One of the basic truths of archaeology and the studies of ancient cultures is that the further back in time one travels, the less hard data one has to work with and the more likely theories about the peoples and artifacts of ancient cultures will be less founded on evidentiary grounds. And when speculation creeps in, anything can be proposed. Still, extrapolation from hard evidence is generally the key to an acceptable and plausible theory. On "America Unearthed," forensic geologist Scott Wolter is up front about his belief that many ancient cultures visited the Americas before Christopher Columbus got the credit for arriving in the New World first. In the episode "Stonehenge in America," armed with some new observations and some old, he sets out to ascertain whether or not one of those cultures could have been the Phoenicians.
Wolter was contacted by the owners of "America's Stonehenge," a section of land in Salem, New Hampshire, upon which is erected megalithic structures that appear to mark astronomical progressions much like the famous set of stones found in Wiltshire, England. Although far smaller and a bit more crude (whether by design or from erosion or destruction by man over time -- or a combination of factors -- is unclear), the American Stonehenge is aligned in such a way as to mark the solstices and the equinoxes, just like its larger cousin across the Atlantic. But what the owners of the property have to show Wolter is that the two sites might be connected.
After taking the geologist to the site, Kelsey Stone, the son of the man who purchased the property decades before to preserve it, showed Wolter that the summer solstice line, when directed eastward, ran across Stonehenge in England. In fact, Stone discovered that the line ran through the standing megaliths that marked the summer solstice without alteration.
But that wasn't all. Stone also found that the line continued on and went through Beirut, Lebanon, the modern home to what once was the base of the widespread and powerful seafaring empire of the Phoenicians.
Of course, this information got Wolter to surmising that perhaps the Phoenicians had come to America, that they may have had a hand in building one or both of the Stonehenge sites. Coupled with artifacts like the Baal Stone, a flat rock with an inscription written in ancient script dedicating the area to the chief god of the Canaanites (what the Phoenicians called themselves), the forensic geologist felt that further investigation was necessary. So he was off to see an expert on ancient Phoenicia.
Wolter spoke with Professor Mark McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who found the idea of the English and American Stonehenge connection interesting. What was also intriguing to him was the idea that the Phoenicians had visited, even perhaps colonized, America. In a study of ancient Phoenician coinage, he had found the secretive culture had created a millimeter-sized map at the bottom of some of their coins, an impression that seemed to display the Mediterranean Sea. But off to the right, the "western" part of the map, was a large mass as well. McMenamin explained that he believed the mass to be America based on both its positioning (west of the Iberian Peninsula) and the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Sicilus spoke of a land discovered by the Phoenicians west of the Iberian Peninisula that had navigable rivers. Only America fits the description.
Although pieces were starting to form a pattern, they were also tenuous at best. Wolter wanted more connections to test and strengthen the theory that the Phoenicians had actually made it to America and might have had something to do with the construction of Stonehenge. Next stop: Wiltshire, England.
Stonehenge expert and archaeologist Dr. Henry Chapman was skeptical of the connection, noting that many cultures around the world erected structures to mark the solar progression, not to mention aligning buildings and artifacts to either mark or track (or both) stellar patterns and movements. He pointed out that the height of the Phoenicians came nearly a millennium after Stonehenge itself saw its last stone addition, suggesting that they most likely had nothing to do with the English site. However, he admitted that it was entirely possible that the seafarers made their way to America.
Wolter settled on the idea that although it didn't seem as if Phoenicians built the two "Stonehenge" sites, some proto-Phoenician culture did or the Phoenicians just might have been responsible for the sites' upkeep or usage. However, the American Stonehenge is dated at 4000 BC, which predates the height of the Phoenician culture by eight centuries. Stonehenge in Wiltshire has had stones dated from 2100 BC to 3100 BC, far predating the rise of the Phoenicians. So their involvement in the construction of either site appears to be a stretch of even the most imaginative speculation.
But that in no way rules out the idea that the Phoenicians weren't traveling to America and perhaps even trading with indigenous American cultures three thousand years ago. Still, definitive proof has yet to be found to underscore the notion.
"America Unearthed" airs on History 2 Channel on Fridays at 10 p.m. (EST).
(photo credit: J. Miers, Creative Commons)