I had hoped to review Josh Gates’s new pseudo-archaeology travel show Expedition Unknown today, but then I learned about some ridiculous news from the world of pseudo-archaeology. So, today I’m going to have a split post that will discuss the latest claims for the reality of the island of Atlantis and then briefly provide a capsule review of Gates’s latest entry into the America Unearthed and Curse of Oak Island knockoff genre.
First up, earlier this week news organizations from Discovery News to Archaeology magazine breathlessly reported that an Italian archaeologist had discovered evidence that the lost continent of Atlantis actually existed. According to published accounts, Sicily’s Superintendent of the Sea Office, Sebastiano Tusa, announced the discovery of 39 ingots of an unknown metal that he identified as orichalcum, an unidentified metal referred to in some ancient writings. The ingots were found in a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily that Tusa dated to “the sixth century,” by which he presumably meant the sixth century BCE.
“Nothing similar has ever been found,” Tusa said. “We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.”
Immediately, Tusa’s statements raised red flags: How could the metal be unknown if it was previously known from ornamental objects?
The metal that Tusa described as orichalcum is nothing of the sort. It’s standard brass. A forensic analysis revealed that the ingots were 75-80% copper and 15-20% zinc, with trace impurities of other metals. Again: This is brass. Specifically, it’s what’s called “alpha brass,” which contains more than 65% copper, and is close to the type known today as low brass. Since brass has been used since ancient times, I’m not sure why this particular form of brass is any different than any other ancient brass.
Now here is where things start to go even more wrong.
Discovery News writer Rossella Lorenzi, writing on January 6, noted that orichalcum appears in Plato’s Critias as the reddish metal lining the temple of Poseidon in Atlantis. (Disclosure: Lorenzi cited me in an article last year on Dracula’s tomb, though we have never spoken.) But Lorenzi left out Plato’s caveat that this metal was unknown in his day, for he makes Critias say that it was “now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold” (trans. Jowett). Brass, formed by the cementation process, could not be “dug out of the earth” and therefore is not the metal referred to, especially since the Critias states that another wall was itself made of brass.
Lorenzi turned to Brazilian physicist Enrico Mattievich for commentary. He believes that the ancient Greeks discovered America, and he thinks they brought the “true” orichalcum—an alloy of gold and silver—back with them from Chavin-era Peru! His argument, inspired by that of Henrietta Mertz, is that the Odyssey describes a real voyage up the Amazon River, which he equates with Oceanus, the great world river. He also says that the Amazon is the giant serpent slain by Cadmus because Ovid described it as being as big as a constellation. He sees the Greek Underworld, which Odysseus visited, as the land below the equator, and he believes that the Chavin culture gave rise to the myth of the Medusa. He wrote a book on the subject, Journey to the Mythological Inferno, but I have not read it in either its 1992 Portuguese-language edition or 2010 English translation. To judge by the lack of Amazon reviews, no one else has either. According to the press release, the book is a collection of standard fringe history claims, sourced to Mertz, David Childress, and others. Why Lorenzi considered him a reputable source, I cannot imagine.
Now watch what happens when Richard Gray of the Daily Mail, writing yesterday, fails to understand what he read in Discovery News. Suddenly the fact that Plato mentions orichalcum becomes proof that Atlantis existed! “If the metal discovered by Professor Tusa and his team is really the mythical orichalcum, then it lends support to the idea of Atlantis as being a real place.” The logic is confounding. In the Hymn to Aphrodite (Homeric Hymn 5), Aphrodite’s earrings are made of the same metal. By the same logic, identifying brass as orichalcum “proves” that Aphrodite was real, too! It makes no real sense to argue that a metal used in 550 BCE has anything to do with an imaginary continent from 9,600 BCE.
Several years ago Josh Gates hosted Destination Truth on the Syfy channel in which the host went in search of cryptids and ghosts. This show as occasionally more interesting than other shows in the genre since it was relatively skeptical and devoted more time to a semi-comedic travelogue of exotic places rather than to standing around empty fields screaming at nothing. Although Gates’s antics grew more clownish over time, and more than once suggested the stereotype of the ugly, ignorant American stomping through non-Western cultures, Gates was more interested in the opinions and lore of native peoples than almost any other host in the paranormal genre. This caused tension with the network, whose shows needed a certain level of “possibility” for their paranormal claims, even when the evidence was lacking, and more than once it was obvious that Gates was giving voice to claims dictated by network needs rather than conviction. (A Syfy producer once told me that the network limited how many skeptical views could be presented per show.) Needless to say, he never found any of the monsters he sought, despite a much-publicized “find” of Yeti evidence that turned out not to be.
On the plus side, he did manage to find love on the show. He married one of the show’s researchers last fall.
Gates is now on the Travel Channel, where his new series, Expedition Unknown, debuted last night. It is essentially Destination Truth with historical figures substituted for lake monsters. What differentiates this show from its predecessor is Gates’s effort to make himself seem more credible than his reputation as an incompetent monster hunter. To that end, the opening credits emphasize that Gates has a “degree in archaeology,” by which he means a bachelor’s in archaeology and drama from Tufts University. Press releases call this “archaeological expertise,” which I imagine makes me—with my own bachelor’s in anthropology/archaeology and journalism—just as much of an expert!
In the two-hour debut episode, Gates goes in search of Amelia Earhart, who remains as elusive for him as the Yeti and the other creatures he once stalked. He travels to Papua New Guinea, or PNG, where a good chunk of the first hour is devoted to a colorful tour of the country’s capital and some of the more distance tribes. Gates plays up the stereotype that white guys are afraid that tribal people will skewer them with sticks, but for the most part he treats the native people respectfully. All of this is in service of a fringe theory that Earhart might have tried to return to PNG, and, by lightening her load and flying “conservatively” eked out enough fuel to make it back to the island before crashing. It probably isn’t in the top 10 Earhart theories, but it has the benefit of taking Gates to a place that’s easier to secure permission to film than some of the islands where alleged Earhart wreckage had previously been found—indeed, Gates later describes such places as “not easy to reach.”
On PNG, some members of a tribe show Gates an engine that he speculates might be from Earhart’s plane, but it turns out to be a Japanese engine, despite Gates calling it a “developing lead.” He also goes in search of underwater plane wreckage off PNG, which is once again a Japanese plane. Gates talks to a man who actually explored some of the more distant islands and found what is thought to be a piece of Earhart’s plane. He tells Gates that a skeleton that was possibly that of Earhart was recovered in 1940 but lost in Fiji’s archives. Gates seizes on the cost savings of filming in Fiji rather than on some remote island and therefore travels to Fiji to look for those who knew the people involved with the archives back in the 1940s to see if someone took them away. At a village, one man, John Gray, tells Gates that as a kid in 1968 he found a box of bones buried under his house and gave it to the Fiji Museum, and he wonders if he found Amelia Earhart’s bones.
Gates visits the Museum and shares with us tales of Fijian cannibalism. The Museum gives Gates permission to view the archives, but he finds nothing in the seemingly haphazard collection. He then travels to the place where Gray used to live to look at the crawl space under the house to see if there are more bones there, presumably those that fell out of the box. Gates scrapes through the dirt and finds some bones, but despite his “archaeological expertise,” he can’t tell if some are human bones, though he recognizes several as animal bones. Fijian police seized the bones and questioned Gates as part of a criminal investigation after one of the bones turns out to be human. But since this show has a deadline, Gates (who is the executive producer) chooses not to wait the “months” for Fijian police to complete their DNA analysis of the bones before airing this episode. (Presumably those months have now passed.) Instead, he offers a milquetoast summary that repeats the conventional wisdom about where and when Earhart died, essentially rendering the whole episode moot.
So are the bones those of Earhart? According to Expedition Unknown, the answer isn’t important because Earhart is an inspiration who deserves to live on in myth. That seems like a pretty good indication that the answer is no.
Expedition Unknown is pretty much Destination Truth, so if you like one you’ll like the other. On the plus side, the Travel Channel seems to have fewer demands for specific outcomes than Syfy, so there is less of a chance of this show fabricating evidence.
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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