A Feeling of Déjà Vu: "Expedition Unknown" and "Curse of Oak Island" Plumb Familiar Depths
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.
11/24/2016 10:11:32 am
First, Happy Thanksgiving!
11/24/2016 11:00:58 am
I agree. I watched EU and was happy to NOT see Gates follow a trail of hoaxes and rocks all over the south but instead went more or less to the logical answer.
11/24/2016 02:55:19 pm
Only Me must be waiting for Jason all the time because Only Me sends the first response all the time
11/24/2016 03:44:31 pm
Except yesterday when it was Titus, or the day before when it was RobZ, or the day before when it was David Brody... etc... etc... etc..
11/24/2016 03:48:52 pm
I see the stuffed turkey has arrived!
11/25/2016 01:07:52 am
Time to succumb to turkey torpor
11/24/2016 11:01:32 am
Have a very Happy Thanksgiving Day
11/24/2016 02:56:52 pm
For those of you who do not live in North America here is what Thanksgiving Day is.
11/24/2016 02:59:32 pm
North Americans believe that people all over the world celebrate and know about Thanksgiving Day.
11/24/2016 05:14:23 pm
Well, and Saint Lucia, Liberia, Norfolk Island.
11/24/2016 07:55:39 pm
No. We really don't. We acknowledge Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. Still, that doesn't stop others from knowing about it, or provide ample excuse for your pointless expounding on what it is or what we believe people know about it.
11/24/2016 11:09:32 am
The stock footage that COOI has used in promos and both episodes so far this year of Templars walking through the woods is copy-pasted directly from the can of Wolters AU episode. I think they used it last season as well. Recycling everything.
11/24/2016 12:32:27 pm
I knew i saw that well on an american unearthed episode. Another team is repulsed in new ross😀
11/24/2016 01:04:44 pm
See, Jason, you made the mistake of watching America Unearthed. I didn't, and so last night's Expedition Unknown was springtime fresh to me. Plus I didn't have to, y'know, sit through America Unearthed in the first place. =P
11/24/2016 03:39:07 pm
It looks like they have gone to the well one too many times. As far as the mysterious "hatch" goes, someone should let them know that holes such as that were very commonplace prior to people having running water.
11/24/2016 06:53:06 pm
If they are serious about searching for treasure by looking down the hatch, I suggest they research the book "A Fortune In The Outhouse" by I P Nickels.
11/24/2016 07:02:07 pm
I'm rather disappointed. No note about trump's voting fraud? Chance that he might end up in prison where he belongs and not the white house is bigger news than a tv show.
11/25/2016 06:44:50 am
You might also want to check out a series called 'Treasure Quest' it looks to be a load of dingoes kidneys, if UFO proponent Kevin Randle is to be believed.
11/25/2016 11:55:31 am
So I've watched CoOI a few times, found it mildly interesting--I'd heard of the place and have been curious what the true story is, it having been fictionalized often enough. And there's a bit of that real history in the show at the start, and so far so good. Then the parade of "Theorists" begins. Ok, the producers have to find ways to keep generating episodes and there's only so much genuine material to work with, I get that. But then the fercripesake Templars again. What IS it with all these shows and the fercripesake Templars? Like you say, it's not the stupid that offends so much as the shear lack of imagination. If you have to make sh** up to keep the show going, couldn't it at least be something that hasn't already been done to death? The Lagina brothers don't seem like total idiots, at least not at first, and they have a sincere interest in the place. But this is just so... lame. I'm feeling embarrassed for them.
12/22/2016 04:04:38 pm
There's precious little "real history" in the Oak Island show. They heavily glaze over things to try and make their case plausible. The thing you won't ever him them admit is that the entire area of the supposed Money Pit was totally obliterated in the 1960s on multiple occasions. One dig took out a 100-foot wide section all around the original shaft down to over 130 feet. Two subsequent digs on the same location went down to around 200 feet. If there ever was anything there it was pulverized. Every place on that island where there was even the slightest question about has been dug up over the years. Literally, there's nothing new to look at yet they act as if the place is basically untouched with all sorts of hidden clues to be found.
12/22/2016 04:57:56 pm
Now see that's the kind of thing I really WOULD like to know about the place, being only vaguely familiar with it to begin with. Of course I don't expect any real history on the "history" channel, or at least not a very high proportion. But the truth can be interesting too. Though it wouldn't sustain a whole extended series of course.
11/27/2016 01:31:58 pm
In regards to CoOI, I think the Lagina brothers know exactly what they are doing. As long as the History Channel check clears, they are more than happy to sit, smile, and nod listening to the fringe idiots talk about templars, the holy grail, fake Roman swords and whatever else cooky idea of the week.
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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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