Late yesterday afternoon a producer for Vice Media contacted me to ask if I could pop by their Brooklyn studios this morning to shoot an interview for a “light and fun” piece they’re doing for the new Viceland TV channel, the one that’s replacing H2, on the popularity of the Ancient Aliens TV series. This was all kinds of wrong, not least because Vice thought I could drop everything and just pop on over to Brooklyn, all the way from upstate! The producer apologized for the short notice, but blamed deadlines for the need to find “a skeptic” fast.
The more troubling concern, and one I expressed to the producer, was that Vice wanted a “light and fun” look at a TV show whose pundits routinely embrace racist and anti-Semitic themes, who engage in fraud for cash, and who are the “fun” face for some very dark currents in American life, as Michael Barkun has explored in his Culture of Conspiracy. It’s also a bit of a conflict of interest since Vice is producing the puff piece for the Viceland channel, a joint venture of Vice and A+E Networks, the parent company of the History Channel and owner of Ancient Aliens. (A+E, which is also a co-owner of Vice Media, holds majority ownership of Viceland and promised to work with Vice on creating shows that integrate promotion and advertising into editorial content.) While Vice has editorial independence, it seems difficult to believe they’d openly criticize their partner’s show, despite the producer’s promise that “we’ll try to stick closer to the truth.” To his credit, the producer, who is Jewish, seemed genuinely concerned to hear that Ancient Aliens has recycled some old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and he promised to look into it before they shot their story this morning.
Unfortunately, though, all I see is a cross-promotional opportunity for A+E Networks and Vice, one that the latter wanted to give the gloss of responsibility by including a token skeptic.
Speaking of self-promotion, another member of the A+E Networks family dropped his latest blog post yesterday afternoon while I was speaking with the Vice producer. America Unearthed and Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar star Scott Wolter posted a lengthy diatribe on what he sees as a conspiracy involving his former writing partner Richard Nielson and Henrik Williams, a Swedish professor of Scandinavian languages. Wolter asserts that the two men have both changed their mind about secret codes embedded in the Kensington Rune Stone due to an unnamed and undescribed conspiracy (yes, he really uses the word “conspired”) to deny a medieval date for the artifact:
There are likely multiple reasons for this carefully crafted plan to try and alter their acknowledgement of the physical characteristics of the KRS inscription which they both previously agreed were present, but [they] apparently now are trying to make the "Dating Code" and the "Grail Code" disappear from the historical record. You would have to ask them what purpose is served by doing this, but I suspect it was for personal reasons and/or to conform to some arbitrary academic standard. […] Nielsen and Williams have conspired to publish a document that effectively erases these important codes they apparently no longer agree with.
All of this, he said, took place in 2010, which made it very strange that he chose to post a largely incoherent rant about it now.
I must confess to being singularly uninterested in the “Dating Code” or the “Grail Code,” which Wolter images to be embedded in lines and dots scattered among the Rune Stone’s letters. In the case of the Grail Code, Wolter believes that punched dots associated with the runes for “G,” “R,” “A,” and “L” indicate a misspelled medieval French Cistercian acknowledgement of the word graal, or grail. Nielsen, however, believes that some of the punch marks were meant to guide chisels and others are the result of natural or subsequent damage. Even if these dot codes were real—and there isn’t much to support the claim—it wouldn’t be directly relevant to the authenticity of the Rune Stone since a code could have been generated at any time after the development of the world graal. In other words, the code proves nothing.
But I am interested in Wolter’s assertion of a decade-long, slow-moving conspiracy that somehow involves warring “sides,” one being Wolter’s supposedly truth-based geology and the other being “ultra-conservative” academics. In Wolter’s view, because Nielsen and Williams see the various marks as natural, damage, or chisel guides and therefore did not include them in a transcription of the Rune Stone, they are part of an “apparent plan to erase the record of the codes” that dates back to at least 2008, if not earlier. “The overriding question is why did Williams and Nielsen suddenly change their minds and set out to try to reverse their prior acknowledgement of the physical marks using deceptive tactics veiled as academia?”
(Disclosure: I spoke with Williams earlier this week by email, before Wolter’s blog post, because Williams wanted to know if I planned to publish any more of my America Unearthed reviews in book form. It was the first and only time we’ve spoken. I spoke with Nielsen a couple of years ago regarding his Rune Stone research, but not since.)
Wolter frames the question, though, largely in personal terms: Richard Nielsen and he had a falling out, Williams and Nielsen were in a dispute with the Runestone Museum, and everyone is fighting with everyone. What was shocking was that Wolter and Nielsen spent $75,000 to self-publish and print their Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence book, and that money seems to be at the root of the personal dispute that overshadows any actual fact-based argument. According to Wolter, Nielsen declined to pay his half of the money, and Wolter sold off his agate collection to fund the printing. To which: Holy cow! I’ve self-published a number of books, and I’ve never spent more than $25 on one, albeit I used print-on-demand rather than offset printing. Even if I went the super-deluxe route, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with ways to blow $75,000 on producing one! What kind of print run did they pay for?
Anyway, Wolter made a strange point in the comments section of his blog post that Nielsen only changed his mind and attacked Wolter’s views out of revenge because he “had no financial investment in the book.” Does this imply that one’s views are dictated by profit?
Wolter’s whole blog post was poorly organized, very confusing, and based on material published in 2010 and earlier. I have no idea why he posted it now, but it seems pretty clear that there are interpersonal disputes playing out under the surface.
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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