Note: This post has been edited to fix incorrect information about spherical geometry.
I think there has been some confusion over my reviews of America Unearthed. A great number of people who have commented or emailed take my reviews for a comprehensive examination of the claims made for the ancient sites featured on the show. In most cases, that would take a book, and I can only write so many books per year. My purpose is to review the program as a piece of television and to consider whether the evidence presented on the program makes the case it wants the viewers to accept as true. This is a different beast altogether, and it is theoretically possible that the program could fail miserably through sheer incompetence while missing genuine evidence for an alternative interpretation of history.
America Unearthed S01E06 “Stonehenge in America” opens with a sepia-toned recreation of a Depression-era barbershop with a faux news report playing on the radio describing the New Hampshire stone site then known as Mystery Hill Caves. An actor, presumably portraying former site owner William Goodwin, then drives past a recreated 1937 sign for the site to view its stony ruins in great awe. This is presented to be a major discovery, but the presence of the sign is the first clue that this is not what it seems.
Then we smash-cut to the opening titles, and we’re off to a discussion the site now known as America’s Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire. The episode begins, but before it does, I need to talk a little about my involvement with Mystery Hill.
As I did last week with Ancient Aliens, I need to offer some disclosure about where I am coming from in reviewing this episode. Unlike most of the ancient sites featured on the series, I’ve actually been to Mystery Hill, and I’ve investigated its “mysteries” in person. The first time I saw the place, when I was 16, it was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. I told the story in an audition tape I made for the Discovery Channel family of networks last year, for a proposed series that would have investigated alternative claims about ancient American history. Sound familiar? To be titled Ancient America, the program never made it out of preproduction; only now with a more or less complete set of America Unearthed episode descriptions posted on H2’s website do I see why: The two programs would have shared 8 out 13 episode topics in common. (The Discovery program would have added some aliens in, too.) I had no way of knowing when America Unearthed began, but Scott Wolter’s show apparently cost me one of my own.
I’ve repurposed that audition tape for this review. So, please enjoy me telling the story of how I was horribly disappointed by the unimpressive rocks of America’s Stonehenge:
OK, so with that out of the way, let’s begin.
We start by looking at England’s Stonehenge, which is composed of around 150 upright stone monoliths, which Scott Wolter claims is the work of an “advanced” civilization. I need to stop right here and remind everyone to take a look at the discussion of America’s Stonehenge I posted not long ago. The New Hampshire site is absolutely nothing like Britain’s Stonehenge. To begin with, the New Hampshire structures are built of piled stones, while the British site is made of monoliths. They are as different as two stone sites can be.
“America’s Stonehenge is a prehistoric site in Salem, New Hampshire,” Wolter intones. No, it is not “prehistoric”; that is an alternative history assumption. As I explained not long ago, while there is a layer of pre-colonial Native occupation, the stone buildings are believed to be colonial constructions (they were historically used as cold cellars); its sacrificial table is clearly a colonial lye-leeching stone for soap-making, and the “aligned” ring of standing stones was rearranged in the 1930s and 1940s by the site’s diffusionist owner, William Goodwin, to “restore” them to the positions he assumed were “original.” There is simply no way to verify that these stones were in positions claimed for them prior to 1937. The earliest reports make no mention of a stone ring but rather to the heaps of stone formed into rough caves.
Wolter reviews past episodes and lauds “the ancient practice of archaeoastronomy,” apparently blissfully unaware that the “archaeo-” comes from “archaeology” and refers to studying ancient people’s astronomical knowledge, not a discipline ancient people practiced!
Wolter and the son of the current site owner speculate on the movement of the earth’s axis and how that proves that the “alignment” on the stones of the site has changed due to earth changes. They completely ignore the fact that these rocks were repositioned in the 1830s due to rock quarrying in the area and again in the 1930s by William Goodwin. Any alignments are therefore speculative until and unless one can prove that the rock has been in its current position for more than a century.
We then see a bizarre sequence in which the kid uses Google Earth to show that a line drawn from the “summer solstice” alignment will pass through the center trilithon at Stonehenge in England and the Phoenician homeland in Lebanon. (Incidentally, the solstices were not always among the claims for the alignments at Mystery Hill; some maps show only equinox and mid-season alignments.) I can’t believe what I am seeing. Note: I have edited what follows to correct errors in my original description of the line passing through Mystery Hill and Stonehenge.
The "straightness" of the alignment is due entirely to the projection Google Earth is using for the earth and it does not correct for the curvature of the earth. As you can see the line looks straight because the globe has been flattened into two dimensional space, but the globe has been titled far outside its actual north-south orientation:
But if you look at the globe in a standard projection with north at top, you’ll see that the “straight” line only appears straight because you are looking at a very broad curve from “above” such that the curve is masked by the curvature of the earth:
That said, yes, a curved line does pass between the two sites of Mystery Hill and Stonehenge, just as a curved line can be drawn between any two points on the globe. The "Phoenician" part of the alignment crosses no major Phoenician site and can be discarded, unless we'd like to include Germany and Ethiopia in the alignment as well. This curved line, however, is not a "northeasterly" line, which would take you to Iceland, as navigation charts show.
In short, the line twists wildly off of true northeast. (Try looking at the sites’ latitudes to confirm that they have no directional alignment.) It is due entirely to the fact that any two points on the earth's surface can be connected by a circle equal to the earth's circumference, called a Great Circle.
According to Google's "Great Circle Mapper," the shortest distance on the earth's surface from Salem, NH to Beirut, Lebanon passes through the area around Stonehenge, though I caution that this is not the same as traveling in a continuous northeasterly direction from Salem, as the program claimed. It is, however, a Great Circle, meaning it is on a line equal in distance to the circumference of the earth. But: Look how much other territory is as well, including parts of Cyprus, Austria, Germany, etc.
Any two points can be connected by a Great Circle, and that circle is bound to hit a third point that has some point of interest. For example, a Great Circle drawn through my house in Albany, NY and the Inca temples of Peru passes directly through Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a Great Circle drawn from my house to the Colosseum in Rome passes through the Neolithic stone monuments of Western France. But does it mean anything? No. I urge you to try it yourself to find your own spurious "alignments"!
“This rewrites a huge chapter of American history. This isn’t kidding around!” Wolter enthuses. I know he’s not a stupid man, but, man, this one makes no sense, even by his standards. After all, so many "alignments" have been proposed for America's Stonehenge, that a Great Circle drawn through any of them is bound to hit something ancient elsewhere in the world.
Wolter next expresses his belief that the site could not be colonial because it “reeks” of being old and no one would bother to build in stone when they had wood to use. Apparently he is ignorant of the British animal pens that colonial people took as their models; they were made of stone using dry stone construction, and people coming to America, especially Scots-Irish immigrants, used dry-stone enclosures and fences here in the United States and continued building them into the middle 1800s under the supervision of Scots-Irish craftsmen. You can visit many of them today.
Then we see some squiggles on a rock that are claimed as a Canaanite inscription to Baal (the Phoenicians of the Bronze Age called themselves Kenaani), but it looks like no Phoenician writing I’ve seen. What bothers me is that all of the adventurers who supposedly came to America were terrible at their own cultures and were unable to carve recognizable letters, writer coherently, or draw pictures in the style of their own cultures. Nor were the Mediterranean peoples shy about proclaiming their accomplishments; the famed Periplus of Hanno the Carthaginian (the Carthaginians being an offshoot of the Phoenicians) tells much about his trip around Africa and was put on display for all to see, but somehow every traveler to America was some kind of ignoramus who couldn’t scratch his own name in his own alphabet without turning it into a giant mess.
Finally we come to the sacrificial table! It’s still very obviously a colonial-era lye-leeching table for soap-making, as I previously discussed. (Seriously, there are so many of them in the U.S. that they are easily recognizable. It’s identical to them.) Nevertheless, the site owner tells us that this was used for human sacrifices—none of which, conveniently, have ever been found. Wolter notes the exfoliating weathering, but he neglects to consider the damage done to the stone as a result of the soap-making process, thereby allowing him to make the table seem thousands of years old.
We also look at some of dry stone caves and the echoes they make (the alleged Oracle Chamber), which the owner attributes to “shamans” or “priests” making noises around non-existent human sacrifices. The problem is that Phoenicians did not use the faux-Neolithic architectural style of Mystery Hill, nor did they squat in tiny caves. They build very nice buildings that look like buildings. Even adapting to local materials, ancient people did not abandon every marker of their culture when colonizing a new area.
So Wolter travels to Mt. Holyoke to talk to an actual scholar, Mark McMenamin, who explains what we know about the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean trade network, which was based on their ability to navigate by the north star at night. Wolter again confuses “archaeoastronomy” (the science of studying ancient people’s astronomical knowledge) with plain old astronomy (twice proves it’s no mere lapsus linguae) and claims that the Phoenicians, because they knew the north star was in the north must therefore have understood celestial mechanics in all their complexity, a logical leap the program asks us to accept on faith. Sadly, though, McMenamin is not a scholar of the Phoenicians; he is a geologist, like Wolter. His alternative history claim is the 1996 idea that a Carthaginian coin depicts a map of the world, including what he says is North (but not South) America, including Florida and Mexico. Given that the Americas are shown as smaller than Spain, it is much more likely that if this really is a map, the blob represents Britain or the Azores or other known lands. Another coin, not shown on the program but which can be seen here, depicts similar markings with both “Britain” and an unexplained blob, but these markings are so small (fractions of a millimeter) that I can’t see anything in them other than the chance design of an ancient die-maker. Ancient dies simply weren’t that good to have such tiny pictures, and McMenamin relied on computer enhancement to "restore" the map and make it visible, a telltale sign of problems.
McMenamin cites Diodorus Siculus (5.19-20) in support, when Diodorus describes a fantastical island outside the Pillars of Heracles, a veritable paradise. He wrote that “The Phoenicians, then, while exploring the coast outside the Pillars for the reasons we have stated and while sailing along the shore of Libya, were driven by strong winds a great distance out into the ocean. And after being storm-tossed for many days they were carried ashore on the island we mentioned above, and when they had observed its felicity and nature they caused it to be known to all men.” Yet somehow despite this global fame, we are also asked to believe that the island was kept a big secret, as per McMenamin’s suggestion. There are several theories about Diodorus’s island, which include (a) it was fiction, (b) it is the Azores or the Canaries, and (c) it represents the Americas. There is no archaeological evidence to support the latter two theories, though occasional reports—unconfirmed—of Phoenician or Carthaginian artifacts in the Canaries or Azores suggest these are the most logical choice.
Following this, we travel to Stonehenge to discuss irrelevant material about the ancient site, which is so wildly different in construction, style, and function that even unobservant viewers must have noticed it is nothing like “America’s Stonehenge.” Wolter tries to make a connection to astronomical alignments at both sites, but as I explained, we can’t know where the New Hampshire rocks were once placed, so any connection is pure speculation.
Wolter shows the Google Earth “alignment” to a Stonehenge expert, who, essentially, laughs at him, and the expert seems confused about why a weird curve is being taken as an “alignment” when it has no relationship to actual directions on the spherical earth, though he is too polite to say so.
After Wolter’s idea that the Phoenicians were involved in building Stonehenge got shot down, he instead claims it “could have been a sacred sanctuary for them,” which I suppose is possible, though there is no evidence of a Phoenician occupation at Stonehenge. (The Phoenician connection to Britain was promoted by British imperialists of the nineteenth century, but even then it was obvious that there was no archaeological support.)
Wolter concludes by asserting that “the elite” who ran Stonehenge “came over here” to build Mystery Hill because “there’s no doubt” the two sites are “connected.” The connection is nothing more than a Google Earth distortion and the fact that both sites feature astronomical alignments (dubious ones in the case of Mystery Hill). But, by the standards of America Unearthed, this was some of the most solid evidence yet uncovered, which is to damn it with faint praise.
Next week: The lost colony of Roanoke! This happened in historic times, so I can't imagine that America Unearthed could screw it up too badly.
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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