Now that America Unearthed has concluded its first season, I feel like a weight has lifted from my shoulders. Writing weekly reviews of the show has been exhausting. With Ancient Aliens, it was much less work because their claims are so outrageous that even the most basic of facts refute them; with America Unearthed, the fabrication of pseudo-history is more subtle and requires much more effort to unravel. Additionally, the medieval period isn’t my favorite (I prefer to study from the Bronze Age down to the Classical period, which also happen to be Ancient Aliens’ favorite periods, too), so there was a lot I needed to learn to understand what was going on in Scott Wolter’s quixotic quest for the Holy Grail.
Reader response has been interesting. As I have previously noted, my America Unearthed reviews are the most-read writing I have ever done, in print or online. I’ve received messages that ranged from positive to horrifying. I’ve been called a douche, an arrogant know-it-all, an elitist, a betrayer of the white race, a jealous hater, a profiteer, and part of an academic, anti-Wolter conspiracy. By far, though, the most frequent complaint is that I am not “open minded,” which astounds me since the very definition of being open minded is that I am willing to entertain Wolter’s ideas and look for evidence rather than simply dismiss them as the impossible delusions of an ideologue. But by “open minded” most don’t mean the desire for inquiry; they use it as a synonym for anti-elitism and an opposition to what they see as academic and intellectual elites who monopolize knowledge. Being “open minded” means, in essence, agreeing with their world view.
Interestingly, none of these angry readers had checked my previous work before complaining. Many were surprised to discover that I have been equally critical of Ancient Aliens (in identical weekly reviews) as well as specific books by Erich von Däniken, Gavin Menzies, David Childress, Frank Joseph, Alan Butler and Christopher Knight, and more—and that I’ve been doing this since 2001. My reviews of America Unearthed seem more focused on one person, Scott Wolter, because the show is built around him; by contrast, an episode of Ancient Aliens has at least five or six talking heads, so my criticisms there are more spread out.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m going to be collecting my reviews of America Unearthed as an eBook and paperback (as I did with Ancient Aliens), and I’ll be revising all of them for publication. As I do so, I’m sure I’ll find some new tidbits I missed on my first pass through the episodes.
But now that the season is over, I’d like to talk for a minute about the meta-narrative the show presented. As I’ve discussed, this meta-narrative isn’t intentional, but it is the message that the show is communicating through the editorial choices it made over thirteen investigations. Consider this:
For the record, the non-white person was the American-trained archaeologist Alfonso Morales, and the only non-white culture was the Maya. Both were in the same episode, and that episode was commissioned specifically to tie in to the December 21, 2012 “Maya apocalypse” programming on the H2 network. Even in that episode, the Native American (Creek) mound site at Ocmulgee (Track Rock) was attributed to the Maya, a culture that alternative writers have frequently claimed was “really” from Atlantis, Phoenicia, or other non-native origins.
The discussions of Native Americans that occured on the show are as follows:
Additionally, Native Americans appear as background noise in several other episodes. They are referenced as hostile forces threatening the Roanoke colonists and as awed observers of the Templars’ activities. Even in the last episode, when we hear of a current legend of the First Peoples (Canadian Native Americans) about cross-bedecked visitors, we don’t hear it from an actual Native American but rather secondhand from a white guy.
Even when the Native peoples under discussion still exist and could be consulted, as in the case of the Mandan, they are ignored. It simply fails to cross anyone’s mind on this show that Native Americans are and have been real people with their own intentions and actions, not just uncivilized savages waiting for a higher civilization to give them their orders.
I’m not sure that anyone involved with America Unearthed is aware of the racist and nationalist background of the stories they investigate. Certainly the show betrayed no awareness of the history of the ideas under discussion. Witness, for example, the attribution knowledge of Henry Sinclair’s voyage to “legends” despite the fact that the story originated in a known publication in 1784. Similarly, you would never know from America Unearthed that the third episode “copper heist” at Lake Superior originates in the work of Ignatius Donnelly, who concluded that Native Americans were too ignorant and inferior to have mined copper, and therefore Atlantis must have done so and carried it off to start the Bronze Age in Europe. In the same way, the imagining of Native burial mounds to be the work of Vikings, Phoenicians, or a lost white race was intimately tied to early American efforts to colonize Native lands by delegitimizing Native land claims and tied also to efforts to forge a new national identity.
But it’s not just anti-Native American racism that drove early ideas. There’s also the ethnic pride angle. The Newport Tower “mystery” was concocted in 1839 by a Scandinavian man, Carl Rafn, who wanted to attribute the discovery of America to the Vikings out of ethnic pride. (The Vikings, of course, did land in Canada, but there is no evidence they made it as far south as Rhode Island.) The Swedish-language Kensington Rune Stone just happened to show up amidst a Swedish immigrant community working hard to sink roots into newly-settled farmland.
None of this, of course, precludes the possibility that any one of these diffusionist claims is true; however, if the show would do the minimum to acknowledge the origins and pedigree of their claims, it would go a long way toward mitigating the meta-narrative the show is putting out, namely, that Native Americans are primitive and ignorant wild men whom Europeans and Euro-Americans can either safely ignore or control.
Also, if even Ancient Aliens can manage to find a Native American willing to discuss whether aliens created Native American tribes, surely America Unearthed can find someone willing to speak to claims that all of the accomplishments of American prehistory belong to Europe.
But, the bottom line is this: The show is over for the season, and I do not have to deal with it again for at least a few months!
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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