I finally had the chance to get caught up on a two episodes of “Expedition Unknown” with Josh Gates, a television show on the Travel Channel that advertises itself as oriented to archaeology.
I’ve reviewed past episodes of “Expedition Unknown” and, as television archaeology goes, it is a show that I generally enjoy. I think Josh Gates has a pretty good screen presence and that he’s appealing to the an audience that isn’t overly educated on archaeology. His sense of humor is often at the dad-joke level, but it comes across as genuine most of the time. He states during the intro to each episode that he has “a degree in archaeology,” but his overall knowledge of archaeology comes across as very much in the learning stage. But I think that’s okay. Part of this perception might be a mechanism to include the viewer as a discoverer/learner on his journey. If so, I think this works generally well.
The first episode I watched today was the second of the season: “Mysteries of Jesus.”
In this episode, Gates travels to Israel in order to visit three alleged birthplaces of Jesus Christ. There is some mention about using the Gospels as historic guides to determining true accounts of Jesus and other Biblical events and, along with these mentions, are some introduction regarding the accuracy of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. They were, after all, written by anonymous authors decades after the death of Jesus. I could dive deeper into the historicity of the Gospels and what biblical scholars think, but that wasn’t really the point of this show. They only make mention of it so that the idea of three competing locations for the correct place for the birth of Jesus could have a little context.
Gates begins his journey at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was constructed on the site that Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena claimed to have found the true location of Jesus’ death and burial. A location she found more than 300 years after the events. Her original church was destroyed in antiquity, but since rebuilt. The original stone Jesus’ body was laid out along with his tomb is available for visitors to view and even touch.
As usual, the scenery and visual aspects of the show are appealing. As a Travel Channel show, we get many travel-related tidbits along Gates’ journey to follow the path of Helena. One of these, for instance, is the fact that a rental car cannot be driven into the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank, so he has to park and switch to a cab in order to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.
At the Church of the Nativity, Gates views tombs and crypts in the deepest portions of the church, one of which is filled with dozens of skulls and bones that are said to represent the victims of the Massacre of the Innocents. This alleged event is contested by many—perhaps most—scholars since there really isn’t any corroborating evidence. Leaving the bones to be just those like any other crypt of the period. Also, they’re clearly adult bones and the Massacre was supposed to be an execution of all male children 2 years and under.
Gates is shown the alleged location where Jesus was born: the grotto or small cave that the nativity supposedly occurred in, replete with a “star of Bethlehem” on the floor. Culturally modified and embellished over the millennia, the church—assuming the site is genuine—has forever changed the character of what was described in the Gospels themselves. The humble beginnings that are the very essence of what Jesus was supposed to represent are forever gone, replaced by the lavish, overly-adorned and embellished interior of a grandiose “holy place.”
Gates leaves Bethlehem in Jerusalem and meets with archaeologist Aviram Oshri who takes him to… Bethlehem, this one on Galilee, near Nazareth (the home town of Mary and Joseph). First they board a plane and run some LIDAR scans in order to test the hypothesis that there is a wall around this Bethlehem, which is supposed to be present during the Byzantine period at the Bethlehem Jesus was actually born in.
They find a portion of a wall, indicating some need to excavate in order to ground-truth. And they look at that portion of the wall in the field, as well as what’s left of a small cave or grotto where Oshri thinks was the actual birthplace of Jesus. Currently a two-lane, asphalt highway passes through it and the remnants of a 1st century church.
Finally, Gates travels to Nazareth itself and speaks to archaeologist Uzi Dahari at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation where Dahari explains that the story of Jesus traveling to Bethlehem to be born might simply be a way for the early church to shoe-horn the Jesus story into Jewish prophecy and history by associating Jesus with the House of David since King David was from Bethlehem.
The Nazareth portion of this episode is my favorite, however. Not because of the controversial birth location stuff, rather because of the human element that it introduces. As Dahari put it, Jesus spent 90% of his life in this small village and we know next to nothing about it. Gates begins the segment from the inside of a grain silo then climbs a ladder to the interior of a living space and talks about people. Everyday, ordinary people of a small village that archaeologists are uncovering. One of which might have been a kid named Jesus.
Atlantis of the Andes?
The next episode I watched was largely filmed on Lake Titicaca in Bolvia and Peru. The hyperbolic show title aside, it was a very interesting show for the most part. There was one serious locus of disappointment that I’ll mention in a later paragraph.
Gates begins in La Paz, Bolivia, describing the Teleferiqo, a high-altitude, mass-transit system of gondolas created in recent years to help ease the massive grid-lock in the city streets of a capital city that’s already 12,000 feet ASL. He uses a trip on this like one might a subway in order to reach the Museo Nacional de Arqueología where he meets up with archaeologist Alexei Vranich who then gives us an overview of Tiwanaku while walking around the museum.
Gates then heads out to Tiwanaku for the Winter Solstice sunrise along with thousands of other visitors. After which he visits with archaeologist Jose Ignacio Gallegos. Together, they visit the Sun Gate and Gallegos dispels the notion that an elephant or mammoth is depicted on the Sun Gate, which some fringe or pseudoarchaeological writers claim is “proof” that the site is over 11,000 years old.
Together they dig a test pit at an area of interest found with LIDAR and pinpointed with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). What they find might be a portion of a rock-lined canal according to Gallegos. They don’t show it, but I’m assuming there’s a crew off-camera screening the several cubic meters of matrix they removed. I hope that was the case anyway.
But, in light of past episodes where things have the appearance of being staged as finds for the camera, I have to wonder how much of this was already done off-camera then back-filled only to be re-dug with Gates and his brush to move the last bits of dirt. If this is what happened, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, there’s only 60 minutes or so of material they can fit in a single show—so some theatrics has to be expected.
On the other hand, I think showing the meticulous part of archaeology is vital. Audiences need to know that documentation, measurements, careful inspection of the soil matrix, and other steps all come together to create context. These aren’t the exciting parts of archaeology (well.. they are to me most of the time!), but they’re important. And it’s what separates professional archaeologists from simple treasure-hunters. For the former, even small seeds and pollen are as valuable as carved stone.
The Disappointing Part
This episode takes a turn for the worse, however, when Gates meets up with Brien Foerster who takes him to the floating community of the Uros, who construct reed boats and live on man-made, reed islands on Lake Titicaca. The whole idea is to understand how these large stones, weighing as much as 150 tons, were transported 50 miles from the quarry to the temple site at Tiwanaku.
If you’ve read some of my previous articles here at Archaeology Review, you might have noticed some mention of Brien Foerster before today. He calls himself an “author” but this is a dubious claim given that his “books” are largely plagiarized from Internet sources like Wikipedia without any thought of attribution. He passes it all off as if he synthesized the information himself. I would imagine that this is all part of a means at creating an appearance of authority since he leads tours to ancient sites in Peru, Egypt, and elsewhere. In videos of these tours, he can be heard claiming that “ancient people couldn’t possibly…” move stones, carve stones, fit them so closely, etc., and they must, therefore, be older.
The idea he’s capitalizing on is the notion that an older civilization had better technology than the younger one (but now it’s a “lost civilization” so we can’t see it). I say “capitalizing” because I think it’s all about the money. Foerster has his niche and sells mystery and intrigue the way a Seattle fishmonger moves halibut. The two times I’ve noticed he was on “Expedition Unknown”, he seemed to avoid any of his pseudoarchaeological claims, however, and stuck to reality. This would seem to indicate that he might not really believe all of his shtick. Or, maybe he did voice some cray-cray and the “Expedition Unknown” producers were wise enough to cut it from the final edit.
Atlantis at Last?
The last segment of this episode shows Gates exploring an underwater site in Lake Titicaca with archaeologist Marcial Medina Huanca. After Huanca’s recent discovery of a previously unknown temple location on the coast of the lake, he and Gates begin a sonar survey of the lake-bottom near the temple, looking for more ruins from a period when the lake was lower. Again, I suspect much of the work was done off-camera in days prior to Gates’ arrival, then re-enacted for the viewers.
They find some interesting formations, dive on them, show some rocks that might be a wall or foundation of a structure. Or they could be a natural formation. Honestly, the video was inconclusive, though it may have been more obvious to someone diving on the site. There’s no good reason to think there aren’t some underwater sites in Lake Titicaca but, of course, the show is titled “Atlantis of the Andes” so there needs to be some hype!
Prior to diving with Marcial Medina Huanca, Gates describes the legend that there is a “sunken city” in the lake that people remember seeing the tops of; has lots of gold; etc. In the words of Johan Reinhard, “legends about the lake abound. Among them are several which describe underwater cities, roads and treasures” (Reinhard 1992). Reinhard goes on to describe underwater expeditions in the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s. Many of which claimed to have discovered an “underwater city.” but none ever panned out. There were certainly artifacts discovered, many of which were off the coast of Isla del Sol and Koa Island which included small andesite boxes of Inca origin that were probably intentionally lowered to an underwater ridge, perhaps as a means of worship.
This episode’s title was clearly designed to appeal to the mystery and legend of Plato’s Atlantis. There was no discussion of super-civilizations or a city sinking during a cataclysm in the way the Atlantis myth portrays. I understand the temptation to create hype in a headline or show title—I occasionally do it on this blog though often with tongue-in-cheek. But the inclusion of “Atlantis” in the title perpetuates the notion that this story of Plato’s was to be taken seriously—a notion begun by Ignatius Donnelly with his publication of Atlantis: the Antediluvian World in 1882. This book ended up being a huge influence on many of the modern pseudoarchaeological works of authors like von Däniken, Hancock, Foerster, and television shows like “Ancient Aliens.”
I think Josh Gates would do well to distance himself from purveyors of crazy like Brien Foerster and to trust his viewers to be savvy enough to find appealing titles like “Tiwanaku and the World’s Highest Navigable Lake” or even “Highest Underwater Temples in the World.” These entice without being disingenuous.
Further Reading and References:
Reinhard, Johan (1992). “Underwater Archaeological Research in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.” In Contributions to New World Archaeology, ed. Nicholas Saunders, pp. 117–143. Oxbow Books, Oxford.