Review of Expedition Unknown, the Butch Cassidy Episode

I generally like Expedition Unknown. I know there are some archaeologists who don’t, but I generally think that Josh Gates brings an overall fair look at the archaeological claims he brings his camera to. And, being a Travel Channel show, Expedition Unknown visits some of the most scenic and fascinating places in the world. Even though he’s had pseudoarchaeologist Bob Cornuke and “giantologist” Jim Vieira on the show already this season, he still seems to remain relatively balanced. For instance, while looking for evidence of Vikings in North America, he quickly glossed over a few claims with a well-deserved “yep, that one’s debunked” or “that one can’t be true because…” and focused on the one claim I actually found interesting though still not entirely convincing. That also happened to be the claim he brought Vieira along with: a stone on Nomans Island in Massachusetts that is alleged to have runic markings.

Okay, that’s not the episode I want to review. The latest episode is titled “Butch Cassidy’s Lost Loot” and it begins with a reenactment of the Wilcox Train Robbery on Jun 2, 1899—earning Cassidy and the Wild Bunch a great deal of notoriety. Enough so, that Cassidy would flee to South America in just under two more years, along with his friend Harry Longabaugh (a.k.a. the Sundance Kid).

Josh Gates makes his way to Telluride, Colorado where Cassidy robbed his first bank, follows “the trail” to Brown’s Park, Colorado where he does a little metal detecting while a fellow named Merlin dowses for gold. They find beer cans and a rim-fire shell-casing from what appeared to be a .44 caliber Winchester. Hard to say without exact measurements though. Merlin didn’t seem to actually find anything, in case you were wondering.

After poking around in the very scenic northern parts of Colorado and Utah, Gates moves on to Nevada, where he meets up with a dune-buggy-operator-slash-historian who takes him on a ride to an old mining town where a recently deceased senior citizen claimed to have lived with Butch Cassidy until he died of pneumonia. This would have been after 1908 when he and Sundance “thought for a minute there” that the Bolivian Army would be trouble! Josie Basset, who owned a ranch in Browns Park (look her up for a fascinating story by itself!) claimed that he died there in Johnnie, Nevada, years after he was supposed to have been killed in Bolivia.

So the historian-with-the-dune-buggy shows Josh where the grave is supposed to be. They have a contractor show up with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), which they run along the ridge line, looking for the tell-tale parabolas of below-surface changes in soil density consistent with graves. They hit one right where expected. Josh outlines it in red spray paint, and the historian announces that they have “permission to dig.” Hey, private property so it’s their deal. I actually wasn’t too worried because this is the part of the show where Josh usually comes up bust and everybody shakes hands and reflect on how much fun it was to visit all those places, meeting all those people, etc.

Still, I couldn’t help being a little appalled. Josh, you have “a degree in archaeology” which you point out at the beginning of each show. Banging away with pick axes is not the way to excavate a grave! A north-south trench (assuming the grave is east-west) taken down a few centimeters at a time would be much more appropriate. It’ll give you an opportunity to see if you have soil changes consistent with a grave shaft. But did I expect them to find anything?

They suddenly stop. Josh announces a piece of bone is found! And, oh… look. There’s some more!

And here’s where I get really critical. And ask “WTF?”

Let me show you what I’m talking about. In the screen captures below, you can see one of them pointing at bones. The person with the pointy finger is careful to point out three bones. One of them is the bone chip that Josh first picked up along with what looks like a long bone broken on one end and some sort of articulating surface on the other. Put a pin in this one, because I’m coming back to it in a moment.

Screen captures of the Travel Channel in accordance with fair use. These images show a GPR in use, the digging of the suspected grave, then finding what appears to be bone.The dune-buggy-driver, a.k.a. historian proclaims that because they have bones, all work must stop and the authorities have to be called. Next on the scene is a forensic anthropologist. They ask if she can identify the bones as human and she replies with… wait for it… “not on this small of a fragment I can’t.”

What!? Did Josh not show here the big, honkin’ bone in the screen captures? I’m at home, and don’t work as a forensic anthropologist, and even I can identify it as non-human. In the next screen shot, we see her take Josh’s suggestion to “tag it and bag it” except she doesn’t seem to grab the large broken bone with the articulating epiphysis.

Screen captures of the Travel Channel in accordance with fair use. First image shows what appears to be a humerus from a chicken. The second is the forensic anthropologist collecting a couple small chips.

Here’s what I think happened. They actually found a few bone fragments. But it was hard for the camera to see. So some chucklehead thought up the brilliant idea to toss a couple larger, whiter bones in the hole for effect. Who would know, right?

I did. Not only could I tell it wasn’t a human bone (even though i said “large” it really isn’t as large as the human analogy of its type). It looks very much like a humerus because of the curvature and the apparent epicondyle and trochlea at the end. This is where the bone would articulate with the ulna and radius. But it isn’t human. Look at the man’s finger again. It’s not much bigger. You know what creature has a humerus that size? My guess is we’re looking at the broken end of a humerus belonging to Gallus gallus.

Somebody had hot wings for lunch a couple years ago and threw the bones on the ground where they bleached out in the sun. It was put in the hole for the camera, removed before the forensic anthropologist arrived, and she collected the small, less bleached bits that weren’t so camera friendly. Or maybe she saw them, said “that chicken bone isn’t human” and then Josh asked her about the other chips. Or maybe the producers filmed the whole chicken bone scene after she left in whole different hole!

Regardless, that chicken bone ain’t part of Butch Cassidy.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Expedition Unknown and will certainly continue to recommend it. I think, overall, it’s been a good venue for showing some archaeology and history to the public. I don’t always agree with all points of the show or the methods, but it’s a damn sight better than the pseudoarchaeology Scott Wolter promoted on America Unearthed, the utter nonsense of Ancient Aliens, or the never-ending-saga of Oak Island. And the show highlights the sights and cultures of far away places that most people will never have the opportunity to visit.

And if the experiences of other archaeologists and scientists with reality or “investigative” television is any guide, then I’m sure the forensic anthropologist they had on the scene contributed much more than the producers put in the final cut. In fact, I would not be surprised at all if she was even taken out of context with her assessment. Kudos for her, though, for going on television as an expert. We need MORE exposure to the archaeological sciences so the public can see what it is we really do.

Josh did locate a blood relative of Butch Cassidy and obtained a DNA sample. But, alas, it was not a match for the bone in the hole they dug.

They didn’t say, however, if it was because the bone was from Wing Stop.



About Carl Feagans 348 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

1 Comment

  1. Sorry but I can’t stand that Josh is teaching people that a scientific expedition consists of a narrator and camera crew spending as much as 48 hours ‘searching’ for something that is gnerally already known to be where they’re ‘searching’.

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