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for a while, overtaking ancient astronautics, as happened twenty years ago when Atlantis and the “lost civilization” superseded von Däniken, Sitchin, and their imitators.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.
2/3/2013 08:06:46 am
2/3/2013 10:42:38 am
Just for clarification purposes, the "in a court of law" statement is drilled into geology students as undergrads. When taking field courses (required for B.Sc. degrees in geology, but not for B.A. degrees), you are given a notebook and told to write every observation down (along with sketches of the field area) with meticulous and tedious accuracy. This is typically due to the fact that many geology majors that decide not to go to grad school will find jobs in environmental remediation. Field books are, in that case, admissable in court as evidence.
2/3/2013 10:47:00 am
Thank you, Kate. Wolter has frequently testified in court about concrete structural safety issues as well as in a single case where his concrete expertise was used in a murder case where the victim was buried in concrete, leaving behind an impression he studied (hence his title, "forensic geologist"). I presume that's why legal evidence is on his mind. Obviously, geology has much to offer in investigating ancient cultures and their remains, but as you so aptly note, running one rock under one machine isn't going to cut it.
2/3/2013 02:39:56 pm
I am enjoying the "America Unearthed" show. It's interesting. Our whole family is watching it every week. We hope to visit some of these sites on our family vacations. This show is doing wonderful things for tourism and it's great for Minnesota. I have read your blog posts and all I can say is that you are jealous of this show's success. That is quite clear. That's too bad.
2/3/2013 06:00:28 pm
It's good that you'd like to see these places, but it's sad that you will be so narrow minded when you visit them. If I saw "America Unearthed" and was inspired to go to one of these places, I'd want to learn as much as I could about them and not just rely on some guy on TV to tell me everything I needed to know.
2/3/2013 10:28:56 pm
The measure of a show's value shouldn't be financial. I'd rather that tourism come from a genuine interest in the wonderful things Minnesota actually has to offer, not secondhand "mysteries." Surely you're not saying Minnesota has nothing else to offer that would interest the public?
2/5/2013 04:09:47 pm
I feel this way (following up on Jason's comment on MN) about the Betsy Ross House here in Philadelphia.
2/3/2013 05:49:12 pm
"But, like all the esoteric and occult trends, this too will cycle through and pass on in time."
2/3/2013 06:02:53 pm
I have seen the pink Ouija board. It will summon Hello Kitty. Flee for your lives! Flee!
2/3/2013 10:30:26 pm
Are you familiar with the occult concept of the "eternal return"? Like any cycle, these things rise and fall in popularity.
2/4/2013 12:31:40 pm
Well, I would argue that considering the fact that occult has become of a big business. But more important is a big push of New Age religion with astral travel, channeling, and a growing number of plastic shamans. If you can’t see it…….your perception is very selective…or perhaps the answer is more prosaic.
2/4/2013 04:45:52 am
A certain segment of people will seek this stuff out, I don't begrudge them their fantasy. My resentment of this show comes from my belief that there are a few examples of genuine pre-Columbian exploration in America, and sensationalized fiction like this only results in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. If Scott were truly dedicated to discovering where real history needs to be amended, he wouldn't be doing this. He used to call me every day and talk for an hour. He promised he would never stoop to anything like this. The fact that he has, should dash his credibility on geology, especially dating, to anyone with a working brain (which I fear is a small slice of his audience). On the other hand, I guess that's what markets are about - matching those with something to sell with those willing to buy it.
2/5/2013 04:21:58 pm
2/5/2013 04:22:08 pm
2/5/2013 04:23:20 am
Just reading through the comments on the America Unearthed Facebook page makes me feel sick. This show has (perhaps unsurprisingly) convinced people that they have been taught lies in school and that they are now getting the "truth" from Wolter. Some people claim to be educators and historians and they heartily approve of AE and Wolter. Ugh...
2/6/2013 10:31:47 am
Next week: Colonial root cellar or Templar ritual bath chamber?
2/6/2013 11:08:12 am
Aww, you pre-debunked it! Now what's left for me to do?
2/6/2013 02:11:04 pm
Ha! Hardly! I just wanted to see what we are in for on Friday and I thought I would share it here. I look forward to your review on Saturday.
terry the censor
2/6/2013 11:33:04 am
> Scott Wolter mentioned that in his mind the standard of evidence should be what is allowable “in a court of law”
1/5/2014 02:50:32 pm
I just came across the show and have only watched two episodes. I was struck right away by Wolter's attitude toward his theories, i.e., they are absolutely correct, no matter what he finds. That is, the evidence will be interpreted in his favor in all cases. He has no interest in finding the truth, only in proving his ideas are correct, by whatever means necessary. I noticed how quick he was (when talking on the phone) to dismiss those who disagreed with him.
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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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