Over the last few days, I’ve received blog comments and emails accusing me of being “obsessed” with Scott Wolter, the geologist who hosts America Unearthed. I thought it was worth pointing out that I wrote about Wolter just twice (here and here, with a very brief mention here) prior to the launch of America Unearthed. Both times I wrote were part of a larger book review solicited by the publisher, not from my own initiative. My blog has always covered whatever is new and popular in alternative history, and with a million weekly viewers, America Unearthed is the highest rated alternative history program and, for better or worse, is leading the field.
From 2009-2012, this role was held by Ancient Aliens, and my blog reflected this in those years, where I was frequently accused of spending too much energy on aliens at the expense of other topics. Prior to that, when Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval were the dominant force in alternative history a decade ago, my old website covered them with the same vigor, especially when they launched a series of attacks against skeptics of their claims.
My episode reviews of America Unearthed are no different than my reviews of Ancient Aliens, or National Geographic’s Atlantis documentary before that. My investigation into Scott Wolter’s master’s degree is no different than my similar exposure of psychic Sean-David Morton’s non-accredited “Ph.D.-equivalency” degree or ancient astronaut writer Robert Temple’s undocumented “visiting professorship.”
But there is something different about America Unearthed that has sparked more interest than any of the other alternative history shows. I’m not sure what it is, whether it’s the combination of nationalism (“AMERICA!”) and anti-elitism, or what, but this show has hit a nerve. I’ve never received so many emails, phone calls, Facebook messages, and blog comments about anything I’ve ever written than I have in the past seven weeks of covering this show. And to think, I only decided to review it on a whim, because it was on after Ancient Aliens and the first episode was supposed to be about the Maya, one of my areas of interest.
I fully expect that the current wave of diffusionism will grow for a while, overtaking ancient astronautics, as happened twenty years ago when Atlantis and the “lost civilization” superseded von Däniken, Sitchin, and their imitators. But, like all the esoteric and occult trends, this too will cycle through and pass on in time.
But in the meantime, I’ll be continuing to analyze the alternative history and its claims.
One such thing that caught my attention occurred on Friday’s episode of America Unearthed (S01E07 “Mystery of Roanoke”) in which Scott Wolter mentioned that in his mind the standard of evidence should be what is allowable “in a court of law.” This stuck out as strange since scientific proof and legal proof are very different things. It raised in my mind the issue I’ve been ignoring for seven weeks now because I have no particular training in geology. Wolter identifies himself as a “forensic geologist,” and I’ve been meaning to ask: What is a forensic geologist? I had no idea, and I’ll admit to being somewhat incurious about finding out.
Forensics typically refers to crime scene investigation, and Wolter’s brief mention of courts of law drew me back to that connection. So I checked into forensic geology, which America Unearthed often implies has something to do with dating prehistoric and historical artifacts. Instead, forensic geology is the application of geology to investigating crime scenes, particularly the location of graves and the analysis of trace mineral evidence. (Like matching soil on a shoe to a particular patch of dirt out in a field.) Typically, this involves fresh crime scenes, not sites thousands of years old, though similar principles would apply. The field was founded by Raymond C. Murray in 1975, but it has no regulatory body or licensing requirements. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree in geology can call him- or herself a “forensic geologist,” so long as one has a regular professional geologist’s license.
In the state of Minnesota, that license is granted so long as one (a) has a 30 college credits in geology (roughly 10 courses), (b) passes a written test, and (c) has been employed in the geology field for five years. “Geology courses must include a minimum of 24 semester hours or 36 quarter hours from among the following core geology subjects: physical geology; historical geology; stratigraphy; sedimentology or sedimentary petrology; mineralogy; igneous and/or metamorphic petrology; structural geology; hydrogeology; geochemistry; geophysics; glacial geology; geomorphology; and field geology or geologic field methods.” The work experience should include “research, planning, technical specifications, codes and standards, research and analysis, economics, safety, observation of ongoing work, and the inspection of the completed project.”
Minnesota does not define “forensic geologist” by statute, nor is it a recognized category within the broader geosciences discipline recognized by the state.
However, Scott Wolter’s American Petrographic Services (APS) uses “forensic geology” differently than the commonly accepted definition as given in textbooks. According to Wolter’s website, his company defines “forensic geology” as using “petrographic analysis to determine the cause of failure in the installation or repair of concrete. […] In addition to identifying causes of concrete failure, APS can assist in mix design options and repair alternatives to maximize the longevity of concrete structures.”
Again, according to the website, Wolter considers “forensic geology” separate from “archaeopetrography,” the use of microscopes to date stone artifacts. This fancy term, not widely used outside of Wolter’s own literature, is not a science but rather a description of applying microscopic observation of rocks (“petrography”) to archaeological artifacts. Since these artifacts are themselves rocks, the “archaeo-” prefix is usually considered redundant by archaeologists and is not typically used in archaeological literature. Its most prominent use is in the 2005 PhD dissertation of Edward Bakewell, who explained that such study could be used to establish provenance (where a stone artifact came from), rather than its absolute date.
I’m not sure what, exactly, this information clears up, but it’s good to know.
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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