The Epigraphic Society
Born in England, the founder of the Epigraphic Society, Barry Fell, grew up in New Zealand where he had Maori schoolmates and learned their language. He studied French, Greek, Latin, and Gaelic in Edinburgh where he earned his doctorates. During one sabbatical he taught in Copenhagen where he learned Danish and a lot about runic inscriptions. He achieved international acclaim as a marine biologist, including his appointment at Harvard University and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He was well versed in ocean currents and prevailing winds. He
became interested in how certain plants, animals, and people were dispersed
across the seas. During World War II he was sent all over the Pacific as a radar
expert to places where he was able to get first hand
He studied Polynesian petroglyphs off and on most of his life, and found some he decided were script. The prevailing scholarly opinion was that Polynesians had no system of writing prior to Captain Cook, unless one includes the "mnemonic" rongo-rongo script of the Easter Islanders (not then thought to be true writing).
Barry sent papers to numerous Harvard linguists without response. He knew that one does not get published in a new field without some sort of support from those established in it. He decided the best way to advance these investigations would be to form a new organization to publish "occasional" papers. We called ourselves the Polynesian Epigraphic Society that first year, which was a mistake. It made some influential anthropologists and linguists angry. None of them were epigraphers. They did not believe a Polynesian script existed.
Most offended was Kenneth Emory of the University of Hawaii and Bishop Museum. He was gracious in sending both Barry and me huge quantities of printed material to prove that the Polynesians had never had a native script. He wrote each of us many letters. I think I would have liked him personally, but we never met. We did drop "Polynesian" from the name of our society and Barry completely rewrote ESOP volume I. It was his first major publication in the field and he had made a lot of mistakes, as a beginning investigator would. We collated and stapled that issue by hand.
The positive fallout from publicity of the first year was
that Jim Whittall, George Carter and others contacted Barry, introducing him to
many unsolved mysteries regarding petroglyphs and scripts here in the United
States. The public in general also made him aware of anomalies they had
encountered individually and presented him with various possible evidences of
The negative fallout came from parts of academia. Barry and I were both naÔve in not having expected such vehement opposition. I read Robert Gravesí The White Goddess during my first year in college and have reread it several times since. He stated near the beginning that a scholar is "one who may not break bounds under pain of expulsion from the academy of which he is a member." I should have known.
Emory eventually wrote a letter to Barryís department chair at Harvard that might be interpreted as an effort to get him quieted or fired. My president at Bentley College told me that Harvard friends had made him wonder if he should have hired me. Fortunately for our careers our jobs were secure. Neither of us were members of anthropology, archaeology, or language departments and both of us had tenure.
Some academicians made erroneous and ridiculous statements about us, building one hypothesis upon another, and rumor-mongering. One Harvard professor wrote a comedy skit that he presented for several years to the amusement of incoming freshmen. Barry, George, Donal and I were made to play the buffoons. It hurts to see highly educated respected professors make dogmatic and foolish statements that are absolutely wrong, especially when they donít even know what they are talking about.
After I published very specific, irrefutable corrections to many such false statements there were no acknowledgments of error, no apologies. My background includes formal studies in religion, history, philosophy, visual symbols, numismatics, with enough graduate courses in archaeology to complete an MA if they had been so applied óbut I am neither a linguist nor an epigrapher. I can judge some things about epigraphy (such as the accuracy of a recorded rock inscription), but do not involve myself with grammars and dictionaries.
The most prominent epigraphers currently on our Board of Directors are Donal Buchanan in Iberic and Celtic and Richard Nielsen in Norse. Jon Polansky has developed a working knowledge of Ogam and of writing systems used by ancient Israel, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians. Others have similar experience.
Donal, our secretary and until recently our acting treasurer, has done more to keep in touch with people than either Jon or I. He has dealt with a lot of mail óboth e-mail and "snail-mail." He also redesigned our web site. Without his efforts we would have become almost non-functional.
ESOP24. The last issue of ESOP was a good one, but I know many of you have been waiting impatiently for another. It has been a long time and good intentions have gone unfulfilled. Jon Polansky, with Donalís aid, edited the last volume and was designated to edit this one.
Considerable material was gathered for this issue by both Jon and Don. Despite serious health problems, Jon worked hard to complete 24 and, when his health deteriorated even more, Donal stepped in and worked even more closely with Jon. This issue is a result of their close collaboration.
ESOP 25: The Kensington Stone. Richard Nielsen will complete his volume on the Kensington Stone sometime within a year. The issue will be his to edit. Virtually all of it is ready for press now. I am really looking forward to its publication. It should set a scholarly record with new information and insight into the runes and resolve the issue of the famous stoneís authenticity.
ESOP 26: This is planned to be a special publication written and edited by myself. I completed the manuscript and most of the illustrations on my long-intended volume, Before History, several years ago. I decided, however, after retiring from teaching because of a chronic back problem that I should use some of the tens of thousands of color slides I have taken in the past fifty years. There was then no easily affordable way to process them for print. Now that scanning into a computer has become easier, this can be done. In the interim I have decided to change the presentation from a chronological ordering of life and cultural developments to focus entirely on the American past before Columbus. I shall summarize and illustrate perhaps 100 case studies supporting diffusion and evaluate them, adding some completely new material and also treating several frauds.
ESOP 27: For this issue I expect the Board will name a new chief editor: Donal if he is able and willing, or someone else with assistance from Jon and Don. We need to add others to our team to help gather and edit, perhaps Alan Gillespie and Julian Fell, if they are willing to do so. More of a joint effort at this level should add momentum to completing the production of ESOP in a timely manner.
The Epigraphic Society Library: Barry kept in touch with several individuals who contributed approximately $1000 each annually to the work of our Society. Barry used some of this money to buy books that he labeled as belonging to the Society. After his death, the Society purchased his private library dealing with epigraphic and related studies from Renť, his widow. Jon Polansky has overseen the library for ten years in a storage facility near his home and lent a few books to Donal and perhaps others who needed them for their studies. Jonís recent illness, which seemed at one time to threaten death, is a formal reminder that the books need to be listed and the list made available to the Board.
Donal Buchanan has said that he is considering leaving his epigraphic library to the Society, but at present there is no easy way to do so. On a recent visit to my home, he remarked that my library, in some areas, was more extensive than his. I also would like to donate my collection, but not under the present situation. We could be losing valuable material from others that might be donated if we got our library properly cataloged and arranged for a permanent location for it. ISAC has arranged this for Joe Mahanís library with Columbus College. This is an issue we will continue to address.
Finances. Publication of ESOP was a financial woe until I talked with the late Paul Chapman about our needs and he made a very large gift that has been the basis for our putting out better quality volumes with improved illustrations. Jon had thought he could raise grant money for us, but this hasnít happened. We are not a philanthropic society and we need the money we have as working capital if we are to continue publishing. I have insisted with Jon and others that we not overspend, expecting to earn more from our success. This policy has proven wise. No salaries are paid, no honoraria. Donal, Jon, I, and others have contributed thousands of hours to the Society with no other compensation than the satisfaction of the publication. As they say in Academia: We must publish or perish.
Norman Totten, President, The Epigraphic Society
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