Last night, America Unearthed host Scott Wolter questioned my integrity as a critic and my honesty as a reporter, so unfortunately that means another day spent discussing his show. Perhaps that’s all part of the plan. Anyway, Wolter accused me of misrepresenting his position on the Brandenburg Stone, an alleged Welsh carving found in Kentucky in 1912. I wrote in my review of S01E09 “Motive for Murder” that Wolter had concluded after an examination that the stone was carved prior to 1492.
In your haste to try and discredit me, you are getting careless. If you had listened carefully you would have heard me say the weathering of the Brandenburg Stone COULD pre-date Columbus. In the next sentence, I said because the provenance of the artifact was unknown, and therefore the weathering environment it was exposed to is unknown, we can not say how old the inscription is. You obviously thought you heard something different, but I invite you suffer through the episode one more time to check the facts.
Therefore, in the interest of scrupulous accuracy, I transcribe below Wolter’s discussion of the Brandenburg Stone, proffered in three separate segments of the episode:
Wolter: This is the first time I’ve ever looked at this stone. These are limestones, probably oolitic limestone. If you look very closely, you’ll see what looks like little sand grains. They’re actually sand of limestone, and they’re called oolites. When I look down into the grooves, I can see some of those ooids, so that’s an indication of weathering. Based on everything I’ve seen, we’re not lookin’ at a hoax here. Does anybody know what this inscription says? [Discussion of the content of the “Welsh” message.] This could actually call into question the whole legitimacy of the United States!
I hope you can see how I concluded that Wolter thought the stone was carved before 1492. First, he concluded that the stone was not “a hoax” (therefore genuinely ancient). Second, he spoke with an “expert” who claimed that the Welsh occupation of America occurred in the 500s CE, which Wolter does not contradict. Third, he repeats that the weathering took a long time, emphasizing the word long. Finally, he states that the rock “could have been carved before 1492,” with the conjunction “but” used to link that thought to the second, that there was no way to “more precise.” The use of the term “more precise” implies that it refers to “before 1492” as the antecedent, so any more precise date would be before 1492. Therefore, I had no choice but to conclude from the grammar of the sentence that Wolter believed that 1492 was the terminus ante quem for the stone’s carving. The fact that the only other date offered for it was in the sixth century CE seemed to establish a terminus post quem, meaning that until the final segment of the show, the stone’s proposed date was sometime between c. 550 CE and 1492.
This is why we do not do science by television. It requires more than a single sentence to convey the full range of possibility and all the qualifications needed in presenting a conclusion.
As we know, the stone was actually carved much, much later. It is written in Coelbren y Beirdd, a hoax Welsh alphabet created in Wales in 1791 by Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), but not widely popularized outside of scholarly circles in Wales until years later when his son Taliesin began publishing his father’s works in 1826. The alphabet was widely published in the 1830s and 1840s, and whoever forged the Brandenburg Stone (it was not actually either Williams, who were never in Kentucky) almost certainly used such publications, possibly Taliesin Williams’s widely-read book about the alphabet, in forging the stone. The younger Williams’s popular book was published to scholarly acclaim in 1840 (having won a prestigious prize two years before) and the alphabet was exposed as a hoax in 1893 (though suspicions had been raised earlier, until Taliesin successfully combated them), which makes it much more likely that the stone was actually carved between 1840 and 1912, though a date as early as 1792 cannot be excluded. In the United States, libraries had dozens of different volumes on Coelbren y Beirdd, including the Iolo Manuscripts (1848), Bardaas (1862 and 1874), etc., but I am not able to find evidence that the alphabet itself would have been widely available in rural America prior to Taliesin’s book, though it is possible that some of Edward’s specialist publications imported from Britain were available in some places. After 1862, the largest collection of the Williams forgeries was in print and the alphabet was at the height of its popularity. Thus, the latter nineteenth or early twentieth century seems the best candidate for the time of forgery. America Unearthed is a bit deceptive on this point in an attempt to make the stone seem as old as possible.
Given this, even if we accept everything Wolter now claims as true, he still can’t tell the difference between a stone that was carved a scant century ago and one that is 200, 500, or 1500 years old.
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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