Journalism as history

Stories like this were always hard for me to resist — some bit of offbeat or unexpected history discovered in our backyard.  Perhaps something dug out of the ground, or tidbits discovered in some museum archive. In this case, it was an expert trying to interpret something that had been found on the ocean floor. Phoenicians off the coast of Maine  in 500 BC? Well, it COULD have happened. And if someone with credentials said it was possible, it was worth writing about. This Maine story got in papers around the country, including the Boston Sunday GLOBE.

Ancient  jugs found off Maine coast



CASTINE, Maine (UPI) – The two jugs are white, or off-white, and had rested on the ocean floor not far from Castine for many years before a diver found them a few years ago.

How long did they lie submerged? Scientists have theories that run from around the time of the American Revolution back to hundreds of years before Christ.

Warships weren’t uncommon in Maine waters during the Revolution 200 years ago. Several American ships were scuttled not far from where the jugs were found. They could have been thrown overboard by a sailor. Or, they could have been moved by currents from the nearby wreckage of the sunken ships.

But Dr. Barry Fell has another theory.

Fell is head of the Department of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and a master of ancient languages. He believes the jugs could have come from Phoenician sailing vessels, which he thinks may have visited the coast of Maine centuries before Christ lived.

In a recent book, Fell contends that parts of North America were settled by Celts from Portugal perhaps 500 years before Christ.  He based his theory on the discovery of inscriptions found in dank stone caves that dot portions of New England.

The inscriptions, he said, are Ogam, a form of writing invented by Phoenicians and adopted by Celts from Iberia and North Africa.

“I first heard about it (the jugs) when two members of the Maine Archeological Society told me divers had found amphoras, which were containers used for oil and wine,” Fell said.

Fell was most excited to learn the containers were found near where he had predicted Phoenician artifacts might be discovered.

Fell had interpreted rock carvings on nearby Monhegan Island to read “Long ships of Phoenicia; cargo lots landing-quay.” He said the inscriptions could mean Phoenician sailors had traded along the coast hundreds of years ago.

Besides the containers and the Monhegan Island rock inscriptions, there are other possible signs that Phoenicians came to the region.

It has been rumored for several months that the remains of several ancient ships were found off the cast near Kittery by divers searching for the wreckage of Revolutionary War ships. John Hallett, director of the Kittery Museum, confirmed wreckage had been found, but declined to pinpoint the location.

Fell said Hallett “visited me, and asked if I had ideas that Phoenicians may have visited North America because his divers had seen what seemed to be hulls of ancient ship son the ocean floor.”

“What we have,” fell said, is this very tantalizing report, and we don’t know whether it’s true or not.”

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