Timelines:  A Phoenician Fable


     The island of Corvo in the Azores is one of the most remote places on earth.  To reach it, one flies first to Santa Maria or Terceira, and then, on a very small  plane, to Flores to wait for the weekly mail run by a 20-foot motor launch that is the island's link to the world.  Corvo is the tip of a volcano in the mid-Atlantic ridge and, except for a small area at the south end where a village and port are located, it rises up in sheer cliffs from the sea.  Yet this ten-square-mile speck of land is the focus of a most remarkable story of ancient seafaring, a tale involving a statue and a hoard of Carthaginian coins.  If true, the discovery of Corvo by Carthaginians would surely change our thinking about ancient navigation, for the easiest way to reach Corvo is to sail first to America on the Canary and North Equatorial Currents and then ride the Gulf Stream back to the Azores.

     The roots of this tale can be found in the year 1567, when Damien de Goes, biographer of the sixteenth-century Portuguese kings, reported that a stone statue of a bareheaded man clothed in a Moorish cape and seated on a horse had been found at Corvo. His left arm rested on the horse's mane, while his right arm stretched straight out with the index finger pointing to the west.  King Emmanuel of Portugal (1495-1521) sent for the statue, but those in charge of the project carelessly broke it.  Nonetheless, the heads of the man and horse, and the right arm with the pointed finger are said to have been brought to the king's palace for display.  De Goes added that in 1529 it was noted that the base on which the statue had stood was inscribed.  Wax impressions of the inscriptions were made, but could not be read as the letters were very worn and "almost without form."

     In 1628, Manoel de Faria y Sousa, another Portuguese historian, repeated de Goes's tale.  It might well have died there, but in 1778 Johan Podolyn, a Swede born in Portugal, published a remarkable story.  He claimed that in 1761, he went to Madrid to see Fr. Henrique Flores, a professor of theology and coin collector, who gave him two gold and five bronze coins from Carthage and two bronze coins from Cyrene, in North Africa, dated to ca. 200 B.C.  He claimed that the coins were the remnants of a hoard found in November 1749 in a black pot near the foundation of a destroyed building in Corvo.  Podolyn added to this account a description of the statue of Corvo, citing Faria y Sousa as his source, and discussed the possibility that Carthaginian sailors discovered Corvo, settled there, erected the statue, and left the coins.  He then ventured the opinion that these colonists undertook an expedition "to the west," the statue indicating with its pointed finger where they had gone.

     De Goes's statue and Podolyn's coins generated a literature of their own.  Some accepted the finds as genuine; others rejected the idea of Atlantic voyages by Phoenicians or their successors, the Carthaginians, and offered other explanations:  the statue never existed, or it was just a natural formation; the coins were a hoax, or modern importations to Corvo by Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, or early Portuguese settlers.  Both stories, the statue and the coins, may be rooted in a Phoenician fable that has survived under various guises into our own time.

     In order to guarantee a trade monopoly against the Greeks in particular, the Phoenicians promulgated the myth that the Atlantic was a muddy, impassable sea infested with monsters.  The Phoenicians did not believe this myth themselves - they had colonies up and down the Atlantic seaboard and had circumnavigated Africa by the fifth century B.C.  The Phoenicians and Carthaginians were secretive about their routes, and it served that secrecy to let the world believe that ships could not go beyond the Strait of Gibraltar.  Plato and Aristotle were among those who accepted the myth as fact.

    The name "Pillars of Hercules" for the Strait of Gibraltar may have referred to islands in the strait or to actual pillars in a Phoenician temple at Cadiz.  In either case, they became a boundary; to sail beyond them was to court disaster.  Eventually, the world of the Arab and Persian geographers contained actual pillars with statues on them at the boundaries of the known world.  Ibn Khordadbey (mid-ninth century) said that at the outermost end of the world, off the Spanish coast, there was a warning monument:  a bronze horseman who, with his outstretched arm, indicates that beyond here there is no clear way, and anyone who ventures farther will be swallowed up.  As the known world expanded, geographers placed the statues progressively farther away - even to the east in Yemen and India.  They were always just out of reach of the explorers, just at the border between the real and the mythical.

     The myth of the warning statues found its way from Arab geographers to medieval European cartographers, and in 1367 made its clearest appearance on a map created by the Italian Pizigano brothers.  At the edge of their map, just about where the Azores actually are, is a figure with an outstretched arm, and, next to it, a medallion with an inscription on it.  The inscription is in part unintelligible, but the message is clear:  there is a statue here and navigation beyond it is impossible.  The Piziganos probably placed their warning in the area of the Azores by accident and that chance gave rise to the notion that the statue was in the Azores when the islands were discovered a few years later.  It is likely that a natural rock formation on the north side of Corvo called Ponta do Marco - the boundary marker - came to have its name because early sailors identified it as the actual location of the statue.  When the "edge of the world" disappeared with the discoveries of Columbus the statue had no new unknown land to move to.

     The statue itself was supposed to have been destroyed in the sixteenth century, but the fable lived on.  The next element to be added was first documented by one Captain Boid in 1835.  In discussing the inhabitants of Corvo, he says:  "Amongst other absurdities they state, with the utmost gravity, that to Corvo is owed the discovery of the western world - which, they say, originated through the circumstance of a large projecting promontory on the northwest side of the island, possessing somewhat of the form of a human being, with an outstretched arm towards the west; and this, they have been led to believe, was intended by Providence, to intimate the existence of the new world. Columbus, they say, first interpreted it thus; and was here inspired with the desire to commence his great researches."

     On a visit to Corvo, we discovered that the myth is still alive.  The current version has it that at Ponta do Marco there is (or was) a statue, sometimes described as a statue of the Virgin Mary, pointing toward - of all places - Boston.  The explanation is that Azorians have been longtime emigrants to New England, first to work on the whaling ships (as noted by Herman Melville in "Moby Dick"), later to work in the textile mills.  So over the years the statue has been transformed from a warning of dangers beyond to a sort of magical road sign, used first (according to Podolyn) by the Carthaginians to show that they had gone west, then by Columbus to discover the New World, and finally by Azorians to find work.
    Whatever purpose it has supposedly served, Ponta do Marco is magical.  It can still be reached by anyone willing to brave the Atlantic.  Our first attempt to go there with a local fisherman nearly ended in disaster when a storm came up.  After fighting our way back around the island for hours, we reached port to find the whole town waiting for us.  A second attempt in the (only slightly larger) mail boat was even rougher, but we did manage to see Ponta do Marco.  It rises straight out of the water and its top looks just like built masonry.  In isolation, it might be interpreted as such, but the Azores have many such formations; Ponta do Marco is just a particularly spectacular example.  The local population variously places the statue as being (or having  been) on top of Ponta do Marco or on top of the cliffs behind, which do have a number of rock formations that look like statues. Atilla Aydin, a geologist at Purdue University, suggested that the "built masonry" and the "statues" are normal volcanic and erosional features.

     So, if de Goes's "statue" is not evidence of early voyages, what about the Podolyn coins?  Today it is impossible to say whether they were actually found on Corvo.  If it was a hoax, what was the motive?  To ascertain a motive, we need to know more than we ever will about Podolyn and Flores.  Was it a simple error on their part?  It is possible that the coins were indeed from a place called Corvo - not from the island but from the town of that name located in the tin-bearing region of the Portuguese mainland, a town that may have attracted the Carthaginians as it was within easy reach of their other settlements.  Perhaps either Podolyn or Flores misunderstood where the coins actually came from.  There is no memory on Corvo of the coins.

     Over the years the problem of the Corvo coins has become an important element in any investigation of whether the Americas were discovered in antiquity.  As recently as 1983, B.S.J. Isserlin of Leeds University surveyed part of the island.  On our own trip in 1978, facilitated by Manuel de Sousa d'Oliveira and by the National Institute for the Protection of Historical Landmarks of Portugal, we spent eight days surveying the fields at the southern tip of the island, the only place where there is a landing place and fresh water.  Neither survey found anything that could be dated before the modern age of exploration.

     It is likely that the answer to the question of Corvo has less to do with archaeological proof (like new surveys of Corvo) than with close attention to the nature of the myth.  We believe the story of the statue was just a chance conjunction of an old Phoenician legend, the end of the age of exploration, and natural phenomena.  Further, the statue and the coins are probably not two separate stories but part of one process in which the coins were attached to the myth of the statue by Podolyn.  As we left Corvo we were persuaded that stories of Carthaginian visits were probably nonsense.

    We returned to Flores to start home, and while there we stayed at the French military base.  One of the officers, Francois Valls, told us of an inscription on Flores that no one could read.  Skeptically, we set out the next day and, after a long drive and a difficult trek down a steep wooded hill, found it.  A second's excitement gave way, first to laughter, and then to amazement.  It wasn't a Phoenician inscription, but it was a piece of evidence nevertheless:  "Capt. W.H. Land and 11 men landed May 5, 1873 from Bark Modena of Boston Mass.  Foundered April 22."  Later we learned from William Hunnewell at the Peabody Museum and Lisa Halttunen at Mystic Seaport that the Modena left Sierra Leone for Boston and arrived at Bermuda "leaky" on March 9, 1873.  She was subsequently abandoned just north of Bermuda on April 22, and the crew spent the next 13 days adrift at sea.  Their lifeboat, caught in the Gulf Stream, took then more than 2,000 miles to Flores.

     They commemorated their deliverance with a monument.  If they hadn't, there would be no material evidence of their presence on Flores.  Similarly, Columbus stopped at Santa Maria in the Azores on his first return voyage, but there is no material evidence on that island of his visit.  We know about it only because, like the Modena's crew, he wanted the world to know.  We can hardly expect that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who created the myth of an impassable sea, to have given out stories of lands on the other side of that sea if they made the voyage.

     Is the "statue" of Ponta do Marco evidence of a Carthaginian voyage?  Highly unlikely.  Are the coins evidence?  It is now impossible to say.  Yet explaining away the statue and the coins begs the question:  Could the Carthaginians have reached Corvo or the Americas?  Most scholars now reject the idea, but by the eighth century B.C. at the latest, Phoenician ships were regularly going from Tyre and Sidon to the trading station at Mogador, a distance of more than 2,000 miles.  Sailors who did that were perfectly capable of going farther. Mogador, an island off the coast of Morocco, is located just where the Canary Current starts west, just where the Columbus route to the Americas leaves the African coast.  If the Azores were found in antiquity, shouldn't there be evidence of the fact there?  Not necessarily, as there was no native population with which to trade. Stops for water, like the one Columbus made, would likely have left no trace.  The Atlantic was not a muddy, impassable sea infested with monsters before 1492; scholars who reject even the possibility of Atlantic voyages in antiquity seem to believe the Phoenician myth that it was.

by Patricia M. and Pierre M. Bikai in "Archaeology" (Jan-Feb 1990)