Book Review: The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest-Treasure Hunt.

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 i wasn’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,…”


(Sullivan 2018)


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.

In conclusion:

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 accpets and then presents. But often just as quickly as he’s presented an artifact as fact, he jumps to the next theory and doesn’t really come back to it. It’s an unintentional way of showing just how messed up and unconnected all the random theories about Oak Island are.

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 won’t not recommend the book. It had information in it, especially about the TV show. Just read it with your thinking hat on, and if something seems fishy or glossed over, there’s probably a reason for it.

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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All Your Bases is Underwater: Section 3 of Lost History of Ancient America.

In the briefest of introductions, Joseph outlines the purposes of the Section III.

“Our pursuit of Upper Michigan’s Copper Barons…” (Joseph 71)

So, among other things, we’re still looking for transoceanic bronze-age travelers.

We’ve already met two of the three authors from this section. Wayne May provides a second article about a possible underwater village in Wisconsin, and the mysterious Julia Patterson tells us about a sunken civilization in near Oregon.

Added to this is Andrew E. Rothovious (1919-2009). He is one of those rare individuals who is actually pretty interesting to learn about in his own right. An extremely prolific writer, he has potentially 4000 articles written across numerous publications, including Ancient America, Fate, and other alternative history/archaeology magazines. He was verbosely interested in a wide range of topics that included religion, Lovecraft, and Celtic visits to the New World (Magnus N.d). Rothovious had no formal education in archaeology or history from the sounds of it, but he did appear to be self informed, and as such drew some interesting conclusions about American Prehistory. Honestly though, beyond warm words and the occasion reference to his work, I can’t find anything out about the man or his actual writings.

Joseph erroneously refers to Rothovious with the title of “Sage of Providence” (Joseph 71). I can only find Lovecraft himself referred to by this title, though there is one reference to Rothovious as “The Sage of Milford” (The City 2010), so perhaps that was just a typo as Rothoviuous appears to be a dedicated fan of Lovecraft’s.

Then we are thrust into the articles of Section III:

Chapter 9: Drowned Village of the Ancient Copper Miners by Wayne N. May
Chapter 10: Sunken Civilization Found off Oregon? by Julia Patterson
Chapter 11: The Walls in the Lake by Andrew E. Rothovious

With that we’re on our way into the next section.


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Want more on this topic? Go to: ArchyFantasies Reviews – The Lost History of Ancient America.
Comment below or send an email to ArchyFantasies@gmail.com.


Resources:

Magnus, Margaret
N.d Andrew Rothovius. http://www.trismegistos.com/MagicalLetterPage/Rothovius/index.html. Retrieved 4/6/17

The City And The World
2010
ANDREW ROTHOVIUS, RIP. October 7, 2010.
http://thecityintheworld.blogspot.com/2010/10/andrew-rothovius-rip.html Retrieved 4/6/17

Transoceanic Flora and Fauna, Not Just Swallows with Coconuts.

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The introduction to Section 1 of The Lost History of Ancient America opens with a complicated statement:

“Perhaps never before has so much incontrovertible evidence in so few words establishing beyond question that humans reached and occupied America long before 1492, …” (Joseph 2017:13)

Let’s unpackaged this statement a little. ‘Incontrovertible’ is a bit strong. Most of the evidence offered in this section is unreliable or proven false. Clearly, there is room to argue the validity of said evidence. To even call some of this ‘evidence’ is a stretch, but we’ll address this as we come to it. Yet, this opening was a misplaced humble-brag. The real impact of the opening statement is in the following description:

“… in so few words …”

This small string of words encapsulates the four articles reprinted here. They are brief, and for the most part lacking any explanation on why we should trust them. Not just in the lack of credentials of the authors, but also in the strength of the sources cited, if they cited at all. There’s so little citation in these, one is right to wonder if it’s all made up.

This little snippet also illuminates another problem the fringe communities seem to encounter with the professional world; the wordiness of academic publications. Even the briefest of reports are often filled with jargon and five-dollar words. There’s no particular reason for this beyond the professional environment and the concept of writing to one’s peers

As a professional archaeologist, I should expect that other professionals who are reading my writing should be able to understand the meaning of my words. This does, however, create an issue when the public comes in contact with such writing. Unfamiliarity with the field causes misunderstandings when trying to read archaeological jargon. Even simplified concepts that seem basic to us, but are much more complicated in practice. Is there a solution to this? Perhaps. Should we as professionals reduce or remove our professional language to make it more accessible to the public? No. What we should be doing is providing adequate explanations to the public as well.

All that aside, Joseph’s lauding of “so few words” speaks volumes to the Fringe’s ideas that simple language is best. They see the use of big words, detailed concepts, or long reports akin to obfuscating information. Yet, Joseph’s and his cohorts, over-simplification of language and reporting creates articles that are void of content, analysis, citation, and evidence. Readers are simply told what is and what isn’t, and not offered any explanation on why these things could be true.

Lastly, in the opening statement, we have:

“… that humans reached and occupied America long before 1492 …”.

This is an important concept to keep in mind as we work through this section and the book in general. The main argument of the book is that mainstream archaeologists don’t believe that anyone made it to the Americas before Columbus. That we are so invested in this belief that we actively hide any evidence that contradicts it. This argument is a problem. It overlooks completely, the presence of Native peoples, reducing them to nothing more than background noise to the clamor of all the white European, “transoceanic travelers” that Joseph and his cohorts believe came here long before Columbus, the Vikings, and in some cases the Native American’s themselves

After this dubious introductory sentence, the authors of the articles reprinted in this section are introduced. Joseph makes an attempt to provide credentials that make each author sound like an authority in their subject. A deeper look into each author shows potential problems with these claims of authority.

Frank Joseph is listed on the back of the book as a veteran scuba diver and amateur underwater excavator. It even mentions his time as past editor of Ancient American magazine (Joseph 2017).There are many issues with Joseph’s background. These issues shouldn’t be ignored when considering this edited volume. As I’ve already stated, however, they are not to focus of these critiques.

Dr. Steven E. Jones is a retired physicist from Brigham Young University (Joseph 2017:14) known for his 9/11 Truther theories about Muon-Catalysed Fusion melting steel beams and for his ideas about Cold Nuclear Fusion. He’s criticized by his peers for his ideas on the above topics. Archaeologists find his ideas about ancient American horses proving the validity of the Book of Mormon invalid as well.

Carl L. Johannessen is a professor emeritus of geography from the University of Oregon (Joseph 2017:14). He refers to himself as a Biogeographer on his website Archives of Cultural Exchange.org. He appears very invested in the idea of transoceanic contact. Archaeologists and botanists find his ideas about transoceanic trade unsupported by evidence.

Julia Patterson (1931-2015), is presented as a former professor of archeology and anthropology at London College and the University of Illinois, Urbana (Joseph 2017:14). I can’t find anything about her through my usual sources. This does not negate the book’s claims of her credentials. It is difficult to check her expertise on any particular topic, however. I can find no mention of her at either institution nor can I find any academic papers with her name on them. If anyone is familiar with her or her work, please feel free to send me a link or file, and I will update this section.

After introducing the sections authors, Joseph finishes off the section by suggesting that the Hopewell culture is somehow controversial. He makes the claim that the Hopewell people are racially and culturally different from the “indigenous societies” because they have more gracile cranial features and what appears to him to be a more elegant and sophisticated society (Joseph 2017:14). There is no reason to accept this statement, and I am unaware of any actual controversies about the Hopewell culture that run along these lines. However, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a prehistoric native culture marked as ‘other’ by the Fringe.

Joseph’s closing statement serves two purposes as far as I can tell. Firstly, to create doubt in the mind of the reader, suggesting that the Hopewell culture is in question academically and there is a controversy about it being fully ‘native’. Secondly, to create a space in prehistory that might be populated with non-native people. Said people must have originated from some other location, thus creating room for the possibility of transoceanic travelers to be real.

It is from this section that we begin delving deeper into the meat of the book itself. Keeping in mind that the purpose is to provide us with incontrovertible evidence of transoceanic travelers in America’s prehistory.


Chapters in this section:

Chapter 1: Horses in America
Chapter 2: Plants Connect the Old and New Worlds
Chapter 3: Egyptian Style Cat Burial in Illinois
Chapter 4: Eyewitness Engravings of Ancient American Mammoths


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Want more on this topic? Go to: ArchyFantasies Reviews – The Lost History of Ancient America.
Comment below or send an email to ArchyFantasies@gmail.com.


References:

Joseph, Frank
2017    The Lost History of Ancient America. Edited Volume. The Career Press. Wayne, NJ.

ArchyFantasy Reviews: The Lost History of Ancient America: Introduction

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I was sent an early copy of Frank Joseph’s newest edited volume titled, The Lost History of Ancient America, to review. Someone thought this was a good idea.

I’ve been pouring over this, rather brief, fact free, and poorly argued volume for some time now. It’s easy to dismiss a book like this out of hand. Its editor alone is enough for some to write it off. But that’s not what we’re about here at the blog. We want to look things over, examine the arguments, look over any ‘evidence’ provided, and evaluate these claims.

Once we’re past the obvious errors of the book, we’re left with a lot to unpack here. We’ll move through the book as it is laid out, but let’s begin at the beginning.

In the introduction, written by Frank Joseph aka Frank Collins, Joseph makes a rather strange argument starting with the title of the chapter, and continuing throughout the introduction. It’s a blatant strawman argument, starts with the title “Columbus was Last” (archaeologists already know this), and continues with Joseph hounding on the false assumption that archaeologists think that Columbus was the first European to come to the Americas. He attacks a false paradigm that he desperately needs to be true in order for his arguments to hold up. Sadly, they do not.

Not long after introducing this narrative, he branches off to start making claims that this book is a “breakthrough”, “Radically Innovative”, and that this book shall reveal “The Truth”,

“Never before and nowhere else has so much valid evidence been assembled on behalf of overseas’ visitors in America before Columbus. (Joseph 2017:11)”

“With the publication of this, the fourth in a series of articles from Ancient American magazine, skeptics no longer have an academic leg to stand on…(Joseph 2017:11)”

He then begins a preemptive attack on said ‘academics’, prematurely martyring himself to argumentum ad hominem and argumentum ad verecundiam (which this book is the very definition of). He then begins his own attacks on these faceless academics,  all the while lauding himself and this collection of articles as being the real research, not just a collection of ‘dry facts, and ‘techno-jargon’.

He closes with an odd statement, more a declaration than an offering:

“History, we affirm, belongs to anyone who can appreciate it, and is not the exclusive privilege of salaried professional. But our agenda is not theirs, and we go our way.”

Here I have to break with my stated purpose, as knowing Joseph’s background and the agenda of the Ancient American magazine, make the above statement almost ludicrous. Joseph seems to be trying to make a bold statement about owning his own history, not letting ‘privileged, salaried professionals’ tell him what that history is. The chilling irony here that he’s doing this at the expense of actual native peoples, appropriating and reinterpreting, or flat out denying their recorded, known, and evidence backed histories.

It is from this launching point that we are led into the book. It promises to be both a comical and aggravating experience. There is more to this series, just follow the link: ArchyFantasies Reviews – The Lost History of Ancient America. 


If you’d like to support this blog, consider donating on Patreon or PayPal under ArchyFantasies@gmail.com
Want more on this topic? Go to: ArchyFantasies Reviews – The Lost History of Ancient America. 
Comment below or send an email to ArchyFantasies@gmail.com

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