I wasn’t sure what to expect going into America Unearthed, H2’s new program about the “hidden” history of America airing immediately after Ancient Aliens. The production values on the show are several steps above Ancient Aliens, with almost cinematic cinematography and high-end graphics; but the program relies heavily on obviously reenacted or scripted conversations in which forensic geologist Scott Wolter “investigates” ancient mysteries. Unlike Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed does not provide much by way of description or context since it lacks a narrator, making it very difficult to pinpoint at times exactly what the program is talking about and thus forcing us to simply go along with Wolter, facts be damned.
Wolter, regular readers will remember, is (in)famous for his claims that the Kensington Rune Stone is real evidence of a Viking exploration of Minnesota and that the Bat Creek Stone was a real ancient Hebrew artifact discovered in the United States. Needless to say, his claims hold very little weight, as I discussed before.
The program discusses what it calls the “Track Rock site” in Georgia, a mound site which the program claims is evidence that the Maya came to Georgia. The program asserts that the U.S. federal government prohibits access to the site. At first the show implies through lighting and mood music that this is for conspiratorial reasons, and then Wolter just explicitly says so.
Despite what America Unearthed claims, the Track Rock Gap Archaeological site is open to the public (for free, no less!), and the government offers directions to help you get there and brochures to help you find your way around the site. The only thing prohibited is archaeological excavation without following the formal application process. Since Scott Wolter is no archaeologist and has no interest in conducting real research, this must be the actual reason the “government” blocked him from trampling through the site, if that is what they did at all.
The US Forest Service has a web page (linked above) debunking the claim that the Maya built the mounds and stone walls found at what is properly called the “Track Rock Gap Archaeological Site.” The mounds were constructed by the Creek and Cherokee around 1000 CE, after the Classic Maya had collapsed.
The Creek built mounds like most southeastern tribes during the Mississippian period, so there is no need to postulate Maya influence unless you want all the mounds of the Americas to be Mayan. (Note: The Post-Classic Maya built with stone, not dirt, in the period under discussion.) There is evidence of trade with an influence from Mesoamerica on Mississippian culture, but not the direct movement of large numbers of peoples from Mexico to Georgia, as the show implies. This neatly accounts for similar iconography and the movement of materials between the two cultures. Despite the show’s claim, this is not a “taboo” subject but is widely discussed in archaeological literature. For crying out loud, it was in my college archaeology textbook more than a decade ago!The reason we know that the Maya didn’t personally relocate to Georgia at the end of their civilization is (a) they continued (and continue) to live in Mexico, and (b) no indisputably Maya artifact has ever been found in Georgia. Ocmulgee (Track Rock) was very much part of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which is clearly part of a continuum of native cultures that stretched from Mexico to New York. Wolter makes a big deal out of an image of a “Feathered Dancer” found in Georgia and claims it is uniquely related to a Maya image from Chichen Itza. Wolter does not tell you that the feathered dancer is a widespread image found as far afield as the Siouan and Winnebago peoples. The specific image shown in the program, and reproduced below, was found at Etowah, not Ocmulgee.
It uses the common stock of artistic conventions found from Mexico to Minnesota and were diffused across the Americas from at least the time of Poverty Point, the oldest mound-building culture. There is simply no need to postulate the movement of thousands of people when the movement of goods and ideas explains the similarities Wolter found between Mexico and the mound builders of America.
Wolter tries to prove a connection between the Maya and Georgia by creating “Maya blue,” an artistic pigment used in Maya art, with clay from Georgia. (The pigment is also found in other Mesoamerican cultures, like the Aztec, indicating much broader trade than Wolter allows. The Maya, in fact, specifically considered the clay from which the pigment was made a valuable item of trade, a fact known for at least 50 years.) The sample (from a deposit first reported many decades ago) chemically matched that from Chichen Itza under the analysis Wolter had done at a lab, though again details weren't provided to let us judge whether the match excluded all other sources, such as Yucatan deposits. Again, though, trade networks do not require the movement of peoples, only the movement of goods. Amber moved across Europe without people accompanying it, and this clay could very well have followed the same route. Mesoamericans are known to have visited the American southwest for turquoise, and Mississippian artifacts have been found at a Classic Maya site in the Yucatan. Robert Hall, for example, also found clear ritual and mythic diffusion from central Mexico to Mississippian cultures as far away as the Winnebago. That such connections happened is not seriously disputed, though the question of the direction and degree of influence is still debated.
“There are a whole host of academics who refuse to believe that there were cultures that came to America prior to Columbus,” Wolter states. “And this is bullshit!”
So, congratulations, Scott Wolter: You “proved” a connection that archaeologists have been aware of for ages and you did it while bitching and moaning about how the “establishment” was “suppressing” the very information they are actively investigating and which you used in your own show!
As entertainment, America Unearthed is no Ancient Aliens. Since America Unearthed has to rely heavily on the wooden delivery of Scott Wolter instead of a wide range of pundits and focuses on just a single topic, the show is very, very slow and very repetitive. We have long, lingering shots of Wolter looking plaintively at trees and rocks. We have long, long pauses between sound bytes and repeated shots of nature. The cinematic photography can't mask the paucity of facts and information, or the barely-coherent conspiracy mindset both Wolter and the show's producers irresponsibly promote, a mindset we have previously seen leads to paranoia and violence among some in the audience who believe that television tells the truth.
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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