Recently, an article has been circulating among some Orthodox folks on the Internet on a purported Greek Orthodox church in Connecticut, dating to the 5th century. If the article is accurate, it’s an absolute bombshell — it claims that Orthodox monks from North Africa fled persecution in the late 400s and ended up on the east coast of America. That’s centuries before the Orthodox Vikings traveled to the Western Hemisphere, and even before the legend of St. Brendan the Navigator’s voyage to America. (To read the article, click here.)
According to the article, ruins of the church in Connecticut include an altar, a throne (for a bishop?), a baptismal font, and a “candelabra” — all carved from stone. Also (again according to the author), the site features inscriptions in Greek (such as “ICXC”).
I’m not a historian of the Byzantine Empire or ancient “pre-contact” America; my own focus, as you probably know, is on Orthodoxy in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here at SOCHA, the furthest back we can go with much confidence is the 18th century, thanks to the work of Nicholas Chapman. But the fifth century? That’s way, way out of our comfort zone.
That said, I do think I should say something about this case. What can we determine, simply on the basis of what we non-experts know? Looking first at the article itself, it features some pretty unspectacular photos. (Click here to see them.) Three of them, to be precise:
- A photo of the “Main Altar,” which looks like a rock with lines and holes. It’s not a great shot, and it’s not clear exactly what we’re actually looking at.
- A photo of a “flame-shaped Baptismal Font,” which looks like a hole in the ground.
- A photo of an “Overflowing Fountain” sculpture, which looks kind of cool, but doesn’t scream “Byzantine” to me.
Maybe an expert could look at those photos and see something more, but to me, they’re unconvincing. The article also features several drawings by the author, including a map of the site, a sketch of another baptismal font, and reproductions of the Greek letters. In all of this — the article, the photos, the sketches — we’re being asked to trust the author. The article isn’t peer-reviewed; we’re relying on the credibility of the author and, by extension, the magazine that published the article. So let’s look at the author and the magazine.
The author’s name is John Gallager (no “h”), who claims to be a “historical detective” who used to work at the “American Institute of Archaeological Research” in New Hampshire. The problem? I can’t find anything else on this John Gallager, and the American Institute of Archaeological Research appears not to exist. (If it does, Google doesn’t know anything about it — which seems implausible.)
The magazine is called Ancient American. On its website, the magazine describes itself in this way:
Each issue presents such otherwise neglected and even suppressed factual evidence demonstrating the lasting impact made on the Americas by Scandinavian Norsemen, Pharaonic Egyptians, Bronze Age Mediterraneans, Semitic Phoenicians, West Africans, Dynastic Chinese, seafaring Polynesians, and many other culture- bearers. All contributed to the birth and development of numerous and sophisticated civilizations which flourished throughout the American Continents in pre-Columbian times.
The description goes on,
As such, our staff and contributing reporters believe they are writing a New History of our nation by convincingly offering research that, in the coming century, will amount to virtually a total revision of American antiquity. Because of its revolutionary potential, Ancient American, although authoritatively written, is not a scholarly journal. It is a popular science publication specifically aimed at attracting the broadest possible general readership, while refusing to compromise its scientific credibility.
In general, I’m sympathetic to alternative historical views, including the idea that Old World cultures may have come into contact with Native Americans prior to the arrival of Columbus. The problem is, when you start looking at research on that sort of thing, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff: in addition to legitimate historical and archaeological work, there’s all manner of speculative writings out there — spurious “discoveries,” far-out theories, and crazy Atlantis-esque notions that are more fantasy/science fiction than reality.
So we can’t find any traces of John Gallager, and Ancient American has virtually no credibility. But what about the purported site itself? Gallager’s article says that the “church” is in Cockaponset State Forest, near the town of Guilford in southern Connecticut. So I picked up the phone and called Cockaponset State Forest and spoke with an official there. His response? They’d never heard of such a thing, and thought it was kind of funny.
I’m not a professional scholar myself, and a lot of my work isn’t peer-reviewed (although some of it is). But I always try to be transparent about my sources, and my methodology is available for all to see. John Gallager… well, he (whoever he is) just expects us to take him at his word. But on what grounds? He writes this one-off article in a beyond-fringe publication, disappears, and we’re supposed to just believe him? When no one else has written a single word of original research on this supposed 5th century “church,” and the people at the supposed site have never heard of it? That’s asking too much.
So to be very, very clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that 5th century North African Orthodox monks established a Greek church in what is now Connecticut. As they say on Mythbusters, this myth is BUSTED.