which he assembled the massive evidence of a fraud. Included was testimony by Davenport residents that the objects were manufactured in the basement of the Davenport Academy, the headquarters of an amateur scientific society similar to many that existed in nineteenth century America.

The tablets probably served originally as slate-tile siding on a local house of ill repute, and the elephant pipes were most likely aged with grease or a similar substance, McKusick says.

Fell himself now downplays the importance of the Davenport finds, denying that the tablet is the "American Rosetta Stone" hailed by his publisher and the Reader's Digest. Nevertheless, he still defends its authenticity. After all, he can read it, he says. One of the scripts on it, Libyan, was supposedly deciphered for the first time by Fell himself in 1973.

In several places in America B.C. Fell writes of "bronze" weapons that were supposedly imported from the Old World in ancient times. However, Harvard archeologists Stephen Williams, Jeffrey Brain, and Michael Roberts all say that Fell's "bronze" weapons are actually American copper of native origin. Brain says laboratory tests at MIT established that fact, and he adds that no bronze objects of ancient origin have ever been found in North America.

Other archeological evidence amassed by Fell depends upon similarities between native American artifacts and others found in Europe and North Africa. But archeologists at Harvard insist that the similarities depicted in Fell's illustrations in America B.C. are no more than superficial and that they prove nothing. Moreover, they say it is common among amateurs to jump to conclusions about common origins for objects based on such similarities. They say there is a well-established literature dealing with similar objects and artistic motifs that have arisen independently in different cultures.

Ruth Tringham, associate professor of Anthropology, emphasizes that much more than similarities between dagger and axe outlines is necessary to prove a common origin. Method of manufacture, type of material used, the precise function of the object, and the date of manufacture must all be considered.

What's more, Tringham says the contexts of archeological finds are extremely important. The geological history of the site, the other objects found with artifacts, and innumerable other factors should be considered when constructing an archeological hypothesis. Tringham points out that Fell and other amateur archeologists, like von Daniken (whom she has debated), tend to base their theories on isolated bits of data taken out of context and thrown together in one grand design.

Fell's responses to the objections raised by the professional archeologists always refer back to his claimed expertise in linguistics. "Yes," he admits, "anyone can make similar artifacts, but similar languages? The chances of the same words evolving in two separate languages are infinitesimal." His archeology may not be so good, "but I'm an epigrapher, not an archeologist. They say I'm trying to be an archeologist. Naturally, I don't have the credentials, so they dismiss me."

So how good is Fell's linguistic evidence?

As presented in America B.C., it consists in large part of lists comparing words from modern American Indian languages and ancient European and North African tongues.

Dr. Ives Goddard, formerly of Harvard and presently of the Smithsonian Institution, where he is linguistic editor of the Handbook of North American Indians, doesn't think highly of Barry Fell's word lists. Goddard, who is an authority on Algonquin languages, says Fell's work in that area is "full of errors of analysis and interpretation. He has trouble getting Indian words and their glosses right, he mixes languages together [a cardinal sin in comparative linguistics]...There is not even a vague inkling of enough resemblances to require an historical explanation."

As for Fell's assertion that Ogam is an ancient Celtic script that reached both Ireland and America after its origin on the Iberian peninsula, both Goddard and Calvert Watkins, professor of Linguistics and the Classics, maintain that there is a well-established literature on Ogam that identifies it as a script developed in Ireland by someone who knew Latin, sometime around 400 A.D.

Fell's use of Ogam is convenient; as Goddard notes, "It is an epigrapher's delight." Ogam, which consists of clusters of vertical parallel lines positioned above or below a horizontal median, is easily made ambiguous by weathering. In addition, most of Fell's supposed Ogam inscriptions are written without vowels. Goddard says this makes it easy for Fell to read anything he wants to.

Several archeologists point out that Fell hardly deals with alternative hypotheses for the origin of the markings he calls writing. Fell responds that alternative hypotheses are hardly necessary, since he can read the inscriptions. The archeologists, he says, should learn to read them too. He gets angry at their criticisms, because, after all, all he does is literally read the writing on the walls (of caves).

Fell deals extensively with Algonquin place names in New England, which he says were derived from ancient Celtic. Curiously, he attempts to prove their Celtic origin by pointing out similarities between the Algonquin and recent Gaelic. Goddard described this as similar to "using a modern French dictionary to read Latin."

Of all the professional archeologists and linguists at Harvard and other places who were contacted for their opinion of Fell's theories, not one took him seriously, except to lament the damage they felt he was inflicting on legitimate archeological inquiry. Fell himself claims that there are experts in many European universities and museums who do believe in his work. But the American experts contacted did not recognize a single name that Fell listed. People that are described as archeologists in America B.C. and in magazine articles about Fell's work were not known to archeologists at Harvard. On investigation, they turned out for the most part to be amateurs.

On Wednesday, part two of this article will examine Fell's theories from a historical perspective.

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