Let’s start today by passing along a bit of news. America Unearthed host Scott Wolter visited Westford, Massachusetts with a crew from Committee Films to shoot a segment for the upcoming season of his television show. According to the Westford Eagle, which incorrectly identified his show (twice!) as airing on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel (it airs on H2), Wolter was in town last week to observe a newly discovered marking on the stone housing the Westford Knight.
Westford firefighter David Christiana and Westford Knight devotee Shane Greenslade were cleaning the rock in June when they came across a strange, small marking. Christiana wondered if the new marking could be what is known as the "hooked X," a cross-shaped etching with a line jutting out the top left-hand side.
And where might they have gotten that idea? Oh, right: From Scott Wolter. Wolter planned to determine whether the supposed “Hooked X®” was a natural feature or an intentional carving, and if the latter, how old it is. The so-called Hooked X® is a variant of an X-shaped rune for the letter A and is best known from its use on the Kensington Rune Stone. The shape is not known to have been used before the nineteenth century.
The name Hooked X® was trademarked by Scott Wolter, but it has escaped into the broader conspiracy culture, where it has even been claimed to represent the key to understanding Armageddon when superimposed on a map of the Middle East.
The Westford Knight’s rough carving of a sword and possibly a human face was first attributed to Native Americans before fringe historians later claimed it to be the work of first Vikings and then medieval Scots. Archaeologists believe that most of the image is the result of natural cracks and fissures, with only the so-called “handle” of the sword an actual punch carving.
The Westford Knight became part of the Hooked X® conspiracy when Sinclair extremists decided that the alleged carving of a knight on the rock was made by the party of Henry I Sinclar, Jarl of Orkney, during his fourteenth century tour of America at the behest of the suppressed order of Knights Templar, for which there is no documentary or archaeological evidence. The story originates in an eighteenth century attempt to manufacture a historical basis for the sixteenth century Zeno hoax, in which Venetian nobleman Nicolò Zeno the Younger combined elements from several Renaissance works on the North Atlantic to provide his fourteenth century ancestors with a suitably glorious set of achievements to rival that of the hated Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus. The younger Zeno admitted in the hoax document itself that he had fabricated the extant text, whose current form he attributed to childhood memories of medieval letters that he had destroyed:
…being still a boy when they came into my hands, and not understanding what they were, I tore them in pieces and destroyed them, as boys will do, which I cannot, except with the keenest regret, now call to mind. Nevertheless, in order that so fair a memorial of such things may not be lost, I have placed in order in the above narrative what I have been able to recover of the aforesaid materials… (trans. Fred W. Lucas)
It sure sounds to me like a solid foundation for rewriting medieval history!
Having now done our due diligence monitoring cable TV’s search for more variant-A rune carvings (the “Hooked X®”), I’d like to take a moment to talk about a completely different part of the cable TV lineup, one that mercifully doesn’t pretend to be nonfiction.
Earlier this year the new El Rey network entered an overcrowded field of scripted fare with its remake of From Dusk Till Dawn, and I gave the show a largely positive review after its season finale. So I thought I’d try the network’s new series, Matador, about a DEA agent who goes undercover for the CIA as a player for a Los Angeles pro soccer team to spy on its criminal owner. The show turned out to be a gloriously preposterous throwback to the action dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, and its majority Latino cast gives it a cultural specificity that papers over plot holes that would sink the show had it centered on more generic characters, like Tony Bravo’s unfortunate Agency handlers, played by perhaps the two blandest and most stilted actors on cable TV. The somewhat similar but more self-serious Covert Affairs has more coherent plots, but it’s a lot less fun. Covert Affairs would never joke about Matador the way Matador joked about it.
I bring this up because the latest episode decided to reveal that the overarching plot of the season isn’t, as first hinted, a stereotypical drug cartel but an archaeological treasure hunt. It pains me to say that the writers managed to screw this up badly. The villain (Alfred Molina) burned down a field containing $20 million in coca plants in order to search for what the bland, blonde actress playing a CIA agent described as ruins of a “pre-Olmec” or early Olmec culture from “two thousand years ago” in “Nicaragua.” Tony and his teammates played soccer on what another villain, a drug kingpin, described as the ruins of a Mesoamerican ball court.
Three errors in one line! Since the show does not indicate that they mean the CIA agent to be wrong, the writers seem to have confused 2000 BCE, the actual time of the pre-Olmec period, with “two thousand years ago.” The pre-Olmec period lasted from approximately 2500 BCE to around 1600 BCE. The Olmec and their predecessors little to nothing to do with Nicaragua, however. The prehistoric people of the area are considered an Isthmo-Colombian people, and while they may have had some influence from Mesoamerica, the area is not thought to have had Mesoamerican settlers until after 500 CE, so finding a pre-Olmec city in Nicaragua certainly would be important! Generally speaking, Mesoamerica’s borders ended in El Salvador and Honduras. Also, to my knowledge, there are no Mesoamerican ball courts in Nicaragua, though for fictional purposes I imagine we’re close enough to El Salvador, where some do exist, to let that one slide.
I don’t expect absolute fidelity to facts on an action show, but maybe not confusing 2000 years before present for 2000 BCE would be a step in the right direction.
I’d like to finish by offering a few thoughts on FX’s The Strain, which I haven’t talked much about since its premiere. On the same El Rey network, they’ve been running an interview with Guillermo del Toro, the creator of The Strain, the co-author of its source novels, and the man in charge of the program. I watched it last night, and I was struck by his discussion of The Strain, in which he gushed about the attention he gives to designing the monsters and “color correcting each episode.” He uttered nary a word about the plot, the story, or the characters, and his choice of focus is reflected on screen.
The show’s visuals are rich and often compelling, but man, oh man that plot! It’s so preposterous I don’t know where to begin. (And remember, I just praised Matador for being ridiculous.) So cell phone and the internet are all taken down by a single hacker, and virtually no one on the show notices? If anything produces outrage, chaos, and confusion, it’s when cell or internet outages occur—yet none of the main characters seem vaguely aware that the internet exists. The stock market supposedly crashed because of a single incident with a single airplane, sowing economic chaos? What world are they living in? We’ve had entire wars happen out here in the real world without causing a blip in stock prices. The elderly vampire hunter is strong enough to take on the vampire menace at the age of, what, 90? In flashbacks, he is shown as a young man in a Nazi concentration camp. Even if we generously assume he was supposed to be 15 there (though the actor looked 25), he’d be no younger than 84 now. He must be on the Jack Lalanne workout regimen.
I really expected better from The Strain. The moment genitals started falling off into toilets, I realized that Del Toro had written a thirteen year old boy’s immature fantasy version of a vampire story, and everything that followed basically confirmed that idea—the story, as presented on screen (I have not read the books), is adolescent and immature, a bunch of clichés assembled in service of grotesquerie.
The whole thing is full of absurdities, plot holes, and head-slapping moments, but Del Toro is right about one thing: It has beautiful color correction.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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