Before I review America Unearthed S01E04 “Giants in Minnesota,” let me stipulate that in the course of the hour Scott Wolter uncovered no evidence whatsoever of giants in Minnesota, or the Norse visitors he ties them to. He admits this, so it is not just me saying it. This, sadly, means that there is little factual material to examine, leaving me to critique this show as a television performance. In that light, we can look at the episode as a triumph of editing in trying to make three pointless investigations add up to more than the sum of their parts through carefully cross-cutting among them and avoiding dwelling too long on the inevitable disappointments. The way the show subtly switches from the proposed topic to others designed to garner support for its star is masterfully executed but deeply manipulative.
We begin with a dramatic reenactment of a flannel-clad man using dowsing rods to find hidden treasure. (This is presented in shadowy tint as a flashback but was actually a scene from later in the episode re-shot from the dowser’s point of view.) I’ve been reading some fascinating material about the origins of dowsing rods in a misunderstanding of the mythic importance of specific tree branches thought to be related to the thunder-god’s lightning, but this isn’t the time or place for that. The gruff man mumbles about “giant bones,” and then we’re off to the opening credits.
The dateline tells us we’re at Saker Farm in Twin Valley, Minnesota to investigate the bones of an alleged giant. A farmer named Roger Saker tells series star and forensic geologist Scott Wolter that the Minnesota state archaeologist came out to view some Native American bones found on his land, one set of which was unusually large. He did not provide a date for this, but it is implied it was a recent event, though the hard-packed ground and tall weeds growing atop the grave suggest otherwise.
“They wanted to get this thing buried as fast as possible,” he said, implying a conspiracy to suppress the truth. Reburial is no conspiracy; in fact it is merely U.S. law, which mandates respectful treatment for Native remains and reburial, except in extraordinary circumstances. You don’t get to play with old bones like they were toys, nor are human remains there for your amusement. The farmer talks about how he ripped apart the bones and played with them. This made me sad.
Wolter displays for Saker an 1880s newspaper article about “giants,” one of hundreds published in those decades. Such reports of giants were typically the remains of wooly mammoths, or outright hoaxes. One wooly mammoth skeleton spent much of the century on display as a Biblical “giant,” despite scientists identifying its real species. Wolter, though, thinks the bones Saker found belong to a race of 7 to 8 foot tall Norse colonists. He never explains why he thinks that the Norse were giants, and I am at a loss to imagine how.
Wolter measures the surface of the alleged grave of an 8’ 6” giant under a burial mound on Saker’s property, which we must take on faith; without a skeleton, we aren’t able to confirm this. Humans, however, could occasionally grow to seven feet, especially with hormonal problems. Such individuals may well have been considered sacred or holy and given special burial. But all we have to go on here is Saker’s claim that the head and feet reached to stone landmarks placed atop the burial mound.
Saker explains to Wolter that the archaeologists “covered up” the burials, and he accuses them of a conspiracy. Again, federal and state laws require respectful treatment of graves, and thus after their Native identity was confirmed, they were reburied. Not content with this, the farmer called in a dowser to probe the burial mound magically. Wolter claims dowsing really works, based on the authority of Einstein, but as with all the show’s other “research,” this is another lie. There is no published confirmation Einstein said any such thing, and the Einstein Archive lists only two mentions of dowsing, where Einstein expressed curiosity.
Supposedly the dowser found a 10 foot giant, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is primitive folk magic, the kind that has been practiced in America since the founding and was the same type of magic that Joseph Smith was an expert in and used to create Mormonism. Wolter tries to “prove” dowsing is real by hiding a metal knife and asking a 70-year-old dowser to find it. Noting the obviously disturbed grass, the dowser easily finds it, attributing the discovery to his magic rods. Funny, isn’t it, that so many trust in the power of dowsing, when in Europe dowsing was traditionally believed to only work when using the wood of the rowan, and only on certain saints’ days, taken over from when they were formerly sacred to Odin or Thor, for the rod was a piece of lightning made wood, the begetter of great boons. All we need to know, though, is that there is no scientific evidence dowsing works.
Farmer Roger Saker, in turn, explains that investigation of the mound is limited because he doesn’t want to disturb the corn, not because it is illegal to rob Native American graves. H2 is careful to avoid breaking the law, but they won’t tell viewers what that law is, either. The obvious course would be to dig up the damn giant’s body, but since they know that is illegal, they dig instead far from the burial mound where they can plausibly claim no bodies were likely to be found. (The trouble with digging up human remains is briefly noted later on, rendering moot the entire premise of the episode, the search for GIANTS!)
Wolter brings in Michael Arbuthnot, a Florida archaeologist specializing in underwater sites, to investigate the farm, and Wolter shares the legends and myths of ancient Norse in Minnesota. Wolter even notes that the area is filled with Scandinavian immigrants, but he fails to make the obvious connection that the nineteenth century immigrants who settled Minnesota brought with them a sense of their own cultural history and sought to create an imaginary historic landscape of ancient Norse settlers to help make the land truly “theirs” rather than, say, the Native Americans’ or even the Anglo-Americans’. This process has occurred across time and space, with old ruins appropriated by new settlers and incorporated into their history. As a brief example, the nineteenth century English attributed Neolithic remains in Britain to the Druids, whom they saw as their true ancestors, in contradistinction to the decadent Romans, identified with the Continent, the home of Britain’s rival and enemy, France.
So, anyway, all these characters start digging and found a chunk of cut bone, which I suppose must be animal since they didn’t stop digging and call the authorities, as required by law.
After the commercial, we head into the second half of the show and two other plot lines.
Wolter first travels to George and Becky’s Café in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota to view an alleged Viking sword supposedly pulled from the earth. Wolter frames this in terms of the Kensington Runestone, a century-old hoax that Wolter attempted to rehabilitate using dubious geological testing. The Runestone is composed in Swedish of a mixture of medieval runic alphabets, including words unattested in medieval literature, suggesting a hoax. Swedish linguists find the text fake. However, the program does nothing to discuss the stone beyond letting Wolter assert that his geologic tests “proved” its age. Bad Archaeology has much more about why it’s a fake, and here is Richard Nielsen's explanation of why Wolter's geological claims about the stone are also wrong. It's a damning report that all but confirms that Wolter's geology is driven by ideology, not science. Do read it and learn just what Wolter is hiding about his Runestone investigation.
All of this is prelude to our look at the “medieval” Ullen sword dug up in 1911, at the height of early twentieth century Viking fakes, when such objects were excavated with surprising frequency thanks to a combination of hoaxing and wishful thinking on the part of Scandinavian immigrants. The sword, at first glance, simply looks new, due to a polishing given it in 1911 and not disclosed in the program. It has none of the patina of age around it, but the camera doesn’t linger long enough to really get a good look at it. There’s a good reason for that. The Ullen sword looks nothing like medieval Viking swords and exactly like nineteenth century German military swords, which even this program is forced to admit anon.
But this “investigation” is clearly going nowhere, so we introduce another, lest we get bored trying to follow one from start to finish.
Wolter wastes some time traveling to look at a tumbledown house whose foundation was apparently built with boulders allegedly carved with runes. But, as Wolter himself mentioned, the nineteenth century settlers of Minnesota came from Scandinavia, so there is no need to assume that a “runic carving” was necessarily ancient. The boulders can’t be seen, so we won’t be back until the house is torn down “tomorrow.”
Back at the farm, the Arbuthnot and Saker discovered that the farm had previously served as a farm (shock!), and had once been a Native American settlement. No Vikings, no giants. More digging follows as we go into commercial.
After the commercial, the show seems to concede that none of the three plotlines is going well. We keep intercutting between them, and we are treated to some destruction-porn as we watch the old farmhouse with its rune-boulders get destroyed. Wolter goes looking for the runic boulder in the ruins, and he finds some scratches on one stone that he identifies as “manmade characters.” They look like tool marks to me, since they have no relationship to any alphabetic or runic characters and are (at best) three in number. Even Wolter seems to recognize this, though he tries to obscure the fact by, essentially, hoping viewers look away. He quickly expresses shock that some random guy with a tattoo has runes as his tattoo, and he is delighted to find they spell the man’s name as he slowly translates them, pretending that the tattooed man is ignorant of his own tattoo’s mysterious meaning! Oh, my… that had no purpose whatsoever beyond wasting another 40 seconds of airtime and distracting viewers from the inconclusive tool mark discovery. The program seems to want us to remember “boulder” and “runes” and forget that they aren’t connected in any way.
After the commercial we get a recap of the non-findings so far, and we return to Saker Farm to look at still more bone artifacts, evidence of Native American settlement. But there isn’t anything European, nor anything from a giant race. (I still don’t see how the Norse and the giants are the same, but at this point, who cares? Neither one is there.) So, I guess that closes this one. No one bothers to use any sort of non-invasive testing to measure the alleged giant skeleton in the mound, nor does anyone bother to consult the state archaeologist’s report about the site—at least not on camera. And we will soon see why.
Back at the Ullen sword investigation, a medieval sword expert shows us the exact page in the German sword catalog where the Ullen sword had been ordered from Germany in the 1800s, and this entire plotline wheezes to a sclerotic close, much to Wolter’s disappointment. Wolter says that the facts have “convinced” him that the sword is modern (good to know), but in a non sequitur he then insists that the Kensington Runestone is truly medieval. This is infuriating because this show is not about the Kensington Runestone, which means that viewers have only Wolter’s word to go by since no evidence or discussion of the stone occurred outside Wolter’s assertion about its age. This whole program is gradually becoming a bait-and-switch designed to convince viewers that the Runestone is real while avoiding the need for evidence.
We finish with a visit to the Minnesota state archaeologist, Scott Anfinson, whom Wolter questions about the alleged cover-up of the “giant” skeleton. Anfinson states that he did not actually view the bones and therefore cannot answer the question. So who reburied the bones? The show doesn’t say. Anfinson has been the state archaeologist since 2006, so presumably the dig occurred sometime before then under a different archaeologist.
Wolter informs us that the bones of the “giant” were typical of a 5’3” individual, and Wolter presents Roger Saker with this fact. Since we did not hear Anfinson give this information (and indeed he said he wasn’t aware of it), it must have come from Wolter reading the state archaeologist's site report, in turn suggesting that both Wolter and the production team knew there was nothing to this story before they showed up to “investigate” it. Saker responds that there is a conspiracy afoot: “These people, they’re up to something,” he says, insisting that he saw a giant no matter what the facts say. The farmer seems to have become confused by the disarticulation of the bones, which, falling out of their joints, thus appear larger than the body would have actually stood in life.
The show concludes with another assertion—without evidence—that the Kensington Runestone is genuinely medieval, thus “proving” that the Norse colonized Minnesota. Since none of the three stories investigated in this episode provided any evidence of Norse colonizers, the entirety of this “investigation” seems custom-designed to create a circumstantial scenario to provide spurious support to Wolter’s assertion about the Runestone, which he declines to expose to the scrutiny of a mass television audience. This was a subtle, manipulative hour that asked us to believe in an imaginary conspiracy, to believe that emotional responses count for as much as scientific inquiry, and to believe that Wolter’s word is good enough to accept without proof.
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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