Nor, by the way, should we discount the possibility that the Phoenicians discovered America two thousand years before even the Vikings. There are copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, dug by unknown hands a very long time ago; they were discovered by French Jesuits in the seventeenth century. The Jesuits asked the Native Americans about these mines; the Native Americans knew nothing. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a geologist employed by the U.S. government found a detached lump of copper weighing nearly six tons at the bottom of one of these shafts. Who detached it? And, what is even more mysterious, where did the rest of the copper go? Thousands of tons of copper were mined in Michigan, but the Native Americans used copper neither for tools nor for decoration, and in fact very few copper artifacts from antiquity have been found in North America.
The Phoenicians, on the other hand, were avid consumers of copper, as were most inhabitants of the Mediterranean world circa one thousand B.C.E. The Greeks lined the dome of the treasury at Mycenae with copper, and also the treasury at Orchomenus; even the roads leading to these buildings were made of copper, according to Schliemann. Of course Schliemann was a notorious fabulist, who wanted everything he found in the earth to be as wonderful as the legends he’d read as a child; of course the Mycenean copper could have come from somewhere else. And perhaps the mines in Michigan are merely natural fissures; and perhaps that six-ton lump of copper broke itself off from the rock.
I’m not arguing that the mines are Phoenician work, or that the Chinese carried chickens to the New World, necessarily. We have legends about Atlantis, and lands beyond the Western seas, and even about Chinese seafarers, and we want to believe them, because if they are true then we are living in a story after all. Isn’t that what we want, to be living in a story? It seems to me that the real question is, what kind of story do we want to be living in. And here we come back to the Phoenicians and the Chinese. It’s quite possible that the people who argue for their presence before Columbus in the New World are wrong, but the mines and the black chickens don’t fit with the Columbus story either, and where does that leave us? Maybe what we need are new stories, in which not every detail is obliged to fit, or to make sense: stories with rough edges.