Fell and Egyptian
By Richard Flavin

Work Copy

Part I.

Prof. H. Barraclough Fell (1917-1994) at Harvard in 1972.

The aim of this article is to examine Fell’s claims of discernable ancient Egyptian and other North African languages and scripts in foreign petrogylphs, markings, writings and the like, and to show a pattern of poor scholarly standards, though arguing for a possible change of opinion which might have occurred had he lived longer.    


Barry Fell, Howard Barraclough Fell, Harvard, invertebrate zoology, epigraphy, Epigraphic Society, National Decipherment Center, diffusion, hyperdiffussionism, America B.C., pseudoscript, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Micmac, Mi’kmaq, Davenport, Calalus, Tucson artifacts, rouge professor, pseudoarchaeology, Stephen Williams, fantastic archaeology, amateur.

     The late Prof. Howard Barraclough "Barry" Fell (Harvard, Invertebrate Zoology) is often remembered in the media for his ability to read a hypothetical non-vowel version of the Irish oghamic alphabet found on New England field stones and his “ogham” being subsequently dismissed as “plough marks” by scholars (Reynolds & Ross 1978).  But, Fell also made many varied claims regarding Egyptian hieroglyphs and their presence and influence far from North Africa and known contact countries.

     Though born in England, Fell grew up, became an educator and passed more than half of his years in New Zealand, with periods in England for university and military service (Fell 1999; Fell 2001).  The non-Western culture of the indigenous Maori made a lasting impression on him, as one of his earliest works was titled “The pictographic art of the ancient Maori of New Zealand (Fell 1941).  A later article (Fell 1945), “Polynesian origins. An American View,” was a telling precursor to his 1972 Freshman Seminar program at Harvard which concerned "Polynesian history, art and tradition with special reference to the New Zealand Maori (Williams 1991; pp.270-271)."  A textbook issued around that time, Introduction to Marine Biology (Fell 1975), contained a curious reference to a previously unknown claim of a hypothetical "Polynesian's epic voyage to America."

Images of the Reverend Richard Taylor (1805-1873) and drawing of rock art on Pitcairn Island (Taylor 1870; Fell 1975a).

     After a rejection letter from the Royal Society of New Zealand with a suggestion to self-publish (Fell 1990), Prof. Fell established the Polynesian Epigraphic Society in 1974 (soon after changing its name to the Epigraphic Society and dropping “Polynesian”).  His first article in the new amateur journal, The Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications (later, Papers), was “An Egyptian Shipwreck at Pitcairn Island” which purports to identify rock art from Java as an Egyptian inscription in a Libyan dialect (Fell 1975a).  The process of Fell’s investigation, identification and decipherment began with his acquiring
a copy of a century old book illustration (Taylor 1870) from a woman in Hawai'i.  As an exemplary model of armchair scholarship, the majority of Fell’s inscriptions initially arrived at his desk in the form of sketches, casts, rubbings or photographs made by and mailed to him by others.  Though none of his peers would likely question the identification of a new echinoderm, Fell’s area of expertise, the claim of the ancient Libyan script discovered on the other side of the planet from North Africa, in one of the remotest locations imaginable, would have been understandably dismissed by professional anthropologists as a continuation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century models of comparitive mythology (Tregear 1885; Tregear 1891) and cultural diffusion in which ancient Egypt influenced many distant societies (Smith 1911; Smith 1923).  Though the claims of the Rev. Taylor (Church of England), Edward Robert Tregear, ISO and Prof. Grafton Elliot Smith (University of London, Anatomy) were dilettantish and heavily rebuked, because the individuals advanced their theories honestly and answered their critics openly and without being vindictive, their efforts were tolerated more than perhaps they should have been.  A similar situation developed with Prof. Fell.

E. Tregear (1846-1931), The Aryan Maori (Tregear 1885); Sir G. Elliot Smith (1871-1937) and hyperdiffusion map (Smith 1923).

     With the publication of America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World (Fell 1976), the soon-to-retire Harvard marine biologist achieved a readership not often acquired by traditional academics.  Of course, America B.C. wasn’t an academic book.  Rather, it was presented as a popular work which shared the excitement by Fell, amateur archaeology and history groups he’d encountered, and a steadily growing number of amateur epigraphers whose individual efforts all suggested proof of astounding ancient feats of high adventure and the finest kind of historical altruism.  The claims were jaw-dropping and impossible, but ...successfully appealed to a public sense of “What if?” that sells a lot of books.  Criticism was quick and ugly.    

     Prof. Glyn Daniel (Cambridge, Disney Chair of Archaeology) called Fell's claims "rubbish" in The New York Times Review of Books (Daniel 1977).  Daniel had coined the term "hyper-diffusionism" in 1962 to describe earlier improbable models of cultural diffusion and had extensively investigated modern archaeological fakes and frauds.  As editor of the prestigious journal, Antiquity, Prof. Daniel's views were highly regarded.  Colleagues heeded Daniel’s advice to avoid Fell, but the public enjoyed America B.C. through several printings of different editions and also bought Fell’s two follow-up books, Saga America (Fell 1980) and Bronze-Age America (Fell 1982).

Fell's epigraphy trilogy; America B.C. (Ist and 3rd editions; 1976 & 1989), Saga America and Bronze Age America.

     Fell began America B.C.’s Chapter 17, “The Egyptian Presence (Fell 1976; pp. 253-276)” with the hypothesis that the so-called Mi'kmaq hieroglyphs are "hieroglyphs" because of a conjectured ancient influence from either Egyptians or North Africans with knowledge of Egyptian.  John Williams is given credit for much of the grunt work, though it's to Fell alone responsibility resides with the suggestion that trans-oceanic contact between the Old and New World occurred.  The Mi'kmaq-Egyptian theory is based on the similarity of meanings described in old dictionaries from separate language families (Afro-Asiatic contra Algic or Algonquian-Wiyot-Yurok).  Such lottery-style lexicography is common enough, though seldom exceptional. 

Fell emerging from a "temple of the Eye of Bel" (Fell  1976; p. 153 & rear dust-jacket).

     Prof. Fell enjoyed a smatter and “Gee Whiz!” sense of discovery.  Amateurs, professionals and active lay-people alike may be intellectually excited with the prospect of revealing the hidden, restoring the lost, or otherwise contributing to a knowledge base.  The study and recording of history (and its difficult younger sibling, prehistory) is an ongoing process and undergoes continual correction as further information becomes available.  A multi-disciplinarian approach to history has emerged in recent decades which has engaged the work of scientists and professionals from many different areas of expertise – an easy example would be the sensational discovery of King Tut’s tomb, pushing the cobwebs off to the side and raising oil-lamps to view the marvelous treasures within, while an examination today would proceed no further than the entrance until paleobotanists were brought in to study any pollen remains on the cobwebs.  History accepts help from all specialists and epigraphy has been a valuable resource in better understanding many important artifacts and historical events.  Prof. Fell believed his Mi’kmaq work was important and had produced new paradigms for approaching New World societies and near-civilizations.  Unfortunately, he was mistaken, though I'd argue he would've
been open to self-correction concerning his conclusions had anyone bothered to present him with further information.

     Fell reasoned that Egyptian hieroglyphs couldn’t have been a seventeenth or eighteenth century influence on the invention of the modern Mi’kmaq writing system because Egyptian hieroglyphs weren’t readable until the early nineteenth century.  This approach is flawed and unsustainable.  The anthropological model of stimulus diffusion helps to explain the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphs inspired by Sumerian cuneiform, as the idea of writing reached North Africa from Mesopotamia c.3400-3200 BCE.  The Egyptians didn't adopt or adapt the script or language of the Sumerians, only the idea of writing.  Fell should have recognized that the “idea” of writing was and remains a powerful stimulus.

     Over three millennia of writing Egyptian hieroglyphs ("sacred carvings") ended with an inscription on the Island of Philae in 394 CE, followed by Demotic
graffiti dated to 452 CE, and finally concluded with the closing of the temple complex at Philae by Justinian in 550 CE.  The ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphs was lost at about this time and it wasn’t until 1822 when Jean-François Champollion deciphered a cartouche for Rameses and exclaimed “Je tiens l'affaire!” (“I’ve got it!”) to his brother, that the ability was regained.  It'd be incorrect to maintain that without the ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphs that the “sacred carvings” were without influence.

     A Mi'kmaq web-site offers the following timeline for the modern emergence of their writing sytem:

In 1652, Father Gabriel Druillettes, a Jesuit missionary to the Abenaki, reports seeing the Mi'kmaq use ideograms to record lessons in the "Jesuit Relations" of that year:

"Some of them wrote out their lessons in their own manner. They made use of a small piece of charcoal instead of a pen, and a piece of bark instead of paper. Their characters are novel, and so individual that one could not know or understand the writing of the other; that is to say, that they made use of certain marks according to their own ideas as of a local memory to preserve the points and the articles and the maxims which they had remembered. They carried away this paper with them to study in the repose of the night."

In 1677 Father Chrétien Le Clercq, a Franciscan Récollet, made note in his journals of observing Mi'kmaq children taking notes using charcoal and birch bark as he was teaching them prayers. Seeing this as an opportunity for more effective teaching, Father Le Clercq, an accomplished linguist, learned the ideogrammatic system, and expanded it with Mi'kmaw-esque symbols to express Judeo-Christian concepts that had no representation in the Mi'kmaw symbology. In 1691 he published "Nouvelle relation de la Gaspésie" in Paris, wherein he discusses his development of this writing system:

"... our Lord inspired me with the idea of them the second year of my mission, when being much embarrassed as to the method by which I should teach the Indians to pray to God, I notice that some children were making marks with charcoal upon birch-bark, and were counting these with the finger very accurately at each word of prayers which they pronounced. This made me believe that by giving them some formulary, which would aid their memory by definite characters, I should advance much more quickly than by teaching them through the method of making them repeat a number of times that which I said to them. They preserve these instructive papers with so much care, and they have for them so particular an esteem, that they keep them very neatly in little cases of birch-bark bedecked with wampum, with beadwork, and with porcupine quills."

In 1738, l'Abbé Pierre-Antoine-Simon Maillard (French Seminary of Foreign Missions) also worked out the Mi'kmaw symbols, and published a grammar of the language. It appears that his work was independent of Le Clercq's, and Maillard devoted 8 years to the task. [From Mi'kmaq Spirit.]

The Apostles' Creed [No. 1] and The Lord's Prayer [No. 2] on birch bark in the Mi'kmaq - Récollet script (Thompson 1791).

     Father Le Clercq (Leclercq) is credited with modifying a pre-contact communication system of the Mi’kmaq.  The system was probably pictographic and ideographic with modifiers, though it remains unattested beyond the testimonials of the French missionaries and no actual examples are known to exist.  Neither character design or period of usage may be advanced with any surety; the system could have been a local adaptation of the picture-writing of neighboring Native peoples or invented the day before the French missionaries arrived as another instance of stimulus diffusion with the Mi’kmaq being inspired by previous European explorers and trappers who could have carried books and examples of writing. [Note: Any pre-contact communications system of the Mi’kmaq would have been incorporated into rock art, both parietal and portable.  The format of birch bark and charcoal shouldn’t be regarded as single-use as, like the Romans and their wax tablets, birch bark would have been washed clean and re-used.  That no accepted examples of the pre-contact system exist, even in rock art, may indicate a somewhat recent invention.]

Well known sixteenth century works about hieroglyphs (
Bolzani 1556; Dee 1564; Hoeschel 1595).

     Various histories acknowledge the gross pretentiousness of the fifth century grammarian, Horapollo, whose work approached Egyptian hieroglyphs as narrative symbols and not ideograms with phonetic modifiers.  As Fate will out, Horapollo’s work survived when others didn’t, it was brought to Florence in 1422, manuscript versions were privately circulated for many years before it was eventually published in Manuzio's important Aldine edition of Aesop in 1505 (Aesop et al 1505).  It was soon translated into Latin and became an immensely popular work in the sixteenth century (Bolzani 1556).

Fr. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) and two publications of Egyptian hieroglyphs (Kircher 1650; Kircher 1676).

     Travelogues of the seventeenth century contain many references to Egypt (La Boullaye 1653).  Fr. Le Clercq was sent back to France briefly in 1680 when he could have viewed or acquired a copy of the recently published Turris Babel by Fr. Athanasius Kircher (Collegio Romano [Jesuit], Professor of Mathematics) which reproduces Egyptian hieroglyphs (Kircher 1679).  Ceasing his missionary efforts and returning permanently to France in 1686, Le Clercq began five years of writing, more than enough time to become aware of the German Jesuit's other publications on Egyptian hieroglyphs (Kircher 1650; Kircher 1676).  It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the Mi’kmaq - Récollet writing system is often called “hieroglyphic” because Le Clercq was familiar with the idea of Egyptian hieroglyphs as “sacred carvings” and applied the term to reflect a holiness associated with the writing of Catholic material in his new Native American orthography (Le Clercq 1691).  The idea of hieroglyphs may well have been reenforced by the enigmatic symbolism of Horapollo and/or direct knowledge of character design from antiquities, medieval paintings, alchemical writings or travelogues and guides.  The influence of Egyptian hieroglyphs has long exceeded the ability to understand the signs and is understood to have prompted the rise of the Renaissance emblems.  [Note: Fr. Kircher preceded Fell in imaginative epigraphy and as the victim of epigraphic hoaxes; for more click here.]

Page of the Mi'kmaq-Récollet script (Mi'kmaq-Récollet  Date Unknown) and early article (Shea 1861).  Click for larger images.

     It’s troubling that Fell would bother to cite a call number from Widener Library, praise the collections of Harvard College, but not mention a usage or awareness of Harvard's Department of Anthropology, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology or the Peabody Museum Library.  In 1974, when Prof. Fell should have benefitted the most from its resources, the Peabody Museum Library was reopened in a new building connected to the museum and renamed the Tozzer Library, after its second librarian.  The Tozzer Library has been referred to as a “National” library (Weeks 1987) and for Fell not to avail himself of its collection seems self-defeating and shoddy.  Unless, that is, Fell purposely avoided mention of Harvard’s archaeologists and their expertise.

     In much the same way that America B.C. wasn't released as an academic book, Fell’s argument for cultural diffusion between the ancient Egyptians and the Mi’kmaq Nation didn't  need archaeology because Fell’s evidence was linguistic.  Later, Fell would describe his theory as dependent on “North African epigraphy” and claimed validation when “North African professors” stopped by his “epigraphic laboratory” at the "National Decipherment Center (Fell 1979)."  The declared position and main support for Fell’s approach to Mi’kmaq was expressed and is still maint (ained by The Epigraphic Society president, Prof. Norman TottenBentley College, Emeritus Professor of History); it’s about linguistics (Totten 1981).

Go to Pt. II, Pt. III (with Addendum) or Pt. IV (Collections and Bibliography).

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