A word of explanation before I get into the heart of today’s review: I’ve received some questions and/or complaints about not reviewing America Unearthed on the day it airs. H2 airs both Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed on Friday nights, but I simply am not able to stay up until all hours composing reviews of these shows. Yes, I understand that the Onion’s A.V. Club can post reviews of programs within hours of airing, but (a) they only have to offer opinions, not research, and (b) they get paid to do it. I do my best, but I only have time to analyze one program per day, so America Unearthed reviews will continue to be posted a day after my Ancient Aliens reviews.
America Unearthed “Medieval Desert Mystery” (S01E02) begins with a dramatic reenactment of a couple of white guys dying in the desert in view of some Native Americans. We then cut to “forensic geologist” Scott Wolter in his laboratory reading a letter from a concerned viewer who claims to know of a stone in Arizona covered in medieval European runes.
So we travel to the Mustang Mountains in Sierra Vista in southern Arizona to view the rune stone in an over-produced montage of a convoy of SUVs traveling beneath overly-dramatic music. This leads to a lengthy montage of rock climbing until we finally come to a stone covered in what look like runes. I’m not a runic expert, so I can’t read the text; nevertheless, at first glance the letters looked more like stylized Latin letters than the Northern European runic alphabets of Scandinavia (derived from Old Italic) I had seen before. This is because they are meant to be Anglo-Saxon runes, which look much more like Latin letters. The key, of course, is that when the cave site was discovered in 1984 and recorded by the Arizona State Museum, the runes weren’t there, so they are almost certainly a modern forgery, as the Arizona State Archaeologist, Steve Ross, tells Wolter.
Wolter makes a valiant case that the floor of the cave had been dug out after 1984 (it was vandalized sometime in the past thirty years), thus making the runic rock seem younger than it is because it had been hidden in the floor and did not experience weathering. The state archaeologist is not convinced. A silly staged bit of cell phone jujitsu leads Wolter to believe that the rock was a grave marker, though the text message he read aloud was quite clearly planned before filming began.
A great deal of cave exploration follows, leading to little more than speculation that some spiral petroglyphs were star maps or Fibonacci spirals of sacred geometry—even though, quite obviously, the spirals are not in the Fibonacci proportions. Wolter then tells us how big a deal a European presence at the cave would be if it really existed. The state archaeologist explains that a permit is needed to excavate, but Wolter refuses to go through the permit process because he and H2 don’t really care about facts so much as they do making a documentary as quickly and cheaply as possible. Hence, long scenes of Wolter staring at a computer and writing notes.
According to Wolter’s staged phone call with a guy named “Mike,” the runes reveal that the stone marked the grave of a twelfth century Englishman. That would be a neat trick since most runes had been replaced by the Latin alphabet for all but specialized ritual use in Europe by the twelfth century. In England, Anglo-Saxon runes ceased to be used for inscriptions after the ninth century and fell completely out of even scholarly and antiquarian understanding after the Norman Conquest, according to standard texts on runes. In fact, fewer than 200 runic inscriptions survive from medieval England, none after 1066. Thus, twelfth century runes are several centuries late for even an educated explorer to have used in recording a gravestone. (An educated man of the time would have used Latin, or possibly Norman French if he were particularly progressive; and an uneducated man wouldn’t have written anything at all. English vernacular wouldn’t have been used until around Chaucer’s time.)
Steve Ross, the state archaeologist, throws cold water on Wolter’s enthusiastic embrace of the runes as genuine medieval writing, but none of the people on the program is an expert in European archaeology or writing and thus they speak largely from preconceived ideas rather than evidence. Ground-penetrating radar revealed a change of density in the cave floor near the rune stone, which Wolter interprets as a grave before a headstone. That said, Wolter had just finished arguing that the stone had been moved when the cave was vandalized, and now he claims it is resting in situ as a gravestone! Once again, the “investigation” is stymied not by government conspiracy but by Wolter and his crew refusing to apply for permits to conduct real research that could settle the speculative claims.
Another staged cell phone intrusion by “Mike” tells us that the runes identify the deceased as Hurech, a name associated with Staffordshire in England. Mike also tells Wolter to travel to the Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico but won’t say why. Everyone watching knows that H2 knows damn well why, since the filming permits were arranged and an interview with a ranger was also planned. Nothing of interest seems to happen here other than wasting time looking at sites with no connection to England whatsoever… that is, until Wolter goes to England.
After a long montage of Wolter traveling by car across England to Staffordshire, we meet Alan Butler, an alternative author who tried to sue me back in 2005 for reviewing in Skeptic magazine without their express permission a book he and Christopher Knight wrote about megalithic architecture. I didn’t think much of the book, and I thought less of him and Knight after their threatened lawsuit.
Butler takes Wolter to the Kinver Rock Houses, the inspiration for Tolkien’s hobbit houses, which Wolter claims are “reminiscent” of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, if by “reminiscent” you mean that they are buildings with rooms in some sort of relationship to large rocks.
The Kinver Rock Houses were not built on cliffs but rather were built into sandstone rock walls, mostly at ground level (though some abut a "street" that rises far above ground level), by carving rooms into the living rock, much like the city of Petra in Jordan. The Kinver Rock Houses date back to perhaps 1500 CE (though some think they may be older) and were used down to the 1960s. Some are carved as proper English houses, with straight walls, even floors, and well-proportioned rooms in the style of an English country house, with some having three stories and brick chimneys. Others are more like caves, but all were carved completely out of the relatively soft living rock. In 1904, rent for one multi-room rock house was just over eight pounds a year, though the local parish paid the rent for some longtime residents.
Contrary to Wolter’s assertion that the Gila dwellings were completely artificial and thus just like the Kinver houses, archaeologists believe that the Mogollon people built the Gila houses within six naturally-occurring caves created by ancient volcanic activity, with large brick, irregular brick rooms and structures constructed within the caves. Again unlike the British site, the Gila dwellings have uneven floors, open fire pits, storage pits, and heavy plastering. They clearly represent a very different cultural tradition both in their construction and in the use implied by their layout and design. The Gila dwellings were built after 1275 CE (which we know from tree-ring dating of wood at the site) and occupied for only a few decades. Thus they are a century too late to have anything to do with Wolter’s imaginary “twelfth century” explorer, or with sixteenth century English rock houses. These cliff houses were also clearly meant for defensive purposes since they are high and inaccessible, again in contrast to the British examples.
Therefore, Wolter’s entire evidence for an English presence in twelfth-century Arizona is nothing more than a rock with an anachronistic carving that was almost certainly fabricated in the past thirty years. The rest is nothing but illogical speculation.
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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