Rewriting history?

Luke Arbuckle
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A new look at an old stone may change history as we know it

Canadian archaeomythologist and researcher Robert Burcher has been studying stone carvings and ancient artifacts for almost 20 years. If his theory about the inscriptions found on a local stone is correct, North America may soon find itself re-writing the history books – again. 

The boulder, which sits under a thicket of bush in the community of St. Lunaire-Griquet, is not unlike the many large stones that can be found scattered throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, but it’s the carved inscriptions in the stone that has recently drawn attention from researchers and archeologists.

The large stone is not a new discovery. Scientists have been curious about it for at least 40 years and community members have wondered about it for generations. It is commonly referred to locally as St. Brendan’s Boulder or Irish Rock, because an initial archaeological survey completed in the 1970s speculated a similarity between the etchings and ancient Celtic language.

Mr. Burcher said, while the discovery of the boulder is nothing new, what is new is the potential deciphering of the inscriptions.

He said the etchings match letters of a paleohispanic alphabet used by an ancient culture known as the Tartessians from ancient Tartessos, or modern day Spain. They are known to have travelled widely and had early Celtic ties. They were rich in metals like tin and copper, as well as gold and silver, found primarily in Celtic lands. The culture was lost or assimilated into Phoenician culture around 500 B.C.

“I believe ancient Celts and Tartessians came here over 2,000 years ago. They traded in copper and were looking for mineral resources,” he said. “They found it here, took it back to Europe and it was used during the Bronze Age.”

Mr. Burcher said a key point in this story is that people, particularly in ancient times, did not simply go wondering off into the world without having some kind of economic purpose.

“Many people say the Basques and Portuguese came here for the fishing and whaling,” said Mr. Burcher. “If you wind the clock back far enough through time, I believe what the early travellers were looking for were minerals like copper.”

Mr. Burcher became aware of the inscriptions while researching other North American connections to ancient Celtic travellers and mythological voyages like that of the Irish monk, St. Brendan. Stories of St. Brendan’s travels have existed since the ninth century and place his voyage somewhere between 565 and 573 A.D.

There are ancient stone etchings in Celtic, Tartessian and Phoenician languages throughout North America, said Mr. Burcher.

“To find them here in Newfoundland indicates a European presence dating back over a thousand years before the arrival of the Vikings.”

Many civilizations throughout time have fished the waters and stacked the stones in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, until now the recorded history of Newfoundland and Labrador had begun around the year 1,000 A.D., about 1,000 years ago.

Mr. Burcher says the presence of these ancient carvings likely date Tartessian arrival to North America back at least another thousand years, well before the time of Christ.

“I’m the only person who has cracked the code on this inscription and I’ve gone further with it than any other archaeologist has, and there are inscriptions like this up and down the coast,” said Mr. Burcher.

The exact time frame of the ancient Tartessian arrival is still uncertain. In their two-day archaeological survey of the area, which took place last week, the team of scientists was unable to uncover any organic signs of settlement or extended visitation.

“It would have been absolutely astounding if we had found something on the site in an archaeological context that would indicate the time period of the carvings,” said Mr. Burcher. “But according to the archaeologists onsite, the soil here is too acidic to sustain the preservation of organic matter and the peat bogs are continuously building up on themselves, making it very difficult to find other signs of activity without completely excavating the site.”

Mr. Burcher has also been working on similar sites in other parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. One carving site near Placentia Bay is being regarded as ancient Phoenician in origin and could potentially confirm the presence of ancient trans-oceanic travellers pre-dating the Vikings.

“Who arrived to these shores first remains unseen, but the presence of these inscriptions and their similarity to these ancient European languages is undeniable and begs further research,” said Mr. Burcher.

During the 1970s, two respected archaeologists, Robert McGee and James Tuck, surveyed the boulder site and determined the inscriptions were not Native. They were etched with a steel or metal tool, and judging by some of the characters, could be Irish in origin, but the site was left when no more information could be discovered.

“In those days there was a lot of other, more pressing archaeology being done in the area,” said Mr. Burcher, referring to the discovery of a Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows.

A few years later in 1988, one of the original archaeologists, Mr. McGee, went on record saying he did not believe the inscriptions could be Irish. Further study on the ancient Celtic alphabet did not provide positive matches to the inscriptions.

Mr. Burcher said this helps provide further evidence of earlier Tartessian activity in the area.

The team of archaeologists who were inspecting the boulder site brought along cameraman and photographer James Lisitza to record their efforts and potential findings. The footage may be used by the History Channel in a documentary on the possibility of Tartessian or early Celtic visitors to North America.

Also part of the team was archaeologists Ken Reynolds and Stephen Hull of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, though due to the nature of archaeology, the scientists were unable to provide official comment.

Mr. Burcher has contacted Dr. John T. Koch, professor at the University of Wales Centre of Advanced Welsh and Celtic studies in Aberystwyth, which is located in Ceredigion, West Wales, for confirmation of the Tartessian inscriptions.

He is anxiously awaiting reply.

“If the carvings on the boulder are confirmed to be Tartessian in origin, these stone markings may very well be some of the oldest inscriptions in North America,” said Mr. Burcher.“This could create an entirely new historical conundrum.”

Organizations: Vikings, North American, History Channel Department of Tourism University of Wales Centre of Advanced

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, North America, Spain Europe Placentia Bay Aberystwyth Ceredigion

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Recent comments

  • Fernanda Durão
    December 03, 2013 - 04:14

    Robert Bucher may be right. This area is very rich on geogliphs (vide the essay: "Tartessos Revelada pela Geoglifia" - or "Tartessos Revealed by Geogliphy") Geogliphy is about watching: 1º gigantic engravings (geogliphs) ; 2º Local Legends and Myths; 3º local Toponymy

  • Chris Miller
    December 06, 2012 - 22:39

    I would like to see the Phoenician inscription he also found. Phoenician letters are more distinct from scratches, and, on a CBC interview he did, he said the ROM had identified them as such. Still, as Chaucer wrote, "one swallow maketh not a summer" and so more evidence has to be found before there is a strong case for a Phoenician link. If nothing else, I hope these kind of stories pique more interest in our pre-Columbian heritage in Canada. I was utterly fascinated by the Ojibwe language and literature while studying it at university. The Algonquin peoples (of the which the Ojibwe are one) are very interesting - as interesting as the Phoenicians, and we get a lot of our most distinctive Canadian culture from them: Lacrosse, Canoeing, snowshoeing, etc, along with the names of many of our towns and geographical features. They used a mnemonic picture writing, which is actually found in quite a number of places in Canada, most notably at the Peterborough Petroglyphs. The Beothuk Indians (also Algonquins) of Newfoundland defeated the Vikings militarily and kept them from colonizing Newfoundland and Canada - pretty remarkable when the Vikings conquered large parts of Europe.

  • Guy Chamberland
    November 04, 2012 - 01:37

    I comment on this as a specialist of Latin inscriptions, & to a lesser extent of Greek inscriptions, though admittedly not of the Tartessian language & script. I mentioned this page to Mr Miller (whose comment follows) after he had alerted me to the story from a CBC interview. At first, I thought the picture was just showing a random spot on the boulder. It is by comparing this picture with another one, where Mr Burcher frames the same spot with his hands (type in Google Images: boulder burcher sun time), that I realized *this* was actually the alleged inscription. In my opinion, one does not need to seek the expertise of an epigrapher, but of a geologist. It is almost certain, in my view, that those criss-crossing lines are *not* an inscription -- perhaps a drawing, at best. I think Mr Burcher is being misled by the brain’s power of association. It is very easy to see letters when lines cross at all kinds of angle. With respect to our alphabet, one usually sees Ms, Ns, and Vs, among others. The same power of association explains why we easily recognize a face in the sideways smily face :-) In addition, the alleged letters go from one edge of the surface to the other, which further supports a geological explanation. In the CBC interview, Mr Burcher said that round shapes & letters would have been difficult to carve on such a surface. By the same logic, the “letters” should have been short rather than tall. Until we get a better picture (taken at night, with artificial light), no-one can formulate any solid conclusion, but I am pretty sure Mr Burcher is deluded.

  • Guy Chamberland
    November 01, 2012 - 18:44

    Chris, whose comment precedes mine, alerted me to this story. Now that I am looking at this page more carefully, with my expertise in the field of Latin inscriptions, & having discussed the issue of pseudo-archaeology with a real archaeologist, I would bet that the marks are no more than the usual striations left on some boulders caught in a receding glacier (if the legend is matched with the intended photo). It is very easy to see Ms, Ns, Vs, Is or Hs (among other Latin letters), or Rhunic & other ancient characters, when a bunch of straight lines criss-cross one another at different angles. In addition, through the evolutionary process, our brain is programmed to make these associations, just as everybody gets the meaning of the "sideways smily face" :-) In the radio interview Mr Burcher pointed out that the difficulty of carving curved lines explains why the "inscription" is made up only of straight lines. He neglects the fact that, for the same reason, they will have preferred *short* over long strokes. In my view, there is less than 1% of chances that an *expert* will declare this an inscription.

  • Chris Miller
    October 29, 2012 - 00:19

    This inscription needs to be translated. Comparison with Tartessian markings in Spain ought to result in us being able to figure out what it is saying. Burcher has remarked on a CBC interview that a Phoenician inscription he found was translated by the Royal Ontario Museum as meaning "property of the king of Phoenicia." These kind of inscriptions out to lead to other finds. The Vikings left lots behind - probably quite a lot not yet located. The Tartessians and Phoenicians must have left even more. There should be some kind of burials there, some camps, and their accompanying physical-cultural remains. If they were mining copper, then looking near the mining sites should yield results. No one before was looking for this stuff, therefore no major discoveries in this field until recently. There is probably stuff already found and hidden away in museum boxes that needs reinterpreting. The ancient Phoenicians had much more seaworthy vessels than Columbus or the Norsemen. The Bible describes the Tartessians as coming to Tyre once every three years laden with exotic goods (1 Kings 10:22) - this three year culling of goods may have involved mining and trading in the Americas. I wonder about trading for gold and silver in Mesoamerica. This work Burcher is doing may very well lead to (actually, it already is, isn't it?) one of the greatest archaeological finds and rewritings of history ever - a major lost part of the human story that is now perhaps coming to light. Reinterpretation of ancient artistic and literate documents should be a rich field as more physical evidence emerges - and let us hope it does! This is very exciting!

    • Guy Chamberland
      November 06, 2012 - 19:36

      Pt 2: In addition, the alleged letters go from one edge of the surface to the other, which further supports a geological explanation. In the CCB interview, Mr Burcher said that curves would have been difficult to carve on such a surface. By the same logic, the “letters” should have been short rather than tall. But until we get a better picture (taken at night, with artificial light), no-one can formulate any solid conclusion. I expect the story was born of a natural taste for the sensational, & will just go away when this proves to be a delusion.

    • Guy Chamberland
      November 06, 2012 - 19:42

      Pt 1: I comment on this as a specialist of Latin inscriptions, & to a lesser extent of Greek inscriptions, though admittedly not of the Tartessian language & script. I mentioned this page to Mr Miller (whose comment follows) after he had alerted me to the story from a CBC interview. At first, I thought the picture was just showing a random spot on the boulder. It is by comparing this picture with another one, where Mr Burcher frames the same spot with his hands (type in Google Images: boulder burcher sun time), that I realized *this* was actually the alleged inscription. In my opinion, one does not need to seek the expertise of an epigrapher, but of a geologist. It is almost certain, in my view, that those criss-crossing lines are *not* an inscription (at best theyr are a crude line drawing. I think Mr Burcher is being misled by the brain’s power of association. It is very easy to see letters when lines cross at all kinds of angle. In our alphabet, one usually sees Ms, Ns, and Vs, among others. The same power of association explains why we easily recognize a face in the sideways smily face :-)

  • Granddaughter of a Newfie
    July 25, 2012 - 06:59

    FYI: If you click on the pics, you will find larger copies of the photos in the article.

  • ZorroIsGod
    July 16, 2012 - 16:51

    lol most natives claim their from peru ancient city..... north america was covered in ice...... like the Inuit fallow the ice.... so it melted so they moved north...and so on..... and peru is known as the oldest city in the world and you have to put into accounts the currents they move in one direction to England...... and Peru have recording that go back to the age of the dynosores they flew on prehistoric birds like the avatar movie

  • spectacular
    June 29, 2012 - 13:45

    Anyways, it seems Spaniards found out America. And the Tartessians were an extremely advanced kingdom in southern Spain, well known by the old Greeks, and usually related with the Atlantis-Tartish-Tartessos, all great civilizations in the end of the old world, which dissapeared in strange conditions.

  • GIOVANNI CABOTO
    June 29, 2012 - 11:14

    @VN - I have scoured the rock faces and shores from Raleigh- Hare Bay - Canada Bay- White Bay and have not yet found the John Cabot marks - in hindsight I should have looked closer at the prime site for his landing in 1497- St. Lunaire /Griguet. It is interesting that these markings were found behind some bushes, logical though. I wonder if the oldest trees in front of the markings have been dated? One would expect though that the larger and older trees would have been already burnt as firewood. Morison's argument for Cabot's landing here is nearly bullet proof, IMO.

  • Erax
    June 28, 2012 - 17:23

    Robert Burcher is actually a self-described archaeomythologist. The lines in the rock look like micro-fracturing in the rock, possible by glacial weight in the past. Rock erodes away at a rate of about 1 mm per century. That's 10 mm per 1000 years, and 30 mm (more than an inch) in 3 thousand years. I don't think anybody 3000 years ago carved lettering deeper than an inch into rock.

  • Voting Newfie
    June 27, 2012 - 11:54

    @Giovanni Caboto, I think they are looking at this Tartessian culture because of the use of metal tools. Our natives at the time were using stone, antler and wooden tools. I have been doing a lot of reading online about the Tartessians and they were considered an advanced culture in those times and are thought to have seaworthy enough boats to make the trip. These are smart people doing the research and I don't think they'd just jump to conclusions without having some sort of theories or proof (I hope so at least).

  • James Bandow
    June 26, 2012 - 13:37

    The photo is hard to make out. But while we are prescribing rock inscriptions to Europeans, let us remember that the Algonquian speaking First Nations also used a pictographic form of writing. These narratives are observed on rock and stone structures, stone and copper tablets , wood and birch bark scrolls. And this form of writing is at least 1000 years old in North America. I'm not saying that thios example is of First Nations origin (because it is a bad photo), but we should not discount it given what we know about First Nations writing systems.

  • James Bandow
    June 26, 2012 - 13:34

    The photo is hard to make out. But while we are prescribing rock inscriptions to Europeans, let us remember that the Algonquian speaking First Nations also used a pictographic form of writing. These narratives are observed on rock and stone structures, stone and copper tablets , wood and birch bark scrolls. And this form of writing is at least 1000 years old in North America. I'm not saying that thios example is of First Nations origin (because it is a bad photo), but we should not discount it given what we know about First Nations writing systems.

  • Giovanni Caboto
    June 26, 2012 - 09:10

    In his book, "The European Discovery of America" of 1974, S.E. Morison proves that John Cabot first landed in America in this same region- probably on Belle Isle first then to St. Lunaire - Griguet for water, wood, etc. Cabot would have made an inscription with metal instruments. The second figure sure looks like a 7! Mind you, it will tough to convince Canadians , Cape Bretoners, and the people of Bonavista of this fact! If these aren't Cabot's marks then we should continue to search for them on the Northern tip of NL

  • Kirk Arbuckle
    June 26, 2012 - 08:58

    A very interesting and informative written article. Well done

  • George Vanderburgh
    June 26, 2012 - 08:39

    Keep up the ground breaking work!

  • Voting Newfie
    June 26, 2012 - 01:01

    This is an amazing discovery and hopefully the town can generate some extra tourism for this. Bring people in to see this as well as L'Anse Aux Meadows and Norstead. VERY exciting! (I wonder when Mr. Clark is going to steal this story from the Northern Pen) LOL

  • Voting Newfie
    June 25, 2012 - 22:47

    This is an amazing discovery and hopefully the town can generate some extra tourism for this. Bring people in to see this as well as L'Anse Aux Meadows and Norstead. VERY exciting! (I wonder when Mr. Clark is going to steal this story from the Northern Pen) LOL