Irish monks in North America, centuries before Columbus? So claimed Dr. Barry Fell (1917-1994), a professor of invertebrate zoology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and a president of the Epigraphic Society.
Fell’s claims were based on his controversial work in New World epigraphy (the study of inscriptions or epigraphs engraved into stone or other durable materials, or cast in metal, the science of classifying them as to cultural context and date, elucidating them and assessing what conclusions can be deduced from them.
“The rock-cut inscriptions which are the subject of this article are located at archaeological sites in Wyoming and Boone Counties, West Virginia,” said Dr. Fell in 1983 in Wonderful West Virginia.
“They appear to date from the 6th—8th centuries A.D., and they are written in Old Irish language, employing an alphabet called Ogam, found also on ancient rock-cut inscriptions in Ireland.
“The inscriptions are accompanied by short annotations in ancient Libyan alphabetic script. The Libyan script is used to render two languages in the annotations (1) the ancient Libyan tongue itself, and (2) an Algonquian dialect of the northeastern group, perhaps allied to Shawnee.”
According to Fell, these inscriptions narrated the story of Christ’s nativity. His translation of the Wyoming County petroglyph: “At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman.”
Calculating the difference between the Julian calendar (used until the 16th Century) and today’s Gregorian calendar, on December 22, 1982, freelance writer Ida Jane Gallagher and several others from the archaeological community watched as the sun rose, struck the petroglyph on the left side, and then crept across the entire panel, thus ‘proving’ the translation.
The scientific community remained skeptical. “Using the ‘decipherment’ methods Fell sets out in his March 1983 article it is possible to find in these rock wall markings not only the nativity story but any other preconceived text one might choose,” counter Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz in The West Virginia Archaeologist Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 1989.
“It is equally sobering to discover on investigation that Barry Fell’s connection with Harvard is as a retired professor of marine biology. His profession had nothing to do with archaeology or linguistics or ancient inscriptions, and he is in fact an extremely controversial figure whose previous decipherments of this same kind have been seriously challenged, after careful study, by American, Irish, English and Scottish archaeologists and linguists.
“Reviewing the Wonderful West Virginia report of evidence regarding the Wyoming and Boone County petroglyphs, these authorities conclude, spelling out their reasons, that this is a transparent hoax.”
Since the early 1980s, other similar carvings have been discovered in West Virginia at Bears’s Fork in Fayette County and Horse Creek in Boone’s County. As with the Wyoming County and Boone County petroglyphs, they remain for all to see, challenging those who view them to tease out the identity of the person or persons who carved the messages they contain.