Before we begin today, I have a brief announcement to make: My newest book, Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages is now available to purchase direct from the publisher! The official publication date for the book is July 1, and it will gradually become available on Amazon and other retailers over the next few weeks. McFarland sells the book only at full price; I’m not sure how much of a discount the retailers might offer when the book is available there.
I’m excited that the book is finally in print after several long years of researching and writing it, followed by even longer trying to find a publisher willing to print it. I received my personal copies late last week, and the book looks beautiful.
Now on to today’s topic.
When America Unearthed aired its episode “Swamp Mammoth,” it introduced a mass audience to James Kennedy, an amateur fossil hunter in Vero Beach, Florida who in 2009 discovered a mammoth bone inscribed with an ancient carving of a mastodon or mammoth, confirmed by repeated testing to be one of the oldest pieces of Paleoindian art known from the Americas, but believed by Wolter and Smithsonian archaeologist Dennis Stanford to be of prehistoric European origin. Kennedy told Scott Wolter about a second piece of bone art, showing what he said was a fisherman.
Kennedy has refused to have the second bone tested, and in a new interview with the Vero News he says that he won’t allow any future testing because he doesn’t want to give up control of the artifact or expose it to the doubts and questions of scientists.
“I’ve been keeping it under wraps because of all the garbage I went through with the first one,” Kennedy told the Vero News.
Keeping it under wraps, however, didn’t preclude him from featuring it on America Unearthed and displaying it for the cameras—and, as we shall see, possibly for someone else.
When I reviewed the episode, Kennedy dropped by my blog to accuse me and my readers of “hating” on him and being jealous of him, and he refused to answer questions about his find: “keep on hating people, jealousy is a natural feeling. It[’]s just restrained by maturity.”
So why would Kennedy drop by my blog to complain about mild questions about his fisherman bone? Oh, right, the money.
It turns out that Kennedy’s biggest complaint about the “garbage” he went through with the scientists who studied his first bone is that they weren’t willing to pay him enough for it. Kennedy declined the Smithsonian’s offer to take custody of the bone, and he refused repeated requests from scientists around the world to place the bone in a public collection for future study. Instead, he sold it to a private collector for an undisclosed sum, removing it from availability for scientific study, according to the newspaper. This is a bit confusing since on America Unearthed Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian showed Scott Wolter what the program claimed was the original piece, which he and Wolter proceeded to study, but this now seems to have been a cast made by the Smithsonian several years ago.
According to the Vero News, Kennedy has been telling people he entertained offers of seven figures for the first bone and that no museum could match the sum a private collector gave him for it in March 2013. Obviously, he has a vested interest in suppressing criticism or questions about his second, untested bone if he hopes to market it for a similar price.
However, the article notes that the second bone is in a different artistic style from the first. Kennedy’s sales agent, auctioneer and art historian Ron Rennick, noted that the bone might be authentic, or it could be a century-old souvenir from the time when “Vero Man” was a popular prehistoric tourist attraction. Only the tests Kennedy refuses to allow can say for sure.
“It’s not fake,” Wolter told the Vero News. “They’re saying it’s fake and they’ll try and smear it, but at the end of the day it’s going to be vetted out and it will stand up to scrutiny.” Wolter did not say who “they” are or why “they” would work so hard to declare this carving a fake after archaeologists have widely accepted the first carving. It seems to reflect Wolter’s conspiratorial view of archaeology.
Archaeologists, however, note that because Kennedy removed the bones from their context and will not disclose the exact location where they were found, they have little value to archaeology. They are interesting and suggestive, but without a clear context they can’t provide the specific and detailed data archaeologists need.
It’s probably also worth noting that the writer of the Vero News story appears to have read my review of the “Swamp Mammoth” episode. The writer notes that America Unearthed has “detractors” who criticize it as pseudoscience, and the writer takes time to specifically ask Scott Wolter about the seemingly-staged scene in which the camera crew is already waiting at the spot where Wolter and Kennedy suddenly discover a mammoth tooth—a scene I had singled out as improbable since the show had faked so many scenes in earlier episodes, from shooting in the fall and pretending it was spring, to shooting new scenes at the St. Paul airport and pretending they had occurred in North Carolina several months earlier.
“This was totally 100 percent,” Wolter told the Vero News while shooting at Judaculla Rock in North Carolina. “Everything we found was legit. I probably went home with five pounds of bone and teeth.” According to Kennedy and Wolter, the camera crew set up the shot ahead of time, but by lucky coincidence they stumbled across the mammoth tooth while shooting their arrival on the beach on an island near Vero Beach.
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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