When your press materials describe you as “a real-life Indiana Jones” and you spent the first season of your show trying and failing to find the Holy Grail, what do you do for an encore? Well, you take a cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark and try and fail to find the Ark of the Covenant, of course! That’s the premise for America Unearthed S02E01 “Ark of the Covenant,” the series’ first new episode since March 15 of this year. But before we can get to the episode, I need to discuss what happened between seasons.
Between Seasons Events
From December 2012 to March 2013, I reviewed the first thirteen episodes of America Unearthed, and I published a book of expanded versions of these reviews, Unearthing the Truth. Between the first season finale and the second season premiere, H2 and the History channel have had America Unearthed on a near-continuous rotation, helping to build the show into the fledgling H2 channel’s first bona fide hit series, averaging 800,000 viewers per airing. As a result, hundreds of thousands of readers have visited my blog, read my reviews, and commented on them. I’m sure more than a few new readers are joining us for the first time for coverage of the second season of America Unearthed. Therefore, I need to offer some disclosure to make sure I’ve fulfilled my ethical obligations before critiquing the show.
I am the author of a 2005 book exploring the history and sociology of the ancient astronaut theory called The Cult of Alien Gods. As a result of my work, Ancient Aliens on the History Channel (as it was then called) attacked me by name in 2009. I began reviewing episodes of Ancient Aliens, and I added America Unearthed to my regular coverage in 2012 only because it happened to follow Ancient Aliens. However, the popularity of the series quickly outstripped that of Ancient Aliens, and soon more people visited by blog to read America Unearthed reviews than anything else I had written.
Show host Scott F. Wolter, a forensic geologist specializing in concrete stability issues, stopped by my blog to offer comments for a time, though these gradually degenerated into name-calling. Two days after the show’s highest-rated episode aired, Wolter came here to accuse me of being afraid of the truth and part of a conspiracy:
I now realize that you and most of your followers are the very same people I have had issues with for years. I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but no longer. […] In the past, the strong negative reaction I've received was based on fear and I sense that is part of what is going on here. […] Based on the evidence provided by this blog, I've concluded this [is] a site driven by something closer to religious zealotry rather than truly scientific thinking. Paying lip service to "science" doesn't mean you practice it.
Wolter was not content to stop there. As I readied Unearthing the Truth for publication, Wolter contacted the lawyers for A+E Networks, the parent of H2, and asked them to do what they could to stop me from criticizing him. A+E used one of New York’s highest-profile intellectual property attorneys and had her threaten a lawsuit that appeared designed to intimidate me into silence. They demanded changes to Unearthing the Truth’s cover design to remove material that Scott Wolter claimed to own (a distinctive X-shaped rune with a hook on one stave which Wolter calls “the Hooked X,” a term he registered as a trademark) but which A+E later admitted in writing was in the public domain. They seemed to hope it would be too costly to fight them; in fact, the lawyer said as much to me in a telephone conversation, reminding me repeatedly of the cost of taking a case to court with an attorney as powerful as she. I made the requested changes (at no cost to me), which included publishing on the cover of the book a full-sentence disclaimer that my book was not authorized by A+E Networks. With no other avenues to challenge my book, the company withdrew their threatened lawsuit.
Shortly after Wolter’s efforts to sue me, he released a book, Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers, which further developed material from the America Unearthed series. (My four part review is here: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4.) At my request, given what A+E Networks required of me, A+E Networks required Wolter to publish a disclaimer acknowledging that the network did not support or endorse his book, which claimed, among other things, that a Nazi sympathizer had some good ideas about Nordic conquest of the pre-Columbian Americas and that Oreos hide Freemason-Templar secrets in their chocolaty cookies. (This did not stop H2 from advertising the book with an on-screen graphic during the show.)
Therefore, please note that this review is not and will never be affiliated with Scott Wolter, Committee Films, H2, or A+E Networks.
With that disclosure out of the way, we can move on to tonight’s episode, in which Wolter mistakes nineteenth-century British Israelist fantasies for historical truth.
The show opens with a group of men carrying the Ark of the Covenant through some sepia-toned woods. One carves a symbol for the ark, unknown to Hebrew history, into a tree trunk, and another carries a rock with the same symbol, a square with two triangles at the upper corners. We will not find out where that symbol came from until the end of the hour. They cross a desert and make the same symbol out of small pebbles. The Ark kills a man with its power, riffing on the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6:6-7 (in fact, the casting sheet for the episode originally described the character as Uzzah), turning him to stone, and he crumbles away—a story that of course is not found in any texts having to do with America—or Israel. The original of this story occurred when David brought the Ark to Jerusalem:
When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
There’s nothing about turning to stone or crumbling to dust (and somehow America Unearthed didn’t include any oxen); instead, it appears to be the show’s effort to show off its increased special effects budget for season two. The crumbly stone man is never discussed in the hour, and this marks the first time in the series’ history that the “reenactment” on the show includes blatant fiction that the show never claims as a fringe history fact.
The show’s familiar credits open by telling us that despite Scott Wolter’s best efforts in the first season, history is somehow still wrong and Wolter has more work to do to set it right.
After the credits, Wolter reintroduces himself as “a modern-day Indiana Jones,” though humbly attributing it to “some people” saying so—the “some people” being H2’s publicist, who blanketed TV trade publications with press releases making the claim. He then explains that he intends to reenact Raiders of the Lost Ark. He briefly describes the storybook version of the Ark of the Covenant and announces that he believes it is hidden in America. Although he will use conditional verbs (“may have,” “could have”) throughout the hour, on several occasions he explicitly asserts his belief that the conditional speculation is in fact true. He says he has four sites that could lead to its location: The Hill of Tara in Ireland; Aldie, Virginia; Coshocton, Ohio; and Holbrook, Arizona.
We start at the Hill of Tara in Ireland, where Wolter claims—falsely—that the Ark was last seen. This myth exists only in a certain strain of fringe history myth-making called British Israelism. Wolter fails to inform viewers of the origins of his claims for the Hill of Tara, and it is evident from the presentation of the episode that the producers explicitly tried to keep that origin hidden. As Wolter talks with an expert in Irish history at Tara, rather clumsy edits cut the expert off as she attempts to describe the very recent origins of the myth. It starts with a philosophy called British Israelism, an ideology advocated most forcefully in the nineteenth century that asserted that the British were the direct lineal descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel and were the Chosen People of God. As a result, England was believed to be the successor state to David’s kingdom, and the royal family of Britain God’s representatives on earth. This philosophy served to justify British imperial claims to world domination, but scholars routinely attacked its outlandish distortions of history in its own time and down to the present. Today, British Israelism is a fringe belief, advocated most forcefully by the white supremacist Christian Identity movement and other white supremacist organizations. Some non-racist organizations maintain the ideology as well, including the British-Israel World Federation, which has denounced many of the original British-Israel claims cited by Wolter.
In 1861 a churchman, the Rev. F. R. A. Glover, wrote a book called England, the Remnant of Judah and the Israel of Ephraim, which I have posted in full in my Library. This was the first text to present the Tara-Jeremiah-Tea Tephi myth given uncritically by Scott Wolter without acknowledgement of the source. In this episode, Wolter claims that a genuine ancient legend said that the Ark of the Covenant traveled with the Stone of Destiny from Israel to Ireland in the company of the prophet Jeremiah and an Egyptian princess named Tea Tephi.
Glover invented Tea Tephi by conflating two mythic figures, Teah (or Tea) and Tephi, who share virtually nothing in common. The “poem” Wolter refers to that supposedly lays out her life and history does not exist—at least not in any ancient source. Wolter also fails to note that the name “Stone of Destiny” is not a biblical name for Jacob’s Pillar, and it does not appear in the Book of Genesis (28:10-22), where it is described only as a “stone” that Jacob had “set up as a pillar” at Beth-El. Colloquially, the stone became known as “Jacob’s Pillow” because he had slept on it when he dreamed of angels ascending a ladder. This was why he set it up as a pillar dedicated to God.
How that stone became attached to the “Stone of Destiny,” a name originally given to the Lia Fáil, the coronation stone of the Irish kings at Tara, is a lengthy story, primarily focused on F. R. A. Glover’s British-Israelist claims with an assist from medieval Scottish propaganda. I described Glover’s ideas in an earlier blog post, and the next few paragraphs are adapted from that blog post, with some minor changes in light of the episode’s specific claims.
Glover’s ideas start with the Apocrypha, where the prophet Jeremiah is said to have hidden the Ark of the Covenant in Mt. Nebo, where it would stay hidden and safe from the invading armies during the destruction of Babylon in 587 BCE (2 Maccabees 2:4–7), a fact Wolter partially acknowledges on the show. Because Jeremiah’s followers could not find it, later writers began to claim that Jeremiah fled with the Ark. In 1024, in the poetry of Cuan O’Cochlain (attributed; many think the source text is older), we read that Tephi, daughter Cino Bactir, a king in Spain, died and her fantastic tomb became Tara. He was repeating a claim made by Amergin in the sixth century. These are the foundational poems that contributed to the myth.
Glover and the British Israelists made Tephi into a daughter of Zedekiah, the last Jewish king before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and had her marry a Milesian (Scot) and bring the Stone of Destiny to Ireland and call it the Pillow of Jacob. This is very much a purposeful misinterpretation of Cuan O’Cochlain’s discussion of how Tephi married Canthon of Britain, and the Britons’ most important idol, the Etherun or Taran, was left in Spain until her body was restored to that country. Tephi’s tomb in Spain then became the model for another tomb in Ireland, called Tara, after the return of the stone idol.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, we read that Milesians invaded Ireland, and Glover had the brilliant inspiration to decide that Jeremiah was one of them, when in fact the Irish annals specify that their leader, Ollam Fodlah, was a native king, not one from the Middle East. Glover purposely conflated Tephi, known only from the works cited above, with Tea, a native-born queen married to Heremon, son of Miletus, in Spain just before the Milesian invasion. Since the annals preserve her genealogy in Ireland back at least three generations, she was therefore not the daughter of Zedekiah, despite Glover’s slipshod efforts to revise her history.
The warrant for this is Jeremiah 41:10 and 43:5-7, where a king’s daughters (either Zedekiah’s or Josiah’s; the text is unclear) escape the destruction of Jerusalem. There is no indication they went to Ireland or anywhere else, or that any of them was Tea or Telphi.
All of this is mixed up with the similar legend of Scota, the supposed ancestress of the Scots, whom Irish legends dating back to the 1100s claim was a daughter of Pharaoh from the time of Moses who was exiled, married a prince, and spawned the Scots. Various arguments have been put forward to work Scota and Tea-Tephi into the same myth, or to move Scota from the time of Moses to that of Jeremiah, etc. The Lebor Gabála Érenn however is fairly clear on the point, though some variant manuscripts offers another Scota, daughter of an imaginary pharaoh. The book also claims she was married to a Scythian, whom Glover and other British Israelists identified with the Celts and thus the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Glover, however, was on slightly stronger ground in trying to identify the Stone of Scone, the Scottish coronation stone, with the Lia Fáil in Ireland and thus both as the Stone of Destiny and Jacob’s Pillow. In 1301 Baldred Bisset rewrote Scottish history when he prepared the Scottish submission to the papal curia complaining about English aggression during the Wars of Independence. He wanted to create a counter-myth that would take the Scots from Egypt to Spain and Ireland in order to counter King Edward I’s claims to rule Scotland by descent from Brutus of the British; an older pedigree would give the Scots greater claim. Therefore, he rewrote the Scota myth to make her take the Stone of Scone from Egypt with her during the Exodus, and Robert the Bruce made use of this as anti-English propaganda in 1323; by 1327 William Rishanger recorded in his chronicle that the stone was “the regal stone which Jacob placed under his head.” It would remain forever associated with Jacob, even though geology demonstrates that the stone that passes under the name of Jacob’s Pillow—the Stone of Scone—is a local sandstone block from the region around Scone.
The claim does not appear in literature prior to 1301, and it obviously does not support, even at face value, any of Scott Wolter’s claims about the Stone of Destiny. (Scottish legend, in fact, makes the stone come to Scotland at the hands of a Greek, not of Jeremiah.) This is the only slim line of actual historical detail (though still a myth) connecting either of the coronation stones back to the Middle East—a detail that British Israelists retroactively applied back to the Stone of Destiny in Ireland.
Putting it all together with no mind for chronology or truth, later British Israelists made Jeremiah and Tephi come with the Ark of the Covenant and Jacob’s stone from Egypt to Spain to Ireland, and there hid the Ark at Tara, where it serves to bless the British with its power. And not a word of this is actually found in any of the ancient texts from which the story originates. In 1899 British Israelists conducted damaging digs at Tara in the hope of finding the Ark.
Glover had conflated fragments of genuine poetry and invented identifications for various Irish figures to interpolate Jeremiah into the story. No mention of the Ark exists in these poems; the Book of Tephi, the poem that does describe all of this, is a late nineteenth century poem written in 1897 by John A. Goodchild, based on Glover’s work, that believers like Scott Wolter mistake for a genuine ancient text. It was based on fragments of Irish poetry, Bible passages, and British Israelist literature; the author even admits his “ignorance” of the subject on which he writes in the voice of the imaginary princess!
Naturally, Scott Wolter simply omits all of this history and tells the audience that “legend” says that Tea-Tephi and Jeremiah teamed up to take the Ark and the Stone of Destiny to Ireland, a “legend” that does not exist before the late nineteenth century.
This implies ignorance on the part of Wolter regarding the origins of his claims since Glover was fairly clear that his so-called legend was only hot air and speculation:
If Jeremiah took the Stone, all the marvels about Tara, its Eastern Princess, its Judge, and Mysterious Priest, and the Law, are not only solved, but are necessary events. If it be Jacob's Pillow, and set up by Jeremiah, there is sense in the legend; otherwise, it is an absurdity, and something worse.
In short, Glover admitted that he was simply creating a legend out of scattered parts that said no such thing.
At Jack Andrews’s farm in Aldie, Virgina, Scott Wolter goes to visit the alleged “Stone of Destiny,” which no one relates to the Stone of Scone or the Liá Fail, both of which exist and have better claim to the title. He suggests that the Stone of Destiny in Virginia implies that the Ark of the Covenant is in America, too. The medieval propagandists who brought the myth of Jacob’s Pillar to Ireland and Scotland knew nothing of any Ark sightings in the British Isles; that is only a British-Israel claim, and Wolter’s uncritical acceptance is disturbing.
Andrews claims that he owns a stone that Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, gave to the first owner of the land. Wolter claims Swift had access to “secret knowledge” due to his position as a Dublin cleric, but he does not explain how the “real” Stone of Destiny was somehow swapped out for the stones passing under that name in Ireland and Scotland. (There is an entire cottage industry in Britain devoted to Stone of Scone conspiracy theories. These tend to argue that the original was replaced either before England’s King Edward I removed the stone from Scone to London or at some other point.)
The Virginia stone, Andrews says, was stolen in a planned raid by unnamed people who saw the stone as the foundation for a New Jerusalem. It was returned by an unspecified method, but the show provides no proof, such as a police report, to document the theft by religious extremists.
Andrews keeps the holy relic in his barn (of course), where Wolter goes to visit it as suggestive music plays loudly, as though this were a revelation. I often have difficulty hearing dialogue when there is loud music, and this episode was sometimes difficult to understand for all the dramatic music bellowing out emotional cues. Wolter views the stone, which is sandstone. It bears no resemblance to Jacob’s pillow, which Genesis tells us was a standing pillar. The rock is shaped like a mid-sized, shallow basin. It looks to me pretty much like a colonial-era or Victorian stone trough, like the kind used in gardens.
After the first commercial, Wolter examines the rock, repeating the fake claim of Tea-Tephi, the British-Israel fantasy created by Glover. He never mentions the concept of British Israelism, or its relationship to modern racism. Again, there is no Stone of Destiny in the Bible, and this is nothing but a medieval Christianization of pagan coronation stones. Wolter might have noticed this if he were familiar with the Bible, which we know from his book Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers he has not read, by his own admission.
Wolter chips off a chunk of the holy Stone of Destiny, damaging what he suspects is God’s own sacred rock, and then examines it under a microscope. He says that breaking a chunk off is the only way to get answers, which outweighs the damage done to the rock. Wolter claims the stone “could have” come from Israel, but he fails to note that the type of sandstone it is made from can be found in many other places besides Israel, including areas of the United States. According to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Metals, Mines and Energy, the exact type of arkosic sandstone seen here, with its combination of feldspar and quartz, is exceedingly common in the Piedmont region of Virginia, which includes part of the Potomac watershed near Aldie.
In discussing the stone, Andrews claims to have derived his beliefs about it from the “autobiography” of Tea-Tephi, which he claims to have. The Book of Tephi Jack Andrews discusses as the “autobiography” of the princess is a hoax—no, not even a hoax; it is not even presented as true. As I mentioned above, it was a poem written in 1897 by a known author, John A. Goodchild, based on British-Israelist claims and conflated fragments of Irish poetry and biblical passages.
After the second commercial break, Wolter discusses the Ark of the Covenant again, quoting the description of the Ark from Exodus 25:10-22, which he does not actually cite. Before showing us the results of his tests, he begins to tell us about the Lost Tribes of Israel, and he plans to go in search of clues to the Lost Tribes’ American plans.
In Coshocton, Ohio, he visits the infamous Newark Decalogue Stone from 1860. It was found shortly after an earlier stone, called the Keystone, which has been known to be a hoax since July 1860, when scholars determined that the stone was written in Modern Hebrew rather than the version of the language used at the alleged time of the Lost Tribes. Three months later, after the hoax was revealed, a new stone—the Decalogue Stone—emerged written in archaic Hebrew, exactly answering critics’ concerns. Inscribed on it were shortened forms of the Ten Commandments and a picture of Moses. Other stones were found at the site but were admitted to be fake by their hoaxer, dentist John H. Nichol, who inscribed his own name on them in Hebrew to show how easy it is to fake artifacts. Even if the artifacts were genuine, their writing and art style would date them from the period of 100-300 CE (as even the Mormons admit—and they love looking for “Hebrew” artifacts in America!), meaning that the group leaving the artifacts would have left what is now Israel between 700 and 900 years after the group that “brought” the Ark to Ireland. We get almost nothing about these stones before the show goes to yet another commercial.
After the commercial, Wolter claims that the Decalogue Stone passes “the skeptics’” tests of its Hebrew, and he looks at the stone under a microscope with J. Huson McCulloch, a professor of economics and finance at Ohio State and a staunch advocate of fringe history theories. Full disclosure: I have exchanged words with McCulloch over, among other things, the Bat Creek Stone, another of Wolter’s favorite artifacts. Not surprisingly, McCulloch disagrees with most of the things I write.
Wolter next delivers an astounding sentence of multiple negatives to tell us that there is no reason not to believe that the Ark of the Covenant couldn’t have come to America. Wolter then bashes academics and skeptics (I guess that’s me) for the first time this season (it was a regular feature of season one), and concludes that the academics hate anything that breaks their paradigms so therefore we viewers, as good investigators, must embrace them as real. I didn’t really follow all that, and I got a bit lost in the convoluted grammar.
Wolter returns to Minneapolis and his home base to examine his chunk of the Stone of Destiny. En route, he gives us the false dichotomy that if the Ark is in America, it either came because Jonathan Swift was privy to Tea-Tephi’s secrets or because the Lost Tribes came to America. There are a million more possibilities—space aliens, for example, or the exact theory he speculated about last year: that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney brought it to Nova Scotia in 1398. He examines the stone under a microscope and compares it to a sample of rock from “Israel”—which is a rather broad canvas to look at. How would you know where to look? Did he get his stone from Beth-El, twelve miles north of Jerusalem (possibly modern Beitin in the West Bank), where Genesis says Jacob was? Surely that’s relevant to judging whether the Virginia rock was in fact Jacob’s Pillar. We go to commercial before finding out.
As we return from what by this time I sincerely hoped would be the last commercial break of the hour, Wolter tells us that it’s only a matter of time before the Ark is revealed—rather shocking since that presumes it ever existed in the first place. (He later suggests that there is doubt over its existence, but that his beliefs trump doubt.) Oh, well, back to the microscope for a very long-drawn-out reveal. Wolter repeats his falsehood that Jacob called his rock the “Stone of Destiny”—it was not; Jacob consecrated his stone to God at Beth-El. There is no match to the Israeli sample, and Wolter reports this amidst a flurry of dramatic music and cinematography and editing designed to emphasize the tension leading up to the reveal. I would love to tell you that the negative result means that the Virginia Stone of Destiny is a fake, but since we have no idea where the Israeli sample came from, nor a control of other Virginia sandstone samples, the results are meaningless, and the entire exercise is without value.
Wolter then hands his assistant, Adam Brewer, a photo of a stone wall carving of a rectangle with two triangles atop the rectangle. The rectangle inscribed with two zigzags, and it is a well-documented petroglyph that has been repeatedly photographed at Puerco Pueblo in the Petrified Forest National Park. Wolter identifies it as an image of the Ark of the Covenant. I just don’t see it, myself. Here’s the art, as seen in Wandering Lizard Arizona magazine:
The petroglyph looks at first blush like a Native American carving, and its geometric design does not suggest an Ark to me. It could be a fake, but without seeing the carving in person, I can’t offer any additional details. As noted in the comments below, it resembles looms used for weaving blankets, and the triangles above the yarn on sticks feeding the loom. The petroglyphs at the site are believed to have been carved before 1200 CE, probably too late to have had anything to do with post-Exilic wandering Irish Lost Tribes who wrote the Decalogue in Roman-era Hebrew.
We hear that that no other petroglyph from the area is anything like this carving. This is a lie. A nearby petroglyph is very similar (with a decidedly “Templar”-style cross no less!), indicating that the geometric shape was simply part and parcel of the stock of geometric images used in the area’s rock art.
It occurs to no one on the show to ask the Hopi or the Navajo, descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) people of the region, whether the rock art has particular meaning in their culture. Instead, Wolter simply imposes an Anglo-American meaning onto the art, annexing it to his fantasy of Lost Tribes in America. Oddly enough, Wolter chooses not to mention that the Ancestral Pueblo carved a summer solstice marker among the petroglyphs, which the National Park Service has up on its website—odd because Wolter is otherwise so interested in how Templar-Freemasons taught astronomical alignments to all the various American peoples.
Wolter claims that his “trail” of the Ark leads from east to west, which suggests to him that the Ark is hidden in the Grand Canyon—the subject of a later episode of this series. But how exactly does the “trail” do that if the Irish site and the Virginia site are not actually associated with the Ark at all, and the Ohio one is a hoax?
Wolter concludes by telling us that the Ark “could” exist and if it “could” exist then it’s not impossible that the Ark is in America. It sounds like this is going to become the overriding theme of this season, like the Grail last year. Wolter tells us that he will bravely stand up to those who believe that religious relics should be left hidden because he alone has the cojones to get to the truth. Equal parts self-aggrandizing and blindingly ignorant of the “facts” he seeks to find, Scott Wolter lets us know that he’s all man and will keep on fighting those darn ol’ academics and skeptics no matter how much he has to twist truth, adopt fiction as fact, or simply ignore reality to force history to conform to his vision.
Remember: He found no evidence of Jacob’s Pillar, the impetus for this whole investigation, yet somehow this only made him more convinced that the Ark really is in America—even though all of the claims he examined were tied to British-Israelist ideas about Jacob’s Pillow traveling with the Ark—stories that emerged only in the 1800s as “divine” justification for British imperial rule over the vast domains of the Empire.
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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