In tales of old, St. Brendan of Clonfert made a long and rigorous voyage to a strange and mysterious land, far to the West of his Irish home in about 535-550 AD. According to the legend, this trip was made with 17 men, riding in ox-skinned covered boats. His first trip lasted seven years and was for the purpose of evangelizing seafarers from Europe in the mysterious land to the West. He later made a second trip in 560-570 A.D., in which legend holds he took 60 men.
The oldest authenticated copy of this story dates to roughly 900 A.D. and includes details that modern scholars claim discount the validity of the story. However, for each element that is scoffed at, there is another that pleads for its credibility. For instance, the trip supposedly landed on an island that turned into a large sea monster, which does seem to stretch the imagination. However later in the story he discusses a paradisaical island of birds that had large citrus fruit that he said grew in clusters like grapes, which would fit the Island of Barbados perfectly. Furthermore, he discusses a sighting of sea of ice that halted their progress, and a description of an iceberg. Both of which would have been foreign to him and fit the route the currents would have taken him to America. With details that fit historically truths accurately, it would appear the more sensational portions of the story are allegorical and possibly based off real events.
Up until our modern era, Brendan’s story was accepted as truth, to the point that even Christopher Columbus used the story as proof for Queen Isabella to finance his journey. Accordingly, Columbus kept a copy of Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis as his guide to search for Brendan’s ‘Isle of the Blessed’. On the eve of his departure he proclaimed to the crew, “I am convinced that the terrestrial paradise is in the Island of Saint Brendan, which none can reach save by the Will of God.” [i]
Despite this account of Columbus, there was little in the way of evidence that Brendan did reach North America, until 1977. It was in that year that Tim Severin, embarked on a journey from Ireland to the New World in a small wood framed boat, covered with 49 ox skins, made in the same fashion as Brendan would have used. Tracing the steps as the story laid them out, he reached Newfoundland one year later, much to the chagrin of scholars that said he’d never make out of the harbor.[ii]
In the wake of this historic voyage, a discovery was made in the hills of West Virginia, which over the next two decades would rattle the field of American archaeology to it’s very core.
Scattered across much of America lie clues hidden amongst rock walls and boulders, most often ignored or unnoticed, of ancient European people that thrived on this land centuries prior to the arrival of Columbus. These clues lay in the form of an ancient signpost, known across parts of ancient Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as ogam script.
Most examples of ogam that have been found in North America, when translated contained short messages often describing the surroundings in which is was written, or occasionally a name claiming ownership of a parcel of land. However, the West Virginia discovery took ogam in America to an entirely different level.
A Primer on Ogam
Before going further a description of ogam is necessary.[iii] Modern scholarship of ogam is varies among historians and archaeologists, depending primarily upon their fondness or disdain for the Irish. For those that choose to view the Irish through a darkly tinted glass, for their own selfish liking, ogam is nothing more than written language for Irish monk fun and games. However, the evidence against such a pejorative opinion on the Celts is in stark contrast.
A better idea of ogam is based off of the two-fold interpretation of what Irish monks dealt with at the time of its inception. After the Roman invasion of Ireland, Irish monks had a great dislike for Latin being forced to replace their native tongue. To pass messages to other monks in their native tongue secretly, without raising the eyebrows that Gaelic writing did, they revived the ancient Celtic art of the cryptic ogam inscriptions. Secondly, ogam provided a means to discretely and quickly inscribe a message into a monument or tree that would be dismissed as primitive marks or lines by most people. This being said, ogam was used by the Celts much the same as the Navajo code talkers were for America in WWII.
Most epigraphers that study ogam date the oldest remains to the first century A.D. and occurring only in the United Kingdom. However there is evidence pouring in that ogam was used by the Q-Celtic speaking people of Iberia and Libya at least five centuries before the birth of Christ. Evidence from Spain, Portugal and ancient Libya has been found at numerous sites and is anywhere from a few words to several paragraphs long.
As for the writing style of ogam, it’s a science all unto its self. The intent of an ogam author was to convey a message in an abbreviated form, with only one consonant of each word represented in the form of a series of lines (etchings) in reference to their position on a baseline (see picture of ogam script above). Typically words that began with a vowel, followed by a consonant and then another vowel were chosen (VCV). As such, the words chosen were abbreviated to their first three letters prior to the inscription, because each following word in the ogam script began with the last of the three letters in the previous word. For example if the first word began with ANI, the second word would always begin with I, and so forth and so on. This method, which was extremely difficult on the author, made deciphering the message much easier. Modern epigraphers call this the vowel-interlocking feature, which allows for the restoration of the missing vowels and the proper interpretation of the message. By following this formula the message appeared as an unintelligible jumble, which was easily dismissed by threatening eyes.
The largest identified collection of ogam lies in Ireland and Wales, which always was to be interpreted into the Gaelic tongue. However, in other parts of Europe the languages varied, but the methods didn’t. So that the message could be properly understood the author would place a word or symbol written in the appropriate language, say Basque or Iberian for example, near the beginning of the script. This method appears to have been implemented in America as well. To properly interpret these writings into the correct language, epigraphers rely upon the Book of Leinster (written before 1160) and the Book of Ballymote, see a copy of one of the pages to the left (ca. 1380)[iv], which document 70 variations of the ogam script.
In 1982 a young explorer found unusual markings on the wall of a rock over hang in rural Wyoming County, West Virginia. Soon after, dozens of other sites in the surrounding area were identified. When state archaeologists reviewed the sites, they dismissed the markings as Indian horseplay, but did note at least they were man-made features. One archaeologist even remarked that such signs were found all over the Eastern U.S. and were examples of Indians trying to draw turkey tracks! However, when rubber molds of the markings were sent to experts in Gaelic ogam from Ireland, they immediately recognized it as one of the more ancient forms of ogam.
On the this side of the pond, the ogam and ancient Gaelic expert Barry Fell was the first to give an interpretation of each inscription at the sites, which was validated by Robert T. Meyer (an authority on Old Irish and Celtic studies and professor). For the sake of time, we’ll only consider two such sites.
The first site to be discovered, the interpretation from the Gaelic markers and Chi-Rho (Early Christian symbols used to identify the text as a religious text) is as follows. Note the interpretations (under the ogam lines) are Christian and celebrate the birth of our Savior.[v]
The second site, called the Horse Creek Site, is a bit more complex and intriguing. Upon the first interpretation by Fell, the same Chi-Rho symbols were found and Gaelic markers, therefore he interpreted the message into Gaelic as well. Note again this site, as do all the sites in this area of West Virginia has a Christian message about the birth of Christ and the Christmas celebration. Other signs at these sites note the winter solstice and markers on the rocks that on the solstice, the sun would stop at certain places on the rocks signifying the Christmas celebration was close.
However in 1996, Edo Nyland noticed two things about the Horse Creek inscription. First, it had the general shape of a bison, which he felt was possibly hinting at something. Secondly he noticed there were Basque identifiers on the wall that had been covered with dirt and not noticed by Fell. When interpreting the message into Basque, he found the interpretation told of a great bison[vi] hunt, in which the bison were ran into a man-made corral and then run off a small cliff. The script details that the legs of the bison were broken, rendering them easier to kill and dress on the spot.
While Nyland’s interpretation appears to be sound and does make logical sense, it begs the question. Can ogam be written to convey a different message when interpreted into different languages? The answer at current stands as yes, which makes this already cryptic message system as possibly the most complex form of written communication ever conceived. This of course paints the ancient people of Europe correctly, as a highly intelligent people and not the backwards barbarians modern liberal academia would have us believe.
Further investigation at a neighboring site in southern West Virginia in 1989 revealed another mystery, which shed light on who the writers of the scripts were. The find upped the ante that Brendan’s story was true.
At the Cook Site, which is in close proximity to the first site mentioned, a skeleton of an adult male was uncovered. Upon investigation of the skeleton something stuck out. The skull had unique brachycephalic features, indicating it belonged to that of a European adult male and was unlike the skulls of Amero-Indians. Additionally, the lead archaeologist of the dig, Robert L. Pyle, decided to have the skeletal remains carbon dated.[vii][viii] When the results came back, the death date listed was 710 A.D., plus or minus 40 years.[ix]
This new evidence when compared to the legend of St. Brendan and the ogam scripts, make sense. However, one is left with the question, where’d they go? For that, we don’t have a solid answer, but we do have clues.
West Virginia isn’t the only state to have ogam script found. To date it’s been found in every state east of the Rockies, with the exception of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. Furthermore, each of these scripts, which are usually short, is often accompanied by more than one language, often times repeating what was said in ogam. In a few instances, there are 2-3 languages repeating the ogam. Whether it was the original ogam writer that wrote this, or other readers that wrote it into their native tongue, is unknown.
The good news is there have been additional skeletal remains found. with European features. In two separate instances in Tennessee were found in conjunction with ogam scripts. There are numerous other European skeletons that have been found across the nation, including the famous Kennewick Man, but none to my knowledge have been found near ogam script.
As for eye witness testimony, it’s overwhelming. The occurrence of white, European looking Welsh speaking Indians was documented numerous times, from the early 17th century to the mid part of the 19th century. [x] While some of these may have been descendants of Prince Madoc who landed in Mobile Bay in 1170 AD, the evidence shows there were Welsh speaking people on American soil prior to his landing. [The author is preparing notes for a paper on this subject in detail for future publication.] Additionally, in conjunction with these Welsh Indians, numerous Welsh and Celtic artifacts have been found in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Vermont, New Hampshire, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Virginia. Most of these artifacts are held in private collections or sit in museum archives and sadly some have been lost. However, it’s a shame that museums and Universities hide such evidence from the public and choose to fall on the scheme that Indians were all red-men, when the evidence screams in opposition.
Speaking in 1685, Rev. Morgan Jones gave one of the earliest eye witness accounts. He had been sent by Governor Berkley of Virginia as the Chaplain of an expedition to South Carolina. After arriving on April 19, 1660, they stayed at a place called Oyster Point, using it as their base of operations. After eight months, their provisions had run out and him and five companions sent out into the wilderness in search of food. Here is his account. “There the Tuscarara Indians took us prisoners because we told them we were bound for Roanoke. That night they carried us to their town, and shut us up close, to our no small dread. The next day they entered into a conversation about us, which after it was over, their interpreter told us that we must prepare ourselves to die the next morning. Thereupon being very much dejected and speaking in the British (Welsh), tongue, ‘Have I escaped so many dangers that I must now be knocked on the head like a dog?’ His words were understood by one who seemed to be a war captain, and through his intervention the six prisoners were spared.” These men remained with the Indians for four months, and, the minister states, “During which time I had the opportunity of conversing with them familiarly in the British (Welsh) tongue, and did preach to them three times a week in the same language.”[xi]
There are many more accounts, all usually having a similar theme. It’s also important to note, most involve the Mandan and Algonquian tribes, of which used Welsh as their common tongue according to every story.
Why No Great Civilization?
The last question that needs to be answered, is why didn’t European’s build a great nation here in America like their homeland? The answer is multifaceted.
First, there is evidence of extensive ancient mining operations in the Great Lakes regions and the South East parts of the country. Based from just the evidence in Michigan alone, where over 12,000 ancient mines have been found for copper, it’s estimated that between 700 million and 1.5 billion tons were extracted there in ancient times. Aside from this, there’s evidence that gold and silver were mined extensively as was iron ore in other parts of the country. While there are some copper points and gold ornaments found occasionally in archaeological digs, these finds are in the minority. Furthermore, there is coastal evidence on the East Coast of these metals being shipped back to the European mainland in the way of occasional ingot bars and raw metal found on beaches.
Another reason is the New World was a wild and untamed land that appears to have been explored extensively for its resources and not permanent settlement. While there were attempts to settle the land as the evidence of the Hopewell and Adena mound cultures testify, some of these died out as a result of a combination of disease and war. On the latter note, there is much evidence that earlier European settlers had numerous skirmishes with the Amerindians. Therefore, Europeans didn’t see this land as a place hospitable for permanent settlement as they knew the British Isles alone had taken centuries to tame and build up.
For further proof, there were other parts of the world that early Europeans did explore and attempt to settle, which not even the most liberal of scholars debate. Yet, despite these attempts, none of them lasted. Among the most famous was in sub-Saharan Africa in Ethiopia, which failed in large part due to the natives of the land warring with the Europeans, much as modern South Africa is doing with the Boers. There is also evidence of early European diamond and gold mines in southern Africa. This fact is never debated, despite the bleak and almost non-existent evidence in comparison to overwhelming evidence found on American soil of a strong European presence.
The last answer is the collapse of the Roman kingdom. While the sea route to the New World shows evidence of being open centuries prior to the advent of the Roman Empire, it went into full swing during the Roman years. When the kingdom fell apart in 476 A.D.[xii], the western sea routes were abandoned as Europe sought to regroup into individual nations once again. It was only occasionally as in the case of Brendan, Madoc, the Vikings and Basque sailors that America was revisited. As for Brendan, ancient books that had escaped the Roman torches documented the sea routes to the hinder land. This led him to embark on a journey to evangelize the forgotten inhabitants of this land.
In considering the evidence of ogam writing in conjunction with skeletal remains, the legend of St. Brendan should be considered a historical account and not allegorical ramblings of a crazy monk, as some have suggested. The bias against early Europeans in America by Academia and the media should be rejected and they should be called on these facts. No longer should we allow them to paint the picture of Europeans being a backwards people, more barbarian than the darkest depths of Africa, and incapable of devising complex forms of communication. In as such, we shouldn’t allow them to wail that Europeans were unable to sail the Atlantic in their primitive boats. It should be noted, they willingly ignore the evidence of Tartessian boats at the time of Christ that could carry 800 plus people and were sea worth enough to sail around Africa to the Orient!
The reader is encouraged to consider the sources listed and research this subject, as it’s a part of the European heritage. Stay tuned for future articles on the subject of “Romans in the New World”, “Madoc’s voyage to America”, “The Mound Builders” and other such subjects.
Justin Cottrell has been studying the subject of Archaeology for almost two decades, with a focus on the subject of early Europeans in America for the past decade. He’s participated or lead archaeological digs in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, where he’s seen many anomalies with out of place projectile points that most Archaeologists ignore.
[i] O’Donnchadha, Gearoid. St. Brendan of Kerry, the Navigator: His Life and Voyages. Dublin, Ireland: Open Air, 2004. 30
[ii] Severin, Tim, The Brendan Journey: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat, 1978.
[iii] For an exhaustive journey into Ogam the reader is encouraged to read America B.C. by Barry Fell, The Secret Languages of Ireland by John Sampson & R. A. Stewart MacAlister, The Archaeology of Ireland by R.A. Stewart MacAlister or The Ogam Inscribed Monuments of Gaidhil by Richard Rolt Brash (this written in 1879 is hard to find).
[iv] Fell, Barry, America B.C., 1989 edition, pages 28 and 47.
[v] Fell, Barry, Wonderful West Virginia 47(1):12-19.
[vii] Radiometric dating takes a bad rap, deservedly so. Carbon dating, when done on organisms that have died within the past few millennia appears to be scientifically accurate. Other forms of radiometric dating have been proven to inaccurate and a guessing game at best.
[ix] Pyle, Robert L., All that Remains pages 53-57.
[x] One of the best sources is Bairds History of Clark County Indiana, by Lewis C. Baird 1909.
[xi] Gentleman’s Magazine, London, 1740, page 103.
[xii] Fell, America B.C. page 46.