When we last left Jim and Bill Vieira, they were hunting for giants on the History Channel series Search for the Lost Giants. That show was a ratings disaster, and the Vieira brothers displayed the kind of stilted delivery and anti-charisma that might have destroyed careers on network television. However, it is an iron law of cable TV that once a person has been granted a TV series, it becomes statistically impossible not to be given another show due to cable executives’ embrace of the sunk cost fallacy. Therefore, last night the Vieira brothers presented a 2-hour special about the Dare Stones, a 1930s hoax that claimed that the lost colonists of Roanoke decamped for Georgia. If there is one thing History loves more than recycling hosts, it’s recycling the same few subjects over and over again.
The first stone, well-weathered, was apparently the gravestone of Ananias and Virginia Dare. If there is any truth to the stones, this one, found near the lost colony, is possibly the only authentic stone. Geologists of the time determined it was 400 years old, and some scholars continue to believe it is an authentic sixteenth century artifact. In 1937, historian Dr. Haywood Pearce deciphered its inscription and declared it genuine. He offered a reward for more stones, paying out up to $1,200 (almost $20,000 in today’s dollars) per stone. Suddenly, stones flooded in from South Carolina and Georgia, all found by just four people. I wonder why.
According to a 1941 Saturday Evening Post analysis of the stones […] a single person found two of the stones in two separate states! One was even buried near the man’s own house! The Post discovered that all four individuals who “independently” found the Dare Stones were known criminals who all knew one another, and at least one had approached Cecil B. DeMille about turning the stones’ story into a movie. Experts discovered that some of the carvings appeared quite recent, and some of the words used on the stones did not match forms known from the 1590s. (Elizabethan English could easily be faked since the works of Shakespeare were available in any public library.)
Pearce, for his part, lashed out like modern alternative theorists, threatening to sue the Post for revealing the hoax. After the Post story, one of the original “discoverers” of the stones, William Eberhart, called the professor he had fooled into accepting the Dare Stones, the same Haywood Pearce, in 1937 to report a new find, a large carved stone head. Even the credulous professor recognized the stone as a fake, made with hammers and colored with purple vegetable die. Eberhart later confessed to participating in a hoax and for accepting payment for the hoaxing, as well as admitting to blackmailing Pearce by threatening to reveal the Dare Stone hoax if he wasn’t paid off. He later denied making these sworn and witnessed statements.
The Vieira brothers have no expertise in early American history, in dating archaeological artifacts, or anything related to this subject. But the show says that because they are stoneworkers, this gives them special insight into the Dare Stones, something like the way a farrier has special insight into veterinary medicine. Indeed, one of the first things Jim Vieira is heard to say on the show is that he is “objective” because he is not an academic and doesn’t have to worry about “losing tenure.” This is the same argument Scott Wolter made for why he was particularly qualified to declare the Dare Stones authentic back in 2013!
This special, Roanoke: Search for the Lost Colony, differs from America Unearthed in that it has more elaborate historical reenactments depicting early investigations into the Dare Stones, complete with laughable dialogue full of ponderous pomposity and (my favorite) misidentification of late sixteenth century language as “Old English.” The reenactments are shot in the style of film noir thriller (complete with hard-boiled voice-overs and furtive glances from shifty figures—“They said I should have submitted it for peer-review” an actor playing Pearce snarls menacingly), and they are clearly designed to imply that there is a conspiracy to suppress the truth. I can’t stress how ridiculously overwrought the reenactments are.
Just for the record: The reenactments are also deceptive. They cast Haywood Pearce, Jr., a professor of American history at Emory University, as their tragic hero. They wrongly have him claim he wished he had published a peer-reviewed article on the stones (or at least that’s how I interpreted the admittedly ambiguous ranting). He in fact published one in 1938 in the Journal of Southern History. They also imply at the end of the show that Pearce was ruined by academics’ refusal to accept the stones (“I am finished,” he types) and that he was ready to kill himself over them. In fact, in 1941 Pearce openly admitted to newspapers that he had been duped by a forger, though his academic career did not continue its upward trajectory after conceding such a lapse. After World War II, he left academia. He died 30 years later, in 1971.
The recreations and the examination of the Dare Stones were filmed in Gainesville, Georgia, with production rebates and tax incentives provided by the state of Georgia through its film bureau. (So much for any government conspiracy!) The stones are housed in Brenau University, where Pearce’s father deposited them, and which cooperated in the filming. (So much for an academic conspiracy to suppress the truth!)
The Vieira brothers view the Dare Stones and have some technicians scan the stones. The narrator says that the “laborious process” takes “several hours,” so they can’t be bothered stick around and will drop back in later to see if a blow up of the rocks can indicate how old they are. This is the same thing Scott Wolter did back in 2013, albeit with a less expensive microscope.
The brothers also try carving their own fake Dare Stones, but they become too frustrated by how long it takes to carve the stones. Therefore, they give up on etching the stones with chisels and instead opt for power drills. There seems to be a theme of impatience.
When the scans are done, they find evidence of drilling in the later Dare Stones, but they find no evidence of drilling in the first Dare Stone, the only one some have claimed is authentic. However, their analysis only confirms that the first Dare Stone was carved more carefully and with an iron chisel. This does not prove it is authentic, however. Chisels could have been used at any time. The Vieira brothers recognize this, so they ask a Shakespearean scholar, Dr. Kevin Quarmby, to look for evidence of a hoax in the language used on the stone. The expert determines that a “ye” with a superscript “e” on the stone means “the” rather than “you” (“ye” without the superscript) and Quarmby says that only a “magnificent” hoaxer would know the difference. I have no idea what he means by that. I know that “ye” was an abbreviation for “the” back then. Knowledge of this was not rare in the 1920s and 1930s; H. P. Lovecraft makes use of the superscript “e” version of “ye” (technically a printer’s substitution for an obsolete thorn and e) in his faux-antique English texts in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927). It requires no obscure knowledge, only a careful modeling on genuine texts. In fact, I checked some texts printed in the late 1800s and early 1900s that reported Elizabethan texts, and nearly all of them carefully distinguish between “thorn-superscript e” and the pronoun “ye.” In short, the professor is full of it and has a terribly low opinion of people in the early twentieth century. The Vieira brothers, however, conclude that this makes it likely that the stone is genuine.
After this embarrassment, the Vieira brothers try to find the spot where the first Dare Stone was allegedly uncovered in North Carolina. At the site they identify as the location, the brothers use ground penetrating radar to try to find a Native village and Elizabethan artifacts to prove that Eleanor Dare was there. Most archaeologists believe that the Roanoke colonists decamped to Croatoan, a nearby island now called Hatteras, where they lived with the Native peoples. Artifacts likely belonging to the colonists have been found there, but the Vieira brothers are hoping to find a different site. Contract archaeologists dig some test pits in a field and find nothing. They found pottery shards a ways away, at the river, and they also found a fragment of English ceramics. The question, though, is the date on these artifacts since English occupation lasted for centuries. Was the ceramic piece made before 1600? Nope. At the very end, they admit that the pottery wasn’t old enough. Nevertheless, they conclude that there was little chance that anyone would have managed to hoax a stone at a site that would turn out to be Native American and across the river from an Elizabethan site.
So, this program is something of a mixed bag. It takes people who aren’t experts in any relevant subject and imbues them with spurious authority, freely mixes genuine archaeology with specious argument, and wraps the whole thing in a sneering bout of emotional manipulation about “peer-review,” “tenure,” and the “right” to challenge all-powerful ACADEMICS. If cable producers would drop the language of victimization and the glorification of ignorant amateurs, they might have something more interesting to talk about.