Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Bourne Stone - Bourne, Ma

The Bourne Stone - Summer 2012
I first became interested in the Bourne Stone years ago, when I learned that no one really knew who made it or what its writing meant. It was one of the first real unsolved New England mysteries that caught my attention. This was before I realized there were literally thousands of unsolved New England mysteries. Still, the Bourne Stone is unique, if not frustrating. As I learned when I began researching the stone’s history, everyone seems to find a place for the Bourne Stone to fit within their particular view of the discovery and colonization of the New World. What is left are a lot of theories, but very few verifiable facts.

What researchers really know about the stone is very basic and does not extend too far into the historic record. The stone, which currently resides at the Jonathan Bourne Historical Society, is a 300 pound block of granite. What makes this block stand out from others are the strange characters carved into it. According to the Bourne Historical Society, the stone was originally used as a doorstep to one of the Indian Meetinghouses established by Thomas Tupper, an early resident and missionary of Sandwich.

It was originally difficult to nail down exactly which Indian Meetinghouse the stone was supposedly first placed at, as references to it do not often appear in historic writing. In addition, according to information provided by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, there were several Indian meetinghouses erected in Bourne. The first church created for the natives was established in 1675 by Thomas Tupper and Richard Bourne near Burrying Hill in Bournedale. A plaque was created to commemorate the area where this initial church stood. The wife and I saw this plaque when investigating Chamber Rock. This building, however, did not apparently contain the Bourne Stone.

The plaque at Burying Hill

The second Indian Meetinghouse was built in 1688 by a carpenter named Edward Milton. The construction of the meetinghouse was funded by Judge Samuel Sewall, who would later become infamous for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials between 1692 and 1693.

According to Sewall’s Letter-Book, Judge Sewall had appointed Thomas Tupper to oversee the construction of this meetinghouse a year earlier. Sewall’s letters certainly describe how the meetinghouse was built, but definitely make no reference to the presence of a mysterious stone being added to the doorstep of the church building. Still, it was at this location, according to RA Lovell in Sandwich: A Cape Cod Town, where the Bourne Stone was eventually found. This second meetinghouse was located near a traditional Wampanoag cemetery, on the southern edge of Great Herring Pond. The cemetery in Bourndale was easy enough to find and visit, however I could not see any trace of the foundation of the second meetinghouse.

Map showing Indian Meetinghouse - Sandwich: a Cape Cod Town

Old Indian Burial Ground- Bourndale 2012
The Second Meetinghouse was built near this cemetery

I can’t seem to find any written native or colonial reactions to the stone or its writing. However, popular folklore indicates that the writing on the Bourne Stone was initially placed face down to prevent the local natives from panicking when they saw it. Though I can’t source this information, I still found the story interesting. However, just as many sources seem to indicate that the writing on the stone only appeared after its use as a doorstep.

As to the fate of the Second Indian Meetinghouse, Lovell relates the local folklore, which states that it was eventually infested with blacksnakes (somewhat disgusting). The building was moved to the eastern shore of the Great Herring Pond. After the removal of the church, the stone seems to have been moved a short distance to the residence of a Herring Pond Wampanoag named Andrew Jackson. However, some sources state this home was built on the foundation of the meetinghouse. Regardless, this home burned down in 1932. When the property was sold to someone outside the family and tribe, the stone was donated to the newly created Aptuxet Trading Post Museum for future preservation and study. By this time, the writing on the face of the giant block was well known, but all memory or record of its original purpose upon creation had been lost. As of now, it can be viewed at the Jonathan Bourne Historical Center.

Certainly, since its removal to the museum, people have wondered and guessed at the meaning of the writing covering the surface of the stone. Some have claimed the writing was of native origin, many thought it was left by Norse explorers, some have claimed it was Celtic, and still others have gone to great pains to prove that the writing was left by Carthaginian explorers to New England.

Perhaps the most accepted and well recognized explanation for the Bourne Stone attributes the strange writing to the Norse explorers, including Leif Erikson, who might have reached as far south as Cape Cod in 1000 AD. According to the Cape Cod Times, Frederick Pohl and Norse runic expert Olaf Strandwold examined the stone’s writing. Strandwold believed the markings were in fact runic and could be translated as, "Jesus amply provides for us here in Heaven." Pohl, however, also admitted that translations may vary.

Although the Norse theory is perhaps the most well spread, when researching the Bourne Stone, two names and two additional theories continued to pop up again and again. In fact, when looking into the Bourne Stone, it would seem impossible not to encounter the theories and writing of Edmund B. Delabarre and Barry Fells. Both men investigated the writing on the stone and believed they had conclusively teased out their origins, though neither of them believed the Norse created the writing.

Chronologically, Delabarre began researching the Bourne Stone first. Edmund Delabarre was a professor of psychology from Brown University. He focused on the fields of shape perception and the mental processes related to involuntary movements. Although neither a historian nor an archeologist, Delabarre intensely studied both Dighton Rock and the Bourne Stone. He presented most of his theories concerning these two New England curiosities between 1919 and 1940.

Edmund B. Delabarre

Delabarre outlined his theories in at least two articles. One, he wrote for Old Time New England magazine, entitled The Indian Petroglyph at the Aptuxet Trading Post in Bourne, Massachusetts. The second article he wrote for the Rhode Island Historical Commission, it is titled Miguel Corte-Real: The First European to Enter the Narragansett Bay. Both pieces were written in 1936, very soon after the Bourne Stone was donated to the Aptuxet Museum.

As the title of one of Delabarre’s papers suggests, he believed that the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real accidently began exploring New England between 1502 and 1511. Most historians agree that Corte-Real had been on mission to find his brother Gasper, who had never returned from a previous expedition to the New World. Like his brother Gasper, Miguel was never heard from again. Most believe he and his crew were lost somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean or along the coast of Newfoundland.

However, Delabarre theorized that Corte-Real entered the Narragansett Bay after sailing south in search of his brother. From there he entered the Taunton River and finally ended his voyage (perhaps shipwrecked) at Assonet Neck in Freetown, Massachusetts. Delabarre believed that Dighton Rock, which once sat beside the Taunton River, bears the name of Corte-Real as evidence of his presence in New England. Not only did the Portuguese explorer carved his name into Dighton Rock, but Delabarre insisted Corte-Real also included the year 1511, the coat-of-arms of the Portuguese king, and a message in Latin which explained that he had become king or Sachem of the local natives.

Dighton Rock

Delabarre further explained that the Portuguese sailors with Corte-Real may have intermarried and fathered children with women of the Wampanoags. He used the writings of the Italian explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano as further evidence to support his case. According to Verrazzano’s Voyage Along the Atlantic Coast of North America, 1524, Verrazzano explored the Narragansett Bay in 1524, eventually encountering the Rhode Island Wampanoags several years after Corte-Real's theoretical landing. Verrazzano wrote:
"This is the most beautiful people and the most civilized in customs that we have found in this navigation. They excel us in size; they are of bronze color, some inclining more toward whiteness, others to tawny color; the face sharply cut, the hair long and black, upon which they bestow the greatest study in adorning it; the eyes black and alert, the bearing kind and gentle."
Hence, Delabarre believed that Verrazzano had encountered the descendants of Corte-Real’s crew. He made the case that the inclusion of Portuguese DNA might have created this inclination toward lighter skin and also a resistance toward European diseases as well. In fact Delabarre poses that the name Wampanoag might have actually meant "White People," rather than "Eastern People," as most believe it does today.

Furthermore, though most historians agree that the Wampanoags had no written language until very recently, Delabarre suggested that they were developing an ideographic written language at about the same time that Metacomet was Sachem (1662 – 1676). Delabarre used the Bourne Stone and other unexplained petroglyphs as evidence of this language. In examining the Bourne Stone, Delabarre first guessed that one of the symbols on the stone represented a white man and a native shaking hands (figures 1 and 2 in the below graphic). He compared the symbol to similar ones seen on William Penn’s Wampum belt (figure 8) and on Dighton Rock (figure 7).
From Miguel Corte-Real- Edmund Delabarre
Figures 1+2 from the Bourne Stone
Figure 7 from Dighton Rock
Figure 8 from Penn's wampum belt
Delabarre believed they are represented a native and a white man

Penn's actual wampum belt
Although Delabarre did not offer a full translation of the Bourne Stone, he believed he had found meanings for several symbols included on Dighton Rock, the Bourne Stone, and a third Bannserstone found in Warren, Ma. According to the above graphic he created for the Rhode Island Historical Commission, symbol 3 represents a Sachem, symbol 4 represents the idea of "white," symbol 5 represents a people or a tribe, and symbol 6 represents Metacomet or King Philip, as Delabarre believed it closely resembled Metacomet's own signature.

Of course, these symbols do not all appear on the Bourne Stone and do not offer a means of understanding what might be written there. In addition, the legends of lost European tribes in the New World are numerous and often nothing more than myth. Futhermore, in 1971, Samuel Elliot Morrison dismissed Delabbare’s evidence in his book The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages. Still, Delabarre’s ideas offered some of the first explanations for the mysterious writing present on the Bourne Stone. However, his theory is definitely not the only one.

In 1976, a marine biologist employed by Harvard University began making waves in the world of accepted history and archaeology by claiming in his book America B.C. that Europeans, Carthaginians, and Phoenicians had made pre-Columbian contact with the New World. The Bourne Stone was among the many sites and curiosities which Fell examined. In addition, Fell believed he could offer a full translation of the stone's script.
Howard Barraclough "Barry" Fell
According to a 1975 article in the Springfield Union, Fell was invited to examine the Bourne Stone by James Whittail of the Early Sites Research Society. Fell worked all night in an attempt to translate the writing on the stone, and by morning offered a solution to the mystery of the stone's writing.

Fell explained that the writing on the Bourne Stone was an example of a variation in the Punic alphabet of Carthage which Fell claimed was used in the ancient Iberian Peninsula. Fell coined the term "Iberic" for the script. According to Fell the inscription on the face of the Bourne Stone reads, "Proclamation of annexation. Do not deface. By this Hanno takes possession."
An example of Punic writing for comparison
Fell believed the Hanno to which the stone referred was the Carthaginian King Hanno the Navigator, who was sent by the city of Carthage around 500 BC to explore the northwestern coast of Africa.

The only account of Hanno’s exploration comes from a Greek translation of a tablet Hanno deposited in the temple of Ba’al upon his return to Carthage. The tablet is known by the overly full title of The Voyage of Hanno, commander of the Carthaginians, round the parts of Libya beyond the Pillars of Heracles, which he deposited in the Temple of Kronos. The Greeks equated the Carthaginian Ba’al with their god Kronos.

Of course, the Greek translation did not provide any insight into Hanno’s visit to the New World. However, Fell believed that Hanno made a second voyage to the New World for which the Greek record, if it ever existed, was lost. In addition to the Bourne Stone, Fell believed the Carthaginians left their Iberic script in several other places in New England, including Mystery Hill in New Hampshire, and Dighton Rock.

However, few professional academics agreed with Fell’s description of the Bourne Stone. Anthropologists and archaeologists accused Fell of being amateurish and unconvincing. Some have even concluded that his later work relating to the Celtic language Ogham might have been outright fraud. However, others have recognized that Fell’s contributions to archaeology and linguistics might have at least brought needed attention to some of the unexplained curiosities which might suggest pre-Columbian European contact with the New World.

Furthermore, the Bourne Stone was most recently studied in 2004. In Collaboration In Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendant Communities, Larry J. Zimmerman explained his own theory concerning the Bourne Stone. Zimmerman invited Norse runic expert Michael Barnes to examine the stone’s writing. According to Zimmerman, Barnes believed the writing was definitely not runic. This, of course, contradicted the previous theory of Olaf Strandwold. In addition, Zimmerman and archaeologist Patricia Emerson believed that the writing looked more like Native American petroglyphs or even natural markings. Although, they did not offer an explanation for what message the Bourne Stone was meant to convey. Neither did they support the theories of Fell or Delabarre.

After examining the available research related to the Bourne Stone, I have gained a greater appreciation for the potential for new discoveries related to pre-Columbian New England. Of course, I still do not know for certain what the writing on its face actually says, if it says anything at all. I don’t know that further study would give us the answer either, as everyone tends to interpret the characters so differently. Again, sometimes history is hard.

However, as most of the theorists have guessed, I would also pose that the writing on the Bourne Stone is connected to other unexplained New England sites like Mystery Hill and Dighton Rock. In addition, although I am uncertain if an ancient Carthaginian visited our neck of the woods, I do believe that we are just beginning to tease out the lines between legend and reality when it comes to the history of New England before the arrival of fifteenth century Europeans. As we begin to learn more, and as technology begins to fill in where traditional history and archaeology leave gaps, I think what we uncover will astound us and completely rewrite what we know about the people and the supposed discovery of North and South America.


  1. Barry Fell got it right. Celtic - Phoenician writings. Tom Azzara (My own name came to be given to me via the Latins near Romans (who invented the Latin letters we use today)- but AZZARA came from an earlier alphabet of the the Phoenician according to a Vatican website (see/from Mazzara in Sicily - 900 BC).Mazzara was spelled Mazar (in Phoenician alphabet - similar to Bourne stone)

    1. I think most historians believe that North and South America were visited by people of the Old World even pre-Viking. I know the Pheonecians traded at least as far west as Ireland. Its hard to believe, having gone so far, they would not island hop continually west. I don't know if the Bourne Stone shows "Iberic" writing. There is no record, surviving at least, proving that Hanno made it to New England. I think we need more evidence to support any conclusion.

  2. Hi, My son is doing a project on Bourne for school and I have been in search of a picture of the Bourne Stone for his project. I was unable to get a picture in person when we went to bourne ourselves because the Museum has not opened for the season yet. I was wondering if I could use your picture from this article? Thank you...

    1. Yes, your son can use my picture, though I am not much of a photographer. Thanks for taking a look at the article.

  3. Hi, an interesting read on a fascinating subject. In addition to the mysterious Bourne Stone, there is another inscribed stone in eastern MA that is similar in some ways. Barry Fell and James Whittall investigated both in the mid 1970's, and Fell claimed both were Phoenician in origin. It is the Mill River Stone located in Weymouth, MA. Perhaps you have heard of it?

    1. Thanks for reading. I had a great time doing this research and really learned a lot. I had never actually heard of the Mill River Stone, but I am definitely curious and would love to go take a look at it this summer.

  4. Can anyone give directions to the Mill River Stone in Weymouth?

  5. I have been finding cobbles in Sandwich Ma. with 3, 5 and 7 etched albeit a bit faded and wondered too if the 5 which seems to be on every rock I've found,represented a group or tribe which lived in the area.There also seems to be an abundance of carved stone hearts,well worn.

  6. The Mill River inscription is located in some woods not far from the South Shore Hospital. You have to cross a private yard to see it. The homeowner seemed quite nice but I imagine that he doesn't want tons of people knocking at his door every other day.

  7. comment on European visitors to America. A few years ago I read the book "The World According to the Basks." They also claim voyages to the area, mostly to fish and trade. Also for more Native Carvings you may have heard of the Bellows Falls Vt glyphs. R.P.Mason

  8. You are witnessing a strong case of PARADIGM vs something punched in stone. The 17th century English advocated the PRISTINE WILDERNESS paradigm, so they would not have to explain the Catholics that spoke Norse, who were stanting on the shore. We ALL were taught that paradigm. Anything which violates the paradigm is automatically "controversial." Controversial topics do NOT get printed in school textbooks so the kids see NO evidence that the PRISTINE wilderness is NOT a paradigm, but a myth. The POWER of the PRISTINE WILDERNESS paradigm is that something punched in stone is known only to a few people, who do not write test books.

  9. HI, I'm working on a project to document all the inscriptions and petroglyphs in New England via 3D modeling. You can see my expedition on NatGeo's Open Explorer.

    I know the general location of the Mill River Inscription, not close enough to make the trip to look for it yet. Could someone help me locate it and get access, so I can do the photos for the 3D model. The model might reveal new details that would not be seen under normal conditions.