Maybe I’ve watched too many quasi-historical documentaries. Maybe fringe history and its more mainstream spinoffs are just extremely limited in imagination. Or maybe the handful of people who are responsible for producing these shows assume the audience doesn’t know or care about more than a small number of the same tired old topics. Whatever it was, this was the week of the instant rerun, which is to say, a show that was freshly shot but contains material so stale you’ve already seen a nearly identical version of the show before it ever aired.
Since it is Thanksgiving today here in the United States, I’m not going to waste too much time going through this material. I’ll merely note it and pass along my links to where I discussed these topics in greater detail in the past.
First up: Expedition Unknown. The Josh Gates-hosted Travel Channel show isn’t fringe history, but it definitely takes its cues from it. The program grabs on to whatever is popular in pop culture and the produces a half-serious, half-goofball travelogue that usually comes down on the side of science. Last night I saw two episodes of the show, last week’s episode on Minoan Crete and this week’s episode on the lost colony of Roanoke. And, man, were these ever “instant reruns.”
The episode on Minoan Crete explored—what else?—the eruption of the volcano on Santorini and the effect it might have had on Minoan Crete. The claim dates back to the 1960s, but has precursors going back to the Victorian era. For some reason, Gates et al. attribute the fall of the Minoan trading empire to the same period as the volcanic eruption, c. 1600 BCE (according to radiocarbon data) or 1500 BCE (by archaeological estimate), even though Minoan Crete continued on its merry way, more or less, until the Mycenaean conquest around 1420 BCE, after which Minoan civilization continued under new management until around 1200 BCE. The eruption might have weakened the Minoans, but it did not wipe them out. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the Thera/Santorini volcanic explosion is a staple of every Atlantis documentary of the past two decades, including one on the History Channel last year. Gates more or less recreates the History Channel documentary from last year, with the same supposedly new findings, but with Atlantis excised in favor of the Minoans.
The current episode on the lost colony of Roanoke is similarly tiresome in its familiarity. Remember when Scott Wolter went in search of the lost colony, got into a fight with historian Scott Dawson, and used an old patched map to try to locate a fort where the colonists might have hid? Josh Gates did most of the same things, but had a friendly conversation with Dawson (including a day out jet skiing). We saw the same map, had the same fort presented as the same revelation, etc. (“New” discoveries are a relative term on TV.) But unlike Wolter, Gates accepts that the colonists threw their lot in with the local Natives on the island of Croatoan, now Hatteras. It was a funhouse mirror version of America Unearthed, but overly familiar nonetheless.
That brings me to the biggest content recycler of the week, The Curse of Oak Island. If you thought last week was bad, this week makes plain that Templar conspiracy theories will be the overriding theme of the season—and they’re going to the same well as America Unearthed to resurrect the stupidest, most incorrect, and godawful Templar hypotheses. Worse, many of them have been bandied about on the show before. Either executive producer Kevin Burns thinks the audience doesn’t have an attention span, or, perhaps worse, doesn’t care.
Note: I am not offering formal reviews of Curse of Oak Island because (a) I cannot stress how little I care about watching the cast dig holes to nowhere, and (b) the Mysteries of Canada website already does a fine job summarizing and critiquing the program.
Instead, I’d like to touch on the major recycling done this week.
First, it’s worth noting that the show is exploring the same well in the same colonial ruins that America Unearthed dived into in search of the Ark of the Covenant and a “Templar Castle.” Scott Wolter didn’t find anything, and there is very little chance that Curse of Oak Island will uncover a different result.
But that’s not all! Back in January of 2015, the program had Alan Butler and Kathleen McGowan Coppens on to go on “The Trail of the Templars.” At the time, I criticized three important claims that the show made. These were that (a) Rosslyn Chapel contains representations of New World plants decades before Columbus reached the New World, (b) the Mi’kmaq have a flag identical to the battle flag of the Knights Templar, and (c) the Mi’kmaq worship Henry Sinclair, the fourteenth century Earl of Orkney, as a god because his secret Templar knowledge brought him to America with fabulous treasure.
All of these claims are false, and all of them come back again in this episode, in more but still erroneous detail.
Rather than bother to critique the new version, I am simply going to paste below my previous criticism. After all, if they can recycle their content, so can I.
From my review of “Trail of the Templars”
Using the passive voice, the narrator tells us that “it has been reported that the Mi’kmaq saw Henry Sinclair as a god named Glooscap.” This is true only in the technical sense that Frederick J. Pohl made that claim by misunderstanding an 1894 retelling of Mi’kmaq legends. Pohl misread the book as a book about Glooscap, and as I have demonstrated previously therefore concocted similarities between Glooscap and Sinclair that did not exist since the stories he used were often not about Glooscap.
The narrator then tells us that the Mi’kmaq and Henry Sinclair shared the same Templar-influenced battle flag, with a red cross on a white background and a red star and crescent moon. This flag does not exist in Europe and has no record whatsoever in any of the Henry Sinclair documents that exist. Henry’s arms, so far as we can reconstruct them, involved a black cross, and there is no account of a flag. The Mi’kmaq flag is a modern design but is based on symbols that the Mi’kmaq themselves explain that they adopted from French Catholic priests in the 1600s. European accounts agree. The specific Catholic priest from whom the cross was adopted is actually known. His name was Jessé Fléché. The exact moment when the Mi’kmaq adopted a red cross as a Mi’kmaq symbol is recorded by Marc Lescarbot in The Conversion of the Savages written in 1610:
Chkoudun, a man of great influence, of whom I have made honorable mention in my History of New France, because I saw that he, more than all the others, loved the French, and that he admired our civilization more than their ignorance: to such an extent, that being present sometimes at the Christian admonitions, which were given every Sunday to our French people, he listened attentively, although he did not understand a word; and moreover wore the sign of the Cross upon his bosom, which he also had his servants wear; and he had in imitation of us, a great Cross erected in the public place of his village, called Oigoudi, at the port of the river saint John, ten leagues from Port Royal.
A guide at Rosslyn Chapel asserts the truth of the Henry Sinclair myth and shows the men some stylized foliage carved above a window that she says is maize, even though it looks nothing like maize. A stylized three-petal flower is asserted to be a trillium, native to North America, though it could be any sort of flower, such as an iris.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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