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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

The Case of Barry Fell

THE chief diffusionist culprit is the late H. Barraclough ("Barry") Fell. A Harvard biologist turned epigrapher, Fell acquired a following in 1976 with the publication of America B.C., which discussed the archaeological implications of epigraphy -- the study of ancient man-made markings incised in stone, clay, wood, or bone. Part adventure tale, part introductory textbook on linguistics and anthropology, America B.C. energized a generation with its talk of "Druids in Vermont?" and "Phoenicians in Iowa before the time of Julius Caesar?"

Despite a penchant for berets and a breezy, teasing manner, Fell was no mere dream-spinner, in the style of nineteenth-century seekers after the Lost Tribes of Israel or after survivors from Atlantis. A scholar of high standing at one of the world's most imposing academic institutions, Fell endeavored to bring a scientist's objective discipline to the process of identifying mysterious alphabetic scripts and pictographs, translating them from their ancient languages, and interpreting their meaning in the context of their surroundings.

When Fell came across an archaeological anomaly, he gnawed at it relentlessly until an explanation issued forth. For instance, his curiosity aroused by oddities at the Comalcalco temple site, on the coast of Tabasco, in southeastern Mexico, Fell prepared reams of comparative analysis in support of a Mediterranean role in the temple's origins. The key, he insisted, was the use of fired bricks in the construction of the temple walls -- an anomaly in the region. Comparing supposed masons' marks at the site with analogues from Rome, Crete, and Libya, Fell disputed mainstream assertions that this was a Classic Mayan site. With characteristic bravado he wrote that it was designed and probably built by "visitors from Europe and North Africa, trained in the manufacture of fired bricks in Roman brickyards." Moreover, these visitors came "during the first three centuries of the Christian era." Fell's absolute certainty, in this and myriad other epigraphic "explanations," inflamed mainstream scholars. But although another researcher has identified a few other instances of fired-brick construction in Mesoamerica, mysteries remain about Comalcalco and the profusion of its scripts. Fell's ghost is not easy to exorcise from this place.

For many general readers America B.C., together with Fell's subsequent Saga America (1980) and Bronze Age America (1982), rewrote the cultural history of the Western Hemisphere. Fell's clear message was that Europeans, Africans, and Asians had made routine yet historically unremembered visits to North and South America for at least 3,000 years prior to Columbus's celebrated landfall.

To the academic establishment, however, Fell was a self-promoting pseudo-scientist who threatened to undo more than a century of careful progress in archaeological and anthropological research. His critics charge that instead of observing protocols and rules of evidence required by traditional archaeology, Fell promoted esoteric claims to a nonspecialist -- and therefore credulous -- audience. A minor industry developed for the express purpose of debunking Fell.

Both before and after Fell's death, in 1994, his critics were merciless, citing a variety of errors of chronology and interpretation and also Fell's perceived distaste for peer review by specialists. Unable to trust some of his discoveries, mainstream academics have generally elected not to trust any of them. In Fantastic Archaeology, Stephen Williams argued that the case of Barry Fell amounted to a single question: "How many of Fell's inscriptions in North America, which now must number in the thousands, are real messages from scribes writing in non-Native American languages (Eurasian scripts)?" Williams was scathing in his answer: "The real count, I fear, is few or none."

The influential archaeologist David Kelley, of the University of Calgary, has his own concerns about Barry Fell's methods -- and yet, unlike Williams and Brian Fagan, in the end he is unable simply to dismiss Fell's work. Kelley is a Harvard-trained scholar of catholic interests, which range from ancient calendrics and archaeo-astronomy to the prehistory of the Celts to the decipherment of Mayan glyphs. In conversation he seems to guide by indirection, answering questions with questions or with references to the writings of his peers. His wispy eyebrows sit above eyes undimmed by more than forty years of serious scholarship; a tight-lipped smile suggests that there are many things he will not say about himself or his accomplishments. Indeed, he is almost painfully reticent about what most scholars now consider to be a monumental achievement in the field: his having broken a century-old logjam in Mayan epigraphy. Prevailing amid a hail of academic and personal attacks, Kelley made a persuasive argument for a phonetic, as opposed to an ideographic, method of interpretation. Drawing on the work of the Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov, Kelley's work offered a way to unlock the sounds and meanings of glyphs that had stood mute for centuries -- inaugurating a new age of decipherment that is transforming Mayan studies.

Kelley, who is a contributing editor to The Review of Archaeology, complained in a 1990 essay that "Fell's work [contains] major academic sins, the three worst being distortion of data, inadequate acknowledgment of predecessors, and lack of presentation of alternative views." Among the embarrassments that Kelley and other critics often use against Fell are a series of Celtic ogham inscriptions that were sent to Fell from McKee, Kentucky, in 1988. He dutifully translated the scripts, which later proved to be forgeries. Although Fell was the one to spot that they were fake, the damage was done.

Nevertheless, Kelley and others do credit Fell with raising the possibility of Celtic, Iberian, and North African connections to certain unexplained American inscriptions. The Grave Creek Stone, from West Virginia, is a typical example. Mainstream archaeologists, puzzled by the carvings on it, have long dismissed it as a forgery; but Fell suggested that its symbols derive from an ancient Punic, or Phoenician, alphabet used on the Iberian Peninsula during the first millennium B.C. -- a script unknown, and thus presumably unforgeable, at the time of the stone's discovery, in 1838. Kelley disagrees with Fell's theory that the Grave Creek symbols represent some sort of astronomical text. But the similarity of those symbols to obscure but undisputed Phoenician letters, he believes, is much more than coincidence -- and, at the least, Fell deserves credit for emphasizing the comparison.

It is unusual to detect even this much tolerance for Barry Fell in a member of the academic mainstream. But Kelley can be more enthusiastic yet. With regard to a celebrated (or notorious) hypothesis of Fell's that the stick-figure letters carved into stones at sites ranging from Vermont to Oklahoma are Celtic in origin, Kelley wrote in his Review of Archaeology essay, "I have no personal doubts that some of the inscriptions which have been reported are genuine Celtic ogham." These are the very markings that most orthodox scholars dismiss as plough marks or forgeries or the figments of febrile New Age imaginations. In addition, Kelley resists joining the many of his peers who take potshots at Fell's Druids of New England. He continued,

Despite my occasional harsh criticism of Fell's treatment of individual inscriptions, it should be recognized that without Fell's work there would be no [North American] ogham problem to perplex us. We need to ask not only what Fell has done wrong in his epigraphy, but also where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World.
The way Kelley is described by his friend Michael Coe in Breaking the Maya Code (1992) suggests that he might secretly revel in his controversial, if guarded, support for Fell. Coe wrote,
[Dave is] a lively mixture of Irish puckishness and New England Yankee sobriety [whose] large frame, bald head, and leprechaun smile are familiar features at [academic] meetings, where he can always be expected to present a paper that may be unusual and even outrageous, according to one's lights, but is usually grounded in the most impeccable scholarship.
In one such paper, titled "Writing in the Americas," published in October of 1998 in a special edition of the Journal of the West, Kelley focused on a "decipherment" that detractors consider to be one of Fell's most outrageous: the Peterborough Stone, in Ontario. This is a flat table rock measuring hundreds of square feet, upon which a riot of curious incised graffiti are interlaced, seemingly at random. To Fell, who made the stone the focus of his Bronze Age America, the layout consisted of meaningful groups of symbols and letters, carved primarily to document the visit and the commercial enterprise of a Bronze Age Nordic king whom Fell identified as Woden-lithi. "Woden-lithi, of Ringerike the great king, instructed that runes be engraved," reads one section of Fell's ambitious translation of this curious saga in stone. "A ship he took. In-honor-of-Gungnir was its name .... For ingot-copper of excellent quality came the king by way of trial."

Fell believed that Scandinavian visitors circa 1700 B.C. incised the Peterborough Stone with words and symbols that have distinctly Scandinavian pronunciations and meanings. However, the letters themselves are not depicted with recognized medieval Norse runes. In Fell's, and now Kelley's, view, a pre-runic alphabet was used -- a little-known script called Tifinagh, preserved by a Saharan Berber people known as the Tuareg. It is as if Woden-lithi's scribe used symbols from the Classical Greek alphabet to put together English-sounding words.

In The Review of Archaeology, Kelley supported Fell's identification (if not his exact translation) of proto-Tifinagh at Peterborough, and he amplified this position in his Journal of the West article. After comparing figures at Peterborough with inscriptions found in the Bohuslšn region that once encompassed parts of Norway and Sweden; in the Tassili area of Saharan Africa, near Algeria's border with Niger; and at a southern terminus of the ancient Amber Route, in the Camonica Valley of northern Italy, Kelley wrote,

I have found that the late Bronze Age of Scandinavia, corresponding to the early Iron Age of Italy and North Africa, shows a lengthy series of innovations in all areas of iconography, including apparent Proto-Tifinagh inscriptions in both Scandinavia and Italy .... The date is about 800 b.c. (900 years later than asserted by Fell).
Kelley did not shy away from the diffusionist implications of his analysis: "It looks to me as if a single trade route united an area from the gold-mining zone along the Niger [River] to Scandinavia, and I think that oceanic voyagers from Scandinavia, linked into that route, reached Ontario."

Kelley's role in the Mayan-decipherment controversy of the 1970s has steeled him against the predictable rebukes of mainstream colleagues for his Peterborough hypothesis. "When it is clear that a 'fantastic' interpretation has many reasonable components if the data are valid," he has observed, "most professional archaeologists regard that as .... adequate reason to assume that the data are invalid." Kelley believes that in the prevailing academic climate the challenge for diffusionists is not only to build a solid scientific case but also to win a fair hearing. "The problem I see with Barry Fell," he says, "is that the people who can evaluate him accurately are the people who are least likely to be reading him. It needs somebody with a professional understanding of linguistic evidence and a willingness to look at some quite unlikely-seeming material."

A Diffusionist Rebuttal

THE material to which Kelley refers is not only confounding but also compelling. It ranges from small stones inscribed with ancient Semitic scripts, such as the Tennessee Bat Creek Stone and the West Virginia Grave Creek Stone, to the Phoenician-inscribed Paraiba Stone, found (and then lost)in the nineteenth century in Brazil, to Japanese-style pottery shards in Ecuador, to the "melanotic" chicken, a genetically unique strain indigenous to Southeast Asia but found in Mesoamerica as well. If Stephen Williams's Fantastic Archaeology gives the impression that such things are no more than a random series of strange delusions, that impression is robustly countered by the laborious research of John Sorenson and Martin Raish. Sorenson, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, who also holds degrees in archaeology and meteorology, has published extensively on the topic of transoceanic contact with the Americas "before the Recognized Discoveries." Concerning Barry Fell's research, he says he is "appreciative of the enterprise but critical of the methods, logic, and resulting interpretations." Raish holds a Ph.D. in art history; he also has a master's in library and information sciences, and is an instructional librarian at Brigham Young University. It is perhaps the latter expertise on which he and Sorenson drew most heavily for the herculean task of collating, summarizing, and indexing diffusion-related texts.

Their 1,200-page, two-volume Pre-Columbian Contact With the Americas Across the Oceans is an annotated bibliography of more than 5,100 books, articles, dissertations, and presentations regarding the (mostly) serious scholarship devoted to matters diffusionist, pro and con. Originally published in 1990, by Research Press, of Provo, Utah, it was substantially revised and amplified in 1996. It is either a treasure trove or a refuse heap of pre-Columbian conundrums, depending on one's perspective.

There are, for example, citations of the studies of Carl Johannessen, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Oregon, which analyze the delicately rendered carvings that look like maize -- a crop known to be indigenous to the Western Hemisphere -- in the Karnataka temple sculptures. There are citations of painstaking linguistic evaluations by Richard Nielsen, a Houston-based engineer, of the inscriptions on the Kensington Rune Stone, in Minnesota. On what looks like a rough-hewn headstone are about sixty words (and some numerals) in the distinctive runic alphabet of medieval Scandinavia. They purportedly chronicle a bloody attack on a group of Swedish and Norwegian adventurers that is unmistakably dated in runes: "Year 1362." Williams has dismissed the Kensington Stone as an obvious forgery because of amateurish "mistakes" in runic orthography. However, as Sorenson and Raish point out, Nielsen "brings forward extensive evidence that what critics have called 'aberrant' features in this text are not so. They were in fact found in the old south Norwegian province and dialect of Bohuslšn at least by A.D. 1200."

The bibliography also includes citations of the work of J. Huston McCulloch, a professor of economics at Ohio State University, who has written extensively on the Bat Creek Stone and collateral artifacts. A hand-sized dark-gray shard, the stone resides out of public view, in a back room at the Smithsonian Institution, to which facility it was delivered shortly after its discovery, in 1889. It bears an eight-letter script that has been identified -- not without virulent controversy, of course -- as a form of paleo-Hebrew from the first or second century. According to a 1970 interpretation by the prominent Semiticist Cyrus Gordon, the text fragment reads "for Judea" or "for the Judeans." Although charges of forgery or of confusion of the script with the Cherokee syllabary have been plausibly refuted by the diffusionists over the years, authorities contended that simple bracelets that were found alongside the stone amount to proof of the artifacts' Native American origin: it was presumed -- without testing, as it turns out -- that the bracelets were made of pure copper from the Lake Superior region. McCulloch, however, brings to light chemical analysis by the Smithsonian revealing that the "copper" bracelets are actually made of brass. Furthermore, he found, as Sorenson and Raish note, that the bracelets "have parallels in the Mediterranean world only during the first and second centuries of the Christian era, supporting the reading of the inscription as Hebrew of that period." McCulloch and other diffusionists argue that because no Native American populations are known to have smelted metals, the presence of brass -- an alloy -- suggests a foreign provenance, or at least a foreign influence.

To establishment charges that diffusionists are but a rabble of undisciplined intellectual guerrillas intent on archaeological anarchy, Sorenson and Raish's bibliography represents an impressive rebuttal -- a dispassionate and comprehensive summary of the most serious diffusionist research and commentary to date. However, the bibliography is the product of a publishing house with Mormon ties -- a fact that establishment scholars cite with disdain. After all, the Book of Mormon identifies three main peoples as having emigrated from the Middle East to the Americas: the Jaredites, of the Book of Ether (circa 3000 B.C. ); the family of Lehi, of the Book of First Nephi (circa 600 B.C. ); and the people of Zarahemla, descended from King Zedekiah of the Old Testament, who escaped the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C . Anything that connects ancient Mesoamerica with biblical-era Palestine lends that much more credence to the Book of Mormon -- support that in itself casts doubt on the bibliography's objectivity, at least as far as most of its critics are concerned.

Explaining the criteria they used to select entries, Sorenson and Raish state that they "exclude only two categories as absolutely without redeeming scholarly value: Atlantis/Mu per se and 'extraterrestrial contacts.'" Just the same, they have drawn fire on this very point. Anthony Aveni, of Colgate, says derisively, "This diffusionist topic is, at root, Atlantean. And I think this mono-myth -- what you might call the Simple Solution -- goes back to the Tower of Babel, to the Old Testament. It's biblical: the Lost Tribes of Israel, for example. The Mormons are still preaching that idea."


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Marc K. Stengel is a writer and a television producer in Nashville, Tennessee. Stengel is at work on a historical novel and a documentary film, both touching on aspects of pre-Columbian transoceanic migration.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; The Diffusionists Have Landed - 00.01 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 1; page 35-48.