It’s not often that the Phoenicians make it into the mainstream press. They tend to get overlooked even by academia so it’s hardly a surprise that they rarely impinge upon the consciousness of the modern media. But in the last couple of weeks the Phoenicians have briefly made the headlines. The Daily Mail carried a story about – as the headline put it – ‘One Man’s Mission to Prove Phoenicians Discovered the Americas a Thousand Years Before Columbus’. As headlines go, it’s not one to inspire confidence in an archaeologist. Still, at least it wasn’t ‘Will Phoenicians Infect Homeowners With AIDS?’
The One Man with a Mission in question is Philip Beale, variously described in the newspaper articles that have covered his antics as an ‘adventurer’, ‘explorer’ and ‘former City fund manager’. ‘Academic’, ‘historian’ or ‘archaeologist’, not so much. In 2008 he launched an expedition to recreate the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa described by Herodotos (4.42), setting out from Arwad in a replica Phoenician ship and passing through the Suez Canal (so not an entirely faithful recreation…) before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and eventually returning to the Levant in 2010. As experimental archaeology I guess this is fair enough, but is it any more than a bit of fun and adventurous derring-do?
Well, no, I don’t think so. Not really. It does show that Phoenician ships may well have been up to the job of carrying out such a voyage, but there are so many unknowns involved and so many differences from how such a voyage would originally have been carried out that I don’t think it really proves anything. Much as the various great voyages attributed to Phoenician sailors in antiquity make for great stories (as well as this, there’s the Periplous of Hanno which describes another African expedition, this one allegedly involving the establishment of colonies and including possible descriptions of encounters with great apes), they’re the kind of thing that’s almost impossible to prove conclusively one way or the other, though of course, that hasn’t stopped people trying. They’re not outside the bounds of plausibility, but nor is there a shred of archaeological evidence to support them.
With his first voyage over and done with, Beale has a new one in mind: to cross the Atlantic in his little Phoenician ship and show that Levantine sailors may have been the first to discover the New World. He describes his rationale in the Telegraph:
The final leg of the journey inspired his idea for a second expedition. To get around Africa, the Phoenicians would have gone – as Mr Beale did – within 700 miles of the American mainland. Could they have actually discovered the Americas? Mr Beale thinks it’s a distinct possibility.
“Some Egyptian mummies have traces of tobacco and cocaine which were only available in the New World,” he said. “That indicates that something was going on across the Atlantic. And who were the sailors for the Egyptians? It was the Phoenicians.”
This, I fear, is getting us into rather more dangerous waters, academically speaking. The Africa circumnavigation at least had the Periplous and Herodotos to support it. Surviving texts from the ancient world contain no hint whatsoever of westward voyages to the Americas. It’s true that some Egyptian mummies have been found to contain traces of nicotine and coca, but this fact, so beloved of fringe theorists, is a long way from proving connections with the Americas. Indeed, as a 2001 article in Antiquity pointed out (Buckland & Panagiotakopulu; Antiquity 75, 549-56), it makes rather more sense to attribute these traces to post-excavation contamination, especially in the far from controlled conditions of nineteenth-century Egyptology.
The Mail article posits further supporting ‘evidence’ for Phoenician presence in the Americas:
‘It is one of the greatest voyages of mankind and if anyone could have done it [before Columbus], it was the Phoenicians,’ Beale told CNN. ‘Of all the ancient civilizations they were the greatest seafarers — Lebanon had cedar trees perfect for building strong boats, they were the first to use iron nails, and they had knowledge of astrology and currents.’
The theory that an Israelite race discovered the Americas before Columbus was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries after several ancient inscriptions were found in North America which were said to be Hebrew.
It would perhaps be churlish to wonder exactly how astrology would help one perform a transatlantic crossing. Given that this appeared in the Daily Mail, we might be charitable to Beale and assume the error was the reporter’s rather than his. The notion that the Phoenicians were an ‘Israelite race’ is problematic in so many ways that I’m just going to ignore it, but the idea of the ‘Hebrew’ inscriptions is a bit more interesting. Several inscriptions were indeed found which were said to be in Semitic-derived script, but the article neglects to point out that these have all long been debunked as fakes or misidentifications.
Dighton Rock, in Massachusetts, is covered in heavily-eroded petroglyphs which have been identified as everything from Native American to Norse to Portuguese to Chinese. The sheer diversity of suggestions should be enough to tell us that these readings are probably not terribly reliable. The idea that they might be Phoenician was first voiced by Ezra Stiles, Biblical scholar and president of Yale, in the late eighteenth century. This was after the decipherment of Phoenician but before Gesenius’ palaeographic studies and publication of the first corpus of Phoenician and Punic inscriptions in the early nineteenth century, so it’s hard to know how much Stiles knew about the script. Certainly the glyphs don’t look remotely like any version of Phoenician I’ve ever seen.
Another inscription hails from Paraíba in Brazil, allegedly having been found by slaves of one Joaquim Alves da Costa in 1872. This at least looks, at first glance, much more convincingly Semitic, but when a copy was sent to Ernest Renan – the man who founded this Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum and who carried out the first major archaeological survey of Phoenicia – he had little hesitation in declaring it an obvious fake. Most other scholars have concurred, though in the mid-20th century a spat flared up between the eminent Semiticists Cyrus Gordon and Frank Moore Cross. The former became convinced that the Paraíba inscription was genuine and offered this translation:
We are Sidonian Canaanites from the city of the Mercantile King. We were cast up on this distant shore, a land of mountains. We sacrificed a youth to the celestial gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of our mighty King Hiram and embarked from Ezion-geber into the Red Sea. We voyaged with ten ships and were at sea together for two years around Africa. Then we were separated by the hand of Baal and were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women, into New Shore. Am I, the Admiral, a man who would flee? Nay! May the celestial gods and goddesses favour us well!
Cross, and most other scholars, remained certain that it was a hoax.
Other evidence of Phoenician presence in the New Word, including allegedly Carthaginian gold coins (again in Massachusetts), has been even less convincing and just as thoroughly debunked. Such theories are now largely confined to fringe archaeology and conspiracy websites.
Naturally, it’s not just the Phoenicians who are subject to such archaeological flights of fancy. Egyptologists have to put up with this sort of thing to an even greater degree. After his famous Kon-Tiki Expedition, Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic in his papyrus boat Ra II in 1970 in an attempt to prove that the Egyptians could have made it to the New World. Fringe theories abound with claims of Egyptians in the Americas (just read about the Egyptian colony in the Grand Canyon. It’s all connected with the Lizard People, apparently). And of course, there’s an entire religion based on the idea that the lost tribes of Israel ended up in America.
It’s not hard to see why such ideas emerge. Originally – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – they likely stemmed from the ideological dominance of Biblical history and its ability to confer a degree of legitimacy and prestige, as well as a reluctance to believe that any impressive remains could have been produced by the indigenous populations of the New World unaided. The vestiges of both ideas haven’t entirely faded from certain areas of Western Culture, but now probably more important is just the desire to fit things together into a grand narrative, the ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ impulse.
So what lies behind Beale’s expedition? According to the articles, he was invited to carry it out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to coincide with their landmark exhibition on the Phoenicians due to take place in 2014. I don’t believe for a moment that the anyone involved with the exhibition genuinely believes that the Phoenicians really did make landfall on American shores in antiquity, or are ever likely to be able to prove it if they did. But they’re clearly well aware of the ability ancient transatlantic mariners have to capture public imagination and command column inches. A publicity stunt then, and likely to be a successful one. So long as everyone knows it’s only a bit of fun, an entertaining ‘what if’, then it’s hard to object. But I must admit it makes me a little uneasy. I only hope no-one gets carried away and it doesn’t end up undermining the academic credibility of the exhibition itself.
The Phoenicians exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is due to open in September 2014. Assuming I can find someone to fund me by then, I’m very much looking forward to going.