Hi again, everybody!
As Pacal has noted, a few qualified linguists have (surprisingly) endorsed some of the North American ‘epigraphist’ claims. One of these linguists was Cyrus Gordon, a very erudite but increasingly non-mainstream Semiticist and the self-proclaimed decipherer of the allegedly Phoenician Paraíba Stone inscription found in Brazil. Gordon’s decipherment of the Paraíba Stone has not been accepted by other linguists, and indeed the most common mainstream view is that it is a nineteenth-century forgery. Gordon also upholds a Hebrew reading of the Bat Creek Stone (see earlier) and interprets (with Fell and the maverick Frank Hibben) the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone (also mentioned above) as an abridged version of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) in a form of early Hebrew. As has been noted (thanks again, Pacal!), another such scholar is David Kelley, who urges scholarly caution but endorses some of the finds (notably the Grave Creek Mound Stone, which he regards as obviously alphabetic) as genuinely ancient. Kelley obviously knew his linguistics, but his decisions as to the strength of the evidence for specific claims sometimes appear strange.
The most ‘sober’ and judicious epigraphists outside the linguistic mainstream, who reject the more dubious cases as non-linguistic or as fakes and display some knowledge of the relevant disciplines, include James Whittall, William McGlone et al.and David Eccott. However, even these writers accept some of the epigraphist claims, without (as it seems) adequate justification.
I’ll now continue commenting on specific cases of (unpersuasive) non-standard ‘epigraphics’ around the world, recommencing with more cases from Central and South America.
Michael Xu proposes links between the Olmec script of Central America (now known from a date of 3,000 years BP) and the Shang Chinese script; but he does not appear to be very familiar with epigraphic or historical linguistic methodology. Olmec has not been persuasively deciphered; thus one cannot be sure that any pairs of Olmec and non-Olmec symbols have the same meanings. In addition, many of the symbols used by Xu are pictographic and as such are liable to be independently invented. David H. Childress (who presents himself as something of an ‘Indiana Jones’ figure) relates the Olmec script to various Old World scripts including Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Afrocentrist writer Clyde Winters ‘deciphers’ Olmec in terms of the (in fact relatively recent) African Vai writing system, used to write Mande/Manding languages. R.A. Jairazbhoy links Olmec and other Central/South American cultures and languages with Egyptian and Chinese.
Marcel Homet claims to have discovered inscriptions in Cretan, Phoenician, Sumerian and other Old World characters in South America, some engraved more than 10,000 years BP among the Brazilian megaliths of Pedra Pinta. Harold Wilkins relates South American material of this kind to Egyptian, Phoenician, Indian and other Asian scripts. Erich von Däniken presents examples of ‘undeciphered inscriptions’ allegedly discovered in South America. The Fuente Bowl (found in Bolivia) has been interpreted as bearing text in early Sumerian or other Mesopotamian languages in ‘cuneiform script’, or else as in a script related to the Phaistos Disk script, in Rongorongo, and in Indus Valley Script.
Turning to other continents: I’ve commented earlier on the inscriptional Chinese, Mongolian, Malayalam etc. allegedly found in various unexpected locations as reported by Gavin Menzies – and on the ideas of David Leonardi and others regarding the Hebrew and the Egyptian scripts. Tarek Abdel is another writer who rejects the standard decipherment of Ancient Egyptian. Abdel’s own decipherment is confusingly presented in poor English. He does not seem to understand established methods: he believes that the original decipherer Jean-François Champollion and his successors were merely ‘guessing’ and often guessed wrongly. As with Leonardi’s re-decipherment, it is strange, if this is so, that newly-found texts are regularly deciphered on the basis of the established decipherment with few anomalies persistently resisting analysis.
Another non-mainstream writer on Egyptian is Okasha El Daly, who believes that the Egyptian script had already been deciphered in the ninth century CE by Arab scholars, notably Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah. However, it seems that – while these earlier scholars had indeed come to the insightful view that the script was by dynastic times predominantly phonological (contrary to appearances) – they did not take the further step (later enabled chiefly by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone with its parallel texts) of deciphering the texts in specific terms.
Some Latter-Day Saints sources continue to promote the veracity of the ‘Reformed Egyptian’ in their Book of Abraham and other texts associated with The Pearl of Great Price. When the early LDS leaders claimed that this was the language of the plates which an angel lent to them to be mystically translated, Egyptian had not yet been deciphered by Champollion and others, but nothing learned since that time has confirmed LDS ideas on this front. The small pieces of genuine Egyptian text presented in LDS sources were already known at the time and have subsequently been interpreted quite differently.
Because of the high status of Ancient (Classical) Greek culture and language (and the current reduced world importance of Greece and Greek), Greek and its scripts attract many non-mainstream theories. Notably, the non-mainstream philologist Joseph Yahuda – supported by Panagiotes Kouvalakis, Konstantinos Georganas, Kostas Katis and others – believes (without adequate evidence) that examples of early pre-linguistic symbolization from the Aegean area represent early versions of the Greek alphabet. The generally accepted derivation of the alphabet from the Phoenician abjad (consonantal alphabet) is thus denied. It is also mistakenly stated that the alphabet is in fact derived from the syllabic Linear B script used to write early Greek; obviously, this latter claim appears to contradict the former. George Chryssis holds that the Greek alphabet not only was invented and used by the Greeks before Phoenician times, but that it eventually made its way to the Levant, to be used first by the allegedly Greek-speaking Philistines and subsequently by the Phoenicians and the other Semitic-speaking peoples of that region (the reverse of the mainstream position).
Even among those non-mainstream authors who accept – along with mainstream Hellenists – the Phoenician origin of the Greek alphabet, there are novel claims regarding the date at which this took place. The mainstream view is that the event should be dated to the ninth and eighth Centuries BCE, after a long period of illiteracy in Greece following the collapse of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and the loss of their linear scripts. Greek legend attributed the introduction of writing to the hero Cadmus; and Martin Bernal – who is best known for his theory that many key aspects of Greek thought, culture and language derived from Egyptian origins (see earlier) – argues that the transfer of literacy to Greece did indeed occur at a much earlier date than is generally supposed, around 1500 BCE. He holds that the patterns of uniformity and diversity displayed by the various early regional forms of the alphabet (including derived scripts such as the Etruscan alphabet used in Italy), together with the distribution of letter-forms in the associated abjads, strongly suggest a much longer history of the system in the Greek-speaking world. However, these arguments appear indecisive. In addition, there is no actual trace of the Greek alphabet at these early dates.
Several non-mainstream theories about early Greek involve the poems attributed to the probably legendary poet Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were originally oral epics and very probably pre-date, in their earliest (lost) forms, the revival of Greek literacy arising from the introduction of the alphabet. Barry Powell argues that a single ancient scholar invented the Greek alphabet precisely for the purpose of recording the Homeric poems. Other classicists, while admiring Powell’s erudition, generally find his often technical arguments obscure, speculative and unconvincing.
More next time!