I grew up in upstate New York, an older part of the country whose settlement dates back to the colonial era. Although I lived in the city of Auburn, I spent a great deal of time traveling across upstate New York’s farm country, and I’ve visited plenty of farms whose structures dated back to the early 1800s, and more than a few that had origins in the 1700s. I’ve seen pretty much every type of farm building used in those days, and a goodly number of outbuildings, root cellars, spring houses, powder magazines, and other buildings that were built using the dry stone technique brought over from England.
This is a rather longwinded way of saying that the mysterious “chamber” Scott Wolter investigates in America Unearthed S01E08 “Chamber Hunting” is “mysterious” only to those who’ve never spent much time visiting farms or studying the lives of people who were not part of the cultural, religious, or political elite that Wolter favors.
The episode opens with overhead footage of a semi-wooded area, with an on-screen graphic telling us that 800 mysterious stone sites exist in the northeastern United States. They are “mysterious” because the show does not ask anyone knowledgeable about them what they really are. Some manipulated intercut footage is made to look like grainy VHS tape of the stone sites, a trick borrowed from low-rent horror movies to give a touch of conspiracy to the program, especially when the graphic tells us that “many” of the stone sites are not open to the public. That would be because many of them are colonial era root cellars or spring houses, Victorian boundary markers, etc. currently on private land.
The manipulated video shows a man in contemporary dress (so the video isn’t old—it was filmed within the year) entering what appears to be at first glance a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century stone storage chamber with a small aqueduct feeding water from a natural spring to a tiny basin within. The water flows into the chamber and then immediately out again. Why, I wondered, did the producers purposely degrade the footage? The manipulation shows that the producers are playing fast and loose with the “truth” of the video, and it makes me question what else they’re willing to manipulate alongside the video.
I should probably pause here to explain that in colonial times down to the nineteenth century, farmers built “spring houses,” which were wooden or stone buildings constructed over the outlet of a natural spring in order to use the cold underground water to cool the air within the chamber and preserve the food stored within. The chamber on display here is exactly like every known colonial spring house in America and Canada. One in West Virginia is on the National Register of Historic Places (the Tomahawk Spring spring house), so they are not exactly unknown. This image from Wikipedia shows one that, although it has a wooden upper façade, is similarly made of the same type of masonry as this episode’s spring house.
No one on this show, I predicted in its first five minutes, would spend even a moment contemplating the historical record to discover whether early Americans ever built atop springs.
The opening credits roll, and we’re off.
We open at Scott Wolter’s lab in Minneapolis because Committee Films and H2 needed to film a contractually mandated amount of footage in Minnesota to qualify for public funding from the state of Minnesota. Wolter receives an email from the discoverer of the root cellar and immediate runs off to investigate since the email says that the site “seems old.” A staged phone call shot with dramatic lighting wastes some extra time as we fly out to Chad Snyder’s land in Tionesta, Pennsylvania, near the site of the stone “chamber.” Some of the show’s $7,200 wardrobe budget seems to have gone to buying Wolter a new jacket.
Wolter meets Snyder and another man, and they examine pictures of the stone chamber. The workmanship on display is completely typical of eighteenth and nineteenth century dry stone construction methods, widespread throughout the northeast in farm country. It is unlike the architectural styles used in Antiquity or the Middle Ages. Even Wolter seems aware of this.
Wolter immediately leaps to secret societies, claiming that the Knights Templar and the Freemasons use “ritual bathing” in their rites and therefore “could have a connection to this chamber.” Snyder and his friend offer that the site might have been a root cellar, but Wolter will have none of it because root cellars don’t have water, and no one seems aware of spring houses. He says such stone chambers have been found since colonial times, implying that they existed prior to Columbus. Since Native Americans don’t build in stone, they must belong to white people who came in the Middle Ages. This seems wrong, especially since spring houses can be constructed and forgotten in as little as a single season, especially if the farmer should happen to die, as in a particularly cold winter. I’d need to see more evidence that they were older than the colonists who reported them.
We then watch the video from the beginning of the show, shot by Snyder and the other man, and we can see that there is no grain in the tape, nor is there static as it leaps from scene to scene, exposing the producers’ overdramatic manipulation of the video.
Wolter chips at some stone and explains how long it takes to build a chamber. He wants to see the chamber, but the land owner (who is not Chad Snyder) informed Snyder (off camera) that Wolter’s television production is not allowed on the land, which everyone involved assumes is aimed squarely at Scott Wolter himself, who was not a famous television personality when this was shot back. Wolter gets angry (even though he must have known before arriving that no filming permission was granted) and snarls that “this kind of shit has happened to me before, and the fact that they won’t let me on means that either they’re hiding something or they’re afraid to know what the truth is.”
No, there’s another option: The land owner knows full well that this site is a colonial spring house and has no interest in turning his or her land into a circus for alternative speculators, especially since it’s highly unlikely that Committee Films is going compensate anyone for shooting on the land.
Wolter does an end run around the site owner but taking advantage of the fact that the owner has opened the land for public hunting. He sends Snyder across the property line in bad faith, posing as a hunter, to gain access to the site.
Either this was all staged for the camera to make Wolter look heroic, meaning that no access was really denied, or Committee Films knowingly chose to engage in trespassing. Either way, this is terrible and a gross violation of ethics in one way or another.
After the break, we see the same “shit” scene again to reestablish the conspiracy, but the wording is different. This time Wolter speaks of “bullshit” and “crap.” How many takes does this supposed “documentary” series make of each scene? The manipulation of “reality”—even this show’s reality—is awful.
So, Snyder dresses up as a hunter, complete with gun, thus conspiring with Wolter to fraudulently gain access to the land and to trespass thereon. Is this photographic evidence of a crime? Or is the entire scenario created ex nihilo to make Wolter look like the victim of a conspiracy? I wish I had some way of knowing, but since the landowner is never named, I can’t call him or her up to find out. Wolter explains over and over that someone doesn’t want him to know what’s going on. He sounds paranoid. But we never actually see Snyder cross the property line, so we have no way of knowing that he actually went to the chamber or took the alleged measurements he returns with.
I think it’s interesting that at this point Wolter seems to recognize that the chamber is not very old. Now he begins attributing it not to the Knights Templar, as in the beginning of the show, but to the Freemasons, in the eighteenth century, thus conceding that it is a colonial-era structure. This means that the earlier speculation about pre-Columbian stone chambers is now moot. Thus, the only question left to address is whether this colonial-era spring house also featured in Freemason rituals in an era when the Freemasons had their own Masonic halls and were practicing openly. The conspiracy was so deep that even the president, George Washington, was a Freemason and clearly being oppressed by the federal government!
Wolter states his belief that the water in the chamber must have been used for ritual bathing because it’s the only thing “I can think of.” This would be because he did not bother to do even cursory research into colonial architecture and farming practices. Farmers are often forgotten in televised history because they weren’t the elite and weren’t possessed of gold and glory, but farmers outnumbered cultists and conspirators and are much more important to understanding daily life than the few hundred people involved in any given “secret society.”
Using measurements taken by fraud from the “mysterious stone chamber,” Wolter concludes that the chamber is aligned to sunset on the summer solstice, a time of day of no particular relevance to any of the secret societies Wolter has investigated. He then hires someone to build a model of the chamber from the measurements by deriving chamber’s shape and size from the video and some rough sketches. Accuracy, of course, can’t possibly be proved and any conclusions are highly suspect, especially when claiming an accuracy of millimeters, as any astronomical alignment would require—as we established a few episodes back at Anubis Cave.
While the model is being built, Wolter travels to Gungywamp Archaeological Site in Groton, Connecticut, the site of some stone ruins whose origins have not yet been definitively established but which are believed to be colonial era root cellars based on their close similarity to known root cellars in use in the area. Archaeologist Ken Feder, a card-carrying member of the anti-alternative conspiracy and a friend of mine, has identified the stone circle at the site as a bark mill used in colonial leather making. The reason for the confusion is that Native American artifacts and petroglyphs have been found here as well. Archaeological investigation has found that Native Americans placed stones around the lodges they are known to have built in this area (and the remains of which still exist and have been excavated).
Native Americans are not mentioned, likely because they are not white. Seriously, I don’t think a single non-white person has been interviewed on this show except when Wolter was in Mexico and was forced to meet with a Mexican. Surely Native Americans have an important viewpoint on their own history. Instead, we hear that the Irish and any number of white people came here to build these root cellars. One root cellar is claimed to be a calendar “measuring” (I suppose they mean recording) the equinoxes, which is presented as a mystical event. Wolter fails to mention that on the equinoxes the sun rises due east, so any building well-aligned to the east will “measure” the equinox. Instead, Wolter concludes that the root cellar was built by Irish monks on the model of Newgrange, a Neolithic stone tomb aligned to the winter solstice (note: not the equinox).
(Note: Native Americans were also well-aware of equinoxes and solstices and marked them with calendars made of standing wooden poles, as at Cahokia, or “medicine wheels” of standing stones. White people are not necessary for this “amazing” feat.)
On this strength, Wolter makes the “early Irish candidates for construction” of these stone sites. Wolter has simply decided to go with the hypothesis that the chambers are ancient and of non-American origins. Not once does he do any research into colonial era construction even though in an earlier scene he already said the Pennsylvania chamber was from the colonial era!
Wolter travels to Ireland to learn about St. Brendan the Navigator, and he meets with Tim Severin, a nautical adventurer who is famous for recreating ancient voyages. I know him best for the 1984 Jason voyage, in which he attempted to recreate the voyage of the Argo from Greek myth, traveling from Greece to the Black Sea in a Mycenaean-style ship. In that trip, Severin failed to recognize that the story of Jason and the Argonauts was not static (he recreated Apollonius’ version) and that the oldest versions of the tale had a completely different itinerary, with the Black Sea never mentioned. Severin has a tendency to take myths at face value and then try to explain them literally on the theory that they “might” be true, not a good sign for an “expert” in the field. Therefore, I have little faith in his opinion on the reality of Brendan’s voyage. Severing proved that the Irish could have sailed to America, but we already knew that because the Vikings did the same thing 500 years later; knowing something can be done is not the same as proving that it actually happened.
A medieval Latin text called the Navigatio tells of Brendan’s voyage to the Isles of the Blessed in the West, but I find it silly to assume—with no evidence—that this mythological text tells of a real event, or that we could separate fact from fiction if it did. Some people think this story refers to a trip to North America, but I just don’t see how. Supposedly, on this trip Brendan encountered an island populated solely by blacksmiths (chapter 23) who throw slag at his crew, obviously modeled on the fuming Polyphemus and Talos of Greek myth. They also find a volcano—not something available in America, though they can be found in Iceland—and one of their party is taken to Hell. So, Hell is real? There is nothing in the Navigatio that correlates in any way to North America, not the grapes Brendan found, nor the (white) monk he found, etc. It’s a religious allegory, very similar in form to other nautical-themed popular entertainments of its period, including the earlier Voyage of Bran, which was its likely model and probably the direct source for some passages.
We then meet Alan Butler again (from S01E02), described this time as a “Megalithic Era Historian,” and he is no more helpful than when he speculated wildly last time about cliff dwellings, or when he tried to sue me for reviewing his terrible book about megaliths. Wolter and Bulter examine Newgrange, but neither can quite explain how it is that a pagan tomb from 3200 BCE should be reproduced by Christian monks in 500 CE on another continent while no similar examples from that period exist in Ireland or anywhere in between. Wolter simply asserts the continued existence of an astronomy-based Irish cult for 3,700 years without any proof of continuity. In fact, the published texts of the early Middle Ages make quite plain that the Catholic Church did whatever it could to wipe out any remnants of continuity from pagan times. That’s part of the conspiracy, of course.
Wolter returns from Ireland to review a model of the chamber, which, as I’ve noted, simply cannot be taken as accurate but only as a very rough approximation of the chamber. To discuss alignments in any detail, one needs more than a “precise” angle for the chamber entrance; one needs a careful survey of the site to know the exact measurements of the chamber’s interior. So, the light he shines into the model is cute, but useless. He moves the light around the trace’s the sun’s path and find some point in the day when it enters the chamber. Nor did he survey the land around the chamber to see whether the sunlight would have reached the chamber, which is set into a hill and appears to be surrounded by hills and a forest. The light, even by Wolter’s measurement, enters the chamber only at some unspecified point during the day on the solstice, not at the key moment of sunrise, the period most commonly believed to be the essential moment of the solstice in esoteric lore.
I find it strange that Wolter is seen asking Snyder trespass again on the summer solstice to prove the alignment. He called this “going back,” implying the program was filmed prior to June 20, 2012, the date of the summer solstice, but the exterior shots looked were filmed in autumn rather than spring, as indicated by the autumn leaves on the trees and the ground, as you can see from the screen shot below:
This means one of two things: Either (a) by their own admission this was yet another episode (at least the second) filmed prior to the June 26, 2012 start date for filming that Committee Films gave for the pilot (i.e. first) episode in legally binding documents in order to secure public funding (thus by necessity filmed in Fall 2011), or (b) the timeline given in the show has no real relationship to reality and most of the episode was filmed in Fall 2012, long after the June 20, 2012 solstice footage was supposedly shot. Either way, something is seriously screwy here, and the fakery is bothering me.
From this experiment, Wolter concludes that the Freemasons built the site to symbolize “the fertilization” of the earth “by the male” principle of sunlight. I am not aware of any sun-earth pagan fertility rites in Freemasonry, though maybe I’m just part of the conspiracy. Nineteenth-century anti-Masonic activists argued that the square and compass symbol of the Masons was an esoteric sexual symbol of the pagan god Baal and his consort, Astarte. In fact, the "sun-earth" fertilization claim is taken nearly word-for-word from Victorian anti-Masonic tracts (misrepresenting Masonic symbolism under the assumption that the Masons preserved Ancient Egyptian fertility rites) and repeated in modern conspiracy books and websites like this one. It isn't true, but it was part of the anti-Masonic hysteria of the time, which Wolter has apparently bought into.
After repeatedly calling the chamber’s builders “ancient” throughout the hour, Wolter concludes the show by conceding that the building “dates back to colonial times”—hardly ancient—and therefore utterly irrelevant to rewriting American history. So, while this place appears to be a colonial era spring house, even if this one was a Freemasons’ chamber (for what purpose?) it changes nothing. George Washington was a Freemason in the same period; the Masons had well-known lodges in that period, and though they did have some secret rites and hidden sites, I can't see that they needed a tiny “secret” chamber out in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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