The Kennedys, Fitzgeralds and O'Neills did not, after all, beat the Mathers, Lowells and Cabots to Boston. Professor Barry Fell of Harvard has written a Celtic fairy tale in his "America B.C.," a book arguing that Celts settled in New England a thousand years before Christ. His evidence is as fanciful as the leprechauns' crock of gold.
This, at least, is the firm assertion of two British archeologists who are about to publish their findings on the Fell thesis here.
The Harvard scholar, a marine biologist by trade, caused a stir last year with his claim that stone markings and primitive stone huts proved that the Celts arrived in America when the ancestors of Columbus were running around Tuscany in animal skins.
This theory has come under brisk attack from Anne Ross, a Celt herself and an archeologist at Southampton University and Peter Reynolds, director of the Butser Ancient Farm Project in Hampshire. They accuse Fell of inadvertently misreading, destroying and suppressing evidence.
The Harvard professor relied heavily on scratches in stones he said were "ogams" or "proto-ogams." Ogam is an Irish word for the first Celtic alphabet. It is based on Latin and, was in import from Britain.
The trouble is that "ogam" is a 4th century A.D. alphabet and would have been unknown a thousand years before Christ. Even worse, according to Ross and Reynolds, Fell has "translated" his Vermont stone markings into modern Scottish Gaelic, compounding confusion.
An early American Celt would have written - if he could - in an Iberian, Libyan, Punic or Egyptian dialect, the British authorities observe.
In addition, they charge, Fell only displays stones that fit his theory and does not discuss markings that do not. He also has made latex molds of his stones, which they say wears down surfaces and destroys any chance of microscopic or chemical analysis.
The chances are, the British pair concludes, that Fell's "ogams" are nothing more than scratches caused by the plows of colonial farmers, glaciation, erosion, the trails of organisms, glacial scouring or natural cracking.
Ross and Reynolds are equally scathing about Fell's other great find, primitive stone huts shaped like beehives and scattered around the Connecticut Valley. There are just so many ways in which materials like these can be used for a structure. Similar beehives are found in France today. Fell, says Ross, has not come up with any artifacts inside his New England beehives that suggest they are ancient.
It is more likely, she thinks, that these, too, were built by colonial farmers to store apples and root crops. They may also have been used as tombs in the harsh Vermont winter until the thaw enabled farmers to dig graves.
Fell also suggests that the structures were used by early American Celts to make solar observations. But he has not found the sockets or holes that held the stones, essential for placing them upright to determine whether they were astronomical tools.
Ross concedes that the technology of Iron-Age Celts was advanced enough to make an Atlantic passage possible. However, she and Reynolds conclude:
"The 'evidence' for Celtic settlements and writings in "America B.C." as it has been presented to date is totally negative. It may well be that once the necessary preliminary scientific field work in this absorbing and vitally important subject has been carried out, it will be really possible to turn the 'fanciful' "America B.C." into a perfectly valid reality, but this must await the conclusions of an objective, competent scientific program of valid research."
The three combatants will have a chance to slug it out toe to toe, megalith to megalith, next week in Toronto. Fell, Ross and Reynolds are all to appear during celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the University of Toronto.