I’m not really digging (pun intended) the new treasure-hunting format for this season of America Unearthed. Two weeks ago Scott Wolter failed to find the gold of the Lost Dutchman Mine. This week he fails to find Montezuma’s Gold. Next week, he’ll fail to find George Armstrong Custer’s lost gold, and the week after that he won’t find Captain Kidd’s lost gold. I know that for a variety of reasons, ranging from the success of Curse of Oak Island (Tuesday’s top original cable program, with 2.1 million viewers) and Gold Rush (Friday’s top cable program, with 3.7 million viewers) to cable networks’ sponsorship by companies that sell gold to consumers, treasure hunting is one of cable TV’s hottest nonfiction trends; but Scott Wolter’s drive-by, scattershot research methods are ill-equipped to mimic the obsessive-compulsive format of the more successful treasure hunting shows. The one thing he does have in common with them, though, is the failure to find what he’s looking for.
On the plus side, at least he’s not the Vieira brothers, whose obsessive Search for the Lost Giants lost viewers again this week, falling to just 1.448 million viewers, of whom just 400,000 are under the age of 50. If only those giants were buried with gold!
Montezuma is the popular name for Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466-1520), the ninth Aztec emperor. He is retroactively known to history as Moctezuma II. He is best known for falling to the Spanish Conquistadors, who invaded the Aztec empire on his watch. According to myth, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Montezuma mistook them from the returning god Quetzalcoatl and thus offered only minimal resistance. Fringe historians have long used this event as “proof” that the Aztecs were aware of white-skinned bearded people from beyond the sea—Europeans. However, Quetzalcoatl was not depicted as white skinned in pre-Conquest art, and many historians now argue that the Spanish willfully misconstrued Aztec hospitality to manufacture this myth, particularly Catholic clergy like Gerónimo de Mendieta and Bernardino de Sahagún, who interpolated Biblical themes into their accounts.
Contrary to fringe claims that only Europeans were manly enough to sport beards, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness writing years after the fact, recorded in chapter 91 of the History of the Conquest of New Spain that Montezuma’s “black beard, though thin, looked handsome” (trans. John Ingram Lockhart). He also threw in that Montezuma did not indulge in sodomy—unlike the evil giants recorded at the same time by Pedro Cieza de Leon down in Peru.
It is too complex and issue for this limited space to debate the degree to which the myth that the Aztec thought the Conquistadors to be gods finds support in reality, but it is the widespread acceptance of this myth among Europeans and Americans down to the late twentieth century that allows for the development of the myth of Montezuma’s treasure.
Bernardino de Sahagún asserts that Montezuma experienced a series of visions before the Conquest which announced the coming desolation of the Aztec lands. This is the foundation for the idea that Montezuma had half the treasure of the Aztecs bundled up and shipped north, to escape the coming disaster. This exodus of treasure, though, finds no support in the Spanish accounts or in the Nahuatl accounts of the Conquest. It is extrapolated from Montezuma’s offer of treasure to Hernán Cortés (who preferred to call himself Hernando) in the hope that he would leave Mexico. He did not, and after Montezuma’s death, the Aztecs rose up against the Conquistadors, who tried to slip out of Tenochtitlan under cover of darkness. They loaded up their horses and men with all the gold they could hold—700,000 pesos’ worth, according to Bernal Díaz del Castillo--and tried to leave the city, but the temporary bridge they crossed collapsed beneath them, and the weight of the gold drowned many of the Conquistadors. Some have argued that their gold is Montezuma’s treasure, still lost amidst the remaining waters of Lake Texcoco or otherwise buried beneath Mexico City. Although this is the popular view in Mexico, it is not the most common opinion among treasure hunters in the United States. They, by contrast, prefer to imagine the treasure here in America.
Therefore, here in the U.S.A., Montezuma’s treasure can supposedly be found at the Ajo Mountains, Casa Grande, Montezuma Castle, or the various places called Montezuma Head in Arizona. Others place the treasure in Utah. Sometimes the treasure is attributed to the god Montezuma rather than the Aztec emperor. (The god is most likely a deification of the Aztec ruler among Pueblo and Tohono O’odham peoples, combining the historical figure with mythic themes.) Occasionally, the treasure is said to actually be an Apache treasure, with obvious shared elements of the Lost Dutchman Mine myth. In Dig Here! Lost Mines & Buried Treasure of the Southwest (1966), a book considered so useful that no less a fringe figure than David Childress republished it in 2004, author Thomas Penfield dismissed all the Montezuma’s Treasure stories as legendary and lacking any evidence to support them.
The hunt for Montezuma’s treasure is not new to the H2 network. Back in February, Ancient Aliens discussed the hunt for the treasure and profiled some treasure hunters searching for it near Kanab, Utah, where they believe the mystical Aztec homeland of Aztlán once was. Ancient Aliens profiled Paul Dillman and his son Daniel Dillman, who were searching a cave for Montezuma’s treasure based on the crank theories of Freddy Crystal, an early twentieth century prospector who claimed to have found an Aztec treasure map in Mexico City. Similarly, last year Scott Wolter himself went in search of the same Aztlán in places as far afield as Wisconsin, Arizona, and Utah, and concluded—wrongly—based on toponyms on old maps that Aztlán and the old Toltec capital of Tula were in the region from Arizona to the Salt Lake area of Utah. I went into detail about why this claim was wrong here, but the long and short of it is that early Spanish and American explorers wrongly concluded (based on a mistake by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1687) that the Anasazi (ancestral Pueblo) ruins were those of the Aztecs.
This brings us finally to filmmaker Mike Wiest, who back in February tried to raise funds to use a submersible to search for the treasure in Kanab, at a pond now owned by Lon Child, a man whose father tried for decades to find the gold until the divers he sent into the pond fled from what he claimed were Aztec ghosts. (Definitely not Toltec or Mixtec ghosts; such affiliations are apparently very obvious when you see ghosts.) The federal government forced Brandt Child to abandon plans to drain the pond to find the gold because the pond is home to an endangered snail. Wiest said he believed the gold was located beneath the pond because he “read several books” about Montezuma. He also said that he believes the pond is haunted and would consider bringing in an exorcist to cleanse it of the supernatural.
We open in Scott Wolter’s laboratory where our hero unrolls a map to which is attached a Post-It saying “please put this to good use.” It’s a reproduction of a nineteenth century map of North America, with a thumb drive taped to the corner. Wolter plugs in the thumb drive as ominous music swells and sees a circle with a line through it. He unravels a cloth in which is a reproduction Mexican gold artifact labeled Freddie Crystal. Despite doing this for three years, Wolter has not grown as an actor, and the staginess is obvious. Then we’re off to the opening credits.
After the credits, Wolter is now at the bottom of a Utah lake looking for Montezuma’s treasure. “Yeah, that Montezuma,” he says, “better known for Montezuma’s revenge.” We then flash back to S02E08 and Wolter’s goofy ideas, gained from a Mexican-rights activist, about the Aztec homeland of Aztlan being somewhere in the southwestern United States and/or Wisconsin. The reproduction map Wolter received is the one from that episode, but a mysterious tipster has added the words “Montezuma’s curse” to the map, over what is now Utah.
At Kanab, Utah, Wolter meets local journalist Lois D. Brown, identified as the author of Cursed Gold, but better known as a journalist on natural foods and an author of books on Mormon interest. Oh, and Cursed Gold is a self-published novel, not a history—not that America Unearthed tells you that. Wolter reviews the history of the Aztec gold, and Wolter asserts that the treasure given to the Conquistadors “just disappeared.” Brown tells Wolter that she has gotten approval from the U.S. government—those arch-conspirators who suppress Wolter’s work!—to let the team film at a place where the early twentieth century prospector Freddy Crystal concluded a century ago that Montezuma’s gold lay hid in caverns at Johnson Canyon.
Brown tells Wolter about the supposedly cursed gold, guarded by ghosts that rise up from Utah’s waters to stop divers from reaching the gold.
After the break, at an “undisclosed location” at Kanab, Utah, Wolter recaps what we’ve heard so far. Wolter and Brown are still talking about the curse of the gold and the ghosts that guard it. Brown claims that as many as 2,000 slaves were killed in a massive human sacrifice so that their spirits would guard the treasure. Brown takes Wolter to caves, presumably at Johnson Canyon (it is a visual match to what we see on screen), where Crystal dug in the 1920s. Wolter assumes that the Aztec excavated and filled the cave, without evidence, and Brown tells Wolter that the government won’t let them enter the cave because it is unstable. Since we know that the cave was dug out by Freddy Crystal, it’s rather confusing why Wolter would attribute the tool marks he sees to the Aztecs. Anyone, including, say, the indigenous people of Utah, could have excavated the tunnels at any time over the past several thousand years. Why would anyone think that the Aztecs did it in 1521? “The evidence all comes together,” Wolter says, arguing that an Aztec origin for the cave is the only answer that “makes sense.” It’s actually Crystal’s conclusion that Wolter presents as his own: That the cave was the temporary holding place for Montezuma’s gold while a more permanent location was found. Wolter doesn’t tell viewers that he simply borrowed Crystal’s evidence-free assertions wholesale.
After the break, Wolter recaps and quaintly pretends that there is “evidence” for an Aztec exodus to Utah. Wolter again teases his forthcoming underwater adventure, and he travels to what the show labels a “petroglyph site” to talk with Steve Shaffer, author of Voices of the Ancients. Shaffer is described as an archaeologist, though he has only the same qualifications in archaeology as I do: a bachelor’s in archaeology. (He says his Master’s is in “Arts.”) He is a treasure hunter by trade, and fond of decorating his website with auto-play Native American music. The men go to look at the petroglyph of the circle with a line through it and Wolter declares it ancient. Wolter wonders if the circle was meant for the Aztec to use to track their latitude, but he’s clearly reaching. The problem is that there isn’t any connection between the petroglyph and the Aztecs, no more than to any other group. In fact, according to Shaffer, analysis of lichens growing on the petroglyph shows they are older than 500 years, meaning that the glyph was carved before the Conquest of Mexico. Shaffer tells Wolter that in the area several ancient skeletons were found in a fetal burial position, like those of the Aztecs, but there are by Shaffer’s own admission no artifacts or evidence to connect these burials to the Aztecs. Wolter, though, thinks they might have been Aztec human sacrifices.
Shaffer tells Wolter that the circle symbol can also be found in an underwater cave, which takes us to our next commercial break.
In the second half of the show, Wolter recaps what we’ve head, and Wolter interviews Lon Child at Three Lakes Ranch, which is apparently Child’s second media profile this year, after Mike Wiest’s attempted exploration for his film in February. Child tells Wolter about his father’s stories of ghosts that menace divers in the pond, and he says he believes in the curse. Child says that when a well driller tried to tunnel into the cave, the drill came out with gold on the tip, but the driller died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Therefore Child, being afraid of the power of evil ghosts, won’t allow any drilling but has no problem with Wolter risking the wrath of the Aztec ghosts by diving into the cave. Child says that he is firmly convinced that his land is the magical resting place of the Aztec treasure, in keeping with the nearly universal tendency of fringe believers to feel they have some sort of special and personal connection to greatness, whether it be through archaeological artifacts, past lives as Cleopatra or Napoleon, secret Jesus DNA, or supernatural experiences.
Wolter makes the illogical conclusion that proving that Child’s pond holds a manmade cave will demonstrate that the Aztec were responsible, and he prepares to dive as we go to a break. It’s worth remembering, again, that it is a vast leap of logic from “manmade” to “Aztec cave created in 1521 to house Montezuma’s gold smuggled out of Tenochtitlan under the noses of the Conquistadors without leaving any trace in the historical record.”
Again: Not a single Aztec artifact has ever been found in Utah.
As we return from the break, Wolter recaps and then sets about planning his dive with Eric Stackpole, who runs a remotely-operated underwater vehicle company and is here to promote his services. The details of these plans are irrelevant to the story and are essentially a paid advertisement for Stackpole’s company, so I have nothing to say about this part of the show, which achieves nothing except to waste time until Wolter enters the water after the break.
In the final segment, Wolter recaps yet again and emphasizes just how dangerous it is to go diving. That’s why he’s diving with Wilf Blum, a local diver, who says he knows of friends who have had ghostly experiences looking for Montezuma’s treasure. The men go into the water along with a cameraman, and to make several minutes of air time much shorter, they find nothing in a dark and silt-filled cave.
They start dredging the cave, and I wonder how that endangered Kanab amber snail enjoyed the dredging. The dredging failed, but if the men killed a snail in the process, there is a $50,000 fine. Wolter pretends that he wants to drain the pond, and Child tells him that the snail won’t allow it and tells Wolter about the fine. Child shows Wolter rocks dredged from the pond that have mortar on them, and they are modern, Wolter concludes. (No fooling: The Aztec didn’t have cement!) Child refuses to let Wolter drill for gold.
Wolter’s investigation ends with no results and not even a hint of evidence of any Aztec presence anywhere in Utah, but Wolter nevertheless concludes that the treasure is probably down there, but that there is “no way I can prove it.” That sums up most of his beliefs, come to think of it.
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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