Review of Scott Wolter’s Pseudoarchaeology Show-Vikings in AZ

Viking Ship
From the excavation of the Gokstad viking ship at the farm Gokstad in Sandefjord, Norway *Photographed in ~1880, PD

Scott Wolter’s “America Unearthed” is moved to the Travel Channel. The first episode about Vikings in Arizona is reviewed

Jason Colavito already reviewed Wolter’s returning show, so initially I wasn’t going to do it. But then I accidentally watched the show.

Yes, I slipped on the banana peel of pseudoarchaeology and fell through the looking glass of another mystery-monger selling the gullible on the promise that “history has it wrong” (but, of course, coming up dry at the end of the show).

This week’s show was about trying to find evidence of Vikings in Arizona.

First, there are some artifacts that were identified by a professional all the way in Great Britain as genuine medieval, Scandinavian brooches and the like. Along with at least one Roman fibula that was somewhat older. A fibula is really just a brooch as well, but it’s a term normally used to describe the Roman variety and generally used to fasten clothing together. Scandinavian brooches functioned this way too, but were also used ornamentally.

Fibulae and medieval brooches are highly collectable and have been for probably hundreds of years. The fact that there is a mix of Roman and Scandinavian brooches is highly suggestive of a British origin for the small cache–assuming they arrived to the Americas together. Their collectable status is without question.

The story was that someone brought these items to an antique store after having found them “while hiking.” Does anyone ever tell the pawn-broker how they come by things they want to convert to cash?

Scientifically, all that can really be said about these items is: they’re of medieval age or older; someone brought them to North America before whatever date the person presented them to the antique dealer. Anything beyond that is a just-so story.

Wild Ship Story

Next, Wolter is hot on the trail of a fresh story about a Viking ship sunk in the desert of California!

He knows of a guy who heard of a guy that has a recording of a guy that saw a Viking ship in the desert that was once Lake Cahuilla near the modern day Salton Sea. This recording is super secret but the guy (John Grasson) has “extreme special permission” for Wolter to hear it.

Wait. I’m betting that kind of permission needs emphasis:

Extreme Special Permission”

That’s better.

The audio tape (a reel-to-reel) is supposed to be that of Elmer Carver, now deceased, who describes a fence with strange metal on it at a farm in Imperial, California. The farmer said it came from the ship. Carver then described a ship in the desert about 200 feet from the house which was like a skeleton. We know it was there because the Travel Channel did a great job showing a video of young Elmer Carver walking around in it’s remains.

Magnetometer results. Powerline signature is Wolter’s
“ribs of a ship.” Screen Capture from America
Unearthed, used in accordance with fair use.

Wolter get’s a geophysics professional to come out with a magnetometer which they began operating under the powerlines. My first thought was, “that’s going to give interesting results.” And it did. A piece of rebar a few inches under the surface attenuated with the power lines above along with probably another similar piece of waste a little further south and Wolter was all giddy about “ribs of a ship.”

At least he did acknowledge the problem of the powerlines later in that segment.

This story about a ship in the desert is a fairly ubiquitous legend that has no primary source.

Myrtle Botts, a librarian who, in 1933, met a prospector while camping with her husband. The prospector claimed to find a ship lodged in the wall of Canebrake Canyon. A wooden vessel with a serpentine figurehead. Botts claimed to see the ship but couldn’t reach it before an earthquake engulfed it.

Albert S. Evans claimed to come across a Spanish ship on his way to San Bernadino as he traveled through Lake Cahuilla (no where near Canebrake Canyon).

The Desert Magazine wrote of Jim Tucker who claimed to know of ship in the desert of Lake Cahuilla in 1939

Others spotted it near Baja California, Mexico where the legend has persisted for decades.

Rock Art

The ubiquitous nature of the legend in the area adds to the overall doubt of Wolter’s next segment.

He shows up at some cliffs near Mission San Fernando in Mexico to look at rock art. Specifically, Wolter is looking at a petroglyph of what admittedly looks like a boat. I know Jason didn’t see it, but I do. I’ve looked at a lot of rock art over the years–part of my archaeological training was in rock art recording. Still, this could be a motif I’m just not aware of since I’m more familiar with Pecos Canyonland and Midwestern styles. It might just be a two-headed snake under a drying deer-hide.

I don’t have nearly as much experience with rock art as I’d like to, but this one is pretty straightforward. In a few ways.

First, it does seem to be a boat. I’ve included a couple of images with Dstretch to give you a sense of the image. There appears to be a bow and stern that, together with the rest of the hull, form a “U” shape. The square above seems to be a sail and some of the other features like a mast, brail lines, and maybe furls.

This is a GIF that will cycle through three images in
30 seconds. Two are Dstretch (LAB and LRD)
filtered to help show the image.

Wolter asks about dating the panel and the guy with him says exactly what Wolter wanted to hear: “1,000 to 1,500 years ago.” This, Wolter says, is right in line with his Viking ship–which, incidentally, traveled all the way from Scandinavia via the “Northwest Passage!” A journey that even large ships with their own power sources fail to make because of sea ice and the danger of becoming ice-locked.

This is how the pseudoarchaeologist works, however: start with a conclusion (i.e. Vikings traveled to Arizona because of Scandinavian over population) then look for data to confirm that conclusion.

The problems with the date Wolter accepted for the rock art are not small. Rock art is notoriously difficult to date. It is possible to date rock art if a pigment sample can be separated from the binder and the emulsifier and then hope that one of these components is organic and can be radiocarbon dated.

But this was a petroglyph. Which means that it was created by pecking away the weathered cortex of the cliff-face to reveal the brighter mineral substrate beneath in order to form the image. In some very special cases, relative dating can be had by comparing the weathering and patina of different elements in order to get a general sense of which elements are newer.

For instance, an element that crosses another element might show less new patina or weathering that the underlying element. Weathering will always happen, but patination is a little more unpredictable. Particularly in dry environments. Lichens can also grow across petroglyphs and there are some studies that show certain lichens grow at certain rates and rough age estimates can be made of the lichen. Though it must be considered that the petroglyph could have existed for an unknown number of years before the lichen showed up.

Armed with this knowledge, let’s take a look at another photo of the petroglyph in question. This one includes surrounding petroglyphs for comparison. Do any of the elements of this rock art panel appear brighter than the others?

In this image, it’s pretty clear that the “ship” glyph is a newer element on
the panel since it isn’t as faded. It also seems to over-lay one or more
other elements. Screen Capture from America Unearthed, used in
accordance with fair use.

If you picked the image of the “ship” you wouldn’t be wrong. This simple, visual test only tells us that the ship-element is much more recent than the surrounding glyphs. If I were able to record this and neighboring rock art panels, I could perhaps get a date based on some sort of datable element (sometimes an image of a plant species, presence of a horse, bow and arrow vs. an atlatl, etc.) can give a relative date. From there I could extrapolate a date range for the rock art. But this can’t be done from a television still image. Hopefully someone has recorded this panel, though I was unable to locate any data during a brief search.

What we know is that this particular rock art site is heavily visited. We know that the “desert ship” legend isn’t new (read this article in Newsweek if you don’t believe me). We know the ship-glyph is much more recent than the other glyphs in the panel. We have no good reason to think that Vikings sailed and rowed all the way through Arctic ice, down the coast of California (rather than stop at some really cool places to settle), then back up the Gulf of California to get stuck in the desert.

Incidentally, if you read that Newsweek article, you will notice that the guy with the old audio recording doesn’t play the part of the recording that talks about the chest of treasure that was supposedly found in the ship. Nor do they mention the fact that the History Channel already came out and did Ground Penetrating Radar survey of the same area that Scott Wolter “found” for the first time. Nor did they mention that another production company came out and used LIDAR to look for subtle changes in topography of the site.

Literature review is good scholarship, but don’t expect it from pseudoarchaeology.

About Carl Feagans 363 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.

20 Comments

  1. It certainly looks like a ship. But then again fringe writers have made a lot of money off of carvings and paintings that look like someone in a space suit or someone riding in a spaceship.

    It looks somewhat like a Viking ship. But then again it looks somewhat like one of Columbus’s ships with only the center sail unfurled. Or maybe a schooner with a single square sail. The idea that because it doesn’t look like a huge circa-1600 Spanish galleon with multiple sails doesn’t mean that one has to default to Viking boat.

  2. I tried to find early photos of the San Fernando rock art panels to see if it was even there 10-20 years ago. It looks very recent to me and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it showed up in the last few decades. Particularly with the local legend of a “desert ship.”

  3. Here are a few better photos:

    http://forums.bajanomad.com/viewthread.php?tid=86781

    I may be as out to lunch as Wolter, but could the figures depict the reservoir and aqueduct system the monks made for watering crops ?
    Wavy line on “sail” = water
    And what’s with the little man on top of the “sail”?
    Next photo down shows a man figure on top of a Viking hot air balloon as well.(well, maybe not a balloon)

  4. I took another look at the picture. A quick look on the clearest side shows what could be a dragon head prow but it looks like you get the exact image on the other side. Did Vikings make ships with huge square kind of dragon-shaped heads on each end? But then again if you stare at it long enough then all sorts of images come to mind. Maybe a bit of DMT or some Purple Haze ganja would help to reveal the true image?

    If it is that dramatic of evidence one would think that they would devote an entire episode to studying it and bring in experts qualified to do that type of work to evaluate authenticity. Oh wait, this is America Unearthed. Never mind…..

    Digging a big round hole with heavy machinery with not a trowel or screen in sight. Been years since I have done fieldwork in archaeology. Looks like the technology and techniques have changed a great deal LOL.

  5. Jim,

    You could be onto something. The “mast” is not even connected to the ship. It could be two different images. As Carl stated there may be overlapping images from different times as well to further confuse things.

    If it is some authentic Naïve American work I wonder if there have been efforts to clean it up to make it easier to view. Sometimes people can impose a little wishful thinking on what you end up with after the “cleaning.”

  6. Good find! I’ve been looking at a few rock art texts and come up dry so far. There’s a comment at the bottom that’s interesting too.

    “I appreciate this photo – showing a petroglyph which closely resembles a Spanish caravel. Thanks for sharing it and its location.”

  7. I have poked around the net looking for something more definitive but came up dry.
    Wolter in his blog says 1000 to 1500 years old
    While his buddy on the show told him 1000 to 1500 A.D.,,,,so Wolter has already exaggerated the age he was told.
    I think to be a contrarian I will go with this book:

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=WfLUXir6ed0C&pg=PT229&lpg=PT229&dq=San+Fernando+petroglyphs+dating&source=bl&ots=Q-ifeHKbJ6&sig=ACfU3U38SoZsNMa_I-br9WbRIsJIx2snxA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiU_sSx5MbiAhVpc98KHV_5BEAQ6AEwDXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=San%20Fernando%20petroglyphs%20dating&f=false

    This fellow says the mission was established in 1769 had 1500 native converts that who mostly died from disease and that the mission closed in 1818. And then he says the petroglyphs date back to the 17th century.(perhaps he meant the 18th century?) Anyway Galleons were in use until the 18th century and it’s quite possible some of the Missionaries sailed on them.
    From another source I read that the missionaries made the cross petroglyph that is on the cliff wall to ward off evil from some of the native art, so why not a ship as well?
    Point is, perhaps this art is all from the time frame of the Mission. It Makes a whole lot more sense than Vikings.

  8. The Mission San Fernando was what I was hoping to find info on this weekend, thanks! I was wondering how they arrived in Baja to begin with? By ship, one would imagine. And Native Americans were chronicled all sorts of European activity in the last couple hundred years. The photo you linked to below still shows that distinctive freshness, so it isn’t just some play of light from the television show’s doing.

  9. Carl:
    “The photo you linked to below still shows that distinctive freshness, so it isn’t just some play of light from the television show’s doing.”
    On the link to photos in my first comment , you can scroll down a little past the first series of the mission and there are 2 shots, one of the entire cliff face and one a little closer showing most of the petroglyphs. The “ship” definitely stands out.

    Apparently the Jesuits started the mission but soon after took a major blow and were banned and driven out of all Spanish territory at gunpoint. The missions were then taken over by the Franciscans
    So one would expect the Franciscans were fairly newly arrived by ship.
    Although, take that with a grain of salt as there seem to Be a number of conflicting dates and questions about all of this depending on sources. Wiki says it was the only mission founded by Franciscans in Baja California.
    Every source seems to have a different story, and to further muddy the waters there is a mission further north in California with a similar name that continually pops up in searches.

  10. Peveril Meigs who took the photo was a very highly regarded geographer of Latin America and the West Coast who did everything from Archaeology to ethnology to Physical Geography. Was actually briefly on the faculty at one of my schools albeit way before my time. He was active at a time when transoceanic contact was far from a taboo subject for geographers. If he had “smelled” something worth looking into he most likely would have done so. Maybe he did and it is in his unpublished fieldnotes in that collection?

  11. Some further insight into the “dating” of the ship. The person who appeared in the episode speaking on the date of the ship is a local historian who writes adventure travel style stuff. I looked into some of his writing on the art work. In his 2015 article “Rock Art Sites of Baja” he simply states that the work is “believed to date back up to 1000 years.” Nothing about who allegedly did any sort of testing to date it, something that Carl can attest is often problematic. In the same article Kier describes the pictograph as “Spanish Galleon shape.”

    Either he decided to change his tune to fit the program or this involved some fancy editing to make it appear that he was speaking in support of the Viking ship hypothesis. The latter is not an uncommon practice on AU.

  12. If you look at this fellows sketch on page 213 he takes the wind out of Wolters “sail”.
    Some were by that time ” redone with a type of white painting by someone who wanted thus to assure them a longer survival.”

    ” I have observed that there are paintings of different ages and that some have been drawn on top of others, which are partially effaced. there are some things that are unquestionably modern, that is to say, that come from the time of the mission’s great prosperity, such as representations of men wearing great hats, and of a little house. ”

    https://escholarship.org/content/qt57v4k9g8/qt57v4k9g8.pdf

  13. Oh, that doesn’t look like a ship at all. Which is probably why one of the first steps to recording rock art after photographing it is to sketch the image. The way I was trained was using a Cintiq WaCom pad with Photoshop and a sketch layer. These days, I do it on the cheap with Inkscape on my computer monitor. I probably should have tried that on the Dstretch image I made to see what it looked like.

  14. I get something a little different than Laylander when I sketch that element. Admittedly, I was a bit rushed. But when I put this over the original layer, the pecked cortex is obscured. I started with a thin line for the entire thing, then increased the line width almost uniformly. If I were doing it for publication, I’d do each line segment’s width individually.
    San Fernando Pictographs sketched

  15. I live near the site of the viking ship. I know a woman who is
    of the Pima tribe near Yuma AZ. She says that some members of her
    family are 6 feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes. She is
    short and dark, like her aunt. (Her words). Also I suggest looking
    for the remnants near the New River because years ago people dumped
    trash over the cliffs which are only a few minutes away.

  16. What’s the evidence for there being 1) a ship; and 2) it being Viking?

    I really don’t know what 6′ tall family members with blond hair is supposed to mean. I have them in my family too.

  17. I don’t know the technique but are you adjusting the width to make it match an overlay of the photo ?
    Remember the glyph may possibly have been white painted over and Laylander may have sketched a truer rendition of the actual scratchings.

  18. Methinks He may be referencing the “Giants”

    “He pointed out that Father Giuseppe Rotea, an honest and trustworthy man, according to him, had found in a cave near San Joaquín the remains of a skeleton that measured 11 feet.4 ”

    “4 Id., p. 108. Castañeda, in his account of the travels of Coronado, speaks of naked giants. Arthur Walbridge North: Camp and Camino in Lower California. New york, 1910, p. 70. [Editor’s note: José Mariano Rotea (1732 –1799), a Mexican by birth, was the Jesuit missionary at San Ignacio between 1759 and 1768 (Crosby 1994:409).”

    Page 212 of previous link.

  19. Carl
    The dating ages David Kier gives him is from the book:
    Seven Rock Art Sites in Baja California

    Kier shows some photos of the pages which I cannot copy and paste.
    The book states “safest estimations would place the art between the years 1000 and 1500 AD”. However in context I find this to be a bit ambiguous as it may well mean that the oldest estimated date would be in that time range. The next paragraph states that the Mission had an impact on the art, thereby dating the newest art to around 1769 A.D. when the Mission was founded or newer. So approx. 250 years ago.

    Page 4
    http://forums.bajanomad.com/viewthread.php?tid=92242&page=4

    Unfortunately I haven’t found a copy on the net to read the actual article in the book.

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