Unlike previous episodes, this one opens with Scott Wolter’s narration rather than a cinematic reenactment. “The story of our past hinges on present-day finds,” Wolter says as we watch him walk through a field. Clips from past failures play, including the spring house mistaken for a “ritual bathhouse” in an earlier episode, the rock wall of Rockwall, Texas that was not, in fact, built by Bible giants, and the well where Wolter wrongly suspected that the Sinclair family hid the Ark of the Covenant and the proof of their divine right to absolute American monarchy. Omitting the failure of each quest to find evidence of the impossible, Wolter says that his job is to “explain the inexplicable” before writing on his glowing map of America that a possible Phoenician artifact in Wyoming. No, that’s my job!
The opening credits roll, and we’re off to Rock Springs, Wyoming. At the airport, Wolter tells us that schoolchildren have “long been taught” that Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach America, a claim that was only true for a few decades in the middle twentieth century when literary evidence for Vikings in America was discounted because of a lack of physical evidence. Before the 1940s, Viking arrivals in America were taken as a given in school textbooks, as they were again after L’anse aux Meadows and its Viking settlement became widely known among textbook writers. Granted, this took longer than it needed to in order to reach most textbooks, but it’s been fairly common since the 1980s. Wolter remembers his youth half a century ago, during an anomalous period in school textbook history, which he takes for unchanging dogma.
Feeling “lucky,” Wolter visits a husband and wife pair, Patrice and Don Bolen, who have a small piece of sandstone in which some angled lines are carved. The rock had been found by Bolen’s mother Lorene when she was 12, in 1940. Lorene Bolen died in 2012. Wolter, accepting it as a Phoenician artifact, decides to use geology to determine whether the rock was from America or Lebanon. Patrice Bolen tells Wolter that Lorene asked the Smithsonian to look at a photo of the rock, and they told her that it was not a Phoenician artifact. This angered Lorene, who disposed of the letter, and Wolter announces falsely that this is part of a pattern of the Smithsonian suppressing historical truths—a conspiracy theory invented by David Childress in the early 1990s. Zoologist and infamous fringe history advocate Barry Fell examined the rock in 1982 and offered a fanciful translation of it, based on his claim of the characters uncharacteristically being written in a spiral. Fell imagined that the rock was a magical amulet. He never did meet chicken scratch he didn’t think was badly drawn Old World writing.
In the second segment, Wolter learns that the carving had been scratched out by Lorene, who tried to make the cuts deeper to take better photographs of it. Wolter concedes that there is no way to evaluate how long ago the carvings were made because of the damage. Instead, Wolter travels to an “undisclosed location” that he describes as a “secret Shoshone site” where he believes the Shoshone recorded Phoenician contact through their legend of Water Ghost Woman. This was a spirit that lived in water and lured men down into the waters to drown them. Wolter compares the story of Water Ghost Woman to the Greek myth of the Sirens, though it is closer in spirit to the nymphs that killed Hylas in the Argonaut legend. He argues that this suggests a connection, and he proposes that the Phoenicians could have sailed up the Mississippi and up other rivers to Wyoming, though this seems difficult given that Phoenician ships weren’t known for river travel. The date for the carvings—approximately 1,000 to 2,000 years old—is too young to be Phoenician, but the outside possibility that they might date back to 1000 BCE places the connection just within the realm of possibility.
Wolter travels to England to visit a reconstructed Phoenician ship to “learn” whether Phoenicians could have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. The reconstructed ship was used to test an Atlantic crossing some years ago, and after 80 days came within 700 miles of Florida. In discussing the history of Phoenicia, the show uses a doctored photo of the famous Byzantine mosaic of Justinian the Great at Ravenna from the 500s CE in which Justinian’s robe has been color-changed to a deep blue-purple. This was deceptive and unnecessary. Wolter describes the likelihood that the Phoenicians—actually, the Carthaginians—circumnavigated Africa, recorded in the Periplus of Hanno, but he then suggests that evidence of this exists in the use of “Phoenician” letters as cattle brands in modern Senegal. This claim was made by David Maranz in 2013, who suggested that it was evidence of Phoenician trade with western Africa. I think Maranz picked and chose symbols at will, but either way, it doesn’t change the historical likelihood of at least some Phoenician exploration of western Africa.
After the break, Wolter suggests that the Phoenicians traveled to America to transport copper back to the Mediterranean, for in his mind metal is the only “strong motivation” that would compel the Phoenicians to travel the oceans. This contradicts the words of Pseudo-Aristotle (De mirabilibis auscultationibus 84) and Diodorus Siculus (Library of History 5.19-20), both of whom suggested that the Phoenicians (or the Carthaginians) traveled in the Atlantic in search of fertile land and trade goods of all kinds. Metal wasn’t in their accounts, but I wouldn’t expect Wolter to have a command of ancient literature to understand his own topic. In Wyoming, Wolter visits a copper mine to find native copper that he can test against the European copper used by the Phoenicians. He says that comparing these will help “match” Phoenician copper to American and prove a trade connection.
Back in Minnesota, Wolter has the Wyoming copper tested for trace elements. This segment takes a very long time to show us the process in detail that I found irrelevant and tedious, but I imagine the show’s target audience will enjoy it.
After the break, Wolter learns that Wyoming copper isn’t pure enough to match Phoenician copper. Instead, Wolter returns to his earlier episode alleging that the Minoans stole Michigan’s pure copper, and he adds that he now thinks the Phoenicians also took Michigan copper. As I discussed at the time, the so-called “missing copper” is a figment of the fringe-history imagination. Wolter, true to form, changes his mind about the importance of copper and being “disappointed” he creates new speculation—that the Minoans passed on their knowledge of Michigan copper mines to the Phoenicians during the “narrow window” at the end of the Bronze Age when the Minoan culture collapsed and Phoenician script developed.
Wolter examines fifteenth-century copies of Ptolemy’s Geographia, and he relates the hypothesis put forward in 2013 by Lucio Russo—and, again, reported on my blog long before being used on this show, like many of the other topics for this season of America Unearthed—that the Fortunate Islands shown on the map were in fact the Antilles, thus making the edge of the map the Americas rather than the middle of the ocean. Russo is, to put it mildly, guilty of gonzo speculation, of which this is one of the least ridiculous of his risible ideas. Wolter simply accepts it at face value, despite the fact that another of Russo’s major claims is that Mexico had been invaded by Africans and Europeans, who engaged in a multi-colored race war with the Maya!
In the fifth segment, Dr. Brian Doak, a George Fox University professor Biblical studies, is asked for his opinion on the Bolens’ stone. Wolter suggests that Doak has “new knowledge” that wasn’t available to “expert” Barry Fell in 1982, but he is talking out his ass. Fell was no expert in ancient languages, and Phoenician writing could be recognized as easily in 1982 as today. Nothing happens before we go to commercial.
In the final segment, Doak tells Wolter that the inscription on the Bolens’ stone is not a genuine Phoenician inscription—something that anyone with half a minute’s knowledge of ancient script would have known in two seconds. It’s simply someone’s amateur carving. However, Wolter celebrates anyway because he believes that he “proved” that the Phoenicians visited America in ancient times, even though every piece of “evidence” he examined yielded no solid proof of the claim Wolter asserts for it. Could the Phoenicians have visited Wyoming? he asks. “The answer is yes!” Wolter says, even though there is not a single shred of proof anywhere for this hypothesis.
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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