around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (1) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 12)

Hi everybody!

I’ll begin to comment here on some important specific cases of non-standard ‘epigraphics’ around the world

In his book, Saki Mafundikwa provides a survey of historical and other aspects of African scripts.  Some of the systems discussed by Mafundikwa are not in fact true scripts but are instead semiotic systems not representing specific languages or their words, or even simply art or at best matters of graphic design (see above).  This may involve the desire to suggest that pre-modern African societies were more literate than was in fact the case (a manifestation of Afrocentrism).  In more general terms, too, the level of linguistic expertise leaves something to be desired.

There are also more overtly Afrocentrist works about African scripts.  Earlier I referred to Ayele Bekerie, who focuses upon the Ethiopic script, which he believes spread from Ethiopia to South Arabia rather than vice versa as is generally held.  Bekerie uncritically adopts hyper-diffusionist accounts of the development of human civilizations – especially those formulated by earlier Afrocentrists – and the associated (discredited) methods of comparative reconstruction.  He also advances a highly tendentious view of the origin of the Greek alphabet, and claims links between Armenian script and Ethiopic.

The epigraphic ideas of Molefi Kete Asante (also mentioned earlier) are confused and at times simply mistaken, in much the same manner.  He first seems to endorse the notion of the development of scripts through successive types, in Africa as elsewhere (as also does Bekerie); but laterhe rejects the entire ‘Eurocentric’ notion of script as too narrow to cover all relevant African systems (some of which do not really appear to be written language; see earelier). Still later, Asante decries emphasis on the development of writing as itself Eurocentric.  However, this conflicts with his claim that any advanced civilization must have written language (which is falsified, in any event, by the case of the Inca).  In fact, Asante’s entire discussion of writing systems is terminologically and conceptually utterly confused.

As far as the Americas are concerned, many claims of this type involve the contentious decipherment of what are alleged to be inscriptions found in the Americas as being in known Old World scripts (or variants thereof) and either in known Old World languages or adapted to write local Amerindian languages which are generally deemed to have been unwritten until modern times.  This is the main linguistic aspect of hyper-diffusionist claims to the effect that transatlantic and/or transpacific voyages brought representatives of many cultures to the Americas before the firmly established Norse settlements of around 1000 CE.  The non-mainstream tradition in question is best represented in the USA, where its proponents identify themselves as ‘epigraphists’; many of them are members of the Epigraphic Society1, which has various regional branches in the USA and issues ‘occasional publications’.  As I noted last time, the best known American ‘epigraphist’ is Howard Barraclough (‘Barry’) Fell, the late academic biologist and hyper-diffusionist non-mainstream linguist.

Fell and his supporters interpret many markings found in the Americas as inscriptions in various scripts/languages: Chinese, Egyptian, Libyan, Phoenician, Hebrew, African systems, etc.; and also in an otherwise unattested variant of Ogam/Ogham, a script used mainly to write Irish Gaelic.  They also link the Tifinagh alphabet (a series of abjadic and alphabetic scripts used by some Berber peoples of North Africa, notably the Tuareg, to write their language) with Ogam and its variant ‘Consaine’ (vowel-less Ogam).

A few of the very many alleged inscriptions are:

The Bat Creek Stone Inscription (Tennessee) (interpreted as Hebrew, as Cherokee or – by skeptics – as a hoax; it may not be linguistic at all)

The Cook Farm Mound Tablets (Iowa)

The Davenport Tablets (Iowa)

The now lost Grave Creek Mound Stone (West Virginia)

The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone (New Mexico)

The Mystery Hill artefacts (New Hampshire)

The Newark Holy Stones (Ohio)

The Newberry Inscription (Michigan; allegedly in the Cypriot syllabary)

The Yoder site (California)

Petroglyphs (markings on rocks) found in Michigan

The allegedly mysterious ‘hieroglyphs’ used to write Micmac (Eastern Canada); Fell implausibly regards the characters as Egyptian in origin

Alleged inscriptions on amulets and ‘out-of-place’ coins found in the Americas, including characters found on the ‘mini-maps’ found on Phoenician coins as interpreted by geologist Mark McMenamin

As I noted, some of the alleged inscriptions appear to be in fact markings produced by natural processes or by non-linguistic human activity such as ploughing. Some genuine inscriptions are apparently recent and uncontroversial (they are being misinterpreted); other inscriptions may be deliberate forgeries.

Some writers claim that the Norse penetrated deep into North America in medieval times. The main set of claims involves the Kensington Stone from Minnesota, allegedly written in runic Scandinavian in the fourteenth century CE.   Most informed commentators have concluded that the Stone is a nineteenth-century forgery, but a few accept it as genuine.

Another key case is that of the Yarmouth Stone (Nova Scotia; thirteen characters only). Zoltán Simon reads the Stone as Hungarian, while others read it in various other ways, in one case also in Hungarian but with the opposite ductus and naturally with a different meaning. (Of course, if the Stone is indeed in Hungarian, it may still date from the time of the Viking settlements in North America, around 1,000 years BP: users of Hungarian could conceivably have accompanied Viking expeditions.)

Other allegedly runic inscriptions include the Spirit Pond Runestones (Maine), the Heavener Runestone (Oklahoma) and other Oklahoma runestones.

I’ll comment further on any of these cases on request.

Over the years, a number of serious scholars, such as the Islamic historian and archaeologist Norman Totten, have supported Fell – but usually without adequate knowledge of linguistics.  Cyclone Covey (whom I mentioned earlier) is an academic historian with research interests in the Greeks, Troy, etc. and with some knowledge of languages and linguistics; he too has been persuaded by the arguments of Fell.  Covey’s specific epigraphic interests include Burrows Cave (see below) and especially artefacts unearthed at a site in Arizona interpreted as the remains of a Latin-using community terming itself ‘Calalus’ which allegedly migrated there from Europe around 775 CE.  The main linguistic aspect of this case involves supposed Latin texts, notably one inscribed on a lead cross; but the artefacts are no longer available for examination.  Richard Flavin, Bill Rudersdorf and other scholars have concluded that this site, while not a hoax, has been misinterpreted and is in fact from a much later date and not controversial.

Burrows’ Cave is a decidedly controversial site in Illinois; in 1982 a large quantity of cultural material was allegedly found there by Russell Burrows.  Some of the markings are regarded by supporters of Burrows as epigraphic in nature, including surprisingly accurate maps (identified by Bill Kreisle), coins, and thousands of stone tablets apparently bearing texts. Paul Schaffranke and Brian Hubbard ‘deciphered’ some of the inscriptions as Vulgar Latin written in an Etruscan alphabet.  Others were ‘deciphered’ as Hebrew and Egyptian by Arnold Murray and Zena Halpern. Fred Rydholm and Joseph Mahan, founder and long-time president of the Institute for the Study of American Cultures (ISAC), suggest that bodies found in the cave are those of refugees from Ptolemaic Egypt, including a Jewish contingent from the Roman-controlled Kingdom of Mauritania.  Kurt Schildmann also endorses the material, but regards it as written in Sanskrit (which he also finds in similar texts reported from Peru); in addition, he finds words from Old World languages in Mayan script.  The scholarly community is agreed that the items alleged to have been found in Burrows’ Cave are in fact modern fakes.

More next time!




One Response to around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (1) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 12)

  1. Pacal says:

    The tendency of some serious scholars to support dubious claims and woo should not be much of a surprise. In a previous posting i mentioned that one of the things io learned going through University is how common it is for serious scolarsees credentials etc., to sup[port or put forward what can only be described has batshit insane ideas. Although we can rest assured that practically all of these batshit insane ideas will turn out to be way wrong.

    Barry Fell is a interesting person in that he was supremely competant in his area of expertise Zoology but then he decided that he was an expert in all sorts of other areas like linguistics etc., and started to produce batshit insane material. He also just brushed aside the devastating and accurate demolitions of his work and just carried on. What is interesting is when a few maverick specialists in these fields actually support the crackpots nuttiness.

    I gave in a earlier posting the example of the late David Kelley a noted and very well respected decipherer of Mayan writing. Just why he embraced Barry Fell is a bit mysterious. From uinterviews I get the impression he enjoyed goingt against the flow. However sometimes these people can say the most extraordinary things in justification of their position of support for the crackpot. Thus in response to the arguement that if there were hordes of Old World visitors to the Americas where is the Archaeological evidence? Prof Kelley said: (I know I’m repeating what I said quoted in a earlier comment.)

    “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.” (Proto-Tifinagh and Proto-Ogham In the Americas, The Review of Archaeology, v. 11, No. 1, p.10.)

    The fail in that quote is awesome.

    Isn’t just remarkable that when it comes to something people will basically turn off their minds and a brillant education and career does not confer immunity.

    I’ve heard the story of Burrows cave a painfully obvious hoax but it doesn’t stop magazines like Ancient America from promoting it. As for the alleged inscriptions most of the ones you list are in my opinion proven fakes. The Davwenport tablets are an esppecially nailed down fake. The fact that Barry Fell continued to support it as authentic is damning about his alleged competence in this area.

    The lead artifacts of Calalus are esspecially hard to take seriously and although the site itself seems to be real the lead artifacts are shall we say very, very dubious. Also to be blunt these lead artifacts make so sense in terms of “Western” culture c. 800 C.E., or earlier. Like some of the Glozel artifacts they don’t make much sense.

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