Last night The Curse of Oak Island delivered its verdict on the allegedly “Roman” sword that erstwhile Treasure Force Commander and current History Heretic J. Hutton Pulitzer has been promoting as a “100% confirmed” Roman artifact that would rewrite Nova Scotia history. The Lagina brothers, stars of the show, had the sword examined at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, where both an expert in Classics and a chemist specializing in metals declared that the sword is almost certainly modern. A chemical analysis of the sword found that it was made of brass with a zinc content of about 35%, characteristic of brass made in the 1890s or later. Older brass has a lower zinc content.
Strictly speaking, though, one could theoretically argue that the Romans used extra special brass with lots of zinc for obscure purposes. J. Hutton Pulitzer took a different path, and in postings on Facebook last night he suggested that the chemist’s slightly nervous demeanor while being filmed indicated potential fraud: “She was bright red delivering the test results. Somethings a miss (sic).” In a further posting on Medium.com, Pulitzer revised his claims somewhat and now backed down on his original assertion that the Nova Scotia sword had been “100% confirmed” and “tested,” now arguing that there are unspecified other swords which have been “certified” and which the Nova Scotia sword must be tested against. Presumably he means the David X. Kenney’s copy in Florida, which is not certified except by Kenney.
He revealed his own motives for promoting the Roman sword when he claimed to have exclusive information about interpersonal disagreements among the cast of Curse of Oak Island, which he reported beneath a vaguely homoerotic image of the all-male cast of the show fondling the sword, captioned “Are you ready for sword play?” Sadly, since “Sword Play” was the name of the episode, I don’t think Pulitzer actually realized how his graphic appeared.
I’m bored with the sword, and I think it’s pretty clear from both this episode and from the work that Andy White has done analyzing other versions of the sword that it’s not a Roman artifact. The 1890s or later date almost makes me wonder whether it was a World’s Fair item, and it would be interesting to see if the Italian Pavilion at one of the expositions was casting these things for visitors. But my interest in this is pretty much over.
So that’s why I was intrigued to read a BBC article this morning that claims that fairy tales can be traced back to the Bronze Age using evolutionary analysis. According to Jamie Tehrani of Durham University and Sara Graca Da Silva of Lisbon’s New University, by looking at the appearance of similar stories across cultures, we can determine when they were first told by looking at when each culture’s language split from a common ancestor. “They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language,” Durham said.
The article is entitled “Comparative Phylogenetic Analyses Uncover the Ancient Roots of Indo-European Folktales” and was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal last week. Yet there is the troublesome issue of stories spreading from culture to culture across space, not simply descending from a common ancestor across time. The authors claim that they can disentangle the two types of transmission by constructing a phylogenic chart of stories to look for commonalities that can then be mapped onto a chart of languages. By correlating changes in folklore to changes in language they feel we can find the original period when a story was told.
This seems to me to be problematic since a story could spread from culture to culture and then adapt to the language and culture of each, thus giving the appearance of being ancestral when it was, in fact, not. For example, Edwin Sidney Hartland, writing the nineteenth century, found versions of the tale of Perseus spread across Indo-European cultures. It wasn’t clear to me how one would differentiate between an “ancestral” Perseus tale and one that was derived from a Classical source. In fact, I read a few years ago a book that claimed that popular fairy tales had Classical origins (forgive me for forgetting the title), and given the widespread influence of Greco-Roman culture on other Indo-European-speaking groups, it would seem difficult to separate this out, or, in a more complex way, what happens when one group inherits an ancestral story from a more recent ancestor that is then adopted by other groups that shared more distant ancestors. I’d have liked to see the researchers examine whether any of these stories were also told by non-Indo-European groups (as Hartland found for Perseus tales) and, if so, how these might impact the overall analysis. Surely, the appearance of a story in a non-Indo-European culture shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the story goes back to the Paleolithic!
This is an interesting study, and whose probabilistic modeling I’m not sure I entirely followed. It’s quite possible that some folk tales have Bronze Age origins: Greek mythology, after all, has Mycenaean origins, and the Mycenaeans clearly had their mythology from Indo-European sources. I’d like to learn more about this and whether the same results would occur with a wider view of folklore.
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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