Tuesday Roundup: Fake Scottish Stone Circle Fools Archaeologists and the Science Channel Goes on a New Search for Vikings in America
It was a cold and icy weekend where I live in Albany, NY, with about 15 inches of snow and sleet falling on Sunday, followed by bitter wind chills on Monday, making cleanup difficult. I spent much of the holiday weekend digging the house out, only to have the snowplow come through and bury the driveway under four more feet of heavy ice blocks. Then, a starling fell down the chimney into the basement, and I had to chase a bird around the house until I could convince it to fly out a propped-open door into the cold. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of time for writing today’s blog post, and that turns out to be OK because the world of fringe history seems to have taken a bit of a breather over the holiday weekend. The big names were fairly quiet, give or take a snippy comment or two. I guess it’s just a quiet time of the year.
There were a couple of interesting news stories to point out from the past week. First, Scottish archaeologists were reportedly disappointed to discover that what they initially thought was an ancient recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire was nothing of the sort. The small stone circle was not in fact thousands of years old by only twenty, having been built by a farmer in the 1990s as a decorative folly.
Normally this would be a non-story for us, but what makes it interesting is that Adam Welfare of Historic Environment Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council’s Archaeology Service publicized the circle as a genuine ancient site in the media and spread the story all over Scotland, prompting the former owner of the land to contact him and confess to having built the circle himself.
“These types of monument are notoriously difficult to date,” said an assistant at the Aberdeenshire Council by way of explanation. He added that the former land owner did a really great job setting up the stones, and they were quite picturesque.
And that is a great example of why you don’t go trumpeting things in the media before doing the research! Imagine what would have happened if the former landowner had died or didn’t see the news?
Meanwhile, the Science Channel has announced a new series starring Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot, who will attempt to discover whether the Vikings penetrated into the interior of North America, as so many speculative histories have suggested since the early 1800s. If those names sound familiar, they should. Cable is a small world of constantly repeating faces. Both men are archaeologists and veterans of the History Channel traveling circus. Nelson and Arbuthnot both starred in History’s Found, a 2016 one-and-done failed series in which they attempted to investigate antiques and artifacts discovered by members of the public. Arbuthnot also served as an archaeologist for America Unearthed, where in season 2 he participated in Wolter’s quest to find Viking settlements in the continental United States—coincidentally the same subject as his new series!
The new series, entitled, depressingly, America’s Lost Vikings, will be more scientific than America Unearthed and will use experimental archaeology techniques to test whether the Vikings had the technology and the gear to make the journey into the interior of the continental United States.
A Science Channel executive described the series in statement given to Real Screen last week: “The question of just how much of North America the Vikings explored hasn’t been investigated to this degree,” Science Channel general manager Marc Etkind said. “The latest scientific technology may help us answer just how far they got, where they went and who they encountered.”
You know, like Bigfoot or something. After all, what do we know about who was living in the Americas before Europeans?
The show’s executive producer at Arrow Media, the British company producing the show (and—disclosure—one that previously contacted me about appearing in a show that never made it to air), described Viking incursions into the continental United States as “one of the greatest unanswered questions in U.S. history.” I can’t see how that is true, but it is fascinating that the only major documentaries to air in the U.S. about the peopling of the Americas in the past few years have been about Europeans colonizing or exploring the United States.
This documentary follows the Vikings on what, to the best of evidence, are at best unproven incursions far south of their known settlement in L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The previous show, last year’s CBC/Smithsonian Channel documentary about the Solutrean hypothesis similarly followed prehistoric residents of Spain as they embarked on an almost certainly imaginary journey to colonize America before the Native Americans. Several shows on the Travel Channel (sister station to Science) have postulated that America was colonized by a race of Caucasian giants or by a completely different species of hominin rather than acknowledging Native Americans as the first peoples in the Americas.
The real question is why TV producers think it wouldn’t be equally interesting to watch experimental archaeologists try to recreate and test the various hypotheses for how Native Americans entered the Americas (ice-free corridor, coastal boats, etc.) and survived the Ice Age Americas.
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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