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Did Old World peoples create the antiquities of North America?

Although the answer to the above question might seem self-evident, this has not always been the case.   While a reasonable person might describe the romantics --who believed the antiquities of this hemisphere were largely created by Old World visitors-- as simply silly (if not racist in that they denied the Native inhabitants of North America the ability and motivation to create monumental architecture), the truth is that huge amounts of ink have been wasted attempting to prove the absurd. 

By 1789, for example, speculation over the origin of the inscriptions on Dighton Rock (shown below) on the Massachusetts coast had already been underway for over a century.  George Washington, as the anecdote below relates, was one of the few still fluent in some of the Native ways:

Volume 10, Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings; 1868; p.114-116; a letter dated August 10, 1809 from John Lathrop to Judge John Davis:

     “Dear Sir, --Agreeably to your request, I hasten to communicate the substance of a conversation with the late President Washington, relating to the inscription on a rock in Taunton river, which has been the subject of interesting research, from the first settlement of Europeans in this part of America. The learned have been divided in opinion respecting the origin of that inscription: some suppose the origin to be Oriental, and some Occidental.
     Many Gentlemen acquainted with the Oriental languages have thought several of the characters in the inscription bear a great resemblance to some characters in the Oriental languages, particularly the Punic.  From the valuable communication which was made by you, at the last meeting of the Academy, I perceive you favour the opinion that the inscription was made by the native Indians of our country. Having produced several important authorities, you mention the opinion of the late President Washington.
     As I am the only surviving member of the Corporation present at the time when the late President gave the opinion you mention, I now state to you the conversation on that subject. When that illustrious Man was on a visit to this part of the United States, in the autumn of 1789, the then President and Fellows of Harvard College waited on him with an address, and invited him to visit the University in Cambridge. While in the Musaeum I observed he fixed his eye on the full length copy of the inscription on a rock in Taunton river, taken by James Withrop, Esqr, and is exhibited in the Musaeum for the inspection of the curious. As I had the honour to be near the President at that moment, I took the liberty to ask him whether he had met with any thing of the kind; and I ventured to give the opinion which several learned men had entertained with respect to the origin of the inscription. I observed that several of the characters were thought very much to resemble Oriental characters; and that as the Phenicians, ‘as early as the days of Moses are said to have extended their navigation beyond the Pillars of Hercules,’ it was thought that some of those early navigators may have either been driven off the coast of Africa, and were not able to return, or that they willingly adventured, until they reached this continent; and thus it was found, ‘Thule was no longer the last of lands,’ and thus ‘America was early known to the ancients.’
Some Phenician vessels, I added, it was conjectured had passed the island now called Rhode-Island, and proceeded up the river, now called Taunton river, nearly to the head of navigation. While detained by winds, or other causes, now unknown, the people, it has been conjectured, made the inscription, now to be seen on the face of the rock, and which we may suppose to be a record of their fortunes, or of their fate.
     After I had given the above account the President smiled, and said he believed the learned Gentlemen whom I had mentioned were mistaken: and added, that in the younger part of his life, his business called him to be very much in the wilderness of Virginia, which gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with many customs and practices of the Indians. The Indians he said had a way of writing and recording their transactions, either in war or hunting. When they wished to make any such record, or leave an account of their exploits to any who might come after them, they scraped off the outer back of a tree, and with a vegetable ink, or a little paint which they carried with them, on the smooth surface, they wrote, in a way that was generally understood by the people of their respective tribes. As he had so often examined the rude way of writing practised by the Indians of Virginia, and observed many of the characters on the inscription then before him, so nearly resembled the characters used by the Indians, he had no doubt the inscription was made, long ago, by some natives of America.”

A few generations later, Daniel Brinton, fully conversant with Native ways, was typical of the serious researchers of  his day who still knew Dighton Rock's inscription was Native, a fact which has since become more obscure with each passing decade:

The myths of the New world; a treatise on the symbolism and mythology of the red race of America; Daniel Brinton; 1876

"This kind of writing, if it deserves the name, was common throughout the continent, and many specimens of it, scratched on the plane surfaces of stones, have been preserved to the present day. Such is the once celebrated inscription on Dighton Rock, Massachusetts . . ."

Dighton Rock is an example of the sort of controversy which raged for decades over the question of who built the 200,000 earthen mounds in the middle of the continent.  Not until the end of the 19th Century, when the Smithsonian waded into the debate, did the pendulum swing toward a Native explanation.  The Smithsonian research and publications made a strong case for Native construction of the massive collection of earthworks in the Midwest, finally ending most debate.  Yet over a century later, there are still a few who cling to the belief that a mysterious race of Moundbuilders once inhabited this country.

While the question of who built the antiquities is long settled in the Midwest, it is only beginning to be addressed in the Northeast.  The Northeast is today where the Midwest was 150 years ago.  People are only beginning to recognize and catalogue the remaining Northeastern antiquities.  And in regions such as California, almost no one is focused on features such as the Native stone walls, cairns or propped boulders which survive there.  The debate will only be settled when all these constructions are examined together (not as individual specimens) and in the wider context of Native American stonework found across the entire continent.

Reawakened awareness of New England stone antiquites

While it is clear from early accounts of such things as stone cairns, walls and chambers, that there had once been widespread recognition in New England of the existence of Native American stonework, by the 20th Century few were still familiar with this literature.  William Goodwin's 1946 The Ruins of Great Ireland in New England marked the beginning of the modern effort to document and understand these constructions.  Goodwin and his cohorts began to locate stone chambers and complexes such as Mystery Hill. Goodwin eventually purchased Mystery Hill and began the investigation and restoration of this important site.  Organizations such as the Early Sites Research Society (disbanded c. 2000), the New England Antiquities Research Association (founded 1964) and the Gungywamp Society in Connecticut (founded 1979) were established in response to the growing realization of the widespread distribution of such antiquities.

Goodwin concocted a grand theory of Irish Culdee monks who visited New England in the 10th Century and left behind the many stone chambers he and his associates were stumbling across.  The absence of comparable stone constructions in Ireland should serve as a warning against investing any credibility in the many other wild speculations incorporated into his book.  Goodwin's opinion on the Algonquian Natives of this region are best stated in his own words: ". . . we utterly fail to see any improvement or even change in their manners, minds, customs or actions, subsequent to the attempt to Christianize them."  Given this mindset, there was little chance Goodwin would ascribe these works to Native authors.  Rather, his absurd conclusion that they were the work of people who did not build such structures in their homeland struck a chord in the public's imagination.  Unfortunately, this nonsense still echoes down to the current era.  It is almost impossible to read Goodwin.  There is little internal organization of his 424-page book and what he attempts to pass off as logic, isn't.  For example, on the second page of his first chapter, Goodwin spells out the  twisted method of arriving at his primary conclusion:

"One of the first steps taken by this author was to obtain books from London and Dublin covering the question as to whether any type of stone work was Norse.  In the  final analysis we became convinced that these curious buildings were of a type found in Ireland, the British Isles and on Continental Europe where they are considered to have been the work of an early people, and had no Norse background whatsoever.  In the end, we reduced this to Cornwall, Spain, Ireland and Scotland and became of the opinion that all the sites whenever located in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were the work of Irish Culdee monks and their families with the aid of Indian converts."

Uh huh.  It is extraordinarily difficult to read Goodwin.  Neither his logic nor his writing is easy to follow.  It is hard to believe he wrote in the middle of the 20th Century.  His writing would have made for bad speculation in the 18th Century, except for the fact that this would have been impossible because knowledge that these sorts of stone constructions were Native was still too widespread at that date.  Precisely at the same time he wrote, intelligent researchers were busy studying the Native stonework in New England.  During the first part of the 20th Century, Frank Speck from the University of Pennsylvania was the preeminent researcher of Native American anthropology in the Northeast.  He had noted the enduring practice of Lenapes (in the mid-Atlantic region) of building stone and brush memorial heaps  into the early 20th Century.  In 1946, the same year Goodwin published, Eva Butler of Connecticut followed up on Speck's work and published an important review article in that state's archaeological society's bulletin of the same practices in Southern New England.  Butler followed Speck in being one of the leading New England researchers of Native American subjects in the middle of the last century.  A decade later, Frank Glynn, president of Connecticut's archaeological society, excavated a pair of stone cairns on that state's coast, revealing them to be clearly Native in origin.  His work was done in close collaboration with Prof. Irving Rouse of Yale, founder of that society.  The report of Glynn's excavations was finally published posthumously by the Connecticut Archaeological Society in 1973.  Glynn stated: "This excavation had its inception in a conversation with Dr. Irving Rouse and Mr. Lyent Russell in the winter of 1952.  Under discussion was a prevalent archaeological belief that there are no prehistoric mounds or structures in New England.  Rouse and Russell suggested that the well-documented ([Eva] Butler, 1946) Connecticut stone heaps offered an opportunity for testing the generalization."

Goodwin's title encapsulates the early thinking (over the course of several decades in the mid-20th Century) about the origin of the builders of these stone constructions.  Without a thorough grasp of three areas, it was easy to fall into this logical trap.  The six decades since Goodwin have brought a much greater understanding of these three subjects: 1) the stonework of Ireland and the rest of western Europe, 2) the stonework of the Northeast and 3) the stonework context of the rest of North America.  The past couple of decades have also witnessed a growing understanding of Native American cosmology and the sacred architecture which memorializes these concepts.  Both in North and South America, using anthropological and archaeological methods, a remarkable amount of the past has been brought back to life.  While regional differences abound in the New World, the extant sacred architecture clearly reveals an underlying cosmology focused on the Mother Earth/Father Sky duality and an effort to unite these two entities, as well as a focus on the sprit world which suffuses both.  In the intervening decades, Goodwin's Mystery Hill has been subject to intense scrutiny and mapping.  This has revealed a massive solar calendrical device incorporated into the architecture of the site.  The features found at Mystery Hill are all found in less dense contexts elsewhere throughout the Northeast.  But they are not found in the context of Culdee monks in the Old World.  Nor are the European structures Goodwin latched onto the product of Culdee monks. 

From our current vantage point, it is clear that, just as the Mississippian and Anasazi sacred architecture are the remains of two vanished, distinct civilizations, the Northeastern stonework is the unique product of an indigenous, Native civilization.  While related (in both design and cosmological configuration) to stone (and earthen) constructions found elsewhere in the New World, the Northeastern architecture is a distinct style found nowhere else in the world.   While similar individual examples of things such as cairns, walls, petroforms or propped boulders are located elsewhere in North America, nowhere else do these sorts of constructions appear in the same complex configurations and density as they do in the Northeast.  Too long a subject to explore here, the Native stonework of the Northeast reveals a thorough understanding of three facets of a comprehensive cosmology: 1) the landscape features of the the Earth, 2) the cycles of the Sky and 3) the geology underlying the landscape, at the entrance to the Underworld were so much of the spirit world takes place.  The sacred architecture served to unite these concepts.

Was Fell even partly right?

Getting back to Fell, there were two primary components in his work: an expansion upon Goodwin's Irish Culdee monk speculations and a focus on the ancient inscriptions of America.  He would have been better off to have simply skipped the former and focused on the latter.  What set Fell apart was that he was the first to fully recognize the widespread existence in the New World of stone inscriptions in scripts which are also found in the Old World.  Fell erred in immediately presuming an Old World origin for the drafters of these New World inscriptions.  Take ogam (a.k.a. ogham) script, for example.  At the time when Fell wrote of discovering many ogam inscriptions in the U.S., it was generally assumed that ogam was a European script, as it was last used in Ireland in the medieval era.  Since then, it has been learned that ancient ogam inscriptions are found on every continent, with North America hosting the largest collection.  Today, no one has any idea where ogam may have originated.  All we know for sure is that it was in widespread use across the globe. 

Fell's error was to confuse a script with a race.  The absurdity of this reasoning is revealed when one considers English, originally an obscure northern European dialect only a millennium ago.  The page you are reading is written in a Latin script, using Arabic (originally Hindu) numerals, and is in a language widely spoken and written in every corner of the planet by individuals of every race.  English text today serves as the modern version of ogam: a script in worldwide use allowing disparte peoples to communicate.

One of Fell's primary contributions was to focus attention on the Northeastern stone antiquities, a subject only beginning to attract investigation in 1976.  He recognized the likely antiquity of these constructions, but erred in determining their builders.  Fell was also correct in recognizing the likelihood of a massive amount of communication between the Old and New Worlds in antiquity.  This is the central contention of the paradigm of diffusionism to explain why similar things are found in distant regions of the world, as opposed to the concept of independent invention.  Diffusionism, for example, attempts to understand why pyramids are found in the Middle East, Canary Islands and Mexico.  This is a vast subject in much dispute, falling outside the bounds of this discussion.  Just two examples suffice to underscore the solid foundation of this concept:

1) Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, noted in the early 17th Century that the Native inhabitants of that region referred to the Big Dipper and Little Dipper constellations as the Great Bear and Little Bear, alternate names used in Europe as well (familiar to us as the Latin Ursa Major and Ursa Minor):

Key into the Language of the Indians of New England, 1643:   "By occasion of their frequent lying in the fields or woods, they much observe the stars; and their very children can give names to many of them, and observe their motions; . . . Mosk or Paukunnawaw [is the name of]; the Great Bear, or Charles' Wain [Big Dipper], which words Mosk, or Paukunnawaw signify a bear; which is so much the more observable, because in most languages, that sign or constellation is called the Bear."

2) William Sullivan, in 1997 in The Secret of the Incas, threw down the gauntlet to the isolationists who would have us believe Columbus was the first to make the voyage between hemispheres:

"If contact between Old World and New is unacceptable as an explanation for why, in the Andes, the planet Saturn was conceived of as the ancient mill bearer, Jupiter as the king who hurls, Venus as a beautiful woman with curly hair, and Mars as the ruler over warfare, then the time has come for those who reject this explanation to step up and provide a plausible alternative.  . . . we are leaving nothing less than a history of the human race, unsuspected and unimagined, to gather dust on dark shelves."

Planets and constellations were known by the same terms on both sides of the Atlantic.  The odds of this being explainable by mere coincidence converge  toward zero. 

The ever-cogent Thomas Jefferson will have the final word on this subject [from Notes on the State of Virginia; 1781]:

"Great question has arisen from whence came those aboriginal inhabitants of America? Discoveries, long ago made, were sufficient to shew that a passage from Europe to America was always practicable, even to the imperfect navigation of ancient times. In going from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Groenland, from Groenland to Labrador, the first traject is the widest: and this having been practised from the earliest times of which we have any account of that part of the earth, it is not difficult to suppose that the subsequent trajects may have been sometimes passed. Again, the late discoveries of Captain Cook, coasting from Kamschatka to California, have proved that, if the two continents of Asia and America be separated at all, it is only by a narrow streight. So that from this side also, inhabitants may have passed into America: and the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former: excepting indeed the Eskimaux, who, from the same circumstance of resemblance, and from identity of language, must be derived from the Groenlanders, and these probably from some of the northern parts of the old continent. A knowledge of their several languages would be the most certain evidence of their derivation which could be produced.

In fact, it is the best proof of the affinity of nations which ever can be referred to. How many ages have elapsed since the English, the Dutch, the
Germans, the Swiss, the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have separated from their common stock? Yet how many more must elapse before the proofs of their common origin, which exist in their several languages, will disappear? It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish, without our having previously collected and deposited in the records of literature, the general rudiments at least of the languages they spoke. Were vocabularies formed of all the languages spoken in North and South America, preserving their appellations of the most common objects in nature, of those which must be present to every nation barbarous or civilised, with the inflections of their nouns and verbs, their principles of regimen and concord, and these deposited in all the public libraries, it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at any future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.

But imperfect as is our knowledge of the tongues spoken in America, it suffices to discover the following remarkable fact. Arranging them under the radical ones to which they may be palpably traced, and doing the same by those of the red men of Asia, there will be found probably twenty in America, for one in Asia, of those radical languages, so called because, if they were ever the same, they have lost all resemblance to one another. A separation into dialects may be the work of a few ages only, but for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin, must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth. A greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia."






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 Upper Midwest


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West Virginia - Native American petroglyphs similar to Dighton Rock: Link























































Not until 1989, with the publication of Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England's Native Civilization by James Mavor and Byron Dix, did the pendulum begin to swing toward the attribution of a Native origin for most of the Northeastern stonework.  Manitou looked at these antiquities with an appreciation of both Native religious systems and the stone remains found throughout the rest of the continent.  Note: Manitou is currently out of print, and will not be republished until late 2005, early 2006 at the earliest.














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The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!   ---Hamlet