Chapter 17, “The Egyptian Presence" and Bibliography (Fell
1976; pp. 253-276).
This chapter sets out newly recognized evidence showing that ancient Egyptians once visited North America and, while here, imparted a detailed knowledge of their complicated hieroglyphic writing to the people who lived in Canada and the United States at that era. The evidence is extraordinarily rich in variety and amount, and perhaps one of the more surprising things is that no one until now seems to have noticed it.
My opportunity to study it came about mainly through sleuthing by John Williams. After the ground froze in New England, John began a lengthy search of the documents stored in the great Widener Library of Harvard College. He was seeking out references in earlier reports of excavations that might lead us to find new sites to explore, or to museums where material of significance to our studies might be stored. In the course of this inquiry he consulted works in the Indian languages. One day John brought me a copy of a curious document printed in New York in 1866, and included in a book on the Wabanaki Indians of Maine written by Eugene Vitromile, a priest who ministered to the Indians. This document, comprising a single sheet, was headed The Lord’s Prayer in Micmac Hieroglyphs. At first glance I perceived that about half (at least) of the hieroglyphic signs were remarkably similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs as rendered in the simpler cursive form called hieratic. But what was more surprising, indeed mystifying, was that the meanings of these signs in Egyptian matched the meaning assigned to them in the English transcript of the Micmac text given on the document. Now, I had read in the standard works on the American Indians that certain tribes in the northeast make use of a hieroglyphic writing system “invented by missionary priests who found it easier to teach the Indians by using hieroglyphic signs.” But that did not accord with the evidence now before me, for this seemed to show that someone familar with the Egyptian hieroglyphic system had contrived the Micmac writing.
The Micmacs are a tribe of Algonquian Indians inhabiting Acadia, the eastern provinces of Canada, and they are closely related to various tribes of Maine commonly called the Wabanaki, or Men-of-the-East. Reference to Schoolcraft’s great work on the American Indians showed that he reported to Congress in 1851 that “reading and writing are altogether unknown to them” (i.e., to the Algonquian Indians). This statement, combined with a recorded claim by an eighteenth-century French priest, Pierre Maillard, that he personally invented the Micmac hieroglyphs, seemed to establish the reputed modernity of the writing system. Had Maillard, then, studied Egyptian hieroglyphs in order to invent his Micmac system? A check on dates soon showed that this would be impossible, for Maillard died in 1762, 61 years before Champollion published his first decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Any resemblance between his system and that of the Egyptians would have to be due to pure chance. So I asked John to look for more examples of Micmac writing, if these could be located in the Widener Library or elsewhere. He soon came upon a copy of a 450-page book in Micmac hieroglyphs, the work of Father Maillard, containing much of the Catholic order of the Mass, a catechism, a religious history, and translations of psalms and hymns. This was printed in Vienna during the years 1863-1866 from original manuscripts bequeathed by Father Maillard to the Micmac Indians at the time of his death in 1762. It proved to contain hundreds of different hieroglyphs or their hieratic equivalents. Examples of the writing and its Egyptian counterpart are shown in the tables accompanying this chapter.
As was now quite obvious, the Micmac writing system (and also part of the language) is derived from ancient Egyptian. But how could this be? Surely Maillard could not have secretly deciphered the Egyptian language himself; besides, he is not known ever to have traveled to Egypt or to have been involved in any activity beyond that of the devoted care of his Indian flock, who lovingly preserved his manuscript for 120 years. So we now had the makings of another first-class mystery. At John’s earnest request on my behalf, the librarians at Harvard began to make available to us all relevant books on the Micmac and Wabanaki Indians. From some of these (listed in the bibliography at the end of this book) I now learned the truth of the matter.
It turns out (on the evidence of Father Maillard’s contemporaries and successors) that he did not really invent the writing system but, instead, he borrowed and adapted a system of writing already in use among the Indians at the time when Cardinal Richelieu first dispatched French missionaries to work among the Canadian Indians. From various depositions made by authorities listed in the bibliography (section 9 page 304) it is clear that when the first Christian instruction was given to the Micmacs, the French priests noticed that some children appeared to be making signs on birchbark while the priests were preaching. When questioned later, the children explained that they were recording some of the statements. They explained that a five-pointed star represents heaven, and a circle represents the earth, and so forth.
Father Eugene Vitromile (1866) relates the same of the Wabanaki Indians among whom he worked in Maine, and his account, the most illuminating, may be taken as applying evidently to the Micmacs. It is as follows, and his statements are supported by other missionaries, notably by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon, Bishop of Arichat, and a leading authority on the Micmac Indians.
When the French first arrived in Acadia, the Indians used to write on bark, trees, and stones, engraving signs with arrows, sharp stones, or other instruments. They were accustomed to send pieces of bark, marked with these signs, to other Indians of other tribes, and to receive back answers written in the same manner, just as we do with letters and notes. Their chiefs used to send circulars, made in the same manner, to all their men in time of war to ask their advice, and to give directions.
From this evidence it is clear that we have for long been mistaken in thinking of the Micmac writing system as a modern invention, and hence unworthy of serious study by any epigrapher interested in the history of writing systems in ancient times. Father Vitromile goes on to say that he has in his personal possession three manuscripts in the Micmac hieroglyphic style. This was, of course, in 1866, and so far i have been unable to trace the present whereabouts of his manuscript, two of which, he says, were written by Indians. Vitromile also states:
Several Indians possessed (in the time of the first French missions) in their wigwams a kind of library, composed of stones and of pieces of bark, and the medicine men had large manuscripts of these peculiar characters, which they read over sick persons.... The Indians assert that by these signs they could express any idea with every modification, just as we do with our writings. When the French missionaries arrived in this country they made use of these signs, as they found them, in order to instruct the Indians. Fathers Mainard [sic, Maillard is doubtless intended] and Le Loutre improved them, and others were added in order to express the doctrine and mysteries of the Christian religion.
Father Vitromile records that similar writing was employed by all the northern Algonquian tribes, the Micmacs, the Wabanakis, and the Etchemis of northern New England included. He says that he has met older people among the Indians at Oldtown, Maine, who remember a time when the writing was inscribed vertically, and also horizontally (as today) but in either direction. He adds:
I hope that this kind of writing will not be suffered to be buried in silence amongst the ruins of time, but that the memory of this kind of scripture shall be transmitted to future ages, to show the antiquity and education of the noble and gentle but ill-fated Abanaki.
Thanks to the resilence of the Indians of Acadia, the Micmacs in particular, and thanks also to the actions taken by the French missionaries, Father Vitromile’s wish has been fulfilled. It is now our task to investigate the probable manner in which Egyptian writing came to the northern Algonquian tribes.
The first question that occurs is: “Are the Micmacs and related Algonquians the descendants of ancient settlers from Egypt?” The answer is certainly “No.” For their language is Algonquian. However, a limited but recognizable Egyptian vocabulary is present, suggestive of contacts with Egyptian or Libyan speakers from whom these words could have been acquired as loan elements, at the same time as the writing system was acquired.
Is the writing system an ancient acquisition of the Algonquians? Here the answer is apparently yes; for the various Algonquian tongues, especially those of the northern tribes, are rich in vocabulary connected with writing and writing implements and materials. These words are dissimilar to French and English words for writing, but sometimes quite similar to Egyptian words for these ideas. An extensive list of words of this category appears in the oldest Wabanaki dictionary, that prepared in Maine by Father Sebastion Rasles (whose missionary work began in 1690). The original manuscript of Rasles’ Dictionnaire is preserved in Harvard College Library, its opening passage showing that he began to compile it in 1691; he was still working on it when he was killed by British soldiers in 1724, during the attack on Oldtown, Maine, where his monument now stands. Rasles, too, was familiar with the hieroglyphic writing system, though he did not make use of it.
While pondering how to determine the antiquity of Egyptian writing in the Americas I naturally spoke of these remarkable facts to various colleagues. One of them, James Whittall, learned from another archaeologist that there are relics of Father Rasles in private ownership in Massachusetts, these included bronze artifacts of the Wabanaki, and also that some birchbark manuscripts are in existence in at least one collection. These facts we have not yet had time to investigate, but luckily John Williams came upon one telling piece of evidence reported in the scientific literature of the 1870s. This evidence comes from a distance of some 1,500 miles from New England, from the prairies of Iowa.
One day in 1874 a Reverend M. Gass, assisted by two students, was engaged in opening a small burial mound near Davenport, Iowa. Near the surface they found an intrusive Indian burial of obviously modern date but, as they descended deeper into the mound they began to uncover the skeletons of the persons for whom the mound had initially been raised. There were two adult skeletons, and a third skeleton of a child placed between them. Nearby they found an engraved tablet, now known as the Davenport Calendar Stele. This was extensively engraved with strange signs (page 261) and came into the ownership of the Davenport Academy of Science, now the Putnam Museum. It aroused much interest at the time. Later it was all but forgotten, for scholars at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution declared it to be a forgery. The main grounds for this opinion were that the writing could not be read by anyone, that it contained some letters resembling the letter O, and the numeral 8, together with at least one N and one F, and some signs resembling Phoenician. For these reasons the stone was considered to be a worthless and meaningless fake! Luckily the Davenport Academy preserved the stone, in spite of various claims that it is a forgery.
I give in this chapter and in the diagrams (pages 262-265) the various parts of the inscription and their decipherment. They are based on my study of the published illustration of one face, which John found in one of the contemporary reports held in Harvard Library. Our colleagues of the Early Site Research Society, now that they are apprised of its importance are taking steps to have photographs of it and of other inscribed stones sent to us for study. So far as can be determined at present, one side of the Davenport stele gives the following remarkable information.
In the middle of the stele is an engraved scene, and around it are inscriptions in these languages, namely Egyptian, Iberian Punic and Libyan, each in its appropriate alphabet or hieroglyphic character. The Iberian and Libyan texts, written on engraved scrolls, each report that the stone carries an inscription that gives the secret of regulating the calendar. These parts of the inscription and their alphabets are shown on pages 262 and 263. The remainder of the inscription is in Egyptian hieratic hieroglyphs, and the details of the decipherment are shown here and on the opposite page. The Egyptian text, given literally in the captions, may be rendered into English as follows:
To a pillar attach in such a manner that when the sun rises on New Year’s day it will cast a reflection on to the stone called “The Watcher.” New Year’s day occurs when the sun is in conjunction with the zodiacal constellation Aries, in the House of the Ram, the balance of night and day being about to reverse. At this time (the spring equinox) hold the Festival of the New Year, and the Religious Rite of the New Year.
The tablet carries an engraving which depicts the Egyptian celebration of the New Year on the morning of the March equinox (corresponding to the modern date March 21, but later in March in ancient times). This festival consists in the ceremonial erection, by parties of worshipers pulling on ropes, of a special New year Pillar called the Djed. It is made of bundles of reeds, surmounted by four or five rings. It represents the backbone of the god Osiris.
To the left is seen a carving of the mirror, and beside it are hieroglyphs that read “Mirror of the Egyptian.” On the mirror are hieroglyphs that read “reflecting metal.” To the right is the rising sun, with the hieroglyph Ra (Sun god or Sun) written on the disk of the sun. Stars as seen in the morning sky are above. As the caption on the illustration shows, the Iowa stele confirms what we already know from evidence yielded by a tomb in Thebes, about the ceremony of the Djed column on New Year’s day. The Egyptian record tells us that the ceremony occurred in Koiakh, a word meaning the month of March, again confirming the statements on the Iowa stele. The Egyptian text of the Davenport stele goes on to say that it is the work of Wnty (Star-watcher), a priest of Osiris in the Libyan regions.
How did this extraordinary document come to be in a mound burial in Iowa? Is it genuine? Certainly it is genuine, for neither the Libyan nor the Iberian scripts had been deciphered at the time Gass found the stone. The Libyan and Iberian texts are consistent with each other and with the hieroglyphic text. As to how it came to be in Iowa, some speculations may be made.
The stele appears to be of local American manufacture. Perhaps made by a Libyan or an Iberian astronomer who copied an older model brought from Egypt or more likely from Libya, hence probably brought on a Libyan ship. The Priest of Osiris may have issued the stone originally as a means of regulating the calendar in far distant lands. The date is unlikely to be earlier than 800 B.C., for we do not know of Iberian or Libyan inscriptions earlier than that date. The Egyptian text, as stated above, may merely be a local American copy of some original. That original could be as old as about 1400 B.C., to judge by the writing style.
More, I think, should not be said at this time, for the subject is still under active study, and not all of the inscribed material from Davenport has yet to be seen. But it seems clear that Iberian and Punic speakers were living in Iowa in the 9th century B.C., making use of a stone calendar regulator whose Egyptian hieroglyphs could apparently be read. The settlers had presumably sailed up the Mississippi River to colonize the Davenport area.
I would hazard the guess that the colonists first came on board ships commended by a Libyan skipper of the Egyptian navy, during the 22nd or Libyan Dynasty, the pharaohs of which were energetic men who favored overseas exploration. With them probably came an Egyptian astronomer-priest. Either he, or his successors, engraved the Davenport Calender Stele.
Probably around this time other Egyptian astronomer-priests, accompanying other expeditions, such as that to Long Island, New York (page 270), and the Libyan voyagers who reached Quebec, to leave there the inscriptions found two years ago by Professor Thomas Lee of Laval University. These voyages may well be the people who settled New England, teaching the ancestors of the Micmac and Wabanaki how to write Egyptian hieroglyphs. Since hieroglyphs are ideograms, and can be read (as ideas, not sounds) in any language, it would not be difficult for the learned Libyans or Egyptians to teach their fellow colonists and native Indians how to read and write hieroglyphs. With the passage of time the modern Algonquian language would come into existence (Chapter 18), and then the hieroglyphs would be pronounced as Algonquian.
As I close this chapter, my colleagues and I are actively seeking all relevant clues as to how the Egyptian language came to America. Our special quarries are old birchbark documents, engraved stones, and bronze artifacts from New England’s suspected Egyptian and Libyan visitors, as well as further examples of ancient engraved steles from Iowa and neighboring regions.
We can now set aside the wonder stone carvings of African animals, found in Iowa many years ago, in this developing picture, as the work of sculptors who came to America from North Africa. That carvings of elephants occur in the fields of Davenport need no longer be a mystery–they must be the work of the same people as those whose remarkable Calendar Stele we have just described.
Similarly the terra cotta and stone portraits of people with North African, Nubian, Phoenician, and Iberian features or clothing, now fall into place; for the states where they occur, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, are lands that border the Mississippi, where ancient colonists were accustomed to sail. There are still many pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle, but at least now we perceive its nature and the manner of its ultimate solution. As the mound burials and the urns give up their honored dead I find no disrespect in such disinterments. For out of the dust of our remote predecessors there is now emerging a grand historical vista in which we perceive the wide range of ethnic stocks that contributed to the ancestry of the Amerindian peoples, and brought art and science to the New World. Now Egypt too is added to the tally.
9. Micmac, Wabanaki and Egyptian
Andre-Albert, Evêque de Saint-Germain de Rimouski 1910. Migoitetemagani Cigatigen, Sist Gasgemtelnaganipongegeoei. Ristigouche, P.Q.
Cieutat, Casimir de 1910. Le Ille centenaire de la conversion du peuple Micmac. Ibid., 1-20.
Dickson, Frederick S. Letter of Dec. 1, 1921, to librarian of Harvard University, supplying 15 typed pages of corrections to Pickering’s edition of
the Abenaki Dictionary of Sebastien Rasles. Bound with Rasles, S., under call number 1273.18.25, Widener Library collection.
Gop, Sosep (Joseph Cope) 1910. Listogotig Sagepgeoigos 24 tesogoniteg 1910, ibid., 41-45.
Kauder, Christian (Rev.) 1866. Sapeoig Oigatigen tan tetli Gompoetjoigasigel etc. Vienna (in hieroglyphs).
Kauder, Christian (Rev.) Circa 1866. Letter to Eugene Vitromile. Cited by Vitromile, vide infra.
Lemhart, John M. (O. M. Cap.) 1921. Preface, to Pacifique, vide infra.
Lolo, Sozep (Joseph Laurent, Chief of the Abenakis). 1884. Abenakis and English Dialoques. Quebec.
MacPherson, D. (Rev.) 1910. Lecture of June 24, 1910. Migoitetemagani, 46-64. Ristigouche, P.Q.
Maillard, Pierre, l’Abbé (b.1735-d.1762). Collected hieroglyphic manuscripts, edited by Kauder as so-called Vienna Plates. Vienna, Austria.
Maillard, Pierre, l’Abbé (1921). Second. (Ristigouche) edition of his hieroglyphic text, issued as Sapeoig Oigategen tan tetli Gomgoertjoigasigel.
Pacifique, F. (O.M. Cap.) 1921. Avant-propos (to previous item). Ristigouche, P.Q.
Rand, Silas T. 1902. Micmac Dictionary. Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Rasles, (Father) Sebastien S.J. (d.1724). Manuscript of Dictionnaire, begun in the year 1691, for the language of the Abenakis of the Kennebec
River area, Maine. Now in Harvard University Library.
Rasles, Sebastian (sic). 1834. A Dictionary of the Abnaki Language in North America. Ed. John Pickering. Mem. Amer. Acad. Arts Sci., XV,
Vitromile, Eugene (Rev). 1866. The Lord’s Prayer in Micmac Hieroglyphs. 1 sheet included in the next item at p. 43.
Vitromile, Eugene (Rev). 1866. The Abnakis. New York.
Lost manuscripts: three hieroglyphic manuscripts, two of them written by Micmac Indians, were cited by Vitromile (1866) as being then in his
custody. The fate of these I have been unable to determine.
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