It seems that more media outlets are getting the message that America Unearthed and its host, Scott Wolter, are producing pseudo-history rather than serious documentaries. Case in point: Atlas Obscura ran a piece yesterday on the almost certainly modern hoax Viking inscription on a rock on Noman’s Land Island at Martha’s Vineyard in which they described Wolter’s efforts to have the rock removed from the island in these terms:
In 2013, another proposal was levied in front of the BUAR [the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources]. This time, the proposer was none other than Scott Wolter, a forensic geologist and host of the pseudo-scientific archaeological show America Unearthed on the History channel. Wolter proposed to assemble a team to remove the rock, and put it on permanent display in a museum on Martha’s Vineyard, so it could be safeguarded for further study. The BUAR, as well as the historic preservation commission of the Wampanoag tribe, jointly shut down the request.
The Wampanoag consider Noman’s Land Island to be sacred and frown upon removing anything from the island.
But that’s not the half of it. Regular readers will remember that back in season one of America Unearthed Scott Wolter visited Arizona and claimed that some runes found in the desert in 2010 were a grave marker for Peter “Rough” Hurech, an alleged twelfth century English explorer, whom Wolter asserted was the architect who taught the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) how to build cliff dwellings. I dismissed the claim after attempting to confirm Alan Butler’s assertion on the show that the Staffordshire County records office in England had proved the existence of Peter “Rough” Hurech when that same records office told me that they provided no information to Butler and had no record of any person named Hurech, let alone Peter.
Swedish public television, SVT, reported this week that Henrik Williams, the runologist who has clashed with Scott Wolter over the Kensington Rune Stone, attempted to test Wolter’s hypothesis that the Arizona runes were in fact medieval and made by an Englishman by looking for the actual source of the runes. Williams told SVT that “it is a completely insane interpretation presented in the program.” Unsurprisingly, Wolter is wrong about every single point of the runes except for the fact that they are a type of rune, according to Williams, who published a draft of his results on his Uppsala University website, which (disclosure) was partly inspired by and cites comments left on my blog and parts of my book Unearthing the Truth. Weirdly enough, Wolter almost got one thing right when he noted that the runes looked too freshly carved to be medieval, but instead of taking this as evidence of a modern origin, he instead decided the stone had been buried in a cave, thus keeping it looking like new. Guess what: He was wrong there, too.
Williams identified the runes as common Germanic runes, and not Anglo-Saxon as claimed by Wolter and his friend Mike Carr, who had offered a prima facie false translation during the episode that involved death, an Englishman, and something called the “Temple of Eden.” Williams identified an unusual lightning-bolt rune in the inscription as the vowel A, based on its use in the Istaby inscription, apparently the only known medieval instance of its appearance as such. He then was able to transliterate the runes and compare them to known languages. He discovered that the inscription was made in a modern reconstruction of an extinct Baltic language called Sudovian, which translated reads “Hello! I (the) Sudovian write runes. Pashka is my name.” The reconstructed language exists in service of a hypothesis about Viking colonization of the Baltic coast. Williams discovered that the owner of the Sudovian homepage containing the reconstructed (i.e. made up) language is Joseph Pashka, who lived in Arizona and told Williams that while he did not carve the runes, he knows who did and that they were made around 1993.
Williams added commentary in his report on Wolter being very, very wrong, and he noted that there is a colonialist streak to claiming Native people needed English help to build their own houses.
Elementary competence in reading runes is obviously not considered as hard science, and the result of it all is what happens when you let a runic cowboy instead of a professional runologist investigate a runestone. When does entertainment with a claimed scientific basis become simply deceitful?
For those of you who read Swedish, be sure to check out Williams’s comments on Scott Wolter and America’s love of pseudoscience at the end of the SVT article. The gist of it is that Williams finds it outrageous that the History channel (and H2 before it) gives Wolter a platform to opine. He feels that pseudoscience is far too rampant in the United States, and indeed is creeping into Sweden as well. He says that his letters to the editor refuting pseudoscientific claims are never published because the media prefers wild speculation and lionizes people like Wolter who “have built their careers on false assumptions” about history. Williams concludes by noting that pseudoscience plays into America’s distrust of authority and widespread anti-intellectualism, as well as a cultural contempt for the humanities. “I usually say that if you have problems with the electricity in your home, you call an electrician. But as soon as it comes to the humanities, everyone thinks you can do the job yourself.”
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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