As I’m sure many of you already know, Scott Wolter has posted on his personal blog a further discussion of his “findings” about Viking runic artifacts on America. He posted this material on Sunday, and there are relatively few major revelations in it. However, Wolter did provide an important detail about the attempted “translation” of Nancy Millwood’s North Carolina rune stone that accidentally reveals how America Unearthed is purposely manipulating even their own “findings” to create innuendo rather than fact, more propaganda than fair presentation.
You will recall that the show (episode S02E04) made a big deal about archaeologist Michael Arbuthnot sending an image of the North Carolina stone, allegedly found by Nancy Millwood in 1971, to a colleague who is an expert in runes so it could be translated. A throwaway line at the end of the show claimed that the “translation” was “inconclusive” but that Wolter still felt it was genuine. Here are the exact words used on the show:
The stone Nancy found has similar runes [to the Heavener Rune Stone] […] Even though L’Anse aux Meadows is the only universally-accepted Viking settlement in North America, I believe they made it further south, to the United States. Mike did get me a translation for Nancy Millwood’s rune stone, but it was inconclusive. Even so, I believe it needs to be taken seriously. In fact, I believe many rune stones found across the United States make up the final, unwritten chapter of the Viking sagas.
Let’s leave aside the antecedent trouble with which “it” needs to be taken seriously. (Read literally, it would be the translation, not the stone.) It turns out that these lines, so carefully written to obscure Wolter’s own beliefs, hide findings that are much more damaging to the case the producers of America Unearthed tried to build, and also serve to purposely misrepresent to the viewer Wolter’s own “findings” about the stone while still giving Wolter a way of saying that he never actually said what the words clearly imply.
Anyone watching the episode would believe, given the context, that Wolter believes Millwood’s rune stone to be ancient, to have the same runes as the Heavener Rune Stone that he had already declared Viking, and to be an “unwritten chapter” of the Vinland saga. All of this is false, produced by verbal sleight of hand to fool the viewer. And Wolter tells us this himself!
On his blog, Wolter writes that he is not actually privy to the some of the “investigations” carried out in his name:
Nancy Millwood's stone is almost certainly genuine, but I don't think it's Viking in age. I suspect it's more likely medieval, probably carved sometime between 1200-1500 A.D. It reminds me of the Kensington and Spirit Pond rune Stones as it is filled with strange characters and numerous dotted runes. Like those inscriptions, the Millwood Rune Stone doesn't fit the standard runic traditions of Scandinavia, so understandably their translation was inconclusive. I was told that whoever tried to translate it (I still do not know who it was) eventually punted and said, "...it was probably modern." Why couldn't they have just said, "I don't know" and left it at that? That's OK too.
Yeah, why would an expert draw a reasonable conclusion based on knowledge and experience? One should never use words like “probably” and instead admit ignorance and do nothing more... Oh, wait: Scott Wolter himself draws exactly the same kinds conclusions in this episode, only without the knowledge or experience to support the conclusions.
Note the passive voice construction at the end. Compare this to the fanciful “translation” of equally-nonsensical runes he solicited his friend Mike Carr to produce in S01E02. This year, apparently after criticism over the bad rune translation last year, the show takes pains to find an expert Scott Wolter does not know and then ignores the expert. This, I guess, is progress.
So, in denigrating the work of an actual runic expert (assuming we can trust archaeologist Michael Arbuthnot’s spoken testimony in the episode), Wolter accidentally reveals that the show mislead viewers about the expert’s findings and that Wolter did not take an active role in soliciting or utilizing the work of the unnamed linguist. Also note that Wolter has no trouble with all of the runic inscriptions found in America being “non-standard” even though they were supposedly carved by standard-issue Norse who came from areas where “standard” runes were being used.
It should probably go without saying that there is no evidence of medieval Scandinavians in North Carolina, or any medieval Europeans at all. More damaging is the fact that the Vinland sagas (Erik the Red’s Saga and The Greenlander Saga) were composed in the 1200s, with the surviving versions from the 1300s and 1400s with none of the authors implying at all that there was any continued contact with North America, something we would expect to see should there have been a real “land claim.”
We learn directly from Wolter himself that the unnamed expert concluded that the runes were most likely a modern hoax because they were non-standard and did not form words or phrases that could be coherently translated. The show, speaking with Wolter’s narration, purposely misrepresents this conclusion and leads viewers to believe there was more doubt about the authenticity of the inscription than the actual expert they consulted believes by eliding his or her findings under the generic term “inconclusive.” There is a big difference between “inconclusive” and “probably modern.”
Wolter and the producers also allowed viewers to come away with the impression that the stone was somehow tied to the Vinland voyages described in the show (c. 1000 CE) when Wolter himself does not support the implied conclusion. The wording is very careful, probably at Wolter’s insistence, so it never says the stone is Viking in age; in merely implies it by sandwiching it between two alleged Viking artifacts and never specifying Wolter’s real beliefs about its date. This is propaganda, not documentary filmmaking.
Wolter previously wrote via email to a viewer who complained about the New World Order episode (S02E02) that the producers had chosen the topic, not him. I find it interesting that in four episodes Wolter has twice said, intentionally or not, that he is simply voicing ideas from Maria and Andy Awes, the show’s production team, that sometimes at odds with his own (equally fantastic) views.
So what are we to make of it when the show’s host admits that the show leaves out information that contradicts their case, and that the show’s conclusions are massaged to stay on message?
I guess I should just get out of the criticism business and instead put what Wolter says on America Unearthed in one column and what he says in his blog in a second column and let the manipulations speak for themselves.
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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