Legend: Could the Celts Have Explored Appalachia Long Before Columbus?

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Photo: Reconstructed shape of a Celtic  farmstead.  courtesy of Marek Novotnak
Photo: Reconstructed shape of a Celtic farmstead. courtesy of Marek Novotnak

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and before that time, no European had ever so much as even imagined there being a world beyond the ocean, let alone stepped foot on the continent of North America. That’s what we were all taught as young and dreamy-eyed school children each October, but we’ve since learned this simply isn’t true. We now know that somewhere around 1000AD Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer from Iceland, became the first known European to have set foot on continental North America, establishing a settlement somewhere in Canada named Vinland.

Archeological finds from the 1960s nearly remove all doubt that the Nordic people did in fact create colonies in Canada; however, it seems these colonies were short-lived and knowledge of these places were eventually reduced to nothing more than ancient and mystical tales recounted by grandparents who were only repeating what their forebears had told them.

But what if, around this same time period, more Europeans visited America and traveled even deeper into the continent?  Enter the field of “forbidden history”: Part sci-fi, part archeology, part conspiracy theory and 100% fascinating.

Granted, some of this evidence is shaky and a far cry from being enough to send someone to the gallows, but as time progresses there is an increasing number of individuals who are seeing evidences in a totally new light and are questioning everything we’ve ever been taught about the history of North America.

Interestingly, much of the evidence leading some to believe Viking and Celtic peoples went deep into the interior of North America a thousand years ago can be found in the mountains of Appalachia.

There is a modern theory which states that ancient Irish missionaries appeared in the New World roughly a millennium after the earthly life Christ and can trace its unusual roots to a discovery made in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia during the early-1980s.

As the story goes, local residents in the tiny community of Dingess, West Virginia, discovered ancient markings and engravings on large boulders near a strip mines.

The slabs of rock, which were found on property owned by the Marrowbone Development Corporation, immediately became the source of study for scholars from around the world, as the markings were said to resemble ancient Irish letters known as Celtic Ogham.

In October of 1988, representatives from the Irish Embassy, including the nation’s secretary of cultural affairs met with archaeologist Robert Pyle to examine the ancient rock carvings, referred to as petroglyphs.

Speaking to members of the media, Pyle was quoted as having said, “They’re really unique. They have Christian religious symbols that are identifiable, many of them identifiable were recorded very early… The markings appear to be from around as early as the eighth century to the 12th century A.D.”

The veteran archaeologist said that he believed the markings were made by early Irish missionaries who followed major trails through the mountains, stating, “It’s really a tremendous discovery.”

Pyle is not alone in his belief that the Irish were roaming the hills along the Tug Valley centuries prior to Columbus’ voyage.

Dr. Barry Fell, a biologist who has studied numerous archaeological sites and ancient languages, contended that ancient West Virginia Petroglyphs were indeed written in the ancient Irish language known as Ogham.

Translating rock markings found in neighboring Wyoming County, West Virginia, Dr. Fell concluded that the ancient message carved into the rocks read: “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.”

If true, such a revelation would completely rewrite the world’s history books and generate a million additional questions: Who came? How long did they stay?  Why did they leave? How come this information was lost for so many centuries?

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced that the Appalachian Mountains saw European missionaries 800 years following the crucifixion of Jesus.

In 1989, lawyers Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz wrote an article based on opinions of other archaeologists and linguistic experts, disputing the theory that the West Virginia inscription is written in Ogham script. They further accused Fell of deliberate fraud, a charge Fell denied.

Regardless of what the West Virginia Petroglyphs turn out to be, there are still numerous other unanswered puzzle pieces that seem to beg the question, “Could there actually be something to all to all of this?”

Archeological finds of Brazil have yielded ancient clay storage jars that resemble the exact styles of the Roman Empire, suggesting the two cultures had at least limited contact.

Most notable, however, is tale of a Celtic missionary who spent his life attempting to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity.

Born in County Kerry in 484 A.D., St. Brendan the Navigator is said to have traveled tirelessly to evangelize and establish monasteries following his ordination to the priesthood at age 28.

“The sixth-century monk frequently sailed the high seas to spread the gospel throughout Ireland as well as to Scotland, Wales and Brittany in the north of France… According to a 1,500-year-old Irish tale, however, St. Brendan embarked on one particularly epic journey in the winter of his 93-year-old life. According to the story, St. Barinthus told St. Brendan that he had just returned from a visit to Paradise, a land that lurked far beyond the horizon. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, a spindly finger of land on the west of Ireland that points directly at North America..” writes Christopher Klein.

While most considered the narrative of St. Brendan to be nothing more than a religious allegory, there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based at least partly on fact.

Tales through the Middle Ages, long before Columbus’s voyage, detail the early missionary’s travels and even describe his sailing vessel: a currach-like boat of wattle, covered with hides tanned in oak bark and softened with butter. The boat had a mast and a sail, which protected he and a small group of monks as they traveled beyond the ocean’s western horizon.

There have been many interpretations of the possible geographical location of Saint Brendan’s Island, if the account is even true, but numerous pre-Columbian sea charts included an island somewhere  in the far-western Atlantic known simply as St. Brendan’s Island.

British historian, explorer and writer Tim Severin demonstrated that it is possible for a leather-clad boat, such as the one described in the tale of St. Brendan, to reach North America.

The story was known widely in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and some historians argue that Christopher Columbus learned from the account that the currents and winds would favor westbound travel by a southerly route from the Canary Islands, and eastbound on the return trip by a more northerly route, and hence followed this itinerary on all of his voyages.

Granted, all of these legends, tall tales and mysteries aren’t quite enough to call for the burning of history textbooks, but they certainly cause one to pause and begin wondering, “Could it be that history as we know it may not be entirely accurate?”

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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