Given how much time I’ve spent talking about the dumb claims made for Oak Island, I thought it might be appropriate to start branding my coverage of it. What do you think of this logo? I’m not sure it if reads as more cynical than funny, but I kind of liked it. (Special thanks to the Library of Congress for the public domain landscape drawing.)
The recent dust-up over the alleged “Roman” sword supposedly found off of Oak Island is only the latest in a string of claims for Roman incursions into America made over the last 500 years or so. The oldest is probably Lucio Marineo Siculo, writing in De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus 19 (1533), who claimed that a Roman coin of Augustus had been unearthed in Panama shortly after Spanish colonization began. “This wonderful thing has ripped the glory from the sailors of our time, who once boasted that they had sailed there before all others,” he wrote, “since the evidence of this coin now makes certain that the Romans once reached the Indies” (my trans.).
Surprisingly, there were relatively few claims for vast Roman incursions into the Americas, largely on account of the fact that the Romans left no texts asserting any knowledge of the Western hemisphere. Nonetheless, the Romans were not without their supporters. I learned from Justin Winsor’s Aboriginal America that Baron Franz Xaver von Zach (1754-1832), the Hungarian astronomer, published an article in his scientific journal Correspondenz claiming that “Roman voyages to America were common in the days of Seneca,” who lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE. Winsor mentions that a certain M. V. Moore wrote an article for the Magazine of American History in 1884, “Romans: Did They Colonize America?” Sadly, this piece doesn’t seem to be readily accessible online, which is quite the shame. According to the Winsor, the evidence Victorian eccentrics used to “prove” Roman incursions was the same that Lucio Marineo Siculo offered in the 1500s: random finds of Roman coins and marking claimed to be Roman inscriptions. Not coincidentally, this is also J. Hutton Pulitzer’s supporting evidence for his claim of Roman colonization of Oak Island.
Winsor led me to an interesting note in Brasseur de Bourbourg’s History of the Civilized Nations of Mexico, composed in French, which alleged a Greek intrusion into the Americas that I hadn’t seen before. In fact, I don’t think it’s even mentioned in fringe literature, certainly not in the sources I surveyed today. I give the text as he did, from the Nouvelles annales des voyages for 1832, a collection of articles and reprints about sea voyages and geographic questions. The piece in question is from a Columbian original, in my translation:
Discovery of a Greek Tomb.
Brasseur de Bourbourg credited this story with sparking his interest in the prehistory of the Americas, which culminated in his twin legacies of popularizing the Popol Vuh and declaring Mesoamerica the legacy of Atlantis, a direct inspiration for Augustus Le Plongeon and Ignatius Donnelly. Through them, of course, we ended up with ancient astronaut theorists and lost civilization speculators, who draw more or less directly from Donnelly.
Brasseur de Bourbourg, however, wasn’t able to determine whether the story was true, and it certainly bears the hallmarks of the same kind of tall tale told in the past, from the “discovery” of a tomb by a farmer to the crumbling weapons and the attribution to Antiquity. Substitute in giant bones for the sword, and you’d have any number of similar claims, none of which panned out. If there were any truth to the story, it would more likely be Spanish or Portuguese weapons and armor (which are a better match for the imagery described, being much more common in Renaissance-era armaments) and an ambiguous inscription (or even natural grooves) misread through wishful thinking.
It’s a shame the J. Hutton Pulitzer, advocate of the Oak Island sword, isn’t a better researcher, or he’d have found these Old World “swords” before I did.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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