lunedì 17 giugno 2013
le Pietre Sacre di Newark
E' la solita, vecchia storia...
During investigations of a group of mounds south of Newark (Ohio, USA), the retired surveyor and amateur archaeologist David Wyrick (1806-1864) discovered an unusual wedge-shaped object with Hebrew writing on each of its four faces. He immediately took the stone to his friend Israel Dille (1802-1874), who happened to be entertaining the geologist Charles Wittlesey (1808-1886), also an amateur archaeologist with an interest in the mounds of North America. Although the three agreed that the lettering was Hebrew, none of them could read it. They knew that the young local Episcopalian Minister, Reverend John Winspeare McCarty (1832-1867), could read the language fluently, so they took it to him. McCarty read the stone as saying קדשקדשים | מלךארץ | תורתיהוה | דבריהוה, which translates as “Holy of Holies” | “King of the Earth” | “The Law of God” | “The Word of God”. Its discovery was reported in Harper’s Weekly by David Francis Bacon, who dismissed it as a fraud, Charles Wittlesey having pointed out that the Hebrew letters were modern.
Within five months of this discovery, a second inscription turned up in a coincidence that seems almost too good to be true. Again, it was David Wyrick who made the discovery, this time of a sandstone box containing a carved black limestone slab. On the centre of the front of the slab is the image of a man surrounded by an inscription, again in Hebrew letters, although this time of an archaic type, unlike those on the earlier find. The text, which covers the whole of the stone not occupied by the figure (labelled in Hebrew as Moses), is an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments.
These discoveries appeared to confirm a belief long held by a number of American antiquaries that the mounds found throughout the watershed of the Mississippi/Missouri were not of Native American origin but were built by Israelites who fled the destruction of their kingdom by the Assyrians. It also appeared to confirm the Book of Mormon’s contention that a vanished people of Israelite origin had settled in North America. Unfortunately, the letter forms of the two inscriptions were too modern (although both of different date) to support these ideas and the inscriptions were soon dismissed as outright frauds. Wyrick, as the discoverer of both, was naturally the principal suspect, his suicide in 1864 seeming to lend weight to the accusation.
However, it is not as clear-cut as it appears. Nothing ever is in Bad Archaeology! Wyrick took an overdose of laudanum, which he was using as a painkiller for the crippling arthritis that had led to his early retirement in 1859. His publication of the two inscriptions in a pamphlet in 1861 included his own illustrations that were so riddled with errors that it is impossible to believe that he could have created both the muddled drawings and the much better – if fraudulent – inscriptions on stone. Nevertheless, the first stone was undoubtedly of nineteenth-century date (both the letter forms and the use of a mechanical grinding wheel to create its smooth surface make an earlier origin impossible), while grave suspicion must fall on the second.
Although the epigrapher Rochelle Altman has suggested that the objects may be of late medieval date and imported to North America by a nineteenth-century Jewish settler from Europe (her reconstruction of events is highly detailed but entirely circumstantial), this does not explain the mechanical tooling on the first stone to be discovered. Instead, a more plausible scenario is that the hoaxer was unhappy that his first attempt to fool Wyrick had been detected and therefore planted a second object that met the objections raised to the original stone. More convincingly, the research of Brad Lepper and Jeff Gill during the 1990s suggests that the hoaxer was the Reverend McCarty, an ambitious young man with the knowledge to create fake Hebrew inscriptions. They link the inscriptions with his political views, shared by his local bishop, Charles Petit McIlvane (1799-1873), that Native Americans were descendants of the ancient Israelites, which would help to undermine the idea that they, along with negroes, were a separate creation from European humanity, and could be enslaved or exterminated.
The Newark “Holy Stones” are not evidence for an ancient Israelite migration to the New World, any more than the Kensington Runestone is evidence for Vikings in the centre of North America or the Paraíba Inscription is evidence for Phoenicians in coastal Brazil. Their context is that of nineteenth-century politics and antiquarian speculation and they, like the two previous examples, are quite clearly hoaxes designed to promote particular views of the past.
I could be accused (and quite possibly will be) of cherry-picking three objects that are easily debunked. Supporters of widespread contacts between the Old and New Worlds before 1492 will point to other inscriptions, finds of Roman sculptures, Jewish coins, mysterious structures and so on, which they believe I have not dealt with here because I can’t dismiss them so easily. That’s not the case at all.
The purpose of this lengthy post is not to criticise every piece of supposed evidence for transatlantic contact: I don’t deny that such contact before Columbus was possible (and, in the case of Vinland, certainly did happen). What I do believe, though, is that, with one significant exception, the evidence is far too weak to support the claims being made. Much of the evidence brought forward is epigraphic in nature; it depends almost entirely on inscribed texts. Any supporting artefacts are recovered either without context or with very dubious context. These artefacts are rarely unambiguous.
Herein lies my objection. Archaeology is all about the material culture of human beings. We create a lot of stuff and we are generally quite careless about how we dispose of it. Even if we are careful, we still lose things accidentally. We litter the world with our creations. From potsherds to ocean-going ships, from butchered animal bones to weapons of slaughter, we make things and dispose of them. If we are careful, we dispose of them in special places (middens, rubbish pits and so on); if we are careless, we simply toss them aside when we are done with them. Ancient Old World explorers of the New World (whether they arrived by design or accident) would have been no different. They would have had the material culture they brought with them, especially if, like the purported Phoenicians of the Paraíba Inscription, they had come as merchants in search of objects to trade; they would have created new material culture in forms familiar to them from their homelands, using their accustomed technologies.
Thus, if there were Scandinavians in Minnesota in the fourteenth century CE, we would expect to find their material remains. Not just a Runestone and some highly dubious “anchor stones”, but things like ironwork, timber-framed houses, glazed pottery and so on. In the short-lived site at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada), iron ring-headed pins and typical Viking houses were found: truly exotic material that confirmed the Vinland Sagas. Where is this sort of material around Kensington?
Too much of the ‘evidence’ consists of inscriptions (or purported inscriptions, such as Barry Fell’s ludicrously over-interpreted scratches that resemble Ogham to no-one but his followers). This is textual evidence, the stuff of historical documents. It appeals to people who believe in the power of words, in the authority of texts. Unsurprisingly, many of the fraudulent inscriptions, like the Newark “Holy Stones”, have a politico-religious sub-text. They hold great sway among people for whom the Bible or the Book of Mormon is inspired, authoritative, unchallengeable; these discoveries not only confirm the religious texts but provide additional information, which was particularly important for Christians who needed to understand how the Americas were filled with people who apparently went unmentioned in the Bible. By linking the indigenous peoples of the Americas with Old World peoples, it becomes possible to draw the New World into a Biblical world view.
This becomes all the more worrying when there is the possibility that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints has a chance to become the president of the United States of America. I don’t discuss politics on this blog (and, being English, the politics of the USA is something I do not pretend to follow closely), but we must ask ourselves how far we can trust the opinions of a man whose religious beliefs include such easily falsifiable ideas as synagogues in first millennium BC North America. Other American politicians have expressed support for the Newark “Holy Stones”; there is a movement in Lebanon that seeks to use the Paraíba Inscription as evidence for a Phoenician diaspora preceding the Jewish; white supremacists have used the Kensington Runestone and Barry Fell’s supposed Ogham inscriptions to insinuate that there were large numbers of Europeans in North America in the first and second millennia BC and perhaps even before the Native Americans. These can be dangerous views: who thinks that archaeology is irrelevant to the contemporary world?
To return to the main subject of this post, why do I find the evidence for all pre-Columbus contact between the Old and New Worlds unconvincing, with the one exception of L’Anse aux Meadows? Because of the lack of rubbish. If there is one thing that humans do well, that is to litter the surface of our home planet (and we’re beginning to spread out litter to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere…). If there were large numbers of Europeans (or Asians, or Africans) in the Americas before Columbus, they couldn’t have avoided leaving their litter. Forget texts: they are too easily forged. It’s rubbish that we need!