Those who support the work of Scott Wolter and America Unearthed have criticized my analysis of the program, especially when I have made mention of the show’s use of racist, colonialist, and imperialist ideas from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as though they were objective science. Specifically, I have received ample criticism that there is no room for discussions of racism when it comes to talking about history. I’m sure most of you have seen the recent exchange Wednesday on the Fox News Channel show The Kelly File in which Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly states that Santa Claus “just is” white and should not be depicted with any other skin tone, and that history and science validate the historical Jesus as a “white man.”
Although Kelly delivered a semi-apology on Friday, claiming her remarks were in “jest” —something not obvious from her on-air remarks—and that she was unfairly targeted for criticism due to her affiliation with Fox News, the flap demonstrates that there remains an ethnocentric subtext to cable television programming aimed at a wealthy white male demographic, the same audience both Fox News Channel and H2 target. It is not explicit racism so much as a blindness to points of view beyond the audience’s presumed culture and its traditional assumptions about who holds power, who lacks power, and who are the active and passive players on the world stage.
Can this be more obvious than in the assumption by the relatively small number of people in Rockwall, Texas, who advocate the artificial origin of the town's namesake wall that the clastic sandstone dykes running beneath their town are the work of Biblical giants, travelers from the Old World, or some other group symbolizing the power of traditionally dominant social groups such as the church, white Europeans, etc.? If you were to claim a natural formation as artificial, why would you attribute it to non-Native people? What’s wrong with the Native peoples of Texas? Oh, right: When the wall was first discovered in 1852, just a year after Rockwall was first settled, Texans were busy trying to wrest control of the land from the Native peoples who once inhabited it—both the native Caddo, who were longtime residents, and the Creek, forced there by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policies, which in turn were justified with more the same: claims that the Native Americans killed off a lost white race that were the true legitimate owners of the land, to which white Americans were the natural and legal heirs.
As Jackson wrote in his annual Message to Congress on December 7, 1830:
In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the west, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated, or has disappeared, to make room for the existing savage tribes.
This, he said, is why the Indians had to be removed from America.
Oddly enough, today the Rockwall artificial-origin advocates have forgotten all this and speak darkly of a U.S. government cover-up of the monument and fortress of an unknown people they believe lies beneath their feet—exactly the kind of “monument” custom-made to justify U.S. government Indian removal policy during the era of its most active enforcement.
None of this deep background flits across the radar of America Unearthed. In fact, Scott Wolter and the producers of the show told the Rockwall Herald-Banner in May that they were not familiar with the Rockwall rock wall until someone from the town called their tip line (yes, they have a tip line) to ask them to investigate. According to the son of the property owner, a man named Adam Nix of the Collin County Historical Foundation contacted History about bringing the show to town. According to show director Andy Awes, more people called in to the show’s tip line to ask about the Rockwall rock wall than any other site or artifact. “By far the most tips we got were about this rock wall in Texas,” Awes told WFAA earlier this week. In the episode, Wolter said that translated to about “fifty emails,” which I guess says something about the reach of the program.
The town historical society, of course, plans to use the controversy over the wall to raise money, and a photographer plans to exploit the show’s popularity by selling photographs of the rock wall, which Committee Films prevented him from releasing until the show aired.
So what exactly was this rock wall? The following background discussion is adapted from text appearing in several of my previous blog posts about the Rockwall rock wall.
In 1854, the town of Rockwall took its name from what local residents, who had been living there since 1852, believed to be a prehistoric stone wall which surrounded the town. While digging wells, they found large sections of rock that seemed to resemble manmade constructions. Several layers of buried rock were piled one atop the other, broken and cracked so that each layer resembled carefully stacked, irregular bricks, something like dry stone walls writ large. Many believed that this ancient construction was built by an unknown prehistoric people, possibly the same lost white race that supposedly built the Native American mounds.
However, in 1874, geologist Richard Burleson examined the rocks and concluded they were a natural formation. In 1901, geologist Robert T. Hull was even more specific, identifying the wall as clastic sand dykes. In 1909, the definitive study of the site was published in Science on behalf of the U.S. Geologic Survey. Geologist Sidney Paige surveyed the alleged wall and determined that it was made of sand dykes that intruded in Cretaceous rock, but moreover the “wall” was not a wall but rather a series of disconnected intrusions, with few if any connected sections.
It proves to be not a wall, but a number of disconnected sandstone dikes, strictly speaking, not surrounding the town, but trending in many directions. As exposures are few, they have been discovered in such scattered localities in the town’s environs as to suggest the idea that they were fragments of a ruined wall.
I have posted Paige’s full text in my Library.
More recent geological work has confirmed the same results over and over again down to the present. Additional examinations have occurred over the last century, including those conducted by W. L. Stephenson in 1927 and Robert T. Hill in 1975, alongside Martin Kelsey and Harold Denton’s 1980s visit to the site. These studies confirmed the findings from 1909, and at the time, Sidney Paige found very few people who still believed in a prehistoric human origin for the wall. That all changed with the arrival of a self-promoting tomb raider, reversing the accomplishments of 45 years of scientific research.
In 1925, a freelance tomb raider (“amateur archaeologist”) named Count Byron de Prorok, preparing to go off in search of King Solomon’s mines, swept into town and declared the wall the remains of a lost civilization. He specifically felt that the wall belonged to a North African culture, probably the Carthaginians (an offshoot of the Phoenicians). Later speculators claimed the walls resembled “pre-Inca” constructions of Peru. Not ready to let good publicity go to waste, Rockwall turned the wall into a tourist attraction and, for a time, even charged admission to see the wonder of the “lost race” during the Texas centennial celebrations.
The town’s real estate developers wanted to capitalize on the fame of the walls, so they hired geologists from the local universities to prove that the walls were the remains of a fortress of the pre-Flood Biblical giants, all the better to sell land to Christian extremists. The geologists told the real estate people that the wall was natural. Not satisfied, they asked the Institute for Creation Research to come prove the wall belonged to the giants of Genesis 6:4. Young earth creationist John Morris came out to survey the site, and even the creationist agreed that the wall was completely natural, though of course he felt it was deposited recently, according to Flood geology.
When even creationists gave up on the wall, it faded into obscurity except among New Age extremists. In 1999, architect John Lindsey told a New Age group that the wall was the remains of a 30,000-year-old civilization, and in 2001 New Age believers began to assert that a “channeled” being from another plane named Lady Kadjina had explained that the wall belonged to Atlantis. Such claims were confined to New Age spirituality until Frank Joseph tried to revive the wall’s archaeological significance in the pages of Ancient American. Frank Joseph, sounding much like the worst part of Andrew Jackson, wrote that he could not imagine any Native Americans capable of building rock walls; he proposed that the Romans built it in the first century CE. The idea of a historically Caucasian Texas continues.
Joseph’s article was published along with some of Scott Wolter’s own early work in The Lost Worlds of Ancient America, an anthology of the magazine’s stories, which Wolter apparently never read since he claimed to have never heard of the rock wall prior to this past spring.
Our episode, America Unearthed S02E06 “Great Wall of Texas,” opens with two men digging a hole while dressed in what is supposed to pass for nineteenth century clothing. They uncover rocks that the production team has taken pains to make look like bricks. As the whole gets deeper, the production design emphasizes the brick-like shape of the (fake) wall (it’s just lines gouged in the dried mud), and the men—now three in number—stare in awe as CGI takes us deep into the earth to reveal and endless wall beneath them.
The opening credits roll, and we’re off to Rockwall, Texas, population 38,000. Wolter summarizes the history of the wall, claiming that the locals say it’s the work of an ancient civilization and stretches seven stories underground. Wolter meets with Adam Nix, who sent in the rock wall tip, and they go to look at a “reassembled” piece of the wall, which is an actual wall made from rocks that have been lobbed into bricks and reset with mortar between them. The music is rather loud as Wolter examines the rocks with a loupe and declares them to be rocks, and not very impressive. His facial expression concedes what the hour will prove: this is a natural formation. He looks at some photographs of the wall, and he says that the photos suggest that the wall seems artificial. Nix believes that the wall is artificial because it’s not “random” in shape—apparently he has never seen the Giant’s Causeway.
Nix instead says there was a conspiracy and a cover-up, asserting that experts abandoned excavations and changed their findings to prevent the government from seizing the land in the name of archaeological preservation.
Wolter goes to meet Kevin Richeson, who spent “a whole lot more” than $80,000 excavating the wall, which Wolter said he did “to get to the truth” about whether a civilization “other than the Native Americans” built the wall, which struck me as awfully racist. Wolter backs off on this by giving us three possibilities for who “really” built the wall, and two of them are Native American: the Caddo Tribe and the Paleoindians. The third choice is the Chinese. Since he knows this is a natural formation, he can happily give Native Americans a chance to compete for credit this time, making it easier to give the every other site to Europeans. Even though Wolter dismisses the Caddo due to his “gut” feeling, this still counts as progress as far as America Unearthed is concerned, though the on-screen promo for Seven Signs of the Apocalypse Wednesday at 9 doesn’t inspire confidence that H2 has turned a corner on its weird Christian conspiracy programming.
Wolter compares the wall to the Great Wall of China in order to estimate how long it took to build, but that presupposes that the wall is artificial, meaning that this will become a moot point by the end of the hour.
As we head into the first commercial Richeson tells Wolter that no permit is needed to excavate the wall because “this is Texas.” Apparently under Texas law, an archaeological permit is needed only for a site designated as a State Antiquities Landmark, and the rock wall, being a natural formation, is not a state landmark.
At the 15:00 mark, Richeson agrees to excavate the wall as the on-screen graphics promote Scott Wolter’s book. Richeson said no one was willing to make a “definitive” statement about the wall’s origins, but as we have seen, everyone from the U.S. Geological Survey to creationists have made definitive statements that the wall is a natural formation. Richeson seems to want to wait to get the answer he’s been hoping for.
The two men discuss their excavation plans, and we are meant to enjoy watching Scott Wolter gawking at heavy machinery because this is a manly show meant for real men.
At the local historical society, the historian, Sheri Fowler, repeats what we’ve already heard for a third or fourth time, and I’m thinking this show has nothing more to say than the sand dyke looks like a wall. The historian discusses Khun de Prorok’s ideas and the Biblical giant idea, but as we go to commercial no one mentions earlier geologists’ work on the site. In fact, the show takes pains to try to pretend that no qualified geologists have looked at the wall before Wolter, only kooks and cranks. Coming back we have another recap (the third so far) along with Wolter’s claim that giants are real, replaying clips from his “investigation” into Minnesota giants, which, I remind you, found no giants but is somehow meant as proof that giants existed. Wolter doesn’t believe in giants in this case, though.
Wolter travels out to the historian’s property to view another section of the wall, but he just keeps repeating the same summary and speculation over and over again. This show is a massive waste of time, containing about five minutes of content stretched over an hour.
Wolter does a scratch test on a rock to see if it’s soft enough for people to have built with, although this is a waste of time. Wolter looks at still more photographs of the wall, which simply repeats what we have heard about five times in 32 minutes of air time.
The next day Wolter is “pumped” as he reviews AGAIN what we’ve just seen. We’re treated to more manly men digging with manly machines so we can to another commercial break.
At the 38:00 mark, we get yet another on-screen recap as more loving shots of the heavy machinery lead to pretty much nothing. Richeson claims that the wall is aligned to the solstice, and Wolter likens this to his greatest hits from season one—once again mistaking astronomical alignments for “archaeoastronomy,” which is the study of ancient peoples’ astronomical alignments, not the alignments themselves. But instead of trying to test this, we get to watch Wolter drive heavy machinery because he is a real man and real men don’t excavate with shovels or chisels. They aren’t afraid to completely destroy the alegedly “most important” site in America and all its context with a backhoe.
On the third day of digging, Wolter returns to an even bigger hole, and Wolter says that the wall looks like “modern masonry,” though it doesn’t look much like it to me. I guess I’m not as imaginative. Wolter has invited John Geissman, a professor of geosciences, to look for magnetic signatures in the rocks created at the time the rocks formed due to the magnetic field of the earth. If all the “bricks” have the same magnetic orientation, it would suggest that rocks were formed in situ; should their magnetic signatures not match, it would suggest that the rocks have been disturbed at some point, perhaps by artificial construction. Obviously, if they had found anything useful, it would have been a major news story and the lead for the show, not the last few minutes of a wheezing, sclerotic hour of repetitive speculation.
Wolter repeats what we’ve heard before for yet another time as we go to commercial. Somehow italics aren’t strong enough to convey the sheer anger I feel at the repetition, but I’ve run out of ways to be more emphatic.
With only minutes left in the hour, we return from the final break to listen to Wolter recap his previous recaps, desperately trying to hide the fact that you could turn in here at the 53:00 mark and have missed absolutely nothing in this tedious hour, right down to the mistaken use of the word archaeoastronomy. He never does bother to measure the angle to the wall to see if it really does line up with the solstice since he knows the truth long before the viewer does.
Back at Geissman’s lab, Geissman take a turn recapping what he already told us, and then Geissman reveals the results of his paleomagnetism test. Dramatic music swells over images of equipment whirring and blinking. Suddenly the truth comes out: Oh, right, we still have four minutes left, so he can’t let us know yet. Instead, we return to the dig site to listen to Wolter break the news to Adam Nix and Keven Richeson. The wall is natural… just like we’ve believed since 1874 and knew for certain since 1909!
What a waste of time!
Wolter believes that the wall is an 85-million-year old sand dyke, and he could have found that out in a few minutes with a literature review. “Sometimes nature plays tricks and pulls a fast one on us,” Wolter says. “This is one of those times.”
Sometimes TV pulls a fast one on us, like passing off a five-minute story as a one-hour documentary. This was one of those times.
After the program ended, the cast and crew threw a wrap party with local dignitaries. These included the 90-year-old chairman emeritus of the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee, Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), and the mayor, David Sweet, who maintained that science would never suppress Rockwall’s efforts to market the rock wall to fringe history believers and creationists:
One of the neat things about Rockwall is that, no matter what the truth is, whether it’s man-made or a natural occurrence, it’s always going to be a part of our history. Long after the experts have given us their definitive answers, I think people will continue to speculate and pass down the legends for generations to come.
That’s the spirit! Who needs science when you have something better: faith and money?
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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