Journalism as history II — the Phoenicians in Maine

Earlier I posted a story I wrote about some ancient amphoras (jugs) that were found by divers on the sea floor off Maine. That story included some expert opinions that the amphoras came from ancient Phoenicians who had visited the Maine coast before the birth of Christ. Now, my rummaging around in my old files has turned up a second story I wrote in 1976 that claimed the stone etchings on Monhegan Island (and perhaps elsewhere) also had connections to the Phoenicians. I don’t recall the origins of either of these stories, so I don’t know if they came from the same source. But both of the stories were well played in newspapers around the country.


MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine (UPI) – A few crude rock carvings on this craggy coastal island could force historians to take another look at who discovered America and where the American Indians came from.

The carvings, known as the Monhegan Inscription, have been studied since 1855. But they and other carvings in New England have taken on new meaning to archeologists and linguists in the past few years. And they may indicate that the New England coast was a busy trade center for Phoenician sailors as long ago as 200 B.C.

For many years the inscriptions along with inscriptions in Bourne, Mass. and elsewhere in the region have been thought to be the work of Norse sailors. The theory was that the Norsemen discovered America several hundred years before Columbus.

But now some archeologists, including James P. Whittall, director of archeology for the Early Sites Research Society in Boston, feel the inscription is written in Ogam script used by the Celts in the Iberian peninsula as long ago as 2000 B.C.

Whittall said the inscription was translated by Dr. Barry Fell, president of Boston’s Epigraphic Society, to read “Long ships of Phoenicia: cargo lots landing quay.” If the translation is correct, it could have been a message to Phoenicians who may have landed at Monhegan long before the birth of Christ to deal in fish, furs and minerals.

“When these inscriptions were found along the New England coast, some tried to apply them to the Norsemen because some of the symbols are the same,” Whittall said. “They forced the symbols into a Norse translation, so scholars ended up calling them a fraud.”

“They never studied Iberian script, because it then was very little known and not translated,” he said. “One of the problems with the Norse is there is a close similarity between Iberian and Norse runic script, and we feel runic script was developed out of Iberian script.”

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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.”