Well, this is an interesting test, isn’t it? This weekend Xplrr Media, LLC, formerly USGS Mining and Exploration, LLC, released the latest installment in its ongoing series rehashing old episodes of America Unearthed. We all remember what happened the last time they did this. Because Xplrr Media asserted in its description of the review that it would include “WHAT TV WOULD NOT SHOW,” this otherwise pointless repetition of material originally broadcast in 2013 rises to the level of a matter of public interest. The current Xplrr production reviews S01E05 “A Deadly Sacrifice,” from January 2013. My review of the original episode can be found here. The episode discussed the 2010 discovery on the Arkansas river of a stone bearing a carving of a bull, and the program concluded that the carving was likely made by a Mithras-worshiping cult of Celts who colonized Oklahoma two thousand years ago and left symbols in a place called Anubis Cave that aligned to the sun beams of the equinoxes.
Xplrr’s review of the episode features Scott F. Wolter, the former host of America Unearthed, and his business partner, a former guest on The Curse of Oak Island who self-published a number of treasure hunting guides. Wolter’s business partner dominates the conversation, and is frequently wrong. For example, he alleges that the Roman emperors gave special worship to Mithras, though there is no especial evidence that he was held in particularly high esteem among the emperors. They were given to foreign cults, though. Elagabalus was famous for his veneration of the Eastern sun god from whom he took his name. The unreliable Historia Augusta claimed that Severus Alexander venerated Jesus, Abraham, and Orpheus, but omits any mention of Mithras (“Life of Severus Alexander” 29.1). Inscriptions do show, however, that Mithras had a following among senators, alongside many other gods, in the fourth-century “pagan revival” in the face of growing Christian influence and power. Sen. Rufius Caeionius Sabinus, for example, dedicated an altar to Mithras in 377. Mithras, frankly, is only interesting because Justin Martyr, in Dialogue with Trypho 70, suggested that Satan used his cult to counterfeit the Eucharist in advance of its invention, giving rise to speculation in the early twentieth century that Christians had actually stolen their faith from Mithras, an assertion that rests on no solid foundation.
The ex-Oak Island guest also mistakenly claims Mithras to be an ancient Persian deity, a claim common prior to 1971, though scholars now believe he is a Roman reconstruction of the Persian god Mithra, sharing very little of the older god’s cult or myth. He further mistakes the Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda for the initiation ceremony of Mithraism. That is because he misreads a quotation from the Suda (s.v. “Mithras”) in Manfred Clauss’s Roman Cult of Mithras, from which he quotes the translated quotation verbatim: “The late tenth-century encyclopedia known as the Suda notes under the lemma ‘Mithras’: ‘No one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests.’” Incidentally, in the rest of the entry, the Suda mixes this description of the Mithraic Mysteries with one of the Persian god Mithra, which, if he knew his material, Wolter’s business partner could have used to bolster his own case. But he doesn’t, and therefore didn’t.
At the 11:55 mark, Wolter’s business partner, referring apparently to me, said that he read “some of the online reviews” by “bloggers” who are attempting to suppress the truth and is outraged that “they” can say that the supposedly Egyptian carving of a bull examined in the episode “looks like a modern carving.” It’s cute, I suppose, that they cannot go an entire podcast without becoming upset at “bloggers.” His and Wolter’s upset with my single sentence continues for almost three minutes, but couched in plural language to obscure the target, referring instead to “online reviews,” “the debunkers,” etc. While the specific claims they refer to paraphrase my review, fortunately for them they are literally correct because there is at least one other who made very similar observations, in much harsher language. The only other critical review of the show dismissed the carving as fake, though based on its lack of provenance rather than its appearance, but again in much harsher terms than I offered.
For the record, this is what I said, after reporting that the carving was not on screen clearly enough or long enough for me to make a definitive evaluation: “The art style does not immediately suggest any ancient culture but looks very much to me like an archaizing modern forgery.” Note that in this case calling the carving “recent” or “modern” means only that it was carved after European colonization. The carving could, theoretically, be hundreds of years old and still be “recent” compared to Wolter’s preferred date of 2,000 years old.
Wolter, taking the bait, says that “These online debunkers and people that automatically just assume that … I mean, there’s no reason to spend any time worrying about this. They complain, make accusations, and give flippant opinions.” The two men would return to the “debunkers” who are not worth their time many more times during the discussion. Wolter and his partner dismiss stylistic evaluation in favor of their preferred relative dating methods and they prefer not to recognize that art styles change regularly over time. Such seriation has been a standard archaeological tool since Flinders Petrie’s studies of Egyptian pottery. In this Xplrr broadcast, Wolter admits to having no training in art but claims to “know enough to be dangerous.”
In this broadcast, Wolter also admits that despite his belief that an ancient date cannot be excluded, “I could not tell how old it was,” echoing comments from the episode in which he conceded that the object might be recent and heavily eroded by river water. His business partner, however, ignored this and claimed that Wolter had “scientifically” determined its age. Unable to fully agree, Wolter then proposed an alternative explanation where the rock was dumped in the river as part of a recent erosion-control effort and had been weathered somewhere else “thousands” of years ago. Wolter concedes that there is no way for him to determine the rock carving’s age, despite his partner’s insistence that Wolter has “invented” a “science” for dating carvings.
Wolter notes that there is an incomplete “fifth” leg depicted on the bull, which looks from photographs of the rock to be an abandoned first effort on the part of the carver, due to its shallower depth and unfinished status. Wolter claims it represents “motion,” which is not something found in ancient art. His business partner claims to understand the ceremonies used for opening Mithraic temples, even though accounts of these do not survive from Antiquity. Instead, he seems to be using the “myth and ritual” school of scholarship to assume that the tauroctony (bull-slaying) of Mithras represents a religious ritual. (Many scholars do as well, but the exact nature and purpose of the ritual is unknown.)
In discussing the so-called “Anubis Cave,” Wolter’s business partner again expresses upset that skeptics (“debunkers”) such as me and the Archaeological Fantasies blog “attacked” Wolter for connecting the cave and the carving to Egypt instead of “Celtic” Mithras worship. (Mithras was never a Celtic god.) The reason for that “attack” is, of course, because the show announced in its opening minutes that Wolter would be investigating Egyptians, and it made frequent reference to Anubis and the Apis Bull, both Egyptian divine figures. Wolter says that there is no contradiction because, in his mind, Mithras-worshipers were continuing Egyptian practices, even though earlier in this same discussion he and his business partner alleged that Mithras continued Persian practices. Wolter concluded this portion of the discussion by saying that criticism from “nay-sayers” like me is “invalid” because such criticism is “negative” and based on “opinion” rather than research, unlike, say, his claims about the secret Bloodline of Jesus whose wealthy financiers manipulate American monuments into orgasmic symbolism on standing orders from Akhenaten. You know: Science!
In the last ten minutes of the program, Wolter’s business partner asked him what the History Channel pressured him to say about the carving and whether they attempted to alter his findings, and Wolter corrected him by noting that he did not face any pressure to alter his conclusions.
His business partner decries the “dumbing down” of “kids” these days and says that before the 1960s no graffiti artist or vandal would have been knowledgeable enough to use ancient symbolism in caves, so it is illogical to presume that “old symbols” found in Anubis Cave are recent. He ignores the suggestion of an intentional hoax, conducted by adults, for the purpose of creating fake “ancient” symbols. Wolter agrees, saying he would be “hard-pressed” to believe that modern people could align carvings to the equinox. To align symbols to the equinox requires no special calculation; one need merely show up on the equinox and chalk out where to carve the symbols, which may be added thereafter at one’s leisure.
Wolter offers in his peroration a startlingly obtuse misunderstanding of science. Science uses the null hypothesis to weed out false ideas by asking researchers to prove than the negative assumption is untrue. In other words, science looks to prove that a claim is not false, with the burden on the person making the claim to demonstrate this. Instead, Wolter wishes to simply assume everything is true until proved otherwise: “These debunkers online that everything is negative—‘No, this can’t be!’—I mean, what kind of attitude is that? That’s a ‘cannot do’ attitude. I think you need to give these things the benefit of the doubt until they are proved not legitimate.”
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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