2013-02-13 02:46:20 UTC
Before we start discussing America Unearthed S01E07 Mystery of
Roanoke, I want to direct your attention to my blog post from the other
day revealing the finances and more than $600,000 initial budget for
America Unearthed. The next time an alternative theorist complains that
scientists are suppressing the truth in order to preserve their
government funding and tenure-track jobs, remind them that almost no
scientist makes nearly as much cash as alternative TV presenters (who
are also taking government cash). Dozens of people owe their jobs to
each alternative show, and with the hundreds of thousands of dollars
invested into the series, telling untruths about American history is a
hugely profitable business.
Let me begin by stating upfront that I have absolutely no interest
whatsoever in the lost colony of Roanoke, the group of 118 colonists who
disappeared from the first English settlement in Virginia sometime
between 1587 and 1590, leaving behind only the carved word Croatoan on
a tree. This occurred in the Early Modern period, well after the
European discovery of America, so its not anything that has any impact
on the hidden history of America, unless aliens abducted them or
something. So it was an uphill battle for me to pay attention to this
fairly padded hour of television, at least until Wolter started getting
pissed off. Then, for a few minutes, it got good.
We open with Scott Wolter entering pushpins into a map of America,
connected by red thread, like the sort of charts obsessed police
detectives (or serial killers) use on forensic crime shows, or the crazy
CIA woman on Homeland. We focus in on a Polaroid (who has those?) with
the word murder written in black permanent marker and then cut to the
opening credits. (No murder will be discussed in the hour, so this is
all just for show.)
The opening graphics tell us that the lost colony of Roanoke is
Americas oldest cold case, further drawing parallels to crime scene
Wolter shows us the Dare Stones, some rocks allegedly carved by a
colonist named Eleanor Dare with messages about the lost colonys fate.
Found between 1937 and 1940 in three locations along a single route
between Roanoke and Atlanta, scholars quickly determined they were
hoaxes, which America Unearthed actually mentions since this cannot be
denied. Wolter, of course, wants the stones to be authentic. Ill be
honest: I couldnt possibly care less about this. Even if the stones are
authentic, it changes nothing about the history of America and would
provide at most a tiny footnote to the story of European colonization.
However, in the interest of completion, heres what America Unearthed
purposely left out:
The first stone, well-weathered, was apparently the gravestone of
Ananias and Virginia Dare. If there is any truth to the stones, this
one, found near the lost colony, is possibly the only authentic stone.
Geologists of the time determined it was 400 years old, and some
scholars continue to believe it is an authentic sixteenth century
artifact. In 1937, historian Dr. Haywood Pearce deciphered its
inscription and declared it genuine. He offered a reward for more
stones, paying out up to $1,200 (almost $20,000 in todays dollars) per
stone. Suddenly, stones flooded in from South Carolina and Georgia, all
found by just four people. I wonder why.
According to a 1941 Saturday Evening Post analysis of the stones, which
Wolter fails to discuss, a single person found two of the stones in two
separate states! One was even buried near the mans own house! The Post
discovered that all four individuals who independently found the Dare
Stones were known criminals who all knew one another, and at least one
had approached Cecil B. DeMille about turning the stones story into a
movie. Experts discovered that some of the carvings appeared quite
recent, and some of the words used on the stones did not match forms
known from the 1590s. (Elizabethan English could easily be faked since
the works of Shakespeare were available in any public library.)
Pearce, for his part, lashed out like modern alternative theorists,
threatening to sue the Post for revealing the hoax. After the Post
story, one of the original discoverers of the stones, William
Eberhart, called the professor he had fooled into accepting the Dare
Stones, the same Haywood Pearce, in 1937 to report a new find, a large
carved stone head. Even the credulous professor recognized the stone as
a fake, made with hammers and colored with purple vegetable die.
Eberhart later confessed to participating in a hoax and for accepting
payment for the hoaxing, as well as admitting to blackmailing Pearce by
threatening to reveal the Dare Stone hoax if he wasnt paid off. He
later denied making these sworn and witnessed statements.
The whole story is laid out here (part 1, part 2), with a quote from Jim
Southerland, who appears in this episode of America Unearthed. He
believes the first stone is possibly genuine, which is a reasonable if
not entirely proven possibility.
None of this made the show, of course, because it undermines Wolters
Wolter examines this first of the Dare Stones and says that the
geological evidence suggests their authenticity. Sadly, his evidence is
once again the same microscopic analysis that has led him astray on
other artifacts. Im not sure Wolter is truly able to distinguish
between 300 years weathering and 100 or 30. He does not, for example,
compare the weathering to that observed on rocks in the locales where
the stones were found, and he is well aware that the amount of
weathering is highly dependent on local conditions. He does not examine
the later Dare Stones with the same care, nor does he report whether
there are differences, as the clear evidence of hoaxing indicates that
there would be.
He makes a dumb conclusion that the differences in rock type between the
various groups of Dare Stones suggest authenticity because it would mean
they were carved in situ rather than all at once. One might equally well
suggest that the hoaxer(s) simply carved them as he or they traveled
from Roanoke to Georgia, or at locations of convenience where they lived
What follows is a truly extraordinary scene.
Wolter goes to meet author Scott Dawson, a local innkeeper with a
bachelor's in psychology who runs a museum on Hatteras (formerly
Croatoan) island. Dawson tries to patiently explain to him all of the
archaeological evidence for English occupation at Croatoan Island and
what happened to the colony after they abandoned Roanoke for Croatoan
Island and vanished. (A 1998 archaeological investigation found a signet
ring apparently belonging to one of the colonists on the island, among
other evidence.) Dawson waves his hand over the evidence and explained
that all the evidence supports the Croatoan Island theory except for the
Dare Stones, so either the Dare Stones are real and every piece of
evidence ever collected is wrong, or the evidence is right and the Dare
Stones are a hoax. Wolter, visibly agitated, insists on another
explanation. The colony simply split up into competing tribes, like on
All of that is just speculation, Dawson reminds Wolter.
The only thing I can do is testify as to factual evidence, Wolter
says, again quite agitated, stating that the standard of proof should be
whats allowable in a court of law. When the facts stand in the way
of speculation, then the facts win, he says. Claims of a hoax are just
that, claims, supported by appeals to romanticism. Wolter may want to
dismiss the romanticism of the 1930s as irrelevant, but his show has
purposely left out the factual evidence collected in 1941 that the
stones were a recent hoax, including the linguistic problems, the
evidence of exactly who hoaxed the stones and how, the continued hoaxing
after exposure, and Eberharts confession.
This confrontation was so upsetting that Wolter calls his wife (!) on
camera (!!) to complain about the close-minded attitude of Scott Dawson
for refusing to agree with Wolters speculations. Wolter insists that
Dawson was blind to the geological evidence, but as we saw earlier,
Wolter never conclusively dated the stones, merely suggesting that they
looked weathered and old. (Nor does he consider that the first stone
may be genuine while the others could be fake; he considers them all of
a piece.) To date them, as he well knows, theyd need to be compared to
stones in the locations where they were found to evaluate the weathering
So, to recap: Wolter, on sketchy evidence, closed himself off to all
possibly explanations except legitimacy for all the stones and is upset
that someone else evaluated the evidence and has a conclusion that
differs from his own.
Dr. Stephanie Pratt, art historian, shows us an old map of Virginia
drawn by its colonial governor, John White, c. 1585-1590. (Its on
Wikipedia, so its not exactly hidden history.) Recently, it was
discovered that the map features a hidden four-pointed splotch that is
similar to the outline of the fortification used at Fort Raleigh beneath
a patch placed on the map at the time of its creation. Im not really
sure what this is meant to prove, other than the possibility that there
was once an English fort farther inland than originally suggested.
Wolter believes this means that the colonists moved inland rather than
south to Croatoan, and he suggests this was part of a conspiracy by Sir
Walter Raleigh. I suppose this is possible, but its really irrelevant
to the Dare Stones question since the colonist could not have built a
large defensive earthwork given the terrible conditions described by the
The map has been repaired, and the fort symbol was covered up, either
because the fort ceased to exist, was never built, or because it was
drawn on the map in the wrong place.
Next, Wolter goes to England to learn that early colonists came to
America to find sassafras, believed to be a cure for syphilis. Wolter
suggests that finding a place that matches evidence from the map of the
inland fort, conforms to the narrative of the Dare Stones, and features
sassafras, will give us the lost colony of Roanoke. This place is Scotch
Hall Preserve golf course.
If I understand correctly, the golf course is built atop the place the
map indicated a fort once stood. A golf course spokesman tells Wolter
that no evidence of a fort was found during construction of the course.
Wolter concludes that the fort was planned but never existed. Despite
this, hes thrilled to find out that the first Dare Stone was found near
the golf course, suggesting to Wolter that my theory is right. I fail
to see how the fact that the fort did not exist somehow confirms that
the colonists escaped to its location. The logic seems to be that
Eleanor Dare hoped that her father, John White, would come to the
planned fort site in search of her when he returned to build the fort.
This is possible, I suppose, and if the first Dare Stone is authentic,
perhaps more than possible. But the lack of any evidence of English
occupation other than the Dare Stone is troubling.
Wolter seems to think he found the lost colony, though he has no bodies.
He also finally recognizes that finding rocks in situ is important for
evaluating whether the Dare Stones are legitimate; however, he stops
after finding the same type of quartzite in Virginia. (Do the other
states not count?) He does not check to see how and whether such stones
were weathered to learn about the weathering in the area in order to
evaluate how long the Dare inscriptions had been exposed, or whether
their weathering was consistent with these rocks. Wolter may claim the
stones inscriptions look old to him, but in 1941, the experts consulted
by the Post thought they seemed fairly recent (except, perhaps, for the
first). Surely, Wolter ought to have evaluated the un-carved stones
before declaring the Dare Stones real since geology, like any hard
science, requires controls.
So, overall, there is perhaps a kernel of truth buried in this episode,
if the first Dare Stone really is what it claims to be (which is, of
course, not certain), but this episdoe's lack of critical thinking and
incomplete (to the point of being deceptive) presentation of the facts
surrounding the stones' discovery makes this a case far from proved.
By the way, if you want to see this kind of investigation done right, in
2009 the PBS version of Time Team went to Fort Raleigh and searched for
evidence of the Roanoke colony. You can watch their much more
informative and serious investigation here.
"If Barack Obama isn't careful, he will become the Jimmy Carter of the
"If Barack Obama isn't careful, he will become the Jimmy Carter of the