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”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.