By Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian
In 1982, archeologist Dr. Robert Pyle investigated a petroglyph, or rock carving, in Wyoming County, West Virginia. Many such carvings exist whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but Pyle thought this one unique for the carving looked like early runic writing. He lychen-dated it as having been carved between 500 and 700 AD. He recorded every detail of the carving in 18 separate visits, and gave the story to a local newspaper. A reader clipped the article and sent it to the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce which published it in their periodical: Wonderful West Virginia. A copy of the magazine was sent to Ida Jane Gallagher – a native West Virginian working as a free-lance writer in Connecticut. She saw a similarity between the carving and one she had photographed in New England, and she contacted the editor for more information. She was invited to visit the petroglyph. In November 1982, Robert Pyle led her up a steep bank to a rock ledge, where Ms Gallagher took her first look at the 10-foot long inscription carved on a recessed portion of the cliff face beneath a natural rock overhang. She was convinced that it was a major find, and contacted Harvard Professor Barry Fell, an expert on ancient epigraphic inscriptions and President of the International Epigraphic Society. When Dr. Fell saw the carving he recognized it as Ogham — an ancient Celtic script he had studied in Ireland. He agreed to a translation.
He translated the Ogham into Old Irish, from Old Irish into modern Irish and then into English. When the message was deciphered, it became obvious that its validity would be easy to confirm. It read,
A ray will graze the notch on the left side, at the time of sunrise on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ, behold he is born of Mary, a woman.
It was decided to verify the accuracy of the translation by visiting the carving in December. In ancient times, Christmas was celebrated around the Winter Solstice, so a small group met at the petroglyph on the night of December 21, 1982. Quietly they waited as the dawn sun climbed behind them to a height where it spilled over the mountains and streamed its rays toward the cliff face before them.
They watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight funneled through a previously unnoticed notch in the cliff overhang, and like a flashlight beam, struck the dead center of a sun symbol at the left end of the panel. Since the sun rises in a slightly different spot each morning, its rays directly hit that sun spot at no other time of the year.
Transfixed, they watched the beam expand as the sun rose, pushing the shadow from left to right, slowly bathing the entire message in sunlight like a prehistoric neon sign announcing yet another Christmas as it had done for centuries.
Before their eyes, they had received a Christmas message across the ages. Here was a message that was definitely Christian, carved in the 6th century and carved in Ogham — a cipher used at that time only by the Irish!
Shortly after publishing their remarkable find, the investigative team learned of another petroglyph at Horse Creek in nearby Boone County. This one was larger than the first. Dr. Fell called it a sensational find. He believed it to be the world’s longest Ogham message and dated it between the 6th and 8th century. This 3-line message, when deciphered, read, A happy season is Christmas, a time of joy and goodwill to all people. The second line read; A virgin was with child; God ordained her to conceive and be fruitful. Behold a miracle. The third line read, She gave birth to a son in a cave. The name of the cave was the Cave of Bethlehem. His foster father gave him the name Jesus, the Christ, Alpha and Omega. Festive season of prayer.
We may never know the names of those who carved these messages, but their existence provides important proof of an old claim. It has long been known that in the sixth century, Irish monks sailed to distant lands to spread the gospel, and a monk named Brendan wrote of his travels to North America, but the lack of hard evidence made skeptics call his story legend. In 1977, author Timothy Severin duplicated St Brendan’s voyage in a leather-covered curragh (Irish sailing boat) built to Brendan’s specifications just to prove that it could have been done. Yet, still the skeptics argued that possibility and probability are not proof. Today, the West Virginia petroglyphs provide irrefutable evidence of religious messages, left on these shores between 500 and 800 AD, by Irish Christian missionaries. And each year, at yule tide, the rising sun places a fresh stamp of authenticity on America’s first Christmas Cards.
Years after I had written the story of the Wyoming County Petroglyphs, I continued to follow the progress of Dr. Pyle and his team of archeologists. Soon, the story of the American Ogham Stones brought more and more similar carvings to their attention. Dr. Pyle even visited Ireland to examine examples of Ogham in its native environment. As I continued to occasionally document the discoveries, I received a number of photos of a strikingly similar petroglyph – from a friend in County Kerry, Ireland. They were taken near the exact area from which St. Brendan and his monks had sailed. The petroglyph is atop Cahir Mountain outside of Kenmare in Lauragh Parish. Like so many historical artifacts and relics of antiquity in Ireland, locals knew of its existence and referred to it as Cnoc na Scroibh (the Hill of the Writing), but had long ago forgotten its significance. These photos fit into my research like the pieces of an ancient jig-saw puzzle; I stared at them for hours. To the best of my knowledge, they have not been translated or if they have, the translation is not readily available. I profusely thanked the photographer, but when I asked him if he intended to return to shoot any more pictures, he informed me that since it took more than an hour of hard climbing to get to the petroglyph, if I wanted any more pictures, I would have to take them myself!
Since the discoveries of the Wyoming and Boone County petroglyphs, 11 more nearby carvings in West Virginia have been identified as Ogham and are presently under investigation. They fall at varying distances apart on both sides of an ancient natural mountaintop trail created by wind and weather, called Indian Ridge. The trail was used by early natives and animals stretching from Pennsylvania to the Ohio River which was another major travel artery in ancient times.
We know that early Irish missionary monks took to the sea to spread their nets for God, but we know neither how many nor how far they ventured on their mission. The work of the Irish monks who sailed east to Europe is well documented, but how many went west or south ? Judging by the complexity and number of petroglyphs in West Virginia alone, there must have been an armada headed for America. Celtic scholars have declared the West Virginia petroglyphs as important to Celtic history as the Dead Sea Scrolls, yet who has heard of them? And why not!
Happy Christmas brothers and rejoice in the fact that we have the heritage we do. And don’t forget that on December 21, the lights go on again in Newgrange – and that’s another story!