By Dave Payne, Sr.
Just south of Oceana, in Wyoming County, West Virginia, there is a little white historical marker that makes a bold claim: Celtic explorers had journeyed west from Ireland and were here, nearly a thousand years before Columbus, Cabot and DeSoto.
You expect these little signs to have some cute anecdote about the first settler in the area or to say how old a nearby church is. You never expect them to scream out that one of Western Hemisphere’s most important historical sights is nearby and all this time it has been right under your nose.
Were Celtic explorers in the coalfields? I intended to find out, ever since I read an ambiguous reference to Celtic petroglyphs, rock carvings, in a Wyoming County brochure at an I-77 rest stop somewhere in Southern West Virginia.
I had expected to find a park, some validation that this settlement had what could be one of the world’s most important historical sights. Maybe some scholars would be there, I thought, studying its rough figures.
Instead, what I found was a well-worn dirt path leading to the overhang, which was a short distance up the mountain from a set of railroad tracks. Whoever — teenagers, I supposed — had worn the path so well had left a lot of empty beer cans along the way. Unbelievable apathy.
The symbols were there, just like the brochure said they would be, carved deeply into the sandstone face. I expected something similar to the hundreds of other petroglyphs throughout Appalachia, rough outlines of elk or bison, but what I found was bizarre, unlike anything I had ever seen before. All across the sandstone face were hundreds of short vertical lines and symbols which looked like turkey feet.
For years, locals and scholars alike assumed the petroglyphs were written by Indians. That seemed the only likely explanation until the March, 1983 issue of Wonderful
West Virginia made a startling announcement, based upon the findings of Dr. Barry Fell, a former Harvard marine biology professor who studies ancient languages.
These carvings were likely more than a thousand years old, the article said, written in an old Irish script called “Ogham Consaine.” Fell had earlier written a New York Times Bestseller, America, B.C., in which he envisions a prehistoric America in constant contact with explorers and settlers from Europe and the Middle East who roamed as far West as Colorado.
According to Dr. Fell, the Wyoming and Boone County carvings tell the story of Christ’s birth. It seemed pretty far-fetched to most, but Fell said he could prove it.
On the left side of the rock face is a separate inscription, which Fell translated as saying a carving which resembles a sun would be entirely lit on Christmas day as light filtered through a notch. He arranged to have observers there at dawn on December 22, 1982, the day of the winter solstice.
Using compass readings and astronomical tables, the observation team estimated the sunrise point to be nowhere near a gap in the mountains or any other conceivable type of “notch.” As the sun rose at 9:05 a.m., the team was shocked to see the sun filter through a three-sided notch formed by the side of the overhang and a large rock.
“That proves it,” said one of the team members. That was good enough for me, too.
I spent the next year learning as much as I could about Ogham and the petroglyphs. I’d even completed an earlier version of this article, chopped full of all the compelling evidence supporting the claim. I tried to imagine why these people were here, how and where they lived. I poured over what information I’d gathered, but the only local evidence was the carvings themselves.
Then, while looking over my field notebook entry from the first day I visited the Oceana petroglyph, I noticed something different about a familiar passage.
“The overhang doesn’t provide much shelter from the elements now,” I wrote, “however, a thousand years ago it probably did. Much of it has fallen in, and it probably extended out another ten feet or so. Judging from erosion at the point of fracture, the collapse seems to be fairly recent, perhaps within the last couple of centuries.”
At that time, the rock which today forms the notch would have been a part of the overhang’s roof. Even if the sun’s rays could penetrate so deeply inside, there would have been no notch whatsoever to shine through. The verification of the sun shining through the notch made believers out of a lot of people, including me.
My confidence in Fell’s findings was shattered. I began to question everything, especially the translation. Ogham is written by arranging marks along a constant horizontal axis. Consonants are written by marking a combination of vertical lines either above, below or perpendicular to the horizontal line, called a stem line. Vowels are signified by the number of dots on the stem line.
Neither the Oceana petroglyph or a similar one in Boone County has any dots near any imaginable lines, nor do the vertical lines — which would comprise the consonants — appear to be grouped consistently. Dr. Fell explains this by saying the writing is an early form of Ogham, Ogham Consaine, which like ancient Hebrew, is written without vowels.
However, Fell admitted in History in The Rocks, a television documentary about a similar petroglyph in Colorado, that, “We’re guessing at the vowels.”
With ambiguous consonants and no vowels present one might be able to decipher what he expects to find, whatever that may be. For instance, at the end of some inscriptions, Fell sees the Ogham letter “L.” He adds two vowels of his own to the single consonant and gets “ele,” the word for prayer.
I tried a little vowel guessing experiment in English, by filling in vowels for the following “WSTVRGN.” “WSTVRGN,” could be translated as “West Virginia” or “Was it Vera again?” Scores of other possibilities exist. Even if the consonants were clear (which they don’t appear to be), dozens of conflicting translations would be possible.
Once the translations were made, a lot of gibberish was left over on both the Boone and Wyoming County petroglyphs which didn’t even closely resemble Ogham. Fell said he believed it to be a Scandinavian Bronze Age script called Tifinag, which translates into a North African Berber language, used by Norse seafarers.
Norse seafarers in southern West Virginia? Even more far-fetched, although there is evidence that Vikings were in North America around 1,000 A.D. There are accounts of early settlers in New England found Indians wearing Viking coins of the period as jewelry and a Viking trading post at L’ Anse Aux Meadows was unearthed in Newfoundland in the early 1960s.
But there is little reason to believe that Norsemen or any other Easterners would have ever ventured anywhere near southern West Virginia in their travels. In Europe, Vikings seldom ventured far from their vessels and their inland travel was restricted to the farthest point up rivers they could sail from the sea. No such routes exist into West Virginia from the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico.
The geography of the region would probably have kept any Celts out as well. There is a reason Daniel Boone gained widespread fame for discovering
the Cumberland Gap. The Appalachians form a nearly impenetrable barrier for travel westward from the Atlantic. Only a handful of passes exist along the entire length of the chain. Provided these explorers did venture on foot and did find one of the passes, they would likely have followed the course of a river, any conceivable route of which would have taken them far to the north or south of Boone and Wyoming Counties.
But let’s say the Vikings or Celts did walk the only possible westward route into southern West Virginia from the Atlantic, the James River, which flows from its headwaters along the West Virginia-Virginia border into the Chesapeake Bay. They would have to somehow cross the New River Canyon, which a mere two decades ago took an hour to cross by car and a thousand years ago, almost impassible by foot. Had they skirted around it, they would have bypassed Wyoming and Boone Counties miles to the north.
There is even less reason to believe that Vikings and Celts had settled somewhere in southern West Virginia, which might have been necessary for them to have enough spare time to carve the intricate petroglyphs.
At about the same time that Fell says the petroglyphs were carved, the Adena Moundbuilders, a native tribe of farmers who lived in the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia, would have been at the height of their civilization.
If for some reason, these supposed Celtic settlers were driven away, this might explain why they passed up a continent of fertile land, near a waterway to live among the craggy hollows of Boone and Wyoming Counties.
But, had they remained in one place long enough to carve the petroglyphs and host the Norse visitors centuries later, they must have left evidence of their stay. They would have left tools, structures, weapons. There should be some evidence of Indian words with Celtic roots.
They might have brought with them diseases from Europe, yet there is no evidence of any possible plagues for another five or six hundred years, when the Adena Moundbuilders mysteriously vanish. If these people had roamed the countryside as Fell says they did from the East Coast to Colorado, there should have been much contact with natives and a widespread exchange of germs.
No doubt they would have known how to make iron. Their would be a constant need for it, to replace ploughshares, make swords, arrowheads and even armor. Yet, no evidence has been found of them excavating iron deposits or building iron smelting ovens. They would have known how to cut stone.Yet, no castles or quarries have been found.
Still, someone took the time to carve these intricate symbols into rock. It probably wasn’t the Celts, or the Vikings, but regardless of their origin, these petroglyphs are spectacular. Who built them and why remains a mystery and there are still no good answers.
There are countless tales and sagas of Europeans traveling across the Atlantic. Viking sagas speak of contact with North America, which later turned out to be true. It is hard to believe that out of a world full of brilliant sailors, no one else ever made the journey or was blown off course and landed in North America.
However, that doesn’t verify that these West Virginia petroglyphs were created by Vikings. In fact, it seems highly improbable.