I normally wouldn’t cover recycled content that adds nothing new on a show with just 356,000 live plus same day viewers, but it’s worth examining this week’s episode hunting for the Knights Templar in America both because it is now the cornerstone claim of cable history documentaries and also because Fornal and Ruprah base their analysis on the Zeno Map, the Renaissance era hoax that was debunked in the early 1800s and again in the 1890s and yet keeps coming back over and over again. You’d think the hoaxer’s own confession that he destroyed the worm-eaten, incomplete original, along with the supposed Zeno narrative that accompanied it, and reconstructed it from memory would be enough to disqualify it. But no. What makes this particularly ridiculous is that the narrator claims that this map is “new evidence” that was “recently discovered.” Since when is the sixteenth century recent?
Fornal and Ruprah describe themselves as fellows of the Explorer’s Club, but the Club lists them only as “members” in a press release marking the debut of the series. Fornal also claims to have “discovered” the skull of Nat Turner, the leader of a famous slave revolt. According to his own account, he did not. While working for National Geographic, he arranged for the Turner family to make contact with the owner of the skull, which was in the possession of former Gary, Indiana mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, and therefore not lost to be discovered. Hatcher knew what it was:
Several [historians] had heard reports or read newspaper articles stating that the skull had been donated to Hatcher at a 2002 charity gala for the Civil Rights Hall of Fame, a museum project Hatcher has long championed. [Shannon Batten] Aguirre, the Turner descendant from Washington, expressed strong interest in contacting Hatcher to see if he’d be amenable to returning the skull to Virginia for a proper burial. The filmmakers arranged the call.
That’s his claim to fame. Baron Ambrosia arranged a phone call. In the realm of historical achievements, this does not really rank. Now, look: He did good work getting everyone together to make the burial possible, but that’s not really the same as his claim that “he tracked down the lost skull of African American slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and repatriated it to the Turner descendants.” According to his own original account, at best, he connected people who already knew what was going on and then claimed credit for it. He wrote that the Smithsonian was fully aware of the skull’s location and had been offered the remains, which they declined to accept. HE EVEN ADMITS THE FACTS WERE IN THE NEWSPAPER, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! I searched Lexis-Nexis, and indeed newspapers had fully reported the whole story in 2003, in multiple articles, including The Virginia Pilot and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Fornal’s only contribution was to make a phone call as part of the National Geographic production team making a documentary after reading said articles.
It may seem like I’m picking on Fornal, but there is a reason for that: He is starring in a pseudo-history shitshow that actively undermines the very disciplines he claims to advocate and damages public education and understanding. Anyway, I’m over pompous, overblown TV personalities with inflated resumes. I’d rather these wannabe he-men concede that they are just interested dilettantes and popularizers and leave it at that rather than trying to pass off their televised speculation as carefully considered scientific conclusions.
But on to the episode.
From the beginning, we’re off to a bad start because the stentorian narration from Fornal keeps telling us (more than once!) that that the Templars are “all-powerful” and “mysterious,” two things they were not. The narrator doesn’t offer any qualifications other the requisite “some say” to justify claiming that the Templars recovered the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail and that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney led an expedition to North America under the auspices of the Knights Templar—a century after the Templar order had been expunged!
Fornal is an irritating presence, theatrical, over-enunciating and moving as though he were in a stage play and needs to play to the back of the theater. He never qualifies his ridiculous acceptance of the most extreme version of the Sinclair conspiracy theory, a conspiracy theory invented mostly by Richard Henry Major in the 1870s and recycled and upcycled by Fredric Pohl in the middle twentieth century. The connection between the supposed Sinclair voyage and the Knights Templar didn’t come about until the 1990s, when two different conspiracy theories merged. Fornal hopes that screaming loudly enough at his touchscreen maps will make up for his lack of knowledge and nuance. Just for kicks, they add that Sinclair took the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail to America.
He and Ruprah should be kicked out of the Explorers’ Club for accepting these lies as unqualified truth.
At a Queens, New York museum housing native American artifacts, the two men meet with a delusional nutcase named Evan Pritchard, a Mi’kmaq descendant and professor of Native American studies who has completely bought into the idea that Henry Sinclair and a group of Knights Templar came to America and “intermixed” with the Mi’kmaq, a claim invented by Frederic Pohl in the 1940s based on his own complete misreading of a nineteenth century book of Mi’kmaq oral stories—literally: he didn’t understand that the stories were about different characters.
Pritchard claims that the Mi’kmaq wore similarly shaped hats (they aren’t that similar), and therefore they wore “Templar garments.” He repeats the false claim that the “Templar battle flag” is nearly identical to the Mi’kmaq flag. As I have pointed out in the past, the “Templar battle flag” is a fake. There never was one, and it was created in modern times from the Mi’kmaq version by believers in the conspiracy theory.
Fornal operatically intones “Incredible!” at this evidence. Ruprah adds “Wow.”
The men then meet with Tim Sock, a member of the Mi’kmaq who studies oral history. He, too, is delusional, accepting modern stories about the Sinclair/Templar conspiracy as a genuine “oral tradition.” As I have explored in the past, Sock and other like him are reinterpreting Contact Period stories about French missionaries (who wore red crosses) in light of modern Templar conspiracy theories. The oral stories have a basis in fact, but they have been reconstructed around History Channel conspiracy theories, and now Science Channel ones. Sock discusses the “Templar” cross carved into the Overton Stone, another object Scott Wolter has promoted in the past. Sock alleges that the stone is proof positive of a Sinclair-Templar presence in Nova Scotia.
The most fascinating thing, I think, is that the two hosts and the show itself rely on (fake) “experts” and frame their discussion in terms of the stories that they heard from their sources, constructing a (once again, fake) narrative based on previous fake narratives, like early antiquarians more than professional historians. The accept claims based on their faith and trust in the honesty of the people making them rather than the evidence; the evidence, such as it is, merely exists to slot into a story, twisted however it needs to be to reinforce a narrative they don’t even recognize is a myth assembled from a mountain of assumptions and speculation and lies.
Anyway, they look up the Westford Knight on novelist (now promoted to “historian”) David Brody’s website—a modern Massachusetts hoax carving alleged to be a medieval Scottish knight (seriously: the original Victorian report of the carving found no knight or sword)—and are thrilled that “some say” it’s a “grave site” of a “Templar.” They meet with Brody, a Scott Wolter acolyte, and simply accept his claims as true, doubting only whether a Knight Templar grave in Massachusetts proved that the Templar “colony” was located here.
At this point all of the qualifiers drop away and Fornal simply asserts point-blank that the Templars continued in secret after the Pope disbanded their order and became “masters” of hidden codes, placing them in maps, paintings, architecture, and everywhere in plain sight. Brody shows the men a stone with an arrow and the Arabic numeral 184, supposedly a secret marker of Templar treasure 184 paces north of the Westford Knight. Arabic numerals weren’t in widespread use in 1398. Although they were in use among scholars after Fibonacci began employing them in the early 1200s, they weren’t widely used outside of scholarship until the printing press democratized them in the 1400s. It’s possible, but unlikely, that Scottish knights would have used digits in 1398.
Our heroes use a drone to hunt for treasure and find an old settler’s or farmer’s wall (a low line of large piled stones) that they claim is “epic” and “just feels ancient.” Ruprah declares that the wall is “hiding something” important. No one thinks to check historical records or surveys to see if the wall’s original purpose was already known. The men declare it a castle and start using a metal detector and a shovel to tear up whatever archaeological context might remain in search of what they call “goodies.” “Where are you, goodies?” Ruprah whispers. Fornal calls the surface layer “crap” and says he needs to get to the “good stuff” buried beneath the wall.
I was horrified to see them using pre-Victorian antiquarian looting methods—basically, destructive treasure-hunting—to tear apart what is probably a colonial site in the hunt for imaginary medieval treasure. The show does not indicate who owns the land or whether they had secured any necessary permits for excavation. Since the show provides no details, I looked it up in David Goudsward’s book on the Westford Knight. Basically, the whole “discovery” we see here is a made-for-TV fraud. The stone enclosure had been discovered in 1966, next to a dried-up old spring. It was probably a colonial-era animal pen since it was located on the property of a colonial farm near a now-demolished farmhouse. Great job faking your show, Baron Ambrosia!
The men dig out a rusted old hook, say that it is 600 years old because it is buried deep (the ground had been plowed many times, so the layers are not pristine), and call it a ship’s hook. They find a Victorian nail and declare it to be a medieval one based on … fantasy? I’m not sure. It’s pretty standard nineteenth century nail, and this is material that they really shouldn’t have been digging out at random. To “prove” their assumptions, they ask Rick Lynch, a Freemason and pseudohistorian with the New England fringe history support group that gave Scott Wolter his start, to authenticate them. To his credit, Lynch tells them they are basically idiots who have mistaken Victorian material for medieval. Lynch, however, then tells the men that Westford was just a “temporary encampment” of the Templars. He shows them one of Verrazano’s maps and claims that Norumbega (here identified directly with modern Newport) was the Templar settlement.
The men wonder why the map was marked with a castle at the site of Norumbega, and they all pretend that this is a European fortress or tower—i.e., the Newport Tower—rather than the obvious, which is that settlements were marked with towers on maps of that era. We know this because the decidedly un-European settlements of sub-Saharan Africa, which lacked castles, were given the same types of tower symbols on maps of that era.
Fornal and Ruprah do the only logical thing and visit ex-History Channel host and giant-hunter Jim Vieira in Newport to spin conspiracy theories about Gov. Benedict Arnold’s stone windmill, claiming it to be a Templar tower. How does hunting Nephilim qualify one to opine about colonial architecture? Well, he was also a stone mason, so … Nope, I have nothing. This is another case where “expertise” is defined as “having had a cable conspiracy theory show.” Even this show admits that he is an “amateur.” And that’s going some for a show that accepts anyone as an expert.
They visit the “In Hoc Signo Vinces” stone previously seen on America Unearthed, and they make no mention of the fact that it is carved in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century newspaper headline typeface. Instead, Vieira lies and spreads the false notion that Constantine’s famous vision was actually the Templar battle-cry (there is no historical documentation to support this), and the men declare, like Wolter, that the stone is a “land claim.” Imagine if the U.S. military tried claiming land by carving “hooah” on a rock, and you’ll see how bizarre this claim is.
As this train-wreck of a show pulls in for landing, the men explore the Old Stone Mill known as the Newport Tower, and Vieira is suddenly promoted from “amateur historian” to full “historian” when he is reintroduced after a commercial break. Our hosts say the Old Stone Mill is “awesome” and “just looks mysterious.” Once again, faith and feelings are mistaken for evidence, and we hear that the windmill is unlike any other in colonial America. (It is, but it’s almost identical to its model in England, which they leave out.) We also hear that the tower’s eight pillars are “beautiful,” which is highly subjective. Personally, I think the rough construction is nothing much to look at when you compare the utilitarian structure to actual Templar churches in Europe. Vieira says that the accordion-style arch design of the Newport Tower is virtually identical to arches in a medieval church on the Orkney Islands, Henry Sinclair’s home. They are not. For one thing, the Orkney church uses Gothic arches, appropriate for the time period, while the Newport mill uses rounded arches, which were not typical for the late 1300s. The reason for the tower’s style should be pretty simple: it’s due to the materials available at the site and the fact that none of the stonework was meant to be seen because it was meant to be covered in plaster. You don’t put extra effort into what isn’t seen.
At the end Fornal declares that they have proof that white guys were actively colonizing America a century before that Latin knave Columbus stole the glory from Scotland’s lily-white favored son. Fornal ends by blasting “Western” history books for lying about when Europeans really colonized America, and the this reads all the stranger because our hosts are not the typical Anglo/Nordic/Teutonic white guys who usually host these shows but are instead parroting their lines without any idea what they are doing. You could probably write a thesis about that.
After reading the production credits, I think I was actually invited to be on this show earlier this year. The final concept is a little different than the one pitched to me, but the subject matter, the network commissioning it, and the production house are the same, as was the date of airing. The producers didn’t move forward with me, and now it is pretty clear why: This is another entry in the multimedia circle-jerk of cable TV fake “experts” who pretend to be knowledgeable researchers of ancient mysteries but whose actual lives are defined by appearing on one low-rated cable freak show after another spouting the same one stale idea for power and glory, now and forever, amen.
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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