We open America Unearthed S01E05 “A Deadly Sacrifice” with yet another dramatic recreation. This time we see a man in a pit bathed in blood from what sounds like a bull sacrifice above the pit. After this gory interlude, we move forward to the opening credits. A sweeping green vista emerges and the on-screen graphics inform us that “For more than a century, relics with mysterious symbols have been discovered in Oklahoma.”
Among these was a 500-lb. rock carving unearthed in 2010. The graphics tell us that the carving was of a bull, “a cult symbol… but one from a different era.” Different than what? Oh. “Ancient Egypt.” Yeah, um, no. Bulls were cult symbols everywhere bulls could be found, which included almost all the Old World. But this effectively tells us that the show has a preconceived idea of where we’re going with this “investigation” and is not interested in looking any more broadly than needed.
The “bull carving” arrived in forensic geologist and series star Scott Wolter’s lab in 2011, but we are treated to a dramatic reenactment of the event. The carving is shown at first only in shaky, quick shots, making it hard to get a look at it. It appears to depict a bovine of some sort, with a hump on the back, long and curved horns, and four parallel wavy lines separating the head and forequarters from the back and hindquarters. The art style does not immediately suggest any ancient culture but looks very much to me like an archaizing modern forgery. The wavy lines, which puzzle both Wolter and the Egyptologist, recall the jewelry found around the neck of the Apis bull in romantic nineteenth century illustrations like the one below.
Wolter asks us to trust that the bull carving is ancient, but he provides no evidence in the opening segment to prove this. Instead, Wolter talks to an Egyptologist about the cult of the Apis bull, which was pretty much what it sounds like—the worship of a bull. At one point Wolter confesses that the bull carving could either be really old, or recent and aggressively weathered. We skip over that quickly, though, lest we think too hard about it. Instead, after the Egyptologist explains many reasons why this carving is completely atypical for Egyptians, Wolter plans to go in search of proof of the artifact’s ancient origins. The “Egyptian” theory therefore is unceremoniously abandoned.
So we go off to the river near Tulsa, Oklahoma where the rock was found to pull up some more sandstone rocks. Wolter wants to prove that the carving’s rock was or was not carved from native Oklahoma rock. (It was.) This leads to a staged scene where the “discoverers” of the bull carving announce that five miles away sill more inscriptions and carvings can be found. We’re asked to believe that the young men are leading Wolter to an unfamiliar location they had not visited in a long time, even though the camera was already positioned at the site when they get there. They show off some modern graffiti and an alleged carving of a face that I frankly am unable to see.
Wolter dismisses the whole lot of it as modern, but then, sadly, sees a bunch of lines and claims it’s Ogham writing from Ireland—following Barry Fell, who allegedly “translated” the material decades ago. (This, of course, explains why the show came here: They’re cribbing from Fell.) Since Ogham writing is almost nothing but vertical lines, it’s very easy to imagine Ogham in everything from tool marks to natural crevices. “This looks good!” Wolter says, but I need something more than scratches on rocks to establish that this is (a) Ogham writing, (b) ancient, and (c) produced by traveling Irish.
So we learn the truth: This is another bait-and-switch episode! The putative topic was Egyptians in America, and now we’re on to medieval Celts again. It shouldn’t surprise me, though. Wolter has worked closely with Wayne May and other Mormon apologists who see European influence in America as primarily occurring after the Common Era began (as per the Book of Mormon), so his desire to find medieval artifacts is understandable. Ancient Egyptians mess up the Mormon timeline.
Wolter recognizes this, so he jets off to Ireland (well, in the in-show timeline, anyway; in reality, these scenes were almost certainly shot out of sequence, with the shots of “discovery” and “surprise” recreated later on). Wolter talks to an expert in Ogham writing, Damien McManus, who explains a bit about Ogham writing, early medieval Irish peoples, and the way the position of the lines, not just their shape, is needed to confirm their authenticity. McManus tells Wolter the inscriptions are superficially similar to Ogham, but not likely. Wolter then asks a leading question, hypothetically asking, in essence, if proof of Irish people in America would be proof of Irish people in America by asking about the consequences of confirming that Celts really did carve Ogham writing in America.
At this point I realize that Wolter, if he’s clever, could compare the Oklahoma bull carving to the famous seventh century Pictish Burghead Bull at the British Museum. The wavy lines thus representing the Celtic scrollwork in the original:
Of course this unique carving is the from Picts of Scotland, while Ogham was used by the Irish; however, I’m sure Wolter could have found a way around that. Some Ogham inscriptions have been found in Scotland, which did have extensive cross-colonization with Celtic Ireland.
So, as we headed into the second half of the show, I waited to see if I would be proved right. Sadly, I was not, and it meant that I am apparently a better “alternative” historian than Scott Wolter, without even trying! Oh, and this carving will also serve to show that the later claims that the Celts relied on Egyptian models for their bull art are false, as this is obviously a completely Celtic bull.
We “return” to Oklahoma in stagey scene filmed at a low angle to visit the Anubis Caves in Oklahoma to see more “Ogham” carvings from what the cave explorer he meets calls “Celtic” inscriptions, pronouncing the word like the Boston basketball team rather than with a hard “C.”
This cave, incongruously, supposedly has a carving of Anubis and Irish Ogham writing, which conveniently turned up on in the 1970s, at the height of that decade’s “alternative history” craze. The carvings are extremely crude, and the “Ogham” writing bears nearly no resemblance at all to the genuine Ogham inscriptions we just saw. The Anubis might as easily (and logically) be a coyote.
The cave researcher claims this is a “monument to their [the Celts’] god Mithras.” This immediate gets my antennae twitching since Mithras (the Hellenized name for the Persian god Mithra) was an oriental god, not a Celtic one. His cult came from the East and was popular among Roman soldiers before the Christian era. But his cult died out around the fourth century CE. The Celts did not worship Mithras as a rule, though in Britain there were Celts initiated into the Mithraic Mysteries. As a god of oracles, Mithras shared traits with the Celtic god Ogma, and Sir James George Frazer saw a parallel between them; however, the Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland makes plain that Mithraism was a very minor cult in Britain, primarily among soldiers, and did not extend to Ireland. Therefore, Ogham and Mithraism should not be found together in any significant way.
From here we get another whopper that ties us back to the opening scene of the hour. We hear from “comparative religions expert” Joe Rose (of whom I can find no information) that the Mithraic mysteries involved throwing the initiate into a pit to cover him in the blood of a bull slain above him, a taurobolium (bull-sacrifice in Latin). This is false and confuses the Roman bull sacrifice (taurobolium) with the Mithraic myth of the god slaying the cosmic bull (called Tauroctony) from whose blood life emerges. The taurobolium was part of the Magna Mater (Cybele) cult after the second century CE, not the Mithras cult. There is no literary or archaeological evidence for a Mithraic baptism in bull’s blood. For most of its history, Mithraism was a secret cult, practiced at night in tight quarters without state sanction. There was no place to fit a giant bull, let alone one per initiate. In fact, the early Christian writer Tertullian (De Baptismo 5.1), who had every reason to play up the salacious aspects of pagan cults, tells us that the Mithras cult used water for their baptisms: “For washing [with water] is the channel through which they are initiated into some sacred rites—of some notorious Isis or Mithras.” Nevertheless, this “fact” is used to explain the bull carving from the episode’s start: the wavy lines are “blood” from a bull sacrifice!
Equally wrong is Rose’s idea that the Mithras cult had anything to do with the Apis bull of Egypt. Mithraism was a Roman imperial cult modeled on (with alterations) Persian or Zoroastrian rites (Mithras, recall, originates in the Persian god Mithra), not Egyptian ones. The Romans had plenty of mythological bulls of their own; they did not need to borrow Egypt’s to plug into a completely unrelated, borrowed, and reformed Persian cult. If they wanted an Egyptian bull, they would have turned to the Isis cult or that of Serapis (the Hellenized version of Osiris). Rose is also wrong that Mithras was a sun god; in Roman iconography, he shared a banquet with the sun (Sol); he was not himself the sun. Don't believe me? Here's the banquet:
Rose reiterates his mistaken beliefs about Mithraism while visiting the Anubis Cave with Wolter, and I realize that everything Rose says about Mithraism is derived from late nineteenth and early twentieth century Christ-myth writers who tried to turn Mithraism into a point-for-point duplicate of Christianity to help deny the claims of the Christian mythos. (They claimed, largely, that Christ copied Mithras, though in truth there is no evidence of Mithraism before Christianity.) Rose appears to be repeating information gleaned from Edward Carpenter’s classic, but wildly inaccurate, Christian and Pagan Creeds: Their Origin and Meaning (1920, pp. 43ff.), which includes all of Rose’s claims about Mithraic cult rites, including his largely imaginary connection with astronomy and the zodiac. If not this book, it must have been one of those Carpenter borrowed from or which borrowed from him.
Rose looks at the crude carvings in the Anubis Cave and declares a silly little stick figure a “clear” representation of a Mithraic sun god—despite there being nothing like it in real Mithraic art, which was Classical, not stylized, because it was a Roman cult. A tiny little carving of a coyote is declared an Egyptian Anubis, despite the obvious problem that Mithraism has no jackal-god and no relationship to Egyptian death cults.
So Wolter and Rose watch the sun shine on the little carvings and they see it as evidence of a precise alignment signifying the sun god and Anubis…do what, exactly? They have a shadow fall on them at sunset on the autumn equinox (and, by definition the spring one, and probably nights for several weeks before and after both: the sun does not change position that much from day to day), but there is nothing in this “alignment” that indicates anything more than a shadow passing over these figures. [Note: As many have pointed out in the comments below, I am wrong about this. The alignment appears only on the equinoxes. However, this provides no evidence of any Celtic or European influence as anyone could have marked the walls with chalk, paint, or coal on the equinox by observing where the shadow fell and then carved the figures from the outline. No advanced astronomy needed.]
And Wolter didn’t even compare the “bull” from the episode’s beginning to the real Celtic bull figure!
Wolter carefully omits that not a single one of these “Celtic” artifacts was actually dated by any secure means to 500 CE, nor could he find a single genuine Celtic artifact to support his claims. All we have are some ambiguous carvings, almost certainly modern, some fake comparative religion from an apparently ignorant “expert,” and a whole lot of wishful thinking backed up with emotionally manipulative music designed to dull reason and allow emotion to overwhelm critical thought.
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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