West Virginia Archaeologists Blast "Appalachian Magazine" for Reviving Claims about Irish Monks in Ancient America
On Monday, the Council for West Virginia Archaeology posted an open letter that they wrote to the editor of Appalachian Magazine, taking issue with that publication’s December article attributing some Native American petroglyphs in the state to Irish monks. The article, posted on December 21, asked whether Celts preceded Columbus to the Americas. Frankly, as a bit of recycled garbage culled from 1980s press clippings, I would never have taken notice of it were it not for the Council’s letter. Sadly, there are simply too many similar pieces recycling twentieth century pseudohistory to keep track of.
While the Appalachian piece was filed under a “Legends and Tall Tales” subject heading, and the anonymous article author admits that the story’s evidence is “shaky” and basically a “conspiracy theory,” the content of the piece clearly implied readers were meant to take it seriously:
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.
Clearly, Appalachian has not done its homework. The claim that Irish monks visited the Americas in the Middle Ages is centuries old. Colonial Americans debated whether Native American mounds were the work of Irish missionaries, and the French historian Eugène Beauvois wrote a large number of papers in the late 1800s advocating the position that the Irish bequeathed civilization to Native Americans, following, he believed, Norse Vikings and preceding French Knights Templar.
The heart of the article, however, revolves around our old friend Ogham, the ancient Irish writing system that conveniently resembles random scratches and lines. Some familiar characters show up in the story of the discovery of some petroglyphs in Dingess, West Virginia in the 1980s:
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. We pick up the story in October 1988 when the Irish Embassy, the Irish secretary of cultural affairs, and archaeologist Robert Pyle arrived to examine the rock carvings:
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.”
Appalachian magazine said that the evidence doesn’t yet warrant a “burning” of history textbooks (how thoughtful!) but raised important questions about just when white people colonized West Virginia. I suppose that looking for an excuse to burn textbooks is the kind of forward-thinking that has led West Virginia to its 49th-place ranking in the WalletHub 2018 survey of the most educated states in America.
The Council for West Virginia Archaeology took issue with the article and reminded the publication that it plays an important role in public education in a state with the country’s lowest rate of college educated adults, with just 20% holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The Council also reminded Appalachian magazine that Robert Pyle was not an archaeologist and should not be described as such, and the Council further explained that Pyle’s hypotheses were challenged and refuted by West Virginia archaeologists in a series of academic journal articles in the 1980s. These articles were all posted to the Council’s website more than 15 years ago and are freely accessible.
The Council wrote that it was disappointing to see old claims from the 1980s recycled without any recent research, comment from modern archaeologists, or consideration for the cultural impact of appropriating Native petroglyphs for a Eurocentric narrative:
Your article does not take into account any of the archaeological research that has been done since then, such as a strong movement toward recognizing petroglyphs, cairns, and other rock features as being Native American in origin and worthy of respect as sacred ceremonial landscapes… In summary, we believe that the lack of medieval Irish artifacts and the questionable validity of the “ogham” translations prevent Robert Pyle’s ideas from having scholarly merit. We also believe that attributing Native American sites to Europeans has problematic imperialist, or even racist, undertones and that these ideas undermine the work of legitimate archaeologists.
It was nice to see archaeologists firing back, but it appears that the open letter appeared only on the Council’s Facebook page and in private circulation among Council members. (A Google search returns no results for the letter’s text.) This won’t do anything to change the minds of readers of Appalachian magazine, or to affect the editor of said magazine, unless and until objections appear in more prominent places, including other magazines, newspapers, local broadcast media, and other places where actual members of the public will encounter them. Otherwise, such letters will only be read by people who already agree with them.
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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