Fringe history might be good for TV ratings, but it isn’t good for convincing the guardians of America’s historic sites to let you use those sites to support outrageous ideas. That’s the lesson America Unearthed executive producer Maria Awes learned this week when she applied last week for a permit to shoot at Judaculla Rock, a sacred Cherokee site in North Carolina. The site has been the property of Jackson County since 1959, and while open to the public free of charge, government permission is required to film on the site.
Awes requested permission a week before the scheduled shoot, but her request stirred opposition from Pisgah National Forest archaeologist Scott Ashcraft, who also serves as the head of N.C. Rock Art, according to an article in The Sylva Herald. Ashcraft felt betrayed after his involvement with America Unearthed turned sour.
Ashcarft works for the U.S. Forest Service, which America Unearthed accused of conspiring to suppress the work of Scott Wolter in its pilot episode in 2012 when the Forest Service denied Committee Films permission to shoot at the Track Rock site in Georgia.
On Monday Ashcraft sent an email to Jackson County officials urging the county to exercise careful scrutiny of Committee Films’ request to film at the site based on what he described as the program’s record of “sensationalized, unscientific programming” that would likely depict the ancient site in a false light.
Aschraft had been working with Committee Films on an upcoming episode of America Unearthed, but he told Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten that he severed all ties with the production company after discovering that America Unearthed was intentionally developing a narrative designed to misinform viewers. He said that “they were purposely under-informing, misleading and misdirecting me along the way” to force him into supporting a predetermined narrative over his attempts to “push through their veil of misinformation,” according to documents obtained by the Herald.
Keith Parker, whose family had owned the rock before 1959 and has been involved in preservation efforts for decades, also told the county that he wanted Committee Films barred from the site.
Awes told the Sylva Herald that the county had no reason to worry about the show’s depiction of Judaculla Rock, and she promised that the program would conclude that the rock was a Cherokee or pre-Cherokee artifact, though only after examining “other theories.”
According to Cherokee legend, the carvings on Judaculla Rock are the work of a giant for whom the rock is named and provide instructions for entering the spirit world. Archaeologists believe that the petroglyphs and pock-marks were carved in the Late Woodland or Mississippian periods, but their meaning is unknown. The rock has spawned some fringe theories about trans-Atlantic contact because the giant Judaculla was said to have slanted eyes like Asians. Others have speculated on various Old World origins for the carvings, which archaeologists speculate may have been a map or an astronomical chart.
But take a gander at what Awes thinks America Unearthed does:
“We present ideas about things to get people interested about history. It’s not to get people to look at things one way or another.”
I laughed out loud after reading that line since every episode ends with Scott Wolter issuing a conclusion designed to convince viewers that his investigation has yielded tangible results, regardless of whether they factually do so.
The county manager was scheduled to decide on the permit yesterday. His secretary told me that she did not know what he decided, and he was not available this morning for comment. I left voice mail, but Wooten has not yet returned my call. The Sylva Herald told me he has not returned their calls or emails on the issue either. I will update this post later today once the information has been released, either to me or to the Herald.
Update: As of close of business today, Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten still had not responded to my request for information, and the county had not yet made public whether it issued a permit.
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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