New "Evidence" of Atlantis and a Review of Expedition Unknown S01E01 "Amelia Earhart"
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.
1/9/2015 06:12:32 am
The whole orichalcum story is depressing due to the gratuitous amount of idiocy it involves.
1/9/2015 12:56:58 pm
Not no one. Tusa apparently did (though I've only seen the same sources you have). Now, we might expect a science writer to potentially go "wait a minute" but if an archaeological authority starts talking about a quasi-mythical metal from Atlantis, can we blame even decent journalists for running that?
1/9/2015 01:51:01 pm
Tusa does not mention Atlantis as far as I can tell. He expresses himself poorly (assuming he is not being misquoted). He speaks (anachronistically) of orichalcum, but it is the Daily Mail's and Discover's desperate sensationalism that turns this into evidence of Atlantis.
1/9/2015 02:20:23 pm
Mentioning orichalcum pretty much is mentioning Atlantis.
1/9/2015 02:21:08 pm
For what it's worth, Tusa is a highly respected academic, who seems to be a lot more scientifically minded than many serious professional archaeologists. While he certainly doesn't shy away from seeking publicity for his field and his discoveries, he doesn't seem to have a single pseudo-historical bone in his body. (On the other hand, his English is far from perfect, which is also worth keeping in mind...)
1/9/2015 02:22:42 pm
"Mentioning orichalcum pretty much is mentioning Atlantis."
1/9/2015 11:25:28 pm
So, this largely seems to the spring from the work of one E. R. Caley. I haven't read his book or articles, but does he actually know that the coins he's studying were called orichalcum by their users, or is he just assuming that's what they are based on descriptions (some of which suggest the metal hadn't been seen in living times)?
1/9/2015 11:39:41 pm
I've ILL'd Caley's book so I'll look at this myself. But if it is as it appears, that some Classicists slapped the name onto materials based on some descriptions in the literature, without any actual evidence tying the use of that name by the Romans to that alloy AND without really making a big deal about how there is a disjunct between what the later Greeks and Romans were calling orichalcum and its appearance as a quasi-mythical metal centuries earlier ... I don't have much sympathy for the classicists.
1/10/2015 02:17:08 am
"So, this largely seems to the spring from the work of one E. R. Caley."
Duke of URL
1/10/2015 03:12:49 am
It's wrong to mock Gray's spelling when you can't spell ingot.
1/10/2015 03:35:03 am
First of all, I know how to spell it. I just made a typo. (That, by the way, could also explain Gray's 'nickle', but not 'metaphore'.)
Regarding what Sebastiano Tusa actually said, here is the official press release from Soprintendenza per i Beni culturali e ambientali del Mare where he works: http://www.regione.sicilia.it/beniculturali/archeologiasottomarina/sez_eventi/gela_lingotti_dic2014.htm; of course he never mentions Atlantis, and uses "orichalcum" in the sense of copper alliage. There is also an interview of the same Tusa here: http://www.nextme.it/rubriche/previousme/8829-atlantide-sicilia-sebastiano-tusa
4/8/2015 04:57:31 pm
The composition was easy enough to figure.... Same with the dating of the ship. What intrigues me is for all the "mystery" there's no mention of any sort of ruler or smelting location.. Ingots going back a long way would have markings to tell what it is, who made it, and sometimes who owned it... I'm surprised men of science would leave any markings on the ingots out, and go to Atlantis....
10/14/2015 10:05:39 pm
You can't spell exclusive.
5/2/2016 10:33:44 am
Tusa does have his reasons to believe orichalcum ingots are indeed not brass. They are indeed entirely something else. If you actually compare myths to the ingots that were found in the shipwreck. If at all you should compare brass to the orichalcum.
3/5/2017 04:02:31 pm
Your an ass with an overinflated ego. My wife and I both love Josh Gates he may never find anything but at least he doesn't have shitty opinions.
1/9/2015 06:12:56 am
I'm not going to lie, I was a pretty big DT fan when it aired (though it went decidedly down hill the last couple of seasons), and so I was actually a little excited to watch this show. Jason is right that it is essentially a rehash of DT with some minor tweaks, most notably that Gates is carrying the show on his own and doesn't really integrate his interactions with his crew into the narrative (which was a main feature of DT). In all, I found the show relatively entertaining and in keeping with the best parts of DT including the forays into local customs and cultures (though many of the interactions are obviously, even painfully, staged). While it is tagged as a series about investigating mysteries, the thing that really drives the show is Gates' charisma. He's an entertaining and charming fellow and without him the show really wouldn't work. As such, the show is/will be focused more on his "journeys" and the "search" as opposed to actually really finding the answers to the mysteries he's investigating. But to Gates' credit he has always seemed more genuine than other such hosts, and he seems to interview much more trustworthy people than other shows in this genre. If you like Gates you'll probably enjoy the show (and maybe learn a few things), but don't expect to learn too much or for Gates to solve any of the mysteries he's chasing.
Steve in SoDak
1/12/2015 03:06:08 am
I am also a fan of DT, the thing I liked most about it was that anytime a piece of "evidence" was found they didn't jump off the deep end and proclaim that a piece of fur or unknown bone was conclusive evidence of whatever they were looking for. They started to lose me in the later seasons when they would do EVP sessions no mater what it was they were looking for. (I don't believe in ghosts so EVP seems silly to me). I look forward to watching this series.
3/12/2017 01:56:48 am
I am so glad that i'm not the only one not infatuated with Gates. His charisma is fake and wouldn't hold up long in the face of antagonism, or even beliefs other than his own. I watch the man only to laugh at the near outtakes and offences he causes.
1/9/2015 07:05:11 am
Some good news from Discovery Channel, at least:
1/9/2015 07:31:07 am
Well, so much for "nobody takes it seriously" being a license to broadcast horseshit.
1/9/2015 10:24:06 am
Rich Ross must have forgotten to consult with Walt ;)
1/9/2015 12:57:44 pm
I'll believe it when Jason reviews it (cause damned if I'm going to watch this shit).
1/9/2015 07:22:56 am
What with finding the bones in the crawlspace resulting in a criminal investigation, I can't help feeling that Expedition Unknown has contributed more to society in a two-hour premier than every episode of Curse of Oak Island and America Unearthed to date, put together.
1/9/2015 08:19:41 am
I've read about Earhart's remains being found on at least four different islands. Either her plane crash spread her remains over a WIDE area, or we are dealing with a serial killer of Amelia Earhart clones.
1/9/2015 10:22:35 am
"TIGHAR" sounds like the stage name of a secondary member of the Wu-Tang Clan :)
1/9/2015 09:24:52 am
I see another America Unearthed episode coming from this. She was probably transporting "Custer's Gold" and "Blackbeard Treasure" when her plane was lost. Scott Wolter will journey out to remote Pacific islands to look for it. He, of course, won't find it, but the real treasure is the search for adventure.
1/9/2015 10:28:22 am
More breaking news on Atlantis claims, this one from Spain is slated to be featured on a future Nat Geo special:
1/9/2015 10:31:56 am
Arrgh. Disregard that link, that is not new news. Googlenews failed me and served up an old article from a few years ago and I didn't catch the date.
1/9/2015 11:14:26 am
Yea, I remember watching a program where the "Atlantis in Spain" theory was featured, though the show's name and the station it aired on escape me.
1/9/2015 11:34:24 am
Wasn't it featured on "In Search of Aliens"?
1/9/2015 12:09:03 pm
"In Search of Aliens" did Atlantis in Portugal. The Atlantis in Spain claim was on NatGeo back in 2011. It was one of the first programs I reviewed on this blog: http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/natgeos-shameful-atlantis-documentary-more-atlantis-bible-nonsense
1/9/2015 12:11:03 pm
Yeah it was featured on IN SEARCH OF ALIEN and another doc. I believe it was called DECODING ATLANTIS or something like that, it feature three different groups trying to find Atlantis or the basis of the myth of Atlantis, I think it was hosted by Peter Weir or some like celebrity
I don't know where Mr.Mattievich is getting his information from, but he is way off base. Naturally occurring gold/silver alloys are known as electrum, and has been known and used for thousands of years. Electrum was used for minting the first coins (in the kingdom of Lydia).
1/9/2015 02:28:17 pm
At first I also thought Mattievich was confusing orichalcum and electrum. However, he thinks that orichalcum is basically electrum + copper.
1/9/2015 11:20:32 pm
Hello I' m probably the only Italian guy follower of this blog,and believe me no one word about Altantis has been wrote on newspaper or on tv networks here in my country.Maybe in some local magazines but nothing of major or important.Just here I read news about this matter,absolutely nothing in Italy
1/10/2015 09:28:33 am
Atlantis was actually this island off the coast of Crete. The story came much later.
1/10/2015 10:03:20 am
cool story bro
1/10/2015 10:07:04 am
What, Santorini? That's never actually been established, and as far as I know there's no evidence to suggest that anyone living in Plato's day had any knowledge of the Minoan civilization or the Thera eruption.
1/10/2015 11:24:06 am
Also, Atlantis is a fictional story Plato made up. So there's that.
1/10/2015 01:34:20 pm
Yes, there's that.
1/14/2015 06:33:58 am
Atlantis......it's all Herodotus's fault..........the Josh of his era.......
9/21/2016 11:40:00 pm
6/15/2018 10:42:53 pm
Wow, all I can say is you are have so thoroughly hit this nail on the head about Gates being a pseudo-archeologist. Can you inform me as to which show is yours so I can watch a REAL archeologist at work?
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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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