While Last Week Tonight took the week off for Easter, host John Oliver made a brief video message focused on internet conspiracy theories. Speaking of conspiracies, Oliver called them “science fiction for people who don’t understand they’re watching science fiction.” Oliver’s fake conspiracy theory involving Cadbury’s chocolate and cream eggs quickly entered into familiar territory for us, building toward the Freemasons and the Illuminati, as all good conspiracies inevitably must. All it was missing were a few Reptilian aliens, who, most likely, lay eggs.
Regular readers will remember that former Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston has become a one-man rival to the History Channel cavalcade of crazy for Britain’s Yesterday Channel as host of Forbidden History, now in its third season. (Reruns air in the U.S. a year later, dubbed with an American narrator’s voice, on the American Heroes Channel.) Theakston began by imitating Scott Wolter’s America Unearthed, but he’s now more of an all-purpose mystery-monger in the third season, which covers everything from Hitler suicide conspiracies to the hunt for King Arthur.
The season premier, which aired a few weeks ago in Britain, went in search of the Ark of the Covenant, a treasure sought by Graham Hancock, Scott Wolter, and hundreds of others over the last two centuries. The first few minutes recaps the Biblical record of the Ark, and it gives air time to the usual crew of suspects from past series, including Andrew Gough, the ignoramus who runs Heretic Magazine and has repeatedly proved himself ignorant of most facts related to the subjects he spouts on about. This year there is a new talking head, Heather Elizabeth Osborn, described as an “author and historian.” She’s actually a Capricorn Radio host who speculates on fringe topics. Thanks to her appearance on Forbidden History, and its affiliation with AHC, a division of Discovery Communications, she now bills herself as a “TV personality and subject expert for Discovery Channel shows.” Guess what? I was on AHC’s Codes and Conspiracies, so that makes me one, too! Osborn is employed by Gough at Heretic Magazine and also runs a goddess training program that takes paying customers on pilgrimages to ancient mystery sites. Another new talking head this year is Richard Felix, who is apparently famous in Britain as a TV ghost hunter. You know: experts! Gough, Osborn, and Felix all believe that the Ark still exists because gold, they say, doesn’t rot. And they all say it in nearly identical language. This type of Stepford punditry becomes increasingly unnerving during the hour.
But back to the plot: Theakston starts the program’s actual investigation of the Ark with a summary of Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal (1992), which argued for a factual basis for Ethiopian legends that the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, as recounted in the medieval Kebra Nagast. That’s not just me criticizing; the book is name-checked during the show and shown on screen. According to Ethiopian Christians, the original Ark is now housed in a church in Axum, and Theakston retraces Hancock’s steps to the church. He first visits the island in Lake Tana where Ethiopians claim the Ark rested for 800 years before moving to its final location. The show must have a bigger budget this year since they sprang for some computer graphics to imagine how the Ark might have been positioned on a rock on the island. A priest on the island shows some pitted bronze artifacts that he claims are Temple treasures—a sacrificial bowl and a priestly breastplate—from 800 BCE, though no one on the show offers any proof of this. The pieces look too recent to be that old. He also shows off a broken shofar. “This is proper Jewish history right here,” Theakston said, though no one on the show knows the object’s name, merely calling it a “trumpet.” Gough thinks that shofar is most closely akin to the trumpet used to bring down Jericho’s walls, which suggests that he’s never been to a Jewish synagogue. Shofars are not especially rare since they are used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to this day.
Theakston says that he is amazed to stand where the Ark once stood, even though we earlier saw the Dome of the Rock, built atop what was once Solomon’s Temple and, if any of the story is true, the only place we can be sure the Ark once sat. Millions of people have stood where the Ark allegedly rested in Jerusalem. Oh, well.
Between segments on Lake Tana and Axum, the various talking heads offer Erich von Däniken’s argument that the Ark was actually an electrical device (a notion repeated by Graham Hancock, attributing it to a lost civilization, rather than aliens), and Orion Mystery coauthor Adrian Gilbert shows up to add that he thinks that the intense sunlight of the Middle East was its source of power, giving it “an intense charge.” For him, the Ark wasn’t necessarily technological but perhaps just a really nasty solar static shock generator.
As we move the segment on Axum, the show returns to summarizing Graham Hancock’s book, describing the priesthood in Axum and the legends associated with the Ark in the Church of St. Mary of Zion there. The current high priest shows up to say something I can’t understand because he isn’t speaking English and the Viasat History broadcast of the show that I was able to view neglected to include what I presume would have been Yesterday’s original subtitling, presumably so its affiliates in different countries could add their own subtitles in their various Nordic and Slavic languages.
Gough notes that the church has too little security to have the actual Ark, and he fantasizes about how he could storm the church, Rambo-style, if he really wanted to since there aren’t enough guards. Osborn doubts the legend, too, because she is reading from the same talking points and repeats them nearly verbatim. Gilbert also doubts that the Ethiopians have the original Jewish Ark, again in almost the same words, though perhaps, he offers, they have a replica from Elephantine that Egyptian Jews there used in Antiquity. The producers clearly coached the talking heads, but they were a bit heavy-handed in doing so, lending a sense of repetitiveness to the proceedings. Indeed, the same material gets recycled several times in the hour, and it could easily have been cut down to about 20 minutes just by removing the repetition of the same claims spouted by different talking heads. More than half of the last ten minutes is just one head after another saying it’s unlikely that the church in Axum has the Ark under guard by only one frail monk. At some point they switch to demanding that the Ethiopians let scientists see whatever is in the church.
Theakston achieves nothing, sees nothing, and essentially wasted the entire hour summarizing Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal. The talking heads throw stones at Hancock’s claims, though, and come to the almost certainly correct conclusion that the Ark isn’t in Ethiopia. This is a bit self-serving, though. If we knew where it was and what it was (i.e., not magical), then they wouldn’t make money getting people to pay them for wacky fringe ideas about the Ark’s relationship to flying saucers and Atlantis.
Forbidden History would probably be a better show if it dumped the ignorant fringe pundits who couldn’t site a primary source if they were seated in a library and instead focused on the quest aspect of Theakston’s adventures. It would make it more like America Unearthed than Ancient Aliens, but it would also make it a stronger and less heavily pre-scripted program.
If you are all good girls and boys, tomorrow we can see what clown car of crazies have to say about vampires when Theakston visits Transylvania in search of Dracula.
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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