As depicted in the new History Channel series Search for the Lost Giants, stonemasons Jim Vieira and his brother Bill believe that newspapers of the nineteenth century recorded accurately the discovery of the bones of a lost race of giants who once towered over the American landscape. Since 1806, scholars have argued that many of these alleged “giant” skeletons were the misidentified remains of prehistoric mastodons and mammoths. (Not all, obviously; some humans were very tall.) So uncontroversial was this position that even the Vierias’ beloved newspapers said as much. In 1870, for example, the Memphis Daily Appeal noted that when it came to “giant” bones of the largest size scholars had “proved them, in almost every instance, to be portions of the fossils of mammoths, megatheriums, mastodons, etc.”
But today the Vieiras and their “gigantology” colleagues like Greg Little and Nephilim theorist L. A. Marzulli deny that mammoth and mastodon bones were mistaken for human. Little, for example, in defending Jim Vieira, complained of me that “Colavito didn’t cite a single example of a hoax or a giant skeleton found in America that turned out to be a mastodon or mammoth.”
So before we begin reviewing the Vieiras’ new series Search for the Lost Giants I want to share an interesting Victorian newspaper article I uncovered in my preparation research for his review. The article comes from the New York Times on July 5, 1891 and reports on events that took place in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. (You can read the piece in my Library.) There, the famous actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) had purchased some property alongside ex-Pres. Grover Cleveland’s estate. His workmen discovered buried thereon a “giant” skeleton, hilariously described as shocking all involved by being 6-foot-5 in height. Anyway, that’s not the important part. This is:
The most peculiar thing was brought to light, however, when the skull was taken to Mr. Jefferson and by him examined. It was like ordinary skulls, only larger, except that it had so far as could be seen, no place where the eyes had been. There was one hole in the center of the forehead that might have once served for one eye. This led Mr. Jefferson to believe that he had, perhaps, discovered the skeleton of a Cyclops.
According to the Times, John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin and the “scientific gentlemen” in the area were equally perplexed. I, on the other hand, have yet to read a clearer illustration of Othenio Abel’s 1913 suggestion that the skulls of fossilized elephants (or, in this case, a juvenile mastodon or mammoth) inspired the myth of the Cyclops: “Immediately we see the huge, conspicuous hole in the middle of the forehead: it is the nostril, while the eye sockets are deep down on the sides of the high-arched skull” (my trans.). That hole was easily mistaken for one large eye. While we of course can’t say for certain what the bones Joe Jefferson saw were without seeing them ourselves, the description given by Jefferson could hardly offer more to help us see that even the civic leaders, prominent men, and “scientific gentlemen” claimed by Jim Viera et al. to be unlikely to ever mistake a mastodon for a human could and did make that mistake—at least sometimes—perhaps even more easily making the error if it were a juvenile skeleton closer to human height and lacking tusks. This isn’t just idle speculation—mastodon teeth have been found across Cape Cod and off shore as well.
Anyway, I found this piece yesterday and thought it was a perfect microcosm of the problems with “gigantology.” The stories buried in old newspapers simply can’t be taken at face value, even when the supposed observers were impeccable sources. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Search for Ancient Giants, whose entire premise is that we should take most claims of giants at face value and abstract from them a lost race of giants rather than understand such stories as the product of a Biblical paradigm that shaped mastodons, above-average normal humans (6-7 feet tall), and the occasional (human) sufferer of gigantism into a lost race that never was.
Now, on to the review. But before I start, there are a few elements of disclosure I need to reiterate for those just joining us:
It’s also good to remember that Vieira had a TEDx talk on lost giants pulled from the organization’s website for its failure to meet the minimal standards for scientific proof, endearing him to anti-science types.
So with all of that, Search for the Lost Giants S01E01 “Unraveling the Mystery” naturally opens with the famous line from Genesis 6:4—“There were giants in the earth in those days...,” firmly establishing this series as taking place within a Biblical-creationist framework. They could have used any number of ancient quotes on giants, but it is the Bible that forms the very raison d’être for this series. After the Bible verse, we see Deerfield, Mass., which an on screen title informs us is the site of “giant” find as overwrought music and sound effects swell.
The narrator tells us that the Vieira brothers’ efforts to find the empty grave of a lost giant is the quest “of a lifetime.” That there is a narrator suggests that the program wants to split the difference—unlike, say, America Unearthed—and keep the viewer at a bit of a distance from its characters, whom we are invited to view as characters rather than as experts.
Jim Vieira explains how a book called The History of Deerfield, Massachusetts (1895) changed his life because of the following passage:
At the foot of Bars Long Hill [...] many skeletons were exposed in plowing down a bank and weapons and implements were found in abundance. One of these skeletons was described to me by Henry Mather, who saw it, as being of monstrous size—“the head as big as a peck basket, with double teeth all round.” Mather, who was about six feet tall, made the comparison and says the thigh bones were about three inches longer than his own. The skeleton was examined by Dr. Stephen W. Williams, who said the owner must have been nearly eight feet high. In all the cases noted in the paragraph, the bodies had been placed in a sitting posture, facing the east.
The two Vieiras reenact conversations they had about Jim’s obsession with giants in badly staged scenes designed to give us insight into their characters—Jim, the believer, and Bill, the former skeptic. Jim describes himself as a “mutant” who can remember every one of the 1,500 newspaper accounts he’s read. He asserts that Abraham Lincoln “talked about the discovery of giant bones,” though this is true only in a technical sense. In unpublished notes for a lecture on Niagara Falls, he cited newspaper accounts of giant bones in claiming that said giants looked upon the falls.
Vieira is very enthusiastic about double rows of teeth as a marker of giants, but I wonder if this trait isn’t related to not just the common dental condition that produces extra teeth (reported since antiquity) but also to the unusual dentition of the mastodon, whose teeth look like a double row of teeth due to their strange shape. Vieira tells us that Native Americans spoke of an “ancient enemy,” the cannibal giants, and he tells us that every human culture believes in some kind of giant. Therefore, there may well have been giants here in America.
So where are these giants? Bill Vieira asserts that the nation’s museums have gotten rid of them. The narrator suggests that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was a conspiracy by the establishment (read: evolutionists) to ship the bones off for reburial so people like Vieira (read: Bible believers) wouldn’t be able to study them for evidence of giants (read: Bible). The narrator then tells us that “some” (read: David Childress) believe that early twentieth century scientists hid or destroyed the bones to protect the theory of evolution. “Academics know: Don’t touch it!” Bill says of giants, arguing that suppression was important for protecting “somebody’s view of human history.”
As we flip over to the opening credits, it’s obvious that this show is intended as a carbon copy of its companion series Curse of Oak Island (the show’s logo is a color-inverted version of the one for Oak Island), and with it come all of the strengths and faults of its model. The show is heavily focused on the character of the two brothers, and we’re supposed to enjoy watching what is essentially a reality show with a conspiracy background; this is never more evident than when the TEDx controversy comes up and the brothers break down when discussing “mean-spirited responses” to Jim’s low-information presentations on giants, appealing to sepia-toned images of their father and leading Bill to talk of how he would “stick up for my little brother. […] We’re going to go take on some bullies.” (Oddly, when Jim attacked me as a “troll” on a “crusade” that wasn’t mean-spirited bullying at all! He’s just so warm and fuzzy!) I am disturbed at the implication that scientists and skeptics are bullies; not only does this create a persecution mentality, but it also asks the audience to see scientists as an oppressive enemy to be taken on, perhaps pugnaciously.
Back to the plot: The Vieiras are trying to locate the empty grave of the Deerfield giant using ground penetrating radar—because that evil conspiracy that is NAGPRA prevents them from conducting archaeological excavations of a grave without government permission. The Vieiras find radar indication of a twelve-foot stone, and then they punch each other to “show love.” Since the men can’t dig, they ask “the establishment”—a New York archaeologist—about their find. Note that they do not make a case to the state archaeologist’s office. The archaeologist tells them that it’s unlikely that they discovered a giant’s grave, and that one needs bones, not newspapers, to prove that giants once existed.
So, abandoning this line of inquiry, the men travel to Goshen, Mass. to look at the Goshen Mystery Tunnel, an underground stone structure of uncertain date. Many believe it’s colonial, but some fringe types argue that it is Bronze Age on account of its similarity to British Bronze Age tombs, built in a dry stone construction style used down to this very day. It is composed of a 15 foot shaft with two small tunnels just 2 feet high branching off from it. What the giants would want with 2 foot tall shafts, I can’t imagine. They wouldn’t fit. The brothers plan to “document” the site in the hopes of finding evidence of giants within, particularly a large burial chamber that exists primarily in local imagination. (Since no one knows anything about the tunnels, the “legend” of the burial chamber is local fiction.)
They put together an all-male and all-white team composed of blue collar workers and fringe author Hugh Newman from Ancient Aliens, in a scene that is a pretty much shot-by-shot remake of the parallel part of the Curse of Oak Island pilot. When the men visit the site, the fatter members almost don’t fit into the structure supposedly meant for giants.
What a weird choice to start a series about giants—a miniature tunnel system!
This is where I got bored, just like I did with Oak Island. The show chooses to focus on the group of middle aged white guys bonding over big machines and physical labor, and I have neither the time nor the interest to want to make an emotional investment in what is, more or less, a creationist version of Deadliest Catch or Bering Sea Gold or any of the other pseudo-band-of-brothers masculine reality soap operas.
The men falsely assert that dry stone techniques are not colonial, and this is completely false, as the stone mason brothers must know. We went through this problem with Scott Wolter over on America Unearthed when he mistook a colonial spring house for a Freemasons’ bathhouse. Stacking stones is a typical Scots-Irish technique, and one that was used as recently as—well, the stones that make up the wall in my front yard, for one. It hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and plenty of colonial examples exist. I don’t know how old the site is, but my concern is whether it has anything to do with giants as they assert. There’s nothing “gigantic” about it at all. Their excavation ends when they find a cave-in at the end of the tunnel.
Anyway, the men also go to visit an inscribed stone with a clearly colonial-era or later inscription, to judge by the style of the lettering. I have no idea what the coded inscription says, but it isn’t all that old. Here’s my best effort at transcribing it:
AD 1792 ABUANhAMPhHWV
The men decide that they will start boring into the ground where they found a seam in the stone construction of the Goshen tunnel in the hopes of finding another tunnel unknown to history perpendicular to the known tunnel. Meanwhile Jim calls in David S. Brody to decipher the inscription on the nearby rock. Even though in Jim’s transcription the inscription clearly says “AD 1792,” Brody immediately relates the rock to one of Scott Wolter’s bugaboos, a fake ancient inscription he and Brody found at Panther Mountain in the Catskills in 2009 and reported on in Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers, and the men talk about it as though it were an ancient code. That rock, incidentally, was found near the home of hoaxers who were trying to convince Wolter that they had found a document with a first person account of the burial of the Templar treasure at Panther Mountain. Even Wolter wasn’t credulous enough to believe that, but apparently Brody is!
Sadly, the shows on History/H2 are cross-pollinating. On this program, first we had Hugh Newman from Ancient Aliens, and now David Brody presenting some of America Unearthed host Scott Wolter’s less credible evidence. It’s like the Marvel Cinematic Universe: ALIEN MAN, GIANT BROTHERS, and TEMPLAR AVENGER—assemble!
Meanwhile, back to the Vieiras. They dug a hole and ran into some stone and sand. But they didn’t conduct an actual excavation, so mostly they just disturbed an archaeological site without producing much evidence of anything. They conclude that having dug some sand out of the hole, the sand must have been used to preserve a body, possibly that of a giant. Unfortunately, the show simply drops dead here and offers nothing by way of a conclusion. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they found a tunnel, that the tunnel leads to a chamber, and that this chamber was used for burial. Even granting them all of this proves nothing about giants, and this entire hour was a huge waste of time unless you are the kind of viewer looking to take your entertainment from some paint-by-numbers reality show tropes and enjoy watching middle aged white men express their brotherly love for one another through shared activities.
The danger of Search for the Lost Giants is that it focuses on skeletons and burials, and in showing the Vieiras digging and drilling for these bones, it may encourage imitators to disturb archaeological sites in search of phantom giants. Not only is this illegal, it is also destructive and threatens the actual archaeological heritage of America.
Since Search for the Lost Giants seems to be a somewhat threadbare copy of Curse of Oak Island, I can’t imagine that there will be enough content to make it worth reviewing individual episodes of the show. Besides, Bill Vieira might find that to be more bullying of his little brother.
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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