From time to time I get sent books to review. The last one I did was the Lost History of Ancient America, and wow. So when the publishers of Randall Sullivan’s new book, The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest-Treasure Hunt, reached out to me I warned them. Sure, I’d love to review it, but I’m a debunker, and I know a bit about the whacky-ness that is Oak Island. I might not be the best person to review a book on the topic.
The publisher assured me that I would find the book non-fringy, and asked if I would consider it. So I said yes. I did warn them after all. Now I love getting books in the mail. Really love it, like a kid at Christmas love it. So when the shiny new hardcover arrived I was giddy.
I did have to wrap of a demanding semester in grad school, so I took a brief moment to look inside. I wanted to give the book my full attention and wondered if it might be a good addition to my collection of pseudoarchaeology books by non-archaeologists that looked at pseudoarchaeology topics critically. I liked what I saw in the first few pages.
Sullivan describes the original article he wrote for Rolling Stone on the Oak Island mystery.
He then described his unease at the article after publication.
“It was the nagging thought that I’d accepted the semiofficial legend of Oak Island without sufficient examination, though, that truly bothered me.”(Sullivan 2018)
That certainly caught my attention.
Sullivan then briefly describes an on-air encounter he had with Joe Nickell from Skeptical Inquirer:
“…when we spoke briefly about this off camera, I was acutely aware that
iwasn’t confident enough in what I knew about the historical records to refute some of what he was saying. That troubled me.
It also troubled me that I might have given some preposterous theories about what had taken place on Oak Island more than their fair due,…”
I was honestly put at ease with the book based on the self-reflective nature of these statements. We’ve talked about on the blog and the show, that a key feature of a lot of pseudoarchaeology is that it repels self-reflection and rejects criticism. To see Sullivan doubting his own conclusions and admitting he was caught flat-footed by Nickell was refreshing.
Then I had to put the book down to finish my paper. When I picked it up again, I was ready to see how Sullivan had addressed his doubts and what he’d found in the process.
A few things here before we dive into the book.
I am a skeptic of Oak Island. I firmly believe that there is nothing on the island beyond the mundane, and even that has been swiss-cheesed to the point of meaninglessness by the 200-ish years of people drilling random holes into it looking for treasure. I think it’s the most abhorrent abuse of what could have been a fantastic archaeological site and due to the lack of any kind of methods or standards used by anyone who ever dug there, anything that is found on that island is immediately suspect and probably contamination from the people that dug there before whoever is digging there now. Oak Island is a shining example of why archaeology isn’t done this way and should be a warning bell to archaeologists of what can happen if we don’t communicate our methods and standards more clearly to the general public. Who knows what has been lost on that island due to the destruction of treasure hunters.
That out of the way, Sullivan’s book is not a giant 410 page novel on why Oak Islands is clearly the home of Celtic, Pirate, Freemason gold and the lost works of Sir. Francis Bacon. Well, not entirely, it is a detailed history of the phenomena that is the Oak Island treasure hunt.
Sullivan backs up all the way up to when the three men credited to starting this whole crap ball rolling, and then write about how he went a step further to locate the three men in time. It’s impressive, and Sullivan shows his work, talking about census records, and land deeds, and even the elusive Daniel McGinnis. Sullivan talks about his search of the historical evidence of the man, and then made a strong case as to who McGinnis was and why he’s so hard to track. His conclusions are perfectly acceptable and logical.
Basically, what I’m saying here is, unlike many books on pseudoarcheology topics, Sullivan is providing fresh material and doing actual labor to find new threads for the theories presented in the book.
That said, Sullivan does spend time looking at a good number of the various theories that plague Oak Island. These I find interesting because Sullivan spends time talking about the possible origins of the theory and then talks about how the theory affected the show.
Sullivan’s insights into the behind-the-scenes of the Curse of Oak Island show are also interesting. Sullivan talks about his interactions with various guests, the producers, and the interactions with the show’s various on-air personalities. It’s honestly very humanizing and if you’d never watched the show you would think these are very calm, level-headed, reasonable men.
Sullivan is kind in his treatment of the show, and it’s clear he’s friendly with the cast. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it must be kept in mind that Sullivan is sorta paid by the show to do his research for the show. I wouldn’t expect him to go on a huge “Down with the History Channel!” rant. I did feel a few times that Sullivan was maybe turning a blind eye to things, or not looking as closely as he could at things.
The incident with the Spanish maravedi (piece of 8) a coin dated to the 1600s but the shows on-hand experts is a good example. Sullivan describes one of the final moments of season 2 of the show. There is a stunning moment where a Spanish maravedi coin is found, saving the show and allowing the Lagina brothers to be funded for another season of digging on the Island. It’s…a little too convenient of a find. So convenient that, according to Sullivan, even the Lagina brothers were suspicious of it.
Sullivan kind of glosses over the incident, hand waving a bit that the
Lagina brothers both thought the coin had been planted. They confronted the producers and asked Sullivan about it. Everyone told them no, they hadn’t planted it. Still. Someone could have, given the way it was discovered and the chaos around the discovery, the desperate need for it, and the timing of it. I’ve been doing this debunking thing too long to accept that this was all coincidence.
Another moment in the book that sticks out is the aforementioned on-air interview with Joe Nickell. Not the interview itself, which Sullivan doesn’t go into much, or really at all. But you can clearly tell from the writing style and words he uses that Sullivan isn’t happy about how the interview went. He basically attacks Nickell and in a very fringy ‘all skeptics are mean and wrong’ kind of way. It’s a red flag for me.
As much as the book doesn’t really focus too much on one theory over another as to the ‘why’ or ‘what’ of Oak Islands’s supposed treasure, it is interesting to see which theories that Sullivan appears to like most. One about how the island was a Pirate Island like Tortuga (Haiti) and so had fortifications and smuggling tunnels built into it was interesting, but Sullivan didn’t build that out enough for it to really stick.
The other one he seemed to really like is extremely convoluted and hard to follow conspiracy that Shakespeare wasn’t really the author of his plays, Sir Francis Bacon was, and that Bacon then hid all the evidence for this on Oak Island of all places. Sullivan seems to waffle on his support of this but is clearly enamored by it.
The rest of the theories he brings up he treats respectfully, giving them time and research when possible. He talks about the people who possibly began a few of the lingering rumors about the supposed treasure on the island and always links back to an interview or moment on the show. He connects the dots quite well and if nothing else, brings the “why do people believe this?” into the light.
I found the book interesting. It cleared up a few things and pointed some things out I didn’t know about the island and the show. Did Sullivan’s book change my opinion on the destruction of Oak Island, or justify the frankly pot-hunting behavior of the show? No. But in all honesty, I don’t think it was meant to.
Sullivan’s book is just what it claims to be, despite the sensational creepy/cool cover and the huge title tie-in to the show. It is the story of the world’s longest running treasure hunt, the history of it, the men who dug, the theories they use, and the myths and legends around this island. It gives an interesting view into the other side of the camera for the TV show and gives us little glimpses into the thinking of the men currently grinding their way through the island.
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest-Treasure Hunt, was well written, informative, and yes, ever so biased. I really would have liked to see an index and a bibliography, but the timeline was nice. Sullivan doesn’t really shove any particular theory down the reader’s throat, but he clearly has his favorites. Sullivan doesn’t seem to be trying to change anyone’s minds about the show or the topic beyond simply informing them.
He does at times state things as facts that I am more than dubious about. Findings that are questionable at best he just
Do I think the book is a little one-sided? Yes. Do I think it only reinforced the need for professional archaeologists and standardized methodology? Yes. Do I think Oak Island is permanently damaged as a site? Yes. Am I even a little convinced about any of the theories presented by the book? No, but I also don’t accept Nickell’s theory of Freemasons’ either…so there’s that.
I don’t endorse the book though.
Sullivan did a good job on research and it’s clear he cares about the topic. But it’s still a pro-Oak Island book, it’s still pseudoarchaeology, and it still endorses the damage being done to the island in the name of obsession and treasure. I could rant for days about the problems with the whole concept of Oak Island, and Sullivan doesn’t even touch on these issues other than to lament the lives, and fortunes lost to looking for something that is clearly not there.
Sullivan could have been somewhat critical of his topic and failed to be. Yes, he was less convinced by some theories than others, but in the end, Sullivan is still hyping the romantic idea of treasure on Oak Island. He’s still adding fuel to a smoldering fire.
I suppose though when you’re being paid by History Channel, funded, hyped, supported and marketed by them, are you even able to be critical? Was it even an option for Sullivan? Or was the course of this book set from the beginning, much like the finale of season 2 of the show.
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