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Did the Irish discover America?

The argument has gone on for years: Did Christopher Columbus discover America in 1492, or was it Leif Eriksson some 400 years earlier? The translation of petroglyphs (carvings or line-drawings on a rock) found in West Virginia indicates that Columbus and Erikson may have both been Johnny-come-latelies. According to these astounding revelations, the first Europeans to visit America came from Ireland. And they landed on our pristine shores 500 years before Erikson and his Norsemen first set foot on Vinland in the year 1000.

Some of the people living in Wyoming County, where three of the petroglyphs were found, had known about them for years. But the carvings were assumed to be the "hens' tracks" made by American Indians. When archaeologist Robert Pyle was shown them by a friend a few years ago, Pyle, thinking the inscriptions might be runes--a kind of writing used by Norsemen-immediately became interested. Making careful impressions of the carvings, he sent them off for deciphering to Dr. Barry Fell, professor emeritus at Harvard University. In addition to being a world-recognized authority on marine biology and president of the Epigraphic Society, Dr Fell is editor and co-author of eight volumes of decipherments of ancient inscriptions.

Dr. Fell's findings became a series of surprises.

First, the carvings were not runic, but ogham, an Old Irish alphabet used from about the fifth to the tenth centuries A.D. Moreover, translations of the three stones proved to be Christian. And the astonishing inscriptions were translated:

"At the time of sunrise a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day. A Feast-day of the Church, the first season of the [Christian] year. The season of the Blessed Advent of the Savior, Lord Christ Saluatoris Domini Christi]. Behold, he is born of Mary, a woman."

The question arises, of course: Could these carvings be a hoax? Although possible, it seems unlikely. The prankster would not only have had to possess a knowledge of ogham, but who would have undertaken the extremely difficult task of carving the stones just for a joke?

If the carvings are not a hoax, we are left to speculate about who made the markings--and why. An extensive knowledge of the legends of pre-Columbian discoveries of America is not needed to come up with some plausible answers--beginning with the narrative of an Irish abbot named St. Brendan.

Late in the sixth century A.D., Irish monks having trouble finding the isolation required for their lifestyles began looking for places to live where the flesh would escape temptation. One of the men reputed to have traveled the Atlantic looking for such a protective spot was St. Brendan. The story of his exploits has no doubt been enhanced over the years. Still, it's a story grounded in fact. St. Brendan was not a fictitious character, he was an abbot and he did go on sailing expeditions. It is also quite possible he journeyed as far from Ireland as the coast of North America.

In any case, other monks, following his lead, sailed to the Faeroe and Shetland islands and on to Iceland. Then, in A.D. 870, the Norsemen who landed in Iceland brought with them--women! Too much temptation--the weaker-willed monks moved on. But where?

Some may have gone back to Ireland or the other islands. Others may have headed west, as did St. Brendan, in search of the Promised Land of the saints. (Norse sagas tell of Icelanders exploring the East Coast of North America and encountering people who spoke Irish.) From the East Coast they may well have followed rivers or existing Indian trails on their way to West Virginia--and along the route made their rock carvings. Unfortunately, many of those carvings may have fallen victim to excavations for skyscrapers, housing developments and shopping malls. But thanks to the unspoiled nature of much of West Virginia's countryside, these important inscriptions by early American inhabitants have survived.

Some have said it is racist to assume that the rock carvings were not made by the Indians. True, the Indians could have left these marks. Indians did leave behind many rock carvings and other artifacts, but it seems extremely unlikely that American Indians circa A.D. 600 to 800 would be leaving Christian messages in Irish ogham.

Dr. Fell's translation leaves no doubt that the carver of the inscriptions was a Christian. Even a novice can recognize one piece of evidence, the Chi-Rho--written "XP"--an ancient symbol of Christian piety. The writer may have been a traveling missionary spreading the Gospel to the Indians. His missionary work would not preclude the possibility that he also was a trader and an explorer. Thus he and his people would not stay in one place very long, a scenario that answers why no other artifacts have been found. The missionary group would have met with an Indian tribe, traded, shared their religion and then moved on to the next tribe.

But why did our Irish missionary carve his message in stone, and why in this particular spot in Wyoming County? The first line of the translation provides the clue: "At the time of sunrise a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day." The petroglyph is meant to serve as a calendar.

An expedition to the site on the winter solstice, organized by Wonderful West virginia magazine, confirmed the fact. Journalist and history buff Ida Jane Gallagher described the occasion as the sun broke over the mountain ridge at 9:05. "A glimmer of pale sunlight struck the sun symbol on the left side of the petroglyph, and the rising sun soon bathed the entire panel in warm sunlight ... the sunlight was funneling through a three-sided notch formed by the rock overhang ... a shadow cast by the left wall of the shelter fell to the left of the sun symbol and its adjacent markings. As the group watched, the shadow inched from left to right."

On the Julian calendar, used in the days when the inscription was presumably carved, the winter solstice and Christmas fell on the same day. So, our Irish missionary created an observatory that could be used to adjust the calendar; while he was at it, he sent along an enduring Christmas message.

Two other petroglyphs have also been investigated by Robert Pyle and translated by Dr. Fell. One, in Boone County, West Virginia, is known as the Horse Creek Petroglyph. Dr. Fell has translated it:

"A happy season is Christmas, a time of joy and good will to all people.

A virgin was with child; God ordained her to conceive and be fruitful. Ah, behold, a miracle!

She gave birth to a son in a cave. The name of the cave was the Cave of Bethelehem. His foster-father gave him the name Jesus, the Christ, Alpha and Omega. Festive season of Prayer."

While making this translation, Dr. Fell became interested in the use of the word "cave." He had been taught that Jesus was born in a stable. Fell traced the word to the Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible, completed in the fourth century, and discovered that the word used in the Vulgate could be translated either way. So, Fell concludes, the Christian who made the marks in Wyoming County, West Virginia, was using the Latin rather than the Greek rite.

A third petroglyph, discovered in Fayette County, West Virginia, also carries a religious message. To date, Dr. Fell has deciphered only one line:

"This is a Holy Place on a Day of Worship."

Why the area was a holy place awaits Dr. Fell's complete translation of the inscription. But it, like the other petrolyphs, constitutes a new concept of West Virginia's ancient history and together the inscriptions furnish convincing evidence that Columbus and Leif Eriksson were latecomers.
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Author:Sisson, David
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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