The official title of America’s Lost Vikings episode 2 is “Mystery of the Sea Raiders,” never mind that the Norse weren’t raiding the coast here, they were exploring and settling. Regardless, this episode isn’t actually looking at any particular mystery, it’s supposedly looking to see if there’s any way to connect Newfoundland with Vinland. Since the last episode, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot agreed that L’Anse aux Meadows wasn’t Vinland, so they’re on the hunt for a new location, and they get a tip that there might be a potential site near the community of Sop’s Arm.
What’s of interest here are several long pits dug into the landscape that appear to be man-made. These have been examined in the ’60s by first Helge Ingstad and later by Helen Devereux. Both seem to agree that these were pitfall traps, a type of hunting trap recorded all over the world, characterized by deep pits dug into the ground, into which large game were driven by hunters. Ingstad believed the pits were Norse in nature, but Deveraux argued they could have been for mineral exploration, and attributes the pits to the Indigenous people of the area.
Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at the pits to see if they can find any evidence they’re connected to L’Anse aux Meadows and/or are Norse in origin. They seem to be drawing from the article Falling Into Vinland: Newfoundland Hunting Pitfalls at the Edge of the Viking World , which is co-authored by Bjarni F. Einarsson, mentioned in the first episode and credited with suggesting that L’Anse aux Meadows was inhabited for hundreds of years, and Kevin McAleese, who we’ll meet later in the show.
They spend some time looking at the pitfalls, and Nelson takes some measurements and uses a tablet in the field. It’s nice to see the tech in use because there is a slight push to start using more digital tablets in the field and move away from paper. Archaeology is trying to go high-tech.
While Nelson takes notes, Arbuthnot talks to McAleese, who says there’s no evidence that the Indigenous people were using pitfall traps to hunt. I’m a little confused, because there are several references I can find that state that Indigenous peoples used pitfall traps. Even in the Kristjánsson et al paper, the authors refer to the 1966 excavation led by Devereux that suggested the pitfalls were of indigenous use for hunting, although the authors do point out there seem to be no other occurrences of pitfall hunting in Canada. So Norse or not, if these are pitfalls at Sop’s Arm, then this site is significant for that reason alone.
Unfortunately, Kristjánsson et al found no artifacts at all in the pits, Norse, Indigenous or otherwise. They attempted to take radiocarbon dates but got mixed results. Not that the radiocarbon dates would have proven a Norse presence, but it would have given a time period for the possible construction of the pits. Even with these results, the authors, including McAleese, chose to argue that the pits are probably Norse in origin, since pitfall traps like these are not known to the Indigenous people in the area. Again, a confusing statement, but I can’t find any definitive papers that counter that.
So what does all this get us? Inconclusive results leaning heavily towards Indigenous origins due to lack of anything saying otherwise. The show adds nothing to this really; Nelson and Arbuthnot were not able to excavate or investigate the pitfalls beyond taking some notes and measurements. So, other than being interesting, there’s no hard evidence to tie these pitfalls to the Norse.
Nelson goes back to his Found roots and goes to look at the Viking Museum curated by the late Kent Budden. In his museum, Budden kept many objects he collected over the years, thinking they were Norse in origin. He’s even published a paper on his explorations and conclusions into Norse occupation of Sop’s Arm. With Budden’s death, the museum’s collection has passed into the care of a committee of some kind, and Nelson managed to get permission from them to see it. When the camera pans over the collection, it’s clear to me that the objects Budden has collected are historical in origin.
Nelson is fascinated with a few of the objects, giving the misleading comment of, “This could be a thousand years old, or just a hundred.” Which — no, just, no. Nelson gets oddly obsessed over a nail from the collection. It looks identical to a square cut nail seen on pretty much every historical site in America that foraged its own nails. Nelson seems to think it has a good chance to be Norse in origin and goes about trying to convince the current keepers of the museum to let him take it to be tested.
Which leads to a scene that is confusing on several levels. Nelson eventuality gets his nail in the mail and takes it out with a pair of gloves, saying he doesn’t want to contaminate the sample, even though he’s already been shown handling the nail bare-handed. Then he takes out a portable PXRF machine, which, 1) is actually really cool, and 2) why didn’t he just take the PXRF machine to the museum and test all the things there? It’s portable, and he’s doing this test in what looks like his hotel room. If it could have gone there, why all the drama of getting the museum to part with the artifact for testing?
Anyway, the nail comes back as being made of nearly pure iron. Nelson did a good job of telling us that if it had been made from bog iron, he’d expect a lot of impurities. The nail didn’t demonstrate that. It would have been even more impactful if he had also done a sample of the bog iron for comparison, but we’re left with just the nail. This is a neat thing, more tech in the field, but this is also not a common tool in a field kit. It also doesn’t help prove that Sop’s Arm is connected to the Norse, and to Nelson’s credit, he doesn’t try to shoehorn it into fitting.
And that wraps up the more traditional archaeology for the show, with Nelson and Arbuthnot saying they’ve pretty much done all they can at Sop’s Arm. Nelson says something about him discovering that the sea winds would have been stronger on one side of Newfoundland than the other. I’m not really sure what that was meant to do other than segue to the second half of the show, where Nelson and Arbuthnot are looking at Norse ships in a Viking shipyard in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then sailing one for a speed test.
Yes, this entire segment is neat and fun and Norse ships are impressive. If you ever get a chance to go see one up close, especially one of the reproductions, I highly recommend it. Aside from just showing off these awesome ships, and having Arista Holden, the captain of the Polaris, demonstrate how a Norse Sunstone works, there’s no real point to this bit.
What it does do is feed a fear of mine that I expressed for the last episode, that America’s Lost Vikings is going to devolve into two dudes doing stuff and then saying things like, “Well if we can do it, the Viking’s could have, too!” Which is not the point. Lots of culture groups had the ability to do things like voyage to new lands. The point is, there’s no evidence they did.
Still, Arbuthnot says, “It [the ship’s speed] could mean the Vikings made landfall in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts,” and, “I think we’ve demonstrated conclusively that they had the technology and the capability.” Again, this is currently irrelevant because there’s no evidence to support the claim that they did do it.
Overall, this episode was better than the first, especially with the presentation of negative evidence. The show demonstrated archaeology more and even showed some tech in use in the field. Nelson and Arbuthnot seem to accept their lack of evidence with aplomb, but they do try to make it sound like there’s still possibly something out there.
Arbuthnot: “We’re still lacking the physical archaeological evidence.”
Nelson: “It just means you haven’t found it yet.”
I mean, guys, sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
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When AiPT! asked me to review the new six-part Science Channel series, America’s Lost Vikings, I was apprehensive, but a little hopeful. First, it was on the Science Channel; that’s safe, right? Also, it’s headed by two archaeologists, Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot.
I don’t know either man, so I did a little digging. Blue Nelson is an archaeologist, who appears to work in Cultural Resource Management and has been on a TV show prior to this on the History Channel, called Found. I dug a little into that show, and despite being on the History Channel (with everything that brings), Found seems to be a pretty solid show about archaeologists looking at the weird stuff people find in their yards and helping them accurately identify the items. I’ve seen one episode and was pretty pleased with it.
Nelson played a very small part in the first episode of Found, but I’m sure he’ll pop up more as I go through it. Most importantly to me was that Nelson didn’t seem to be playing into any weird pseudoarchaeology ideas like Minoans in America or Transoceanic Travelers or the European-First claims that tend to go hand in hand with “Vikings” in America.
Michael Arbuthnot is another story altogether. Arbuthnot is an archaeologist who specializes in underwater archaeology and used to run a company called Team Atlantis, which he described as, “A multidisciplinary research outfit whose mission is to explore archaeological mysteries with an emphasis on those enigmas associated with underwater contexts.”
In a 2013 reprint of a 2005 publication, The Disinformation Guide to Ancient Aliens, Lost Civilizations, Astonishing Archaeology, and Hidden History,Arbuthnot acknowledges the possibility that Atlantis could be a real place on Earth, but stated it wasn’t his primary focus of research. No, his work was to discover how the Americas were really populated. Arbuthnot then proceeds to argue for completely unsupported ideas of cultural diffusion to the Americas via prehistoric European migration by boat or raft.
I do not have the space here to explain why this is not an accepted archaeological theory, other than there is no evidence to support it and the implications of such a theory are problematic, to say the least.
So, with this unfortunate information now in my head, I watched the first episode of America’s Lost Vikings.
Right off the bat, I’m struck with how this show will be following the format of others like Unearthed America, The Curse of Oak Island, and Legends of the Lostby using splashy graphics, epic music, and choppy editing to create a narrative that supports the show’s premises. I’m also struck with how Vikings‘ chosen audience is clearly men, given how far it went to not mention women at all.
Not that Nelson or Arbuthnot mention any of that. They attribute everything to only Helge Ingstad, effectively erasing Anne Stine Ingstad and Wallace from the picture. (There’s literally a monument at L’Anse aux Meadows for both of the Ingstads. They have to walk past it to see the site.)
Anyway. The rest of the first segment is Nelson and Arbuthnot walking around the site, looking at the reproduction of one of the longhouses, and in general talking about the particulars of the site.
There’s evidence that L’Anse aux Meadows was home to somewhere between 60 -180 people, including women. Again, this is blatantly ignored. Why? Maybe they just didn’t have time to add in the word “woman” between Nelson making observations like, “This place must have just reeked of Man” (said of the longhouse), and, “This here, this is the Man’s room” (said of the sleeping closet).
Arbuthnot does spend about 30 seconds explaining that the Norse get a bad reputation as being Vikings, and really were mostly merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. The show follows this up with images of violent Vikings and passive women. So, way to clear up that misconception.
Arbuthnot also brings up the relatively short habitation period at L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s thought, via the Ingstads’ and Wallace’s research, that the site was only occupied for 3-5 years. In the long scheme of things, that is rather short, but Arbuthnot’s question of, “Why would they build so much for such a short stay?” is misleading. There are only eight structures identified at the site. Only three are housing. Eight buildings between 60-180 people doesn’t seem like “so much” to me.
It’s another subtle way the show is trying to build up the mystery of the site. Calling the houses “monumental” when they are not, saying it would have taken a long time to build, when it wouldn’t have, claiming there’s a huge number of structures when there isn’t. It’s exaggerating the facts to make it seem like more than it is.
L’Anse aux Meadows is an amazing site, but it’s not a wonder of the world or the most mysterious place in America. Pretending that it is takes away from the importance of the site, and the actually interesting things we’ve learned about it.
Arbuthnot touches on some of that a little by bringing up the controversial idea from Bjarni Einarsson that the site was used for hundreds of years, not just five. It’s the first big idea the show latches onto, and here we get to see some actual archaeology, however briefly.
Arbuthnot brings out a drone that he uses to take images of the site so he can then stitch them together into a 3D model of the footprints of the structures at the site. He makes a neat map out of the images and uses them to check the elevations of the footprints.
Not to be mean here, but honestly, as cool as it was to see this all in use, it was unnecessary. The building footprints are clear to the naked eye, and these are hardly the first aerial photographs of the site. You can find many online by simply Googling them.
Arbuthnot then compares the footprints of the buildings from L’Anse aux Meadows to other sites in Iceland. He’s doing this because he thinks he can “age” the buildings on the site this way. The major problem with this is there are radiocarbon dates for the L’Anse aux Meadows site, and those are slightly more accurate than the stylistic footprints of buildings that could vary for any reason, from regional variation to the purpose of use. It’s interesting, and a neat trick, but not really hard evidence.
From here we kind of abandon “traditional” archaeology and start doing things that might generously be called “experimental archaeology.” There’s merit in doing experimental archaeology, but some of this I think is just an excuse for Nelson to dress up like a Norseman.
They go to Toronto’s Climate Lab, where there’s a giant freezer that can reach extreme temperatures, and they dress Nelson up in the best reproduction of Norse clothes they can find. Then they stick him in and monitor his vitals as the freezer drops to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, or -13.9 Celsius. Nelson says he was not too uncomfortable while in the freezer, and that’s nice and all. What this was proving, I don’t know. We already knew the Norse could live through the winters at L’Anse aux Meadows. They did so for about five years.
We then go to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies. Nelson and Arbuthnot get access to early written-down sagas, and they want to see if L’Anse aux Meadows is possibly mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. You see, there’s an argument that L’Anse aux Meadows is actually Vinland, mentioned in the Vinland sagas, but it in no ways matches the description of Vinland. The researcher they talk with mentions it might be Leif’s camp, also mentioned in the Vinland saga, but there’s really no way to know or prove that. So, fun idea, but not really helpful.
We then take a detour to go to the apparent childhood home of Leif Erikson. Honestly, I have no idea why we’re here, other than to let Nelson and Arbuthnot have a moment to be wowed that they’re standing in the same spot as the first European to set foot in America, which is important for some reason.
Lastly, we head back to L’Anse aux Meadows to figure out why anyone would want to live there. L’Anse aux Meadows is a little strange in that there is apparently no evidence of agriculture or animal husbandry beyond foodstuffs. Even the food that is found there appears to be brought in from other places. We do know there was an iron smithy there, and that the people at L’Anse aux Meadows were harvesting bog iron and working it.
Nelson again decides he’s going to be the one to go learn how to harvest bog iron and drops the wonderful gem as he’s scraping mud barehanded from the creek bank, “While the Indigenous people of America were still using stone, the Vikings were extracting iron ore.”
Seriously, Blue Nelson?
The Indigenous people of America were also mining and working copper, lead, and gold, harvesting oil, carving stone, crafting pottery, weaving, and building earthworks, among other things.
Am I really supposed to believe that people that figured out how to cross an ocean, work iron, and cut sod for houses, hadn’t figured out how to make and use a shovel? I think the guide was just screwing with Nelson here.
It’s possible this was not a typical settlement colony and more of a resource colony. Eleanor Barraclough at Durham University has even suggested that the site was a stop-over for ships, a place to possibly build and repair them. This idea is one Arbuthnot appears to repeat, commenting on the number of nails found at L’Anse aux Meadows, and comparing that number to known shipyards in Iceland. Honestly, that’s the first convincing thing I’ve heard all episode, and the originator of that idea isn’t even mentioned.
Nelson and Arbuthnot wrap up the episode with some stirring dialogue about how they’ve only just begun to investigate the Viking presence in America. But before they go off to chase wild geese, they have to have a drinking party with people dressed up as Vikings.
Overall, this episode didn’t really say anything flashing-red-lights “wrong.” The premise of the whole show, though, is an issue because of the loaded implications in the idea that Europeans were in the Americas in prehistoric times. That’s often used as a way to deny Indigenous culture and land rights, usually by claiming something is not actually Indigenous and assigning it to a different group. In this case, for example, Vikings.
L’Anse aux Meadows is the only verified Norse site in the Americans, and it’s not like people aren’t looking. I really hope that America’s Lost Vikings follows the pattern of Found, where they go and examine Viking claims, then effectively debunk them. I have this bad feeling it’s going to be six episodes of two guys doing wacky crap, then saying something like, “Well if we could do it, then Vikings could too!” And the problem there is the same problem with all Vikings-in-America claims — there’s no evidence.
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Welcome to Season 5 of the Archaeological Fantasies Podcast! To start the year off we’re talking with Chelsi Slotten about Viking Women Warriors. What does archaeology say about women in Viking times? What are the controversies around the Birka Warrior? And why aren’t female warriors better accepted in academia?
Today we talk with Douglas Hunter about his new book Beardmore: The Viking Hoax that Rewrote History. We talk about what the interesting history of the Beardmore relics, how they affected Canadian history, and what lessons we can learn from the hubris of our past.
Johannessen’s article is the longest in the first section of the book and claims that there are 14 plants that were present in both the Old World and the New before 1492. It’s obvious that this article was meant to be a powerhouse of evidence for the book, yet the evidence provided is less than convincing.
The article itself suffers from the same shortcomings as the rest of the articles in the book. There are no citations to back up the claims made or to document research. Everything in the article revolves around the unverified assumption that transoceanic travelers did exist and that they did participate in trade with pre-Columbia Peoples. Johannessen even goes on to assign value to certain commodities, declaring some “moneymakers”, and creating transportation methods for other “attractive” commodities. He muses that Annona was probably used to combat scurvy on long cross ocean trips and that beans and peas would have been good food stuff for these travelers because they could be dried and are high in protein.
Johannessen spends a lot of the article weaving an intriguing story about how and why “tropical sailors” would have been coming to and from the New World. He even references “new evidence of dated discoveries” (Johannessen 2017) that support the reality of these sailors, yet fails to provide any information about what these are or even provide citations in the article documenting them.
Johannessen then acknowledges the “evidence and contributions” of the Norse in pre-Columbian times:
“The fact that there is acknowledged genetic, artistic, cultural, and biological evidence for regular and repeated contact between these Nordic peoples and populations of the northeastern region of North America simply strengthens the hypothesis we are proposing about the tropical sailors of Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. (Johannessen 2017)”
Johannessen then makes an appeal to authority by shoehorning a quote by Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002) into his article. With this quote, he is trying to set the groundwork for his argument of transoceanic trade by implying that the probability of an identical plant species evolving in two sperate places on earth would be astronomical. Therefore the only explanation would be trade. He then makes the correct observation that when people travel to new places they always leave behind traces of their presence and often bring back evidence of their travels. In this case, Johannessen argues the evidence is plants. What argues against Johannessen’s claim is the exact observation he made earlier, there is no physical evidence that any of the cultures Johannessen mentions interacted in any way.
There are also no shipwrecks to support pre-Columbian trade routes or massive shipping expeditions. There are no settlements that demonstrate massive (or any) transoceanic trade among pre-Colombian people. There are no artifacts here in the New World that can be traced directly to trade in the Old World that date to pre-Columbian times. Simply, there is no real evidence to support Johannessen’s claims.
Johannessen claims that there are an upwards of 97 plant species that could be used to prove transoceanic trade, but he narrows it down to his top 14 (Johannessen 2017).
These plants are:
Corn (Zea Mays)
I’m not going to go over every one of these right now. I will fill them in as I have the time. However, I do want to go over a few that are of particular interest.
Tobacco, Coca, and Marijuana.
Using Johannessen’s list, we begin with Tobacco, Coca, and Marijuana. Johannessen brings up the mummy of Ramesses II. Legend has is that there is evidence for tobacco in the remains of Ramesses. However, Buckland and Panagiotakopu (2001) suggest, with cited documentation, that this is actually evidence of body preservation techniques in the 19th cen.
“Radioimmunoassay showed that nicotine was generally distributed through the body, and it is probable that this reflects the application of tobacco water as an insecticide during conservation in the 19th century. This explanation is also probable for the group’s other findings from Central Europe (Parsche et al. 1993) and China (Balabanova et al. 1995), although the lack of care shown by many archaeologists and conservators even in the recent past makes contamination by cigarette smoke always a possibility. (Buckland and Panagiotakopu 2001)”
There is also the presence of an insect, Lasioderma serricorne, or the tobacco beetle, that was supposedly found in association with wrappings that came from Ramesses’ mummy. Buckland and Panagiotakopu (2001) point out that L. Serricorne is native to the Old World and there is a fossil record in the Mediterranean to back this up.
“The third beetle from Rameses’ mummy, Lasioderma serricorne, has led to most speculation, inevitably, because of its vernacular names, all of which seem to refer to tobacco (Steffan 1985). Described by Fabricius (1798) from dried American plants (‘in Americae plantis siccatis’), it was assumed that the species was associated with Nicotiana tabacum, yet despite widespread earlier cultivation of tobacco, the species was first recorded in the United States in 1886 (Reed & Vinzand 1942), and has several congeners, largely feeding on thistles in the Old World (Steffan 1985); Hill (1994) regarded the species as of tropical origin. There are Mediterranean fossil records, which would support this interpretation. As well as Alfieri’s (1931) examples from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Panagiotakopulu (2000) reports the species from Bronze Age Akrotiri on Santorini in the Aegean, and has more recently [in press) found it in the midden deposits associated with the Workmen’s Village at Amarna in Egypt (Buckland and Panagiotakopu 2001).”
Buckland and Panagiotakopu also point out that this pest prevention is the most likely cause of the presence of Cocoa and THC, pointing out that Egyptian culture was more than aware of the narcotic properties of plants:
“The Egyptians were fully aware of the narcotic qualities of certain plants (cf. Emboden 1989), and Andrew Sherratt (pers. comm.) has drawn attention to the symbolism of alternating poppy, mandrake and lotus on the throne of Tutankhamun as an example, but it is surprising that the abundant archaeological, pictorial and documentary record from Egypt does not provide any evidence not only for the use of hashish, but also for the use of hemp fibres, derived from Cannabis spp., for ropes and fabrics (Germer 1985; Vogelsang-Eastwood 2000: 269). (Buckland and Panagiotakopu 2001)”
Wrapping up their paper Buckland and Panagiotakopu (2001) leave us with a warning about testing evidence out of context:
“Scientific techniques without context do not produce valid answers, and there is a real need for researching individual artefact biographies before each method is applied. Lack of information produces unacceptable stories, which often enter the literature as fact. Artefacts and their history have to be viewed as an entity, and the application of scientific techniques cannot be effectively carried out in fragments; each intervention has to be seen as a dialogue with the artefact itself.” (Buckland and Panagiotakopu 2001)”
This one had me at a loss for a moment. It wasn’t that I believed Johannessen’s claim that there are images of corn cobs on Hindu temples. It was that I couldn’t readily discover what these cob like images were. However, it didn’t take too much research into the divine images on the shrines to finally find out what this plant is.
Johannessen says in his article that unnamed archaeologists have found evidence of corn stalks and seeds, along with peanuts and annona in an unspecified cave. As there is no citation for this discovery, we can set it aside. However, he does get a bit more specific when talking about the Hindu Temples. He mentions temples in Karnataka Pradesh, India that date to the fifth and eighth centuries. Though he provided no actual images in the article to compare his claims too, some unprovenanced images can be found on the internet (see below).
I was able to locate a few images on the internet that do seem to depict voluptuous women posing with what can be thought to be ears of corn. That said, the objects the women (and apparently some men) are holding can be identified in the context of the native plants in the area. The Muktaphala, or Whipcord Cobra Lilly, produces a vibrantly red cob of berries and are native to India, being known for their narcotic properties.
Payak and Sachan (1993) explain how carvings, like the above images, found in Kesav Temple at Somnathpur near the city of Mysore, Karnataka State, India, couldn’t be corn. They point out that there is no connecting linguistic, religious, sculptural, archaeological, agricultural, or botanical evidence for this (Payak and Sachan 1993):
“The stone inscriptions associated with the temple list items or commodities used in worship, maize is not included. We find no evidence for maize figuring in any kind of religious ritual or worship. The word for maize used currently in the Kannada language is “Musukin Jola” which refers to a kind of millet resembling sorghum (“jola”). (Payak and Sachan 1993)”
“We hold that these temple sculptures do not represent maize or its ear but an imaginary fruit bearing pearls known in Sanskrit as “Muktaphala.” (Payak and Sachan 1993)”
It is far more likely that the cob like images in the hands of gods and goddesses on Hindu temples represent something familiar to the culture that was carving it. As there are no ancient references to corn in Hindu mythology, traditional food-stuffs, or anywhere really, it is highly unlikely that these cobs are corn. Rather, it is much more likely that this is the fruit of the Whipcord Cobra Lilly, also known as Muktaphala. A familiar, traditional, and native plant to India.
Though I didn’t go over all 14 plants mentioned, it’s clear to see a developing pattern in the presentation of this evidence. Mainly that, Johannessen falls back on familiar habits that the fringe often exhibits.
There are no citations or documentation of sources for any of the plants.
Johannessen tell us what ‘is’ and provides no specific evidence to back it up. At best we are given vague accounts of someone, often given a generic academic title, who might have found something, somewhere, that is evidence of his claim. Who these people are and where they found these things is often left out.
Johannessen’s transoceanic sailors must have been a very busy lot as well. They not only needed to be expert sailors, by master botanists, traders, and farmers as well.
Where are the sunk ships? Every culture that has ever done trade on the water has lost ships, so where are these? Where is the other evidence of trade? What were they paying for these plant stuffs with?
Most of the evidence that Johannessen attempts to supply is far from irrefutable. Its mear presentation makes it questionable, and the easy that inconsistencies can be found in his data points to issues with its validity. His evidence is neither clear nor rock solid and falls far from the mark of proving transoceanic travel and trade.
Johannessen, Carl L.
2017 Plants Connect the Old and New Worlds’. The Lost History of Ancient America. Edited Volume Frank Joseph. The Career Press. Wayne, NJ.
National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)
N.D Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon. National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution Washington D.C. http://www.lds-mormon.com/smithson.shtml Retrieved 1/14/17
Episode 50 of the Archaeological Fantasies is live, and Ken and I were able to finally sit down with someone who knows quite a bit about the use of DNA and genetics in archaeology. Jennifer Raff, who’s covered all this wonderfully over at her own blog Violent Metaphors, was just the podcast guest I’ve been looking for to help us sus out all the ins and outs of genetic evidence in archaeology.
I’m not going to rehash all of this in this post, Jennifer has done the lion’s share on her blog and paper, and then again on the podcast. I suggest you go give it all a read and a listen. It really clarifies questions I had about ancient genetics and prehistoric DNA.
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Yay! We’re about halfway through the first season! I grossly underestimated how long it would take to review this series. There is just so much that needs to be addressed in each episode, it’s daunting. I am learning to break-up the posts into smaller posts that I can then link you too for more information. It’s still a lot of research and reviewing though, but I think it’s worth it.
As usual, if you don’t want to read through the whole break down, feel free to skip to the In Summary section at the bottom, but as always, if you have a comment or question, which I do welcome, don’t be surprised if I tell you to read the whole post first.
We open this episode with a sepia-toned film of a man getting his hair cut while listing to the old-timmey radio. An announcer is telling us, H.G.Wells style, about a mysterious collection of stone structures that has been discovered. We then see haircut man walking through the woods and stopping, awestruck when he finds several piles of stone.
Wolter does a voice-over here talking about Stonehenge, calming that its origins and meaning are still shrouded in mystery. This is not true in the way Wolter means it, but hey, we have to set a tone right?
Wolter goes on:
“Some advanced civilization that knew enough about the sun moon and stars to align theses stones in a very specific way.”
Yah, it’s called every ancient civilization ever, Wolter, seriously.
He then goes on to make the extraordinary claim of the show, that there is a Stonehenge in America and that this henge and actual Stonehenge were built by the same people.
We start in Salem, New Hampshire at a place now called American Stonehenge, but what was once called Mystery Hill. We meet Kenlsey Stone, son of the owner, who meets us at what is the central observatory of area. It’s a large covered gazebo. (Your +25 sword of BS slaying has no effect on it, and it’s not on fire.) There are small ‘standing stones’ that are arranged around the central point. It’s apparent from a casual glance that these stones were placed in a deliberate pattern and probably line up with something, probably solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days.
Wolter correctly points out here that many ancient cultures all over the world made note of these points of the year. He then ruins it by throwing up a simplistic definition of archaeoastronomy. He tells us that he saw archaeoastronomy in Georgia and that somehow connected Native Americans to the Mayans. (spoiler: he didn’t and it doesn’t)
He then makes another claim that caught my attention:
“The ancient practice of archaeoastronomy seems to tie many advanced cultures together.”…”and it also seems to tie them to America”
A couple of things here.
Archaeoastronomy is a very common practice in most, if not all, prehistoric, ancient, and some modern cultures. It’s not a definitive sign of advance vrs not-advanced cultures. It was a tool necessary for everyday life, especially among agricultural societies. It was practiced on a large scale, as seen in Stonehenge and the like, as well as on a small scale. My point here is it’s not a mystical magical unifying secret that only elite cultures were capable of understanding. It was part of basic everyday life and was common because anyone can keep an eye on the sky and see that things change up there according to the seasons. It’s pretty much common sense.
I think Wolter just made the claim that the diffusionism of archaeoastronomy came out of America. I may just be confused here, but if that is true, this is a major deviation from his normal claims that everything was brought to America by white people.
Now we’re focusing on one stone in particular, and we get to watch Wolter rubbing it as epic music swells in the background. Wolter asks Stone what happens in the circle and Stone tells us that the sun rises in the middle of the stone, but that they think it might have risen at the top point of the stone at some point in the past. Wolter agrees and there is a fancy computer-generated model to show us where the sun might have been in 1800BC. We’re not immediately told why this date is important, but hey, we’re building anticipation here!
Wolter tells us that things can move the axis of the earth, like earthquakes, (or just the natural wobble of the planet), and we can use that for dating purposes. He then makes the claim that archaeoastronomy is more accurate for dating than C14 dating. This argument is, weird, and important for the story Wolter is trying to tell here and I’ll get to that in a minute.
Wolter tells us that the stones in the circle look weathered, which really means nothing. Any stone exposed to the elements will be weathered and Wolter has admitted as much in previous episodes of the show. I’m guessing he’s just talking out loud here.
Before we move on to how this henge is connected to Stonehenge, let’s recap a little here.
We are being grossly misled here by not being given the full story of Mystery Hill and Americans Stonehenge. I cover it detail in my blog post here, but to briefly recap:
The area known as Mystery Hill was once owned by Jonathan Pattee in 1837 (Gilbert 1907) and always had a bunch of natural caves and rock outcroppings. Pattee also built tons of structures on the land himself and these were commented on historically (Gilbert 1907, Starbuck 2006).
The land passed into the hands of William Goodwin in 1937 who dubbed the area Mystery Hill (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). He then began to move and quarry the rocks and structures already on the land in order to “restore” what he thought was Irish monastery (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.) completely destroying the context of the area.
Robert Stone bought the land in 1967 and the Stones have made a few improvements of their own (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). Adding a museum and changing the name to “America’s Stonehenge” trying to link the area to Stonehenge in England (Starbuck 2006).
Several archaeological digs have been done in the area. Of them, the one led by Gary Vescelius in 1955 recovered over 7000 artifacts, all of which were Native American or 18th and 19th century in origin (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.).
What all this means is that American Stonehenge is completely out of context and even if it had been an actual ancient site, there is no way to ever know this due to the activities of Goodwin et al. Also, nothing has ever been found to suggest the area was ever settled by Ancient -Europeans.
Wolter makes a claim that archaeoastronomy is a more accurate way to date a site than C14 dating. He’s not entirely wrong, in some situations this can be correct. However, the reasons he’s making this claim isn’t because of these unique situations.
Mystery Hill has been excavated several times in the past, and one of the most recent excavations sent off charcoal samples to an actual lab to be c14 dated. The dates that came back do not support Wolter’s claims that the site dates back to 3800 ya. or 1800 BC.
Wolter is also neglecting to mention that you can make the sun line up with pretty much any single object if you just move around it till the sun lines up. You can probably witness something in your back yard (if you have one) lining up with the sunrise/set by chance. Or you can do what was probably done here, and deliberately put something there (see my note above about Goodwin et al).
Wolter’s computer-generated model, though cool to look at, would only be valid if there wasn’t evidence that the stone he was using was probably moved and set up there intentionally by Goodwin et al.
Wolter appears to be trying to obfuscate the actual facts here in order to manufacture a mystery where there is none. Which is the show’s M.O., it’s just way more pronounced here this time.
But, we’re not done here yet.
After Wolter gets done rubbing all the stones and making weird claims about archaeoastronomy, Stone tells us that he’s got more to show us. Stone claims that this evidence will tie America’s Stonehenge to the actual Stonehenge. Of course, Wolter wants to see it!
What is this amazing evidence you ask?
Lines on a map.
Stone takes us to his computer and pulls up Google Earth, and then proceeds to draw a line between to points. What two points? Why, Americas Stonehenge and actual Stonehenge! Amazing!
Unless you remember your basic math and graphing skills here and remember that you can draw a straight line between any two arbitrary points.
To add to the drama of this magical line, Stone proceeds to show us that the line continues (as all lines do) and then “ends” in Beirut. Why does it end here? Because why not? There is no explanation as to why our arbitrary line between two arbitrary points must end in Beirut, it just does. That’s good enough for Wolter who immediately begins making up a connection for it. It has something to do with Phoenicians around 1200 bc, and the math is all bad, but whatever! We have our connection!
At this point we get to meet Dennis Stone, father of Kenlsey Stone, and we get a very brief and sterilized history of Mystery Hill. We’re told about Johnathan Pattee and how the area used to be called Pattee’s Caves back in 1907. We’re even taken to what is possibly Pattee’s old house and Wolter makes his proclamation that Pattee couldn’t have made any of the structures on the site because:
“There’s no way Pattee could have built this, it just wreaks of being really old”
Very scientific of you Wolter.
Wolter tells us that if it’s old, it’s important. Not important enough to actually research, but hey, we’re busy building a mystery here. Wolter also dismisses Pettee’s ability to have built structures on his own land despite evidence that he in-fact did:
“He built massive stones walls when he had all these trees and he could have used wood? I don’t buy that”
Yes, it’s much more believable that Ancient Phoenician-European-Irish Monks came to New Hampshire in 1800 BC to build a monastery in the middle of nowhere so they could recreate Stonehenge and worship Baal. Oh wait, we haven’t gotten there yet.
So now Wolter is telling us that large flat rocks are like clocks and indicate the age of a structure. He doesn’t tell us how this works, but it apparently confirms something of his story. Stone tells us that there’s more on-site to connect it to the Phoenicians and we’re introduced to the Baal Stone.
The stone, with its random scratching, was supposedly translated by Barry Fell back in the 1970’s and apparently is a dedication to the god Baal. Wolter makes a big production out of examining the stone, and eventually decides that the stone is old.
Personally, anything translated by Barry Fell is immediately invalid. Also, the writing doesn’t look anything like the Phoenician alphabet. So I’m not going to beat this dead horse.
The Stones inform us that they have one more mega piece of evidence that connects the site to the Phoenicians, a giant sacrificial table.
The table is an impressive structure. It’s roughly 9′ by 6′ and has an inner groove running the perimeter of it. It appears to be set up on stone supports and the drainage groove feeds directly into what appears to be a chamber of some sort.
Wolter is suitably impressed and begins talking about Exfoliation Weathering, defining it as loss of stone surface due to changes in moisture and temperature. Basically the stone was exposed to the elements, as is clearly the case. He tells us again that such weathering can be used like a clock, but never really gets beyond the whole “looks old to me” thing.
What the table is supposedly set up over is what the Stones are calling the Oracle Chamber. It looks to me like a natural chamber that was used as a cold cellar, probably by Pattee. The Stones explain that the table was purposefully set up over the chamber so that when a sacrifice was done someone else, a priest possibly, would stand below and speak. The voice that would come from under the table would have been a “god” voice.
Well, needless to say, Wolter has decided that this site is now actually the handy-work of Phoenicians, based on nothing, and we’re off to find more not-evidence to support this already decided conclusion.
Before we go though, I want to spend a moment with this new dump of information.
Things to remember about the Mystery Hill/American Stonehenge site.
Goodwin et al moved things around. There’s actually pretty well-documented evidence of this via pictures throughout the years. The website Mystery Hill NH, Americas Stonehenge provides a lot of this themselves. Whether they knowingly throw doubt onto the site or not, they have historical pictures that clearly show the progress of the changes at the site.
Jason Colavito, also has an excellent show and tell of the changes started by Goodwin and continued into at least the 1990’s. His photos cover not only the movement of the the “sacrificial table” but also the renovation of several of the stone structures on the site.
The pictorial sequence of the “sacrificial table” is of most interest here because you can see where it was originally located. It’s clearly set close to the ground, with perhaps enough space for a small jug or large bowl. Which is exactly what one would expect to see of a Lye Stone or Cider Press (more on that in a moment). In subsequent images, you can tell that the stone has been moved and set up on legs, presumably over the so-called “Oracle Chamber”, and that other stones have been added and subtracted over the years.
It is well documented that when Johnathan Pattee bought the land there were numerous natural caves and rock outcroppings that he was known for using for storage and quarrying purposes.
Of all the archaeological excavations that have been done on the site, none have ever found anything that was unexpected or out of place. All artifacts have been Native American or 18th-19th Century in origin.
Let’s talk about the Cider Press, aka the sacrificial table.
As stated above, the stone was obviously moved after Goodwin purchased the land and has been updated ever since.
Before it was moved, it was in the appropriate configuration to be what it actually is, a cider press or lye stone. Its large size and square shape make me more comfortable saying it’s a cider press over a lye stone, but honestly the construction for both is similar and if you google cider press stones, you will see identical stones found all over the country.
Both cider presses and lye stones were a common household item in the 18th and 19th centuries. One was necessary for making soap, the other necessary for making hard cider, which is as American as apple pie.
But we’re off to Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA. to talk with Professor Mark McMenamin who is presented to us as a Phoenician Researcher. Dr. McMenamin is a professor at Mt. Holyoke College, but his field is geology and paleontology. Dr. McManamin does however have an interesting hobby, and that’s proving Phoenicians made it to America before anyone else. His evidence? Seven unprovenanced coins found across the US. He’s published several books and articles touting support for his theory, but in the end, it falls short in the evidence category.
With this in mind though, it’s no wonder Wolter wants to talk to him. As we watch Wolter drive (he drives a lot) while epic music plays, trying desperately to convince us we’re not just filling time, Wolter provides a voice-over. He’s still trying to tell us that the arbitrary line drawn through the two Stonehenges is legitimate and that the Phoenicians did it deliberately because they knew about the sky.
“If the Phoenicians knew about the Polaris star, chances are they knew about the rest of the sky too.”
Apparently, it was easy to not notice the sky back in ancient times. I mean, looking up was hard and all, so ancient man didn’t bother with it much. Unless they knew about one star in particular, then they might have noticed the rest of the sky was up there too, maybe.
Once we get to Dr. McMeanamin, he tells us about his idea that there is a map on the back of Carthaginian coins. He says the strange shapes found at the bottom of some coins are actually maps of the world.
To make this true, you have to add squiggles where there aren’t any (Africa in the picture) and ignore bumps that are clearly there (between Sardinia, Sicily and Italy and again between Italy and India in the picture) Also why is everything so badly out of proportion? You’re telling me they can sail across an ocean, trek inland to Salem, New Hampshire, rebuild Stonehenge with perfect alignment with not just actual Stonehenge but also Beirut, but they can’t get landmasses in proper proportion on their stunningly artistically detailed coins? Of which they apparently only brought seven with them?
But Wolter is A-Ok with all this and loves the whole idea of secret, nearly illegible, maps on coins. How would you even use such a tiny and imperfect image to navigate anyway? There’s so much wrong with this.
Anyway, since History Channel has more money than it know what to do with, it sends Wolter off to England to visit actual Stonehenge. We meet Dr. Henry Chapman and Wolter immediately launches into his hard sell that the Phoenicians built the American Stonehenge. Not only that but the Phoenicians actually built both Stonehenges! Wolter shows Dr. Chapman his line on Google Maps, and Dr. Chapman give him a hearty Nope.
Dr. Chapman points out several flaws in Wolter’s story, one of which being math. There’s an 800-year difference between the Phoenician culture and the building of Stonehenge. Dr. Chapman also brings up that we know Stonehenge is an ancient calendar and that it’s not surprising that since humanity is similar and is observing similar things, they would develop similar ways of tracking such things. Or what we call convergence in the field.
Predictably Wolter doesn’t like this answer, but Dr. Chapman doesn’t budge. So we cut that interview short and race back to America so we can watch the summer solstice at America’s Stonehenge.
We fade out around this point with Wolter’s insistence that these structures are built by ancient people. Wolter is now telling us that Stonehenge was somehow used for navigation, and that the people who came here were proto-Phoenicians. I guess at least he’s adapted his story based on new information…kinda. Wolter makes a bunch of “I believe” statements and says:
“Someone had to assemble those stones, someone with a vast knowledge of archaeoastromnomy”
Someone like Johnathan Pattee, William Goodwin, and the Stone family?
What you really wanted to read.
There was a surprising amount in this episode, but most of it was easily debunked.
The two main cruxes of Wolter’s argument can be basically eliminated.
The site known as Mystery Hill/Americans Stonehenge is out of context and comprised. This is documented by not only Goodwin’s own work but by historical photographs. Everything there has been altered, the Stonehenge, the Table, the Oracle Chamber. Walls have been built, structures have been renovated. And these changes have persisted up into the 1990’s. If there ever was a site there, it’s gone and there’s no way to get it back.
Barry Fell is not a reliable translator and the Baal Stone is clearly not Phoenician. You don’t have to be an expert to see that.
Everything else about this place is just trimmings. It’s typical speculation with no evidence to support it. Even Wolter’s line through both Stonehenges is complete bunk since I can link Stonehenge with any other point on a map, two points make a line! Math!
What evidence there is consistently links the site to both Native American occupation and 18th -19th century occupation. There is nothing to support the presence of anyone else being there.
Wolter’s dismissive attitude towards the actual evidence in support of his own unsupported ideas is distressing, and is getting worse as the series goes on. Just something to keep in mind.
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Now dubbed “America’s Stonehenge” in Salem, New Hampshire, the location once known as Mystery Hill continues to draw tourists to what is touted as being evidence of pre-Columbian contact. Evidence of who is still up for debate.
The site itself is about 30 acres of land just off route 111 in Salem. It’s a sprawling complex of stone structures, walls, natural caves, and some would say Megaliths that are no taller than tree saplings (Wright 1998). It’s a well-known tourist destination that is open to the public for a fee and hosts hiking trails, llama pins, and an interpretive museum.
The site itself is supposedly shrouded in mystery as to its origins and purpose. It has multiple claims to its origins, all of which appear to be pre-Columbian in nature. Few even acknowledge the possibility that prehistoric Native peoples lived in the area before White settlers came. All of them ignore the documented history of the site or the damage done to it by its prior inhabitants. So what is this mysterious hill all about?
The Known History of Mystery Hill.
We know the area was owned back in 1837 by Jonathan Pattee, and that he built most of the structures originally on the property (Gilbert 1907). We know at that time the area had a good number of natural boulders and rock outcroppings, and that there were several natural caves that Pattee used as storage (Gilbert 1907). We know this based on evidence including drill marks on the stone used to build the structures that match 19830’s quarrying practice (Starbuck 2006).
We also know that William Goodwin bought 20 acres of the land in 1937 and dubbed the area Mystery Hill (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). The overall layout of the area was drastically altered by Goodwin who was convinced the area was evidence of Culdees in America (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). Goodwin apparently believed these Irish monks came over to America in the 20th century and constructed the caves around the site as part of their monastery (Starbuck 2006). Due to this belief, Goodwin and his supporters apparently further quarried the area and moved stones and structures around to what they believed were the ‘original’ locations in order to further support their ideas (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d).
In 1957 the land was leased to Robert Stone, and ten years later the Stone family bought the land (Starbuck 2006). The land still belongs to the Stone family, and they have made a few improvements of their own (Crystalinks N.d.). Adding a museum and changing the name to “America’s Stonehenge” due to the parallels that Stone sees to the great megaliths of Stonehenge in England and other Celtic sites (Starbuck 2006). There is still no evidence of ancient Celts in the area.
Several archaeological digs have been done in the area. One of importance was led by Gary Vescelius in 1955 (Starbuck 2006). His team recovered over 7000 artifacts, all of which were Native American or 18th and 19th century in origin (Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d.). These artifacts were noting out of the ordinary for the area and line up perfectly with what is expected from the archaeology in the area. There was no evidence of anything related to Irish monks or Celts.
The Stone family still owns the land and it has become a bit of a tourist location. The museum there acts as an interpretation center for the site and offers a variety of ideas for the visitor to chew over, and appears to display the artifacts discovered during the actual archaeological digs done on the site.
What’s so Mysterious about Mystery Hill aka America’s Stonehenge?
To answer that we’d have to look a the variety of claims made about the site. They run quite the gambit, and none of them go for the ordinary or the everyday.
We already know of Goodwin’s belief that Irish monks made their way to America and picked this area as the site for their monastery. But there is also the belief that the site is far older than that. An idea put forth by Barry Fell in his book America B.C. claims that the site was occupied by Iberian Celts due to scripts he saw around the area (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Crystalinks N.d). Fell claims to have found inscriptions that link the site to Baal worshipers as well (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006). These scripts are only seen as such by Mr. Fell and no authority on Ogham, Phoenician or Iberian scripts believes them to be authentic in any way.
The current popular idea about America’s Stonehenge is that the site is actually a giant astrological calendar set up by Bronze Age peoples of unknown origin (Feder 2010, Crystalinks N.d.) The date commonly pitched for the site is 4,000 years old and is claimed to have been gotten from retrograding the alinements of the sun with the standing stones (Wright 1998, Cryistalinks N.d.). The two major issues with this is the known relocation of most of the site by Goodwin and, presumably, the Stone family (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Feder 2010, Crystalinks N.d.). Because of this, no reliable information can be gleaned from the positions of any of the stones, standing or otherwise.
The second major issue with this is that there is no physical evidence of Bronze Age peoples on or around the site. When Ken Feder toured the site, he noticed a lack of bronze artifacts. When he asked about their absence he was told. “You don’t think those ancient people would have left all those valuable bronze tools just laying around, do you? (Feder 2010).” Actually yes, that’s exactly what we expect. Bronze artifacts are found all over Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s the reason we know there was a bronze age.
Other fun stories about the site come from David Starbuck when he visited the site in 1970 his guide told him that the whole site, stone chambers, trails, walls, and all were actually a giant representation of an Indian or Asian face wearing a peaked hat. This image was an ancient mental concept that had crossed the Bering Straights ten thousand years ago and that this image had been repeated in ‘Indian’ art all across American for thousand of years (Starbuck 2006). Starbuck rightly points out that “Every time another absurd theory is added to the mix, it becomes harder to accept any of the elaborate tails told about the site. (2006)”
So Where is the Evidence for Mystery Hill?
There are two major pieces of evidence offered up regularly. The first is a large flat stone carved with grooves set above an empty chamber that is called the “Sacrificial Table”, The second is a series of Carbon-14 dates. Unfortunately, neither are terribly convincing.
The “sacrificial table” as it’s called, is clearly a cider press or rather large lye stone. Pretty much anyone familiar with 18th -19th century homesteading knows what these are as both were pretty indicative of everyday life. You can even Google either term and see lots of images of stones that are similar to identical to the “sacrificial table”. I can only assume here that the owners of the site still call it that to drum up drama. As for the “Oracle Chamber” underneath it, it’s merely a happy coincidence that the chamber produces echoes. Obviously, it was meant for liquid collection and probably storage as well.
The C-14 dates are a little more inserting. Normally C-14 dates would be good forms of evidence. Especially when taken with care and taken in context. Apparently, however, the samples taken from the Mystery Hill site don’t quite fulfill these criteria. C-14 dates are taken from charcoal samples at a site, preferably taken from the feature meant to be dated. According to Starbuck, the charcoal samples from Mystery Hill were taken randomly from the site with nothing of human origin in association with them. Meaning they were completely random samples of charcoal that had no known association with features. What this means in a greater context is that the dates are meaningless. I have seen pieces of the testing results report created by Geochron Laboratories, Inc as linked on the Mystery Hill site. Regardless of the date given, if the samples were taken willy-nilly from wherever on the site and nothing of context was associated with them, it really doesn’t mater.
Now, if we assume that the samples are good, and were taken with care and context, the dates provided still aren’t that shocking. with a date of 2995 BPE +/- 180 years. That still puts the site well within the expected habitation for prehistoric Native peoples. It’s also still not evidence of anything European or Celtic in nature. As all of the archaeology done on the site backs up the presences of Native peoples on the site (Wright 1998, Starbuck 2006, Feder 2010, including at the quarry sites (Crystalinks N.d) there is no reason to think that these C-14 dates are indicative of anything out of the ordinary.
So What’s Left?
Not much really. Evidence shows that the Mystery Hill/American Stonehenge site is what it appears to be to the trained eye. A multicomponent site having both a prehistorical component and evidence of 18-19th-century habitation. Which should surprise no one. There is even documentation of Johnathan Pattee owing and building on his land. Natural caves were known to exist there, as were natural outcroppings of rock. As we move forward there is documentation and evidence of William Goodwin et all moving and changing the site, thereby destroying any context the site had. There is even some suggestion that the alteration of the site continues to modern-day, making it impossible to trust any interpretation of the site’s structures
There is no evidence of anything else.
Bob Goodby, then president of the New Hampshire Archaeological Society, put it best when interviewed by Karen Wright in 1998:
“Goodby assured me that no reputable archaeologist took the pre-Colombian lure seriously. The inscriptions were bogus, and there was no other evidence that an ancient, old-world culture had ever occupied Mystery Hill: no signs of the food preparation, garbage disposal, living areas, or burial grounds that are associated with other megalithic sites. Although there is an unusual amount of stonework on the hill, he said, it doesn’t differ in kind from other structures built by New Englanders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Wright 1998)”
Starbuck adds a few words of his own about the whole deal:
“The moment the first stone was moved to a new location by William Goodwin, the entire site lost any chance of being taken seriously by scholarly community. … Yet site integrity is everything to an archaeologist, and this site is severely compromised. (Starbuck 2006)”
“If an early site truly has merit, it doesn’t require bizarre interpretations. (Starbuck 2006)”
While I was critiquing the 3rd episode of America Unearthed Season 1, I came upon a few new artifacts/concepts in pseudoarchaeology. One in particular caught my attention, because as I worked to debunk it, the red flags around it grew. I realized that it really needs it’s own entry into the blog, because there is a lot of well meaning buk out there, there are no attempts to explain why this artifact is a hoax.
The Newberry Tablet.
This artifact has a classic hoax origin story. It has multiple versions of the story, vague details, conflicting information, and no actual documentation to back it up. The story as per the Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed S01E03 (Wolter 2013), Two unnamed lumberjacks were working to clear some trees in 1896 in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) near Newberry, Michigan, when they discovered the tablet. It’s not entirely clear how or where exactly the Tablet was when discovered. Another source, says the Tablet was found in 1897 on the McGruer farm near Newberry, MI (Pohlen 2014). This story tells us that the tablet was found after felling a tree where it was tangled up in the roots of said tree (Pohlen 2014). This sounds familiar to me, it’s almost exactly the Kensington Runestone origin story verbatim. Pholen’s version of the story says that stone figures were found with the tablet, and the Fort de Buade Museum supports this.
The St. Ignace News has a completely different story all together:
“The most common story of their discovery, according Fort de Buade’s curator, Bill Peek, takes place in 1896. Two hunters were pursuing a mink near Newberry that had run into the root area of a fallen tree. They grabbed shovels and began to dig, but hit stone. They dug up the three statues and tablet.” (Coe 2012)
The Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) versions loose track of the Tablet around this point, only mentioning that pictures were taken of the the Tablet in 1898 (Fort N.d, Wolter 2013). Pholen’s (2014) version says that McGruer tossed the Tablet in his barn where it got broken. This could be where the whole idea that the Tablet was destroyed come from, as was thought at first in America Unearthed (Wolter 2013). The pictures were allegedly sent to the Smithsonian Museum who declared the Tablet a hoax. All sources of the story accuse the Smithsonian of not knowing what the 140 symbols on the tablet were. The Fort de Buade Museum and America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) versions accuse the Smithsonian of trying to cover up the existence of the Tablet by claiming to have lost the pictures they had been sent.
According to the The Fort de Buade website, the controversial Dr. Barry Fell, got ahold of the images in 1988 and was able to identify the writing as written in ancient Hittite-Minoan. He was able to translate it as being instructions for getting good luck from the gods. According to Pholen’s (2014) version the symbols were describing how birds ate grain that was scattered before them. America Unearthed (Wolter 2013) version says the tablet is Minoan script, and the it’s untranslatable, but Wolter speculates that it’s probably some form of record keeping for Bronze Age Copper Mining.
According to the Fort de Buade website and The St. Ignace News (Coe 2012), in 2007 the Tablet and it’s associated bits were perched from Dr. Donald Benson when he passed away. He had kept it in his private collection for 30+ years and the condition of the items had degraded significantly. However, they now reside in the Fort de Buade Museum in Michigan, and due to this, is sometimes referred to as the the Fort de Buade Tablet as well.
Now that we have the story, let’s break this all down.
We’ve covered the issues with the origin of the Tablet. It has multiple versions and conflicting information. It invokes the idea of conspiracy of a cover-up at the academic level, and most importantly, it has no documentation. It’s also interesting to me how closely at least one of the versions is to the Kensington Runestone, especially since the Tablet is being used to prove Pre-Columbian European contact.
The multiple translations of the Tablet are also problematic. If we set aside Wolter’s speculation, because he doesn’t offer a hardcore translation, we’re still left with three options. 1) It’s a good luck spell, 2) It’s about birds eating grain, or 3) it’s not translatable. The third option comes about because of what the writing is supposed to be, at least two of the possibilities have never been deciphered.
Hittite – Minoan Cryptic/Cuneiform. I have no clue what kind of writing this is supposed to be. There is Cypro-Minoan which post-dates Minoan Linear A, both of which are currently untranslatable, and there is Hittite Cuneiform, which has several dialects. As far as I understand, the Minoan and Hittite writing systems are not related, despite being part of the Indo-European language family. This language family is the largest in the world, btw, so this really shouldn’t be surprising.
Also, none of these forms of writing look like what was presented to us as the Newberry Tablet:
So basically, the writing on the Tablet is not any of the scripts it’s claimed to be, and even if it was, the two most commonly picked candidates are unreadable anyway. All this tells us there is no way it could be translated to anything. It also negates the argument that the Tablet couldn’t possibly be a fake since it was found in 1896 and the Minoan civilization was not discovered till the 1900’s by archaeologists. It’s not Minoan, so that’s not a valid argument. It’s also clearly not Viking, Phoenician, or Hebrew, so no luck there either.
There is also the issue of the condition of the modern tablet.
When Wolter is shown the Tablet on America Unearthed (2013) it sets off red flags for me. It looks nothing like the pictures we’re shown from 1898. Yes, as the story goes the tablet was lost and not cared for very well, but again, there is no documentation for any of this. Personally, and this is all my opinion based on the pictures and the stories given, this modern Tablet and the Tablet in the picture do not look the same. Obviously, there is no way to prove this one way or the other, but it’s still a red flag for me.
There’s also the story of the how the Smithsonian was trying to cover up the existence of the Tablet. There’s no reason to believe this story, there’s no reason to not. Simple fact is, there’s no evidence other than hearsay that the images were ever sent, looked at, or lost. When the images were discovered again they apparently were in the Michigan Archives, according to the the Fort de Buade Museum. I suppose the Smithsonian could have sent the pictures back secretly and hid them in the Michigan Archives, since there’s no evidence one way or the other, or maybe the pictures were never sent in the first place. There’s no way to prove either story. Interestingly however, Pholen’s (2014) version of the story has the Smithsonian backing off their declaration that the Tablet was a hoax. He speculates that the Tablet is genuine but doesn’t go as far as to claim the Smithsonian thinks the Tablet is proof of anything. I’d like to know who he talked to in order to get that information, it would be nice to have better documentation on this Tablet in general.
A final thing to add here, there was, in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s a rush of fraudulent artifacts that were found in Michigan. Some 3000 or more hoaxes were recovered during this time, most were immediately dismissed, some still have staying power. None of them are seen as authentic by professional archaeologists. I find it interesting that the tablet and its associated figures were somehow spared this examination, since they were ‘found’ in the same time period and the same area. I suspect, especially since all versions of the story have the Smithsonian declaring them frauds, that they were part of the Michigan Relic hoax, if not directly, indirectly. Again however, since there is a timespan of nearly 60 years where the tablet was missing, so there is no way to verify this.
So what do we have left with the Newberry Tablet?
What we can say for sure is that the tablet is not Minoan, Hittite, or any of the other cultures it’s supposed to be written by. Since it’s not any of those cultures, there is no way it could be translated. So any claims that the Tablet proves contact with Pre-Columbian peoples is not valid.
It is my opinion that the Tablet in the Museum is not the same Tablet as the one in the pictures from 1898. I base this on the images as they have been provided. It’s not the best way to evaluate them, I admit that, which is why this is my opinion on the matter and not a fact of any kind. If evidence comes to light that can prove the Tablet’s existence and location over the 60+ year gap between photographing and being purchased by Dr. Donald Benson, then I would re-evaluate my position.
With all of that, I must declare this Tablet a hoax. Neither the facts about the Tablet, nor the speculation is convincing enough to say otherwise.
When examining the claim of the Chinese in pre-contact America, you quickly realize that all of the evidence to support this claim is interconnected in a way that, if you can prove one piece wrong, it pretty much proves all the evidence wrong. Still, we need someplace to start, and a mythical island somewhere in the ocean is as good a place as any. No, not Atlantis, though it might as well be, but a new land named Fusang.
Fusang has an origin story, as most myths do, and just by looking at this story I see several red flags. Keeping in mind, the legend of Fusang is part of Chinese culture, I cannot express strongly enough that we are not going to debunk Chinese culture here, it’s not even close to our intention. However, we are going to critically examine the myth and the modern claims surrounding it, and it’s those modern claims that we are going to challenge.
So, The story of Fusang begins with a mystical monk named Hui Shen (Feder 2011:126). No, I cannot find a mention of Hui Shen outside of a book from the 7th century called the Book of Liang by Yao Silian. In this book Yao recounts Hui’s explorations around the globe to known and unknown lands, where upon he finally returned to China and told of his discoveries to the royal court (Feder 2011:126).
And this is where the red flags start.
Red Flag #1: The Book of Liang was compiled in 635 and was mostly made up of Yao’s father’s accounts (Wiki). So at best this is a third hand account, and worst, who knows. It does sound a bit like the origin story of Atlantis though doesn’t it? The only account we have of Atlantis is in two of Plato’s stories, and then the story is describes as being handed down through several mouths till it’s finally written down. Not to mention it was also all part of a thought experiment where the students were asked to make it up…but I digress.
Red Flag #2: In the book Hui describes encountering a living people who we can classify as being well into the bronze age at the time of the story from the description given of them (Wiki). If Hui had made it to the Americas, as is claimed by some in the Cult Archaeology world, then he wouldn’t have encountered people who worked metal with the skill he mentions.
Red Flag #3: Traditional Chinese maps place the location of Fusang on the Chinese coast, as per Hui’s description of the location (Feder 2011:126). It doesn’t seem to have migrated off the coast of China until European mapmakers came along. Once that happened, Fusang began popping up everywhere.
Red Flag #4: Hui was said to have carried holy relics and texts with him and five other monks accompanied him as well (Wiki). They were kinda like missionaries in this aspect. That being said, why is there no evidence of them ever having set foot and encountering local Native American peoples?
Red Flag #5: Hui describes other cultural practices of the people he encountered in Fusang (Wiki), namely the domestication and milking of deer (a tradition known of the Mongolians and their reindeer) and the domestication of horses (which didn’t exist in North America until they were reintroduced after European contact, but did flourish in and around China).
So, if we take the account of Hui Shen at his word, there there is no real reason to link Fusang with the Americas or any other location not in China, except for possibly, Mongolia.
That’s never stopped anyone has it?
The story of Fusang doesn’t stop there, like wine it gets richer with age, and new and mysterious details pop up every year, regardless if they are part of the original story or not. These new details get forced into new shapes in order to support the idea that the Chinese made it to America first. Once you really look at them, however, they don’t hold up well. They do pop-up in a lot of places, being repeated over and over as if repetition alone could make them real. Let’s just examine a few. These are things I’m seeing a lot on random websites testifying to the reality of the Chinese discovery of America.
Hypothetically there are ocean currents that move around the continents of Eurasia, and if you were so lucky as to hitch a ride on them you could, hypothetically, drift all the way around the world and back again. Now, I know currents exist, and I know that sea fairing peoples were aware of them as far back as sailing was invented. That doesn’t mean that this scenario ever actually happened, or is actually possible given the technology of the day. I’m not even sure you could do it today, since most of these currents run deep in the ocean and aren’t usually accessible to the ships that float atop. But if you can prove me wrong here with actual evidence, feel free to. Do keep in mind however, just because you can do it, doesn’t mean it did happen.
I see lots of vague and uncited accounts of “ancient Chinese artifacts” found all over North America and “known interaction” between the First Peoples and the Chinese. None of these are reputable, and the few I can manage to find are either known fakes or actual artifacts being reinterpreted in a way to try and make them support the narrative. We’ll touch on a few of these as we go further in the series, but for now please be aware there are no authentic ancient Chinese artifacts found in America.
I also see several attempts to identify the plant Hui calls Fusang, from which he named the area because of their abundance. There is no reliable way to do this, therefor, anyone telling you that they have identified the plant is wrong. They may have a convincing story or even a convincing set of “like” traits, but this proves nothing, and definitely does not identify any particular location as the location of Fusang.
So with that said, let’s wrap up a bit.
The original story of Fusang is ancient and is mostly a written account of an oral tradition. This alone should make it suspect. Once we look over the accounts as it’s written we see that Hui is describing a living group of, at lest, bronze age people who have very similar traits to the Mongolian peoples. I’m not saying they are the same, I’m just that these cultural characteristic were not as foreign to Hui as we are lead to believe. The Chinese themselves located Fusang off their own coast and this location didn’t change until White Europeans got a hold of the story sometime around the late 1700’s early 1800’s. Combine all that with a severe lack of evidence of any actual archaeological remains, and Fusang becomes an important Chinese myth, that has nothing to do with America.
We’ll certainly be coming back to Fusang often as we move forward with our investigation of claims that the Chinese discovered America first. It’s a reoccuring theme that almost ties everything together.