The Curse of Oak Island is technically the name of a TV show, but it is also a description of the albatross the History Channel has hung around its own neck. After that reality series about two brothers’ obsessive search for a fictitious treasure on the titular island garnered record ratings, officials at History misread this as the audience embracing bonkers historical conspiracies when instead they were reacting to the brothers’ personalities, however much they failed to affect me. In short, Oak Island was secretly closer to American Pickers than Ancient Aliens. But due to its misreading, History and its dying spinoff H2 tried to duplicate the success of Oak Island with a slate of zany pseudohistorical reality shows that doubled down on the crazy and failed to replicate the character-based storytelling that audiences apparently embraced. Thus, we ended up with Search for the Lost Giants, Legend of the Superstition Mountains, Missing in Alaska, and now Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar. The first three were, to judge by ratings and press coverage, failures. The last is being burned off in double-run episodes on the least-watched night of History’s week. In other words, they seemingly have set it up to fail.
It’s a bit of a challenge to review a TV show that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has already condemned and debunked. Undoubtedly, this is why History is trying to burn of the show as fast as possible, and launched the series with minimal publicity. The story of UNESCO’s involvement is already fairly well known, but for those who aren’t familiar, a brief overview is in order.
History teamed up Barry Clifford, a controversial underwater explorer, with Scott Wolter, a controversial geologist and conspiracy theorist who hosts America Unearthed on H2. Clifford had had previous success finding shipwrecks, but his interpretations of them—notably as pirate ships and even Columbus’s Santa Maria—were quickly revealed to be mistakes and hype. This time, Clifford claimed to have found the treasure of Capt. Kidd off Madagascar, but UNESCO sent investigators who determined that the shipwreck claimed to be Kidd’s Adventure Galley was actually a collapsed construction from the old port, and the “silver” treasure was in fact lead. They further determined that another ship off Madagascar that Clifford claimed was the Fiery Dragon, a European pirate vessel belonging to “Billy One-Hand” Condent, which he associated with Templar activity, was in fact an Asian ship Condent had sunk after looting. More seriously, UNESCO accused the History team of inhibiting real research and violating a 2001 UN convention on exploration, to which Madagascar is a signatory:
The work of the film team and its lead‐explorer [i.e., Clifford], undertaken in spring 2015, as well as prior work by the same explorer, was distinguished by a media‐led approach, which has not respected the regulations of the 2001 Convention, and which jeopardized the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered.
The full report is available here, and ought to be read, since it pre-debunks parts of this series.
Clifford, Wolter, and their History Channel producer Sam Brown all condemned UNESCO and accused them of scientific incompetence, bias against Americans, and hatred of successful explorers. “To be blunt, this is nothing more than personally-driven, negative propaganda,” Wolter said on his blog. “UNESCO will attempt to discredit Barry Clifford by whatever means they can,” Brown told the AFP. The scandal made headlines around the world and humiliated the History Channel, which has been working to expand its footprint beyond television as a trusted history brand, launching a college course in American history earlier this year.
Wolter contacted me by email earlier this week and said that if I were truly unbiased I would investigate UNESCO’s bias against him and Clifford, including what he claims was improper investigation. He and the Pirate Treasure team assert that UNESCO investigators did not spend enough time in the water to be able to correctly identify a ship from a collapsed construction, or a European vessel from an Asian one. The report is available for you to read and decide for yourself, but for my money the diagnostic criteria the UNESCO team identified seem fairly convincing, especially set against Clifford’s record of misidentifying finds. But the more telling point is that the Pirate Treasure team’s only real argument breaks down to “they didn’t do a thorough enough job proving a negative,” which is hardly the same as offering evidence that they are in fact right.
And how could they offer such evidence? The premise of their investigation is built on a lie—literally. The Templar conspiracy theory is one I’ve outlined here, but the foundation for the entire claim that the Templars survived their 1307 suppression by escaping from France by ship to escape to Scotland, the New World, or parts unknown comes from a specific lie told by the Templar brother Jean de Châlons in June 1308 while under torture at the papal court in Portiers. After telling demonstrable lies about Templars killing initiates who refused to deny Christ—a claim not even Catholic propagandists of the time believed—the papal interrogator recorded the following:
Then he [Jean de Châlons] said that, learning beforehand about this trouble [i.e. the 1307 arrest of the Templars], the leaders of the Order fled, and he himself met Brother Gerard de Villiers leading fifty horses; and he heard it said that he set out to sea with eighteen galleys and that Brother Hugues de Châlons fled with the whole treasure of Brother Hugues de Pairaud. When asked how he was able to keep this fact secret for so long, he responded that no one would have dared reveal it for anything, if the Pope and the King had not opened the way, for if it were known in the Order that anyone had spoken, he would at once be killed. (Vatican Secret Archives, Registra Avenionensia 48, f450r, my trans.)
In context, this is clearly a lie, but it is the sole historical basis for the vast edifice of Templar conspiracy theories, and as I confirmed in an email exchange with Wolter earlier this week, he had never read it. This passage stands behind Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s claims about the lost Templar fleet in The Temple and the Lodge and David Childress in Pirates and the Lost Templar Fleet (2003). As I discussed in 2013,
Childress follows Michael Bradley—an alternative author who believes many strange things, including that modern Jews are sexually frustrated Neanderthal hybrids—in asserting that the Templar fleet (these imaginary eighteen boats) carried the descendants of Jesus and/or the Ark of the Covenant to Scotland to avoid the Pope, where they adopted the Jolly Roger as their symbol and fell into the service of the Sinclair family! The logic here is that gravestones in northern Scotland were marked with a skull and crossbones; therefore, they must be Templar symbols and the origin of the pirate flag.
I explored the history of the Templar-pirate connection in 2013, and I won’t belabor the lack of logic. You can read my earlier coverage here, where I explore the errors Childress and his sources made in mangling history in support of a fraud, errors this series repeats, sometimes wholesale.
S01E01 “The Templar Connection”
The series opens with an extremely fast disclaimer reassuring viewers that the documentary was made with the permission of the Madagascar government, despite UNESCO’s complaints. “This series was made in full compliance with the Madagascar government. What we chronicle made headlines around the world. However, some of the discoveries you are about to see remain the center of heated debate.” You’d think History would get tired of producing crappy shows that require legal disclaimers to ward off bad publicity. Remember last season on America Unearthed when the network disclaimed any responsibility for offense caused by the heretical Christian claims of Scott Wolter?
The program then describes Scott Wolter as a “Knights Templar historian”—laughable for the reason I listed above, and Wolter tells us that he is trying to get to the truth. Wolter tells us that he’s been investigating the Templars for 15 years, yet somehow avoided most primary source documents. Ah, well. You can’t expect a cable TV “Knights Templar historian” to know what he’s talking about. The narrator falsely claims that the Templars fled France under the Jolly Roger, a fraudulent claim derived from the identification of Scottish graves with skull and crossbones engraved on them with the Templars, something history doesn’t recognize.
Barry Clifford shows Scott Wolter a broken piece of a crucifix that came from Madagascar near the wreck of the Asian ship UNESCO says he wrongly identified as the Fiery Dragon. Wolter identifies the crucifix as twelfth century, even though it is not Gothic in style, which typically featured much more elongated and stylized human forms. That’s not to say it couldn’t be medieval; some carvings were more modern looking than others, though this one looks like those in use in the 1600s and 1700s (the colonial Portuguese made and carried many of this kind), and even if it were medieval, there is no logical reason to connect it to Templars. I have no idea what criteria Wolter uses to date it. Indeed, he says he doesn’t know who carved it or when. Clifford says he’s planning to look for “secret codes” to find the truth. That’s always a promising avenue. Everyone on the show assumes the crucifix is of Templar origin, based on no criteria whatsoever, and they proceed from this assumption.
It’s really sad. They are spinning an entire TV series off of a conspiracy theory that lacks even a nominal grounding in fact. It’s almost as if—as I suspect—they started with a Templar theme and worked backward to generate some “evidence.”
Wolter travels to Jerusalem to hunt for Templar history, and we hear a potted history of the Templar’s time in the city. Wolter asserts that the Templars likely found King Solomon’s treasure while occupying the Temple Mount. There is, of course, no evidence of this, but that has not stopped conspiracy theorists. Wolter, indeed, is one such conspiracy theorist, and the narrator and Scott Wolter make it sound much more difficult to enter the Well of Souls beneath the Dome of the Rock than it really is. It is true that non-Muslims are not typically allowed into the Dome of the Rock, but authorities make frequent exceptions. There is a prayer room down there that is in regular use. In fact, Graham Hancock visited it for his new book Magicians of the Gods. He reported no trouble being allowed in, and he called the prayer room “tacky.”
Another segment, with heavy yellow color correction, chronicles Clifford’s dives to what he thinks was the Fiery Dragon, and he says he’s sure that a Templar treasure was on board. Why? Who knows? He only attributes this to “research.” At the site, they find an alleged Asian artifact that they tentatively identify as a Buddha head from Southeast Asia. If it were, it is obviously not a Templar artifact since there is no alleged Templar-Indochina connection, but the narrator tells us that it is anyway. “It’s extremely important,” Clifford says, nonsensically, knowing full well that pirates captured many Asian vessels.
Wolter, who typically casts himself as an outsider suppressed by elites, is now described as having “inside connections with authorities” that allowed him to visit the Dome of the Rock. As the show enters its second half, Wolter enters the mosque and visits the underground prayer room. Unsurprisingly, while down in the prayer room, he finds no secret Templar door leading down “nine levels.” Why nine levels? Because that’s the number the Freemasons chose when they revised and edited the medieval version of the ancient tale of Enoch’s tablets of wisdom into the buried golden triangle of their eighteenth-century lore. Adrian Boas, an archaeologist, shows Wolter a genuine medieval crucifix and agrees that Clifford’s might be medieval, too. The narrator falsely tells us that the Jolly Roger was named for Roger II of Palermo, but that’s not true, as I outlined in the pirate-Templar article I linked above. Wolter believes that the Jolly Roger originates in the way Jesus’ body was stored in an ossuary, with the bones crossed beside the skull to fit theminto a small box. “It’s a symbol of reverence of Jesus and his people,” Wolter said. A shame that the standard version of the flag emerged only in the 1720s, replacing earlier variants, which varied from a full skeleton to crossed swords to demons and devils. If it were really a secret Templar-Venus Families symbol, it ought to have been used among the earliest Templar pirates, not the latest.
The narrator next spins a conspiracy theory about Shaolin Buddhist monks traveling through Europe and conspiring with the Cathars to influence the Templars. There is so little evidence for this that there isn’t a reason to even to pretend to care. I’m astonished that Clifford is able to note with a straight face all of the different cultural debris found on the islands off Madagascar—he specifically notes Ming pottery—while simultaneously identifying one broken, undated crucifix as the crux of his claim that the Templars gave rise to pirates! What makes that the official artifact of the all-conquering conspirators, while the rest is mere loot taken from inferior peoples? Oh, right: It’s European and therefore superior to “Asian” or “Muslim” material. Arab traders had been visiting Madagascar for centuries (since the 900s) before Europeans, who only arrived in the 1500s.
Clifford finds a rock in Madagascar with a V-shape in it that he identifies as a Masonic square, though it lacks a compass. He finds a decorative cross that seems to be a Maltese cross (it arms with distinct inward-facing, V-shaped points), but which he identifies as a “Templar cross,” or cross pattée. Even if it were, so what? Freemasonry was well established in the 1700s, when the pirates operated. Clifford, though, believes that the Templars fled to Scotland and gave rise, 400 years later, to Freemasonry. This is a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence. As I mentioned before, the Templar flight is based on a lie, and Masonry only adopted Templars as putative ancestors after they had been established. Their first candidate was the Knights of St. John (proposed by Andrew Michael Ramsey in 1737), but these weren’t romantic enough, so they switched to the Templars, in response to (and embracing) Austrian propaganda efforts (led by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall) during the French Revolution to link the Masons to the Templars as anti-Christian heretics and therefore godless revolutionaries. These efforts worked too well, and by 1820 the Masons had accepted and adopted anti-Masonic propaganda as their own history! (To be fair, they preferred Lessing’s 1770 claim that the Masons descended from the medieval German myth of the Templiens, or Templars, the poetic guardians of the Holy Grail.) Anyway, it says something that I can name the specific individuals who invented each pillar of Clifford’s and Wolter’s worldview, and they can’t.
As the first episode lurches toward its close, the narrator recaps the hour and Wolter is traveling to Acre, the Templar headquarters after the fall of Jerusalem until the expulsion of the Crusaders. I’m not quite sure whether the program intends for us to side with the Crusaders against the Muslims, but it sure seems that way. The Templars are our heroes, apparently, and Wolter babbles some conspiracy theories about Mary Magdalene serving as the goddess of the Templars, but the show offers no evidence for these and simply assumes the audience already knows all about it. I challenge him to produce a single document that says anything like that from the Templar period. Oh, right: He doesn’t read most primary sources. (It’s a conflation of the Templars with the Cathars, read in light of Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, Historia Albigensis 10-11, with modern Jesus conspiracies—not that he knows that.)
S01E02 “The Great Adventure”
The second episode finds Wolter in Portugal to perform some motivated reasoning to “prove” that the broken statue of Christ was Templar in origin—despite the fact that Wolter himself believes that the Templars were Venus-worshiping heretics who didn’t think Christ was crucified at all! Wolter is there to look for evidence of an ivory Christ statue he saw online. In Portugal, a historian tells Wolter that the Templars stayed in power in that country for 500 years after their 1307 suppression; this is only partly true, the Knights of Christ included many ex-Templars, but it had the full approval of the Pope and the Catholic Church, so it seems unlikely to be part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy.
Back in Madagascar the show begins to cover Clifford’s exploration of what he asserts is the Adventure Galley. I’m not interested in diving footage, so this was quite boring.
The show states as fact that “seven Templar ships” put to sea on October 13, 1307 and vanished from history, but the show isn’t aware of its own lies. The “seven ships” are the “eighteen galleys” (note: galleys were not oceangoing vessels) I’ve noted in translation above, with the number seven coming from a conflation of that story with the Iberian legend of the Seven Cities, which modern Templar conspiracy theorist falsely assume were seven cities on an island in the Atlantic known to the Templars. The reasoning for this is complicated, and I outlined it in my linked article above.
The alleged “Buddha” artifact from the first episode is now alleged to be a seraph, a type of angel, and the team insist that the Templars venerated humans who masqueraded as (fallen) angels in heretical rites in opposition to Catholicism. Yes, of course: Some version of the Enochian Watchers have to make an appearance somehow, if only in their Sethite form. It is a fringe show. There is of course no evidence whatsoever that the Templars worshiped or had anything to do with angel cults. Seraphs were common Renaissance and Baroque decorations, so how they symbolized anti-Catholic cults is beyond me.
In Tomar, Portugal, Wolter looks at a Catholic Church built as a replica of the Dome of the Rock. It was so constructed because medieval people believed that the Dome of the Rock was built on the plan of Solomon’s Temple; thus, the church was a replica of Solomon’s Temple. It’s not the only one. St. Giacomo in Italy is another example. While this is an interesting facet of Templar architecture, Wolter moves on to explaining the Templars’ initiation rites; sadly, though, he is actually describing Freemasonic rites, presumably from the modern Templar branch of Masonry, which invented its rites in modern times. There is only one medieval description of Templar initiations, almost certainly untrue, and it doesn’t say anything about keystones and arches. It talks about various rites of denying Christ.
Back in Madagascar, Clifford continues to remove artifacts from the water, finding a spoon.
In Tomar, a local historian tells Wolter that the Nazis came to Tomar to search for the Ark of the Covenant. He alleges that the Nazis removed something from a crypt and sealed it with concrete. No one provides any evidence of this, not even a picture of the sealed crypt. It is, of course, irrelevant to the pirates, who were 200 years dead at that point and could not have possessed a buried medieval treasure not unearthed until alleged Nazi involvement at an unspecified date.
Wolter views a gravestone he says may belong to a Portuguese explorer named Tristão da Cunha, said to be a Knight of Christ who sailed to Madagascar in the early 1500s. Although other members of the da Cunha family were in the Order of Christ, I wasn’t able to confirm that he was at the time he sailed; in fact, the chroniclers state that he was kicked off of his first planned voyage to India in 1505 and replaced with a Knight of Christ, Francisco de Almeida. Wolter “fumbles” (his words) his way through an electronic scan of an unspecified Old Portuguese text about De Cunha, admitting that he doesn’t read Portuguese very well (I’d suspect not at all) and concludes that De Cunha may have brought the ivory Christ to Madagascar as part of the “Templar treasure.” This does not follow since those types of carved Christ figures were widely carried by Portuguese explorers (there are many Indo-Portuguese examples) and need not be connected to the pre-1307 Templar treasure—whatever that was supposed to be, given that its only existence is based on a 1308 pack of lies.
The show finishes with the discovery of the lead lump that Clifford wrongly claimed was silver. In this version, someone shouts “could be Templar!” as though that means anything other than that the producers of this program are in fact undertaking a “media-led approach” that is warping and corrupting real research, just as UNESCO claimed.
Overall, the show follows the model of Curse of Oak Island—a season-long arc of slow, gradual exploration—but lacks that show’s warmth and character. We never get to know anything about the obsessive investigators on this show, and we’re just expected come into it already believing in unexplained, un-evidenced conspiracy theories, and to agree with everything they say on faith. If we are not made to care about the characters (who for the most part never interact, and I could not name a single Clifford team member), and the show offers laughably thin evidence to support its baroque speculation, what was the purpose of this misbegotten imitation of Oak Island?
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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