In its original run, forensic geologist Scott F. Wolter, who hosts the show, used the series to pursue a conspiratorial view of American history based on the belief that the land of the future United States had been repeatedly visited and colonized by Old World peoples. He followed the Da Vinci Code in claiming that a vast conspiracy from ancient times guarded a goddess-worshiping cult’s secret Egyptian-Jewish wisdom and the Holy Bloodline of Jewish royalty descended from Jesus Christ and his alleged wife, Mary Magdalene. The guardians of the conspiracy included, at various times, the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, who claimed the United States as the true kingdom of the Bloodline and who secretly run America in service of a goddess whom they worship via astrology.
None of these claims had any factual support beyond a web of conspiracies theories and a network of fraudulent artifacts that Wolter endorsed as legitimate relics of antiquity. I analyzed his claims in each episode of America Unearthed during its original run, and my reviews contain lengthy discussions of the faults with each piece of his alleged evidence.
During the H2 years, America Unearthed became controversial because of its extreme speculation and because of its host. The show’s claims found favor with white nationalists, who sang its praises on forums like Stormfront. After the second season in 2014, Wolter himself appeared on the podcast of Frank from Queens, whom New York magazine once described as a “racist,” where he accepted a made-up award on the show’s annual “World Solutrean Day” broadcast closest to Hitler’s birthday. Frank recognized Wolter as a “pioneer” for revealing the “truth” that Europeans were true First Americans, dating back 40,000 years. “That’s a high honor, and I sure appreciate it,” Wolter said.
After H2 canceled America Unearthed, the History Channel signed Scott Wolter for a second series, Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar, which was condemned by UNESCO in a devastating report compiled at the behest of the Madagascar government which concluded that Wolter’s History Channel team had violated archaeological preservation practices and sensationalized evidence.
In the intervening years, Wolter, who is a practicing Freemason, has appeared in a variety of fringe media making outlandish claims about a number of subjects related to his interest in the imaginary prehistory of Freemasonry and its connection to Vikings, Templars, and conspiracy theories. In the most recent version of his evolving narrative of American history, he now envisions the Knights Templar integrating with Native American groups, interbreeding with them, and passing along the secrets of Freemasonry, which are preserved in Native lore.
On a personal note, I have had more than my share of difficulties with America Unearthed and its host. Wolter developed a strong antipathy to me after I published a blog post questioning his claim to have received an honorary master’s degree from his alma mater. He conceded that the degree was not issued by the school. During the show’s original run, A+E Networks, claiming to act on behalf of Scott Wolter, sent me a cease and desist order in an effort to stop publication of my reviews of the show in book form, falsely alleging that Wolter owned the rights to the so-called “Hooked X,” a runic character used since the nineteenth century that appeared on the first version of the book’s cover. (I have a letter from the network’s attorney conceding that the rune is in the public domain.) Later, Wolter and his then-business partner in the defunct Xplrr media company threatened me with a libel suit, which necessitated me retaining a lawyer. The legal threats ended with an agreement to avoid direct personal interactions without going through lawyers first. Most recently, when I asked the Travel Channel whether they were concerned about the show’s support among white nationalists, instead of responding, the network blocked my access to their press website, which they silently restored sometime before the show returned to air. You can thank them for the promotional photography appearing in the review below.
And now, to my great surprise, America Unearthed is back in all its shambolic glory, with the Travel Channel describing Wolter as a real-life Indiana Jones, adding in a promotional article that “like Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr., Wolter has also searched for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.” So did Heinrich Himmler!
During the show’s final H2 season, I made it habit to open each episode review with an essay discussing the true history of the subject under discussion in that episode. Back when the series hauled in 1.5 million weekly viewers and had a great deal of cultural influence, that seemed to be a productive use of time. The Travel Channel, however, has much lower ratings than America Unearthed used to bring in for H2, and based on the performance of similar series over the past six months on Discovery Networks stations, I imagine that the audience for the revived series will be significantly smaller than during its first run. Legends of the Lost brought in just 350,000 viewers, as did America’s Lost Vikings. America Unearthed will probably cross the half million mark if ratings for its reruns on Travel are any indication, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort to write an article-length essay to preface a review of a show that a much smaller audience will watch than in years past.
However, that does not mean that I will avoid writing about the real historical background of this episode. That background however, is not really about the story of a Viking ship supposedly in the California desert—which Newsweek correctly reported a few years ago originated, according to a U.S. government publication, in an exaggeration of a story about a Civil War-era ship built in 1862 for a Colorado River mining company and left in the desert to rot when they discovered it would cost too much to transport to the river. It’s also not about petroglyphs near San Fernando de Velicatá in Baja California—some of which date back five hundred to a thousand years and one of which is sometimes said to resemble a Spanish galleon, and here will be mistaken for a Viking ship. In the past, Spanish chroniclers identified the petroglyphs as the work of Chaldeans, and in 1910 Arthur Walbridge North expressed amazement at their alleged similarity to Phoenician writing. Native lore, which North recorded on a 1906 trip, claimed them to be the work of a lost race of Giants who lived in Mexico before the native peoples.
Instead, the background I’d rather discuss revolves around the issue of why people have come to believe that Vikings visited in Mexico. This claim was popularized by white supremacist writers of the middle twentieth century, particularly ex-Nazis and former Nazi supporters like Jacques de Mahieu—cited approvingly by Wolter in one of his books—who built upon the work of Heinrich Himmler’s Nazi archaeologists to propose that the Vikings had colonized the ancient Americas and held Aryan dominion over all the native peoples, which they passed on to the Knights Templar. (Wolter, writing in 2013, dismissed De Mahieu’s Nazi connections as “irrelevant and unimportant.” De Mahieu hired Joseph Goebbels’s former translator to translate his work from French to German.)
I described De Mahieu’s history of Aryan America this way in reviewing Wolter’s citation of it in his 2013 book Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers:
In his telling, the Vikings conquered the Americas in 967 when the Toltecs mistook them for Quetzalcoatl, the “white” god, and that Nordic people ruled over the Inca Empire down to the Conquest as White Gods, eventually totaling some 80,000 racially superior Aryans lording over the squalid millions of brown-skinned subjects. He conveniently also found Aryan swastikas wherever he looked in the Americas, alongside “runes,” proof that Nordic Aryans had once ruled where ex-Nazi German migrants now held sway. He also claimed that Native peoples had blue eyes and pale skin, legacies of miscegenation whereby they were bred with superior Aryan traits.
In a much watered-down form, this is the same argument Wolter has made for his “interbreeding” of Knights Templar and Native Americans.
But De Mahieu was far from the first to make the claim, only the most racist. From the earliest Spanish explorations of the Americas, racist Europeans have tried to connect American civilizations to European originals. Chaldeans, Jews, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Irish were all popular choices in the first four centuries after Columbus. Claims for a Viking presence began in the 1700s and reached respectability with the (correct) conclusion by Carl Christian Rafn in the early 1800s that the Icelandic sagas reported a Viking voyage to North America. He wrongly believed them to have reached New England rather than Canada, but over the nineteenth century, as Vikings became identified with the whitest shades of the master race and manly exemplars of European virtue, the claimed sphere of their influence grew as well.
The allegation that Vikings ruled over ancient Mexico were popularized by the pen of French scholar Eugène Beauvois, who had spent his entire racist career trying to prove that Europeans gave Mexicans their culture because he believed Mexicans were too inferior to have done it for themselves. He never quite settled on whether the Vikings or the Irish were ultimately responsible, but for him it didn’t matter too much. “With either alternative, the source will always be European,” he wrote in 1897. Beauvois is especially notorious among those who study fringe history because he invented the claim that the Knights Templar reached America, occupied the “Viking” cities of central Mexico, and served as the ruling class among the Mexicans from the late 1200s down to the Contact period. Beauvois’s claim, in a roundabout way, shaped that of De Mahieu and other authors on the “mysteries” of the Knights Templar in America, whose works helped shape Scott Wolter’s own ideas. The Templars, in Beauvois’s and De Mahieu’s telling, are descendants of the Vikings since many of their leaders came from Norman families, and the Normans were French descendants of Viking conquerors. They came to America on Scandinavian ships following old Viking maps.
In short, far from being a fun lark, the specific claim that Vikings (i.e.—ancestral Templars) were present in Mexico has long been a cudgel used by white supremacists, racists, and Nazis to lay claim to the Americas as a “white” homeland. Our host, Scott Wolter, has only the vaguest notion of any of this. (Remember, he dismissed De Mahieu’s racism as “irrelevant.) Too superficial in his analysis to consider the consequences of his claims, Wolter betrays no signs of being intentionally racist. Indeed, he sees himself as an advocate for the rights of Native American cultures, and each season of America Unearthed dutifully included an episode exploring a non-European culture’s supposed visit to ancient America. But the history of the Viking claim betrays its true purpose, which shines through even when the producers and host don’t realize what they are saying.
The show opens on a pig wallow, which is probably appropriate since pigs are known for producing some of the rankest and smelliest feces in the world, and into the stew of shit we see a farm boy standing amidst the remains of a Viking boat in a fictitious reconstruction made from imagination and not much else. (Later we will learn that it is an extrapolation of the late in life testimony of a man who claimed to have seen a ship, though not necessarily a Viking one, in his youth.) The show recycles the 2014-2015 title sequence and onscreen graphics before cutting to Scott Wolter’s lab where the current incarnation of Wolter is noticeably older and grayer than the 2012 version seen in the clip shot by H2 and used in both the 2012-2014 and 2014-2015 title sequences.
At Sky Ranch Lodge in Arizona, Wolter gives us a potted history of the Vikings, whose expansion westward he attributes to “one simple reason: overpopulation,” which I imagine is a vast oversimplification. In Arizona Wolter meets with Harry Atkins, Jr. who said that his father acquired some pieces of metal from a woman who claimed to have found them in the desert. The elder Atkins had hoped that Wolter would prove the artifacts to be Viking, but he died before the show came back on the air, leaving his son to fulfill his father’s unfortunate wish.
Wolter blathers on about the Viking paradise of grapes and self-sown wheat known as Vinland—which in a previous season he identified as the area around Martha’s Vineyard—and now suggests that could be Arizona, a land that could not possibly be father from grape vines and wheat fields.
Bonnie Engels is the current owner of the artifacts, and she shows them to Wolter. Wolter speculates that the items might have been Scandinavian and brought to America by artifact collectors or immigrants, or they could have been left by Vikings. Wolter further speculates that the Vikings discovered the Northwest Passage, rounded Alaska, traveled down to Baja, and then reached Arizona from the south via the now vanished Lake Cahuilla. This was a feat that Europeans were unable to accomplish after Columbus, and no European completed until Roald Amundsen in 1906. But the Vikings, in open boats unprotected against the Arctic winter, somehow accomplished this feat unmolested.
Wolter uses an XRF gun to test the metal content of the artifacts, which he claims is consistent with Viking artifacts, and then he takes the artifacts to an expert at Oxford University, Dr. Jane Kershaw, an archaeologist specializing in the early Viking age. She examines the artifacts and declares them to be a grab bag of ancient antiquities, including a tenth century woman’s broach and a fourth century Roman man’s broach. Three artifacts are of the Viking age and eight more are from other time pieces. That these artifacts were all found in an old saddlebag suggests strongly—and Wolter calls it “plausible”—that they are a trove of artifacts brought by immigrants or a collector and then lost.
At Travertine Point in Mecca, California, Wolter meets former mattress salesman and current Roswell UFO believer John Grasson, who was profiled in Newsweek two years ago for his unwavering belief that a Viking ship exists somewhere in the deserts of California. Grasson told Newsweek that he believed the ship to be a Spanish vessel, but for Wolter he now goes along with idea that it was a Viking one. In 2017, he was in talks with two different cable channels to bring his research to TV, including the History and Travel Channels, but the story did not make it to air until now.
Wolter gives a lesson on rocks and then we cut to commercial.
Grasson takes Wolter to listen to a reel-to-reel recording made by Elmer Carver who decades after the fact claimed as a farm boy to have seen a fence on a hog wallow that was made from wood held together with pegs, which led him to believe the wood had come from an ancient ship. He walked out into the desert and saw the skeleton of the ship sticking out of the dirt. As I mentioned above, the U.S. government concluded in the early twentieth century that the ship was actually a nineteenth century vessel that had been abandoned and left to rot. Wolter speculates that if the ship were a Viking vessel, then it “rewrites the entire history book.” Another commercial then follows. Naturally, the U.S. government explanation for the ship, and even the more common claim that it was a Spanish galleon, go unmentioned because America Unearthed only pretends to be an honest show and happily omits inconvenient material.
In the fourth segment, Wolter visits the site in Imperial, Calif. where Carver claimed to have seen the Viking ship and secures permission from the property owner to begin scanning and digging for the ship. The segment is given over entirely to conducting the scan.
The fifth segment sees Wolter and his colleagues dig a big hole in the hope of finding the “Viking” ship where a geophysical scan indicated an anomaly. They found a piece of rebar, not a ship.
For no obvious reason, Wolter next arrives in Mexico to see the petroglyphs near San Fernando de Velicatá in Baja California discussed above. Wolter claims that the Seri people of Sonora claim to have a legend that blond-haired men arrived in a long ship whose prow was carved into a dragon. This story comes, as far as I could trace it in five minutes, from a 1978 book by William Corliss in the 1970s, but the story seems to be modern in origin rather than an ancient oral tradition. Strangely, this story was decidedly not recorded by visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who told tales of the petroglyphs being the work of a lost race of giants. Wolter compares the ship to a Viking longboat, but you really need to have some imagination to see it as a longboat. The symmetrical U-shaped base does not immediately suggest a ship with a dragon on the prow since both sides have the same square ends. You see what you want to see, I guess. [Update: As Carl Feagans pointed out, the ship petroglyph is much brighter than the surrounding figures, indicating it is likely younger, and historical records say that petroglyphs were added to the site down to the 1700s.]
In the final segment, Wolter reports his results to Atkins, who is thrilled that the artifacts were Viking. Wolter says he believes the Vikings traveled to California but concedes that the artifacts might have arrived in some other way. The show ends inconclusively and, generally, inoffensively compared to past seasons, undoubtedly to create a palatable opening gambit in the hope of attracting new viewers.
Overall, the Travel Channel debut of America Unearthed was noticeably toned down from the feverish original, and Wolter was at his most sedate and sober. The network hoped to find a successor to Expedition Unknown, which decamped to the Discovery Channel, and the influence of that program and History’s more successful Curse of Oak Island seems to have shaped this season of America Unearthed, or at least this episode, which was extremely light on facts and information and much heavier on socializing, digging, scanning, and other action-oriented visuals than past seasons. Wolter here appears more as the personal everyman than the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, and his usual strident criticism of “academics” and “skeptics” is almost wholly absent. It might be called America Unearthed, but if it sticks with this neutered form, it will be little more than just another boring bit of cable TV wallpaper, albeit one with a penchant for fake history.
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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