Deciphering Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Stones Description of Photo
Unofficially, many archaeologists find enigmatic artifacts and unusual sites around the U.S. fascinating, but they are generally unwilling to commit themselves to an unorthodox research, particularly when that research could undermine conventional theories about American prehistory.  As a result, exploring evidence of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas is normally the province of amateur researchers who lack the authority needed to transform theory into fact.  A good example of this dilemma is the 60-year, sporadic investigation into Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna stones, grooved-perhaps inscribed-rocks that were originally thought to be the relics of a Phoenician mining expedition that sailed up the Susquehanna River some 2,500 years ago.
Phoenician seal Phoenician Seal
The stones were discovered by William W. Strong, a respected physicist and amateur archaeologist from Mechanicsburg, PA, just west of the capital Harrisburg.  For several years during the early 1940s, Strong made numerous trips to the wooded diabase (a kind of basalt rock) ridges of the Susquehanna Valley, collecting strangely marked stones, all covered with a powdery orange crust characteristic of surface weathering. Strong divided his stones into two distinct types – “X stones,” consisting of gravures or abrasions, some as much as an inch deep, which resembled primitive lettering and “XX stones,” which bore straight-groove V-shaped marks.  Strong’s collection gained local notoriety, particularly when Joseph Ayoob, a local postman of Lebanese extraction, suggested that the markings on the “X stones” looked like Phoenician letters.
The Phoenicians were a seafaring population from ancient Lebanon

Following the Phoenicians

  The Phoenicians were a seafaring population from ancient Lebanon who established colonies in far-off Spain and North Africa (Carthage) and circumnavigated Africa around 600 B.C.  Perhaps the Phoenicians’ greatest claim to fame, however, was their development of the earliest known form of the alphabet. Intrigued, Strong sent photographs of his best stones to the Ecole des Langues Anciennes at the University of Strasbourg in France.  After studying the photos, experts at the school said they could not rule out the possibility that the lettering might be Phoenician. Encouraged by this verdict, Strong, now in his early 60s, plunged into a self-instruction course in ancient Phoenician and Punic (Carthaginian), in an effort to translate the inscriptions, Ayoob, meanwhile, founded the Phoenician Historical Society, whose goal was to investigate the Susquehanna stones and gather other evidence pointing to Phoenician landings on the American East Coast. Correctly noting that the Phoenicians were the most accomplished metallurgists of their day who were in constant pursuit of raw materials, Strong and Ayoob became convinced that Phoenician voyagers (probably Carthaginians) had crossed the Atlantic, sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, and had penetrated the Susquehanna Valley in search of iron, copper, and tin deposits. Strong’s attempted translation of the inscriptions resulted in his Replicas Canaan Stelae, a text written in longhand that featured blueprinted rubbings of the clearest markings on the stones.  In his book, Strong claimed to have identified 22 Phoenician letters, and found combinations of letters that corresponded to the names of some 70 captains; deities such as the Carthaginian goddess Tanit; and numerous Mediterranean cities, including Citium (on Cyprus), Tyre, Sidon, and Aleppo. But Strong’s enthusiasm for his theory eventually got the better of him.  His demands on professional archaeologists for recognition and authentication of his work were incessant and he quickly alienated them.  Scholars were also unimpressed by Strong’s casual and sometimes reckless approach to archaeological methodology.
One of Dr. Strong's Stones One of Dr. Strong's Stones
In an effort to enhance the lines of some of the letters, for example, he applied white paint to some of the stones, and may even have chipped away at the grooves in the orange-crusted diabase.  He did not photograph any of the stones in situ before carting them off to Mechanicsburg, and even failed to note the exact locations of his finds. In 1944, Dr. Raymond Bowman of the University of Chicago’s Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures advised the new epigrapher that his theories were far off-base.  Commenting on Strong’s photos and accompanying translation, Bowman said: “I can understand your identifying these letters as Semitic characters, but some of them are Phoenician forms observed as early as the 12th century [BC], while others are characters that had not evolved until the fifth or fourth centuries.” Rather, while Bowman believed the markings to be man-made, he also saw them as random combinations of lines rather than part of a structured alphabet, a characteristic he said dated back to the potters and masons’ marks in the remote periods of the developments of civilization (e.g., at Gezer and at the first Egyptian dynasty of Abydos). Geologists who also made perfunctory examinations of the stones believed the marks were caused by either farm machinery, tree roots, or natural faults in the rock.  As Strong pressed harder for his case, he was branded a hoaxer or the naïve victim of fraud.

A Modern Hoax?

  After his death in 1955, the stones were left lying in heaps in the family barn in Mechanicsburg.  The physicist’s son, Dr. Albert Strong, in an effort to straighten out the disorder his father had left behind and seek a final resolution of the question of the Susquehanna stones, compiled a synopsis of the stones’ history, and welcomed interested visitors to Mechanicsburg.  Dr. Cyrus Gordon, a Semitic language expert, came to inspect the inscriptions, but as far as he could tell, they were not Semitic but probably represented a native local writing. Interested amateurs, scientists and even representatives of the Mormon Church also came to view the stones.  In 1961, Albert conducted a seminar on the stones for about a dozen individuals, including representatives of local universities.  But like his father, the young Dr. Strong failed to win acceptance for the stones’ ancient origins.  His attempts to place them with several universities also proved fruitless, even at Johns Hopkins University, where both he and his father had attended. In 1964, the coup de grace was delivered by state archaeologist John Witthoft, in the journal Pennsylvania Archaeologist.  His subject was the Strong collection, and his conclusion was that the strange markings were either produced by weathering along natural faults in the diabase or recently carved by hand, as there appeared to be “fresh steel dust” in some of the groves.“It was obvious,” Witthoft said, “that the blocks had not been  exposed to the elements since the grooves had been cut, and that the letters were therefore perfectly modern frauds.”
Phoenician alphabet
He concluded by saying it would be impossible to determine the identity of the hoaxers since everyone connected with the case was deceased. The problem with Witthoft’s debunking is that it was laced with errors and misrepresentations.  For instance, to support his argument, he cited three studies of the stones by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), Franklin and Marshall College, and the Pennsylvania Geological Survey (PGS).  Interestingly, however, no records of such studies exist at either the NBS or Franklin and Marshall College.  The PGS did undertake a study, but Witthoft’s article misrepresented its conclusions.
An inscription from one of the Susquehanna Stones Inscription from one of the Susquehanna Stones
Witthoft said that the study had shown that the grooves (or “letters”) were unweathered (ie. without the orange crust) and therefore recent.  However, the PGS report did not discuss the weathering of the grooves but dealt instead with the natural fractures in the diabase itself, saying that these bore no relationship to the letter-like marks on the surface. Additionally, the report stated that the presence of metal flakes in the grooves (Witthoft had written “fresh steel dust”), was strong evidence that the grooves were made, at least in part, with an iron or steel tool.  Finally – contrary to Witthoft’s assertion – several of Strong’s associated in the matter of the Susquehanna stones were still alive at the time the article was written, including Joseph Ayoob.

New Translations of the Stones

  Unfortunately, Witthoft’s flawed article satisfied serious scholars.  Disheartened, the young Dr. Strong made arrangements to have the several tons of grooved stones trucked up to New Hampshire, where they were placed in the custody of the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), the only organization that offered to take them off his hands.  Although the Susquehanna stones came to rest again in a barn, their story was far from over. In 1975, Dr. Strong’s stones were once more in the news, this time because of the work of an energetic professor from Harvard University, Dr. H. Barraclough (Barry) Fell  of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Fell, a marine biologist and amateur epigrapher, decided to try his hand at deciphering the Susquehanna stones. When first told about the Strong collection, Fell took a photographer to the New Hampshire barn and spent a day inspecting and cataloging the best of the specimens.   He carried several stones back to his research lab in his home in Arlington, MA, and published his initial findings in 1975 in a paper for the Epigraphic Society, a research group he had founded. Some of the inscriptions were indeed Phoenician, Fell decided, but only a few.  Most, he said, were funerary headstones that bore an Iberian script that was almost identical to the script found on tablets in Traz-os-Montes, Portugal.  With this in mind, Fell determined that Dr. Strong had stumbled onto the remains of a late Bronze Age necropolis, the cemetery of an Iberian settlement in the Susquehanna Valley which dated back to almost 800 B.C.  He also asserted that the language behind the letters was related to Basque, the people of northern Spain who were accomplished sailors and explorers for many centuries.  As Fell described, “The steles so far examined disclose that the settlement was administered by a north Iberian chieftain named Galba, who was doubtless a member of the same Aquitanian Basque gens who were later to supply Roman governors of Spain and one emperor, Sulpicius Galba.”
Marine biologist and amateur epigrapher Dr. Barry Fell Dr. Barry Fell
In his initial report, Fell published translations of two of the stones and offered a translation of one of the Traz-os-Montes tablets by way of comparison.  (The Traz-os-Montes inscriptions had eluded all previous attempts at decipherment.  If Fell actually translated this particular inscription correctly, that in itself would have been a major epigraphic triumph.) In 1987, Fell modified his conclusions, declaring that the rocks were probably used by 17th-century Indians to mark their farming plots.  But the writing on the stones was still Iberian/Basque, he insisted.  According to Fell, these Indians, the now vanished Susquehannocks, may have encountered visiting Basques in ancient times and retained memories of these contacts.  Or the Indians may have preserved marker stones engraved by the Basques, or used Basque letters to inscribe some of their own.  Lastly, he felt that Strong’s rocks were actually engraved with Basque family names. The Susquehannocks were an Iroquoian-speaking tribe that lived in the western part of the Chesapeake Bay estuary up till the end of the 1600s.  Fell cited the New Castle Deed, in which certain tribal chiefs transferred ownership of land to William Penn, as evidence that the signatures of nine chiefs were initialed in letters from the Basque alphabet. About a year later, Fell wrote in his society’s journal that critics were unjustified in claiming the Susquehanna stones were modern simply because traces of steel had been detected in the grooves of some of the rocks.  As Fell described, “William Penn’s treaties show that he provided the Indians of the Susquehanna Valley with hundreds of steels, as part payment for land and it is to be expected that the Indians would periodically re-engrave the land boundary markers that defined their crop gardens.” Although most archaeologists have since rejected Fell’s work, a few scholars have stood by the controversial Harvard scholar, including Basque etymologist and epigrapher Imanol Agire. Since Fell’s final comments on the subject in 1988 (he died six years later), the Susquehanna stones have settled into a position of secondary importance for investigators of early trans-Atlantic crossings.  NEARA eventually moved most of the remaining artifacts from New Hampshire to Maine, where they reside today.

Engraving v. Weathering

  But what of those specimens that seemed so letter-like to Barry Fell, Raymond Bowman, and the Ecole des Langues Anciennes?  Are they really nothing more than the random markings of tree roots or are they the product of a hoaxer’s imagination? Ancient mysteries researcher Salvatore M. Trento doubts they are the product of an elaborate hoax.  “It is unlikely that all of the 400 Pennsylvania field stones were meticulously etched and carefully buried by a misguided colleague of Dr. Strong,” he notes.  Also, if we assume the forger worked by nigh, the farmer on whose land the stones were found would have been bound to notice sections of his field plowed up every morning. In the Strong collection there are stones with markings too regular, intricate, or angular to be root tracks and plow cuts, including clear letter shapes, closed circles, and unusual figures, such as a rhombus with a cross in its center.  However, these constitute perhaps five percent of the inscriptions.  Some of the best of these have disappeared over the hears and are thus unavailable for further study.  But of those that remain, part of the solution may lie in the geological properties of the rock itself, and in analysis which should have been conducted decades ago. Diabase is an igneous rock well-known for its superior building qualities. However, when considering the possible survival of 2,500-year-old inscriptions, the rock’s weathering characteristics must be taken into account.  Wind, rain, soil acidity, and subsurface water combine to erode a stone such as diabase relatively quickly, whether it lies on the surface or is buried.  Dr. Robert Smith of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey’s mineralogical department estimates that East Coast diabase erodes at a rate of two centimeters per 1,000 years.
An illustration of a Susquehannock An illustration of a Susquehannock
Given this estimate, the inscriptions of ancient Phoenicians or Iberian visitors to the Susquehanna Valley would have had to have made steep, narrow cuts, four centimeters or more in depth, in order for the inscription to be still visible today.  This is extremely unlikely.  Rather, if inscriptions of this type had been carved 2,500 years ago, they would exist today as broad, shallow engravings where the built-up orange weathering crust would be as thick as elsewhere on the rock.  Few, if any of Strong’s stones fit this description.  (However, weathering, it should be added, is not a clearly defined science, but rather a borderline discipline shared by geologists and soil specialists.) Facing these geological realities, the possibility that the Susquehanna stones bear a story of Phoenician or Iberian settlement in Pennsylvania seems down to its last breath. Then there is the theory of Cyrus Gordon, who suggested that the lettering was a primitive American Indian script – itself startling enough, and not destined to win the support of traditional scholars.  There is also the tenuous link with the Traz-os-Montes tablets.  Fell believed that if the rock’s properties exclude the possibility that the engravings were ancient, then the letters might represent the memory of a people who knew of the ancient Iberian language and who passed on this knowledge to the Susquehannocks.

Thoughts on Future Study

  As noted earlier, the Susquehanna collection constitutes only a small part of a much larger body of evidence which some say points to pre-Columbian contacts by ancient European and Mediterranean voyagers.  The momentum for this research is being generated by amateur groups such as NEARA, and this begs the question: is this where such research belongs? Weather in the hands of amateurs or professionals, the Susquehanna stones suffered from the prejudices of each.  Although Pennsylvania state archaeologist Witthoft’s authoritative debunking turns out to have been anchored in the clouds, his ill-derived conclusions seemed to have satisfied scholars in associated disciplines.  And the amateurs, determined to keep alive the fascinating possibilities that the stones hinted at, never had the courage to subject the collection to a proper petrographic examination. The stalemate that has resulted from this clash of purposes does not bode well for the study of the myriad other artifacts that have been reported found in America, some of which may prove to be authentic.  If the amateur-led theorists are right, American prehistory must be rewritten.  If they are wrong, the landscape will still be strewn with thousands of enigmas.  What is certain is that if the handling of Dr. Strong’s stones sets the pattern for future research, the true story stands little chance of surfacing.