Thursday, March 20, 2014

Calling out pseudo-science in the Star Tribune

Yesterday, our regional paper, the Star Tribune, published a profile of local celebrity Scott Wolter, under the unfortunate title, "A Real-Life Da Vinci Code". Wolter is best known in archaeological circles for his work on the Kensington Runestone, a supposed Viking artifact that was found within an hour's drive of my office. Like most archaeologists, I assume the Kensington Runestone is a fake, but there is enough debate among credible researchers that I'm willing to keep an open mind, and I'd be happy to look at any real data that shows the stone to be genuine.

Wolter's other work is less benign. He's the host of America Unearthed, a television show about our nation's past that the article describes as "eclectic". Most professional archaeologists would use a less polite term. America Unearthed is the recent spawn of a century-old lineage, bred from the racist, nationalist, and money-/fame-seeking fantasies of misguided pseudo-scientists and professional charlatans. To run a profile of his work in a newspaper - even if it's just in the human interest section - is a serious blow to those of us who care about real history.

I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my dismay. I don't know if they will publish it. It could only be 200 words long, so it doesn't include much nuance, but here it is:
I was disappointed by the profile of Scott Wolter, “A Real-Life Da Vinci Code”. Real archaeology is far more interesting than the fantasies Wolter spins. Our ancestors – Native, European, African, or Asian – lived and died here, they loved and warred, built and destroyed, celebrated and mourned. Their story is excavated by archaeologists, handed down in oral traditions, and written in family Bibles. This past shapes who we are today, as individuals and as a society. This past is important. It is a part of us.

We disrespect our ancestors and ourselves when we replace our real past with conspiracy theories and fakes. We don’t need to pretend that the Aztecs built pyramids under our lakes. The real Indigenous peoples of this nation built giant earthen mounds from Minnesota to Louisiana. You can visit some at the Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul.

We don’t need to pretend that the Knights Templar claimed North America prior to Columbus. There are many stories of adventure, determination, and profound faith among the real European pioneers. It lessens their sacrifices to replace their history with fantasy.

The real past is fascinating. Don’t demean it by pretending that fantastic pseudo-science is equal to archaeology.

UPDATE March 24, 2014: Hey, they printed my letter!


  1. Good for you! Too much credibility is given to fringe history and pseudo-science on TV, and it is disappointing to read such an uncritical and unbalanced story in a local paper. You may be interested in www.Jason, a great blog that debunks shows like Wolter's America Unearthed.

  2. Thanks!

    I think we all need to speak out more. Most people in this country don't get any pre-Columbus education in high school. We can't expect people to know what is true and what is fiction, or the harm that can be done by crazy claims about the past, if we're not willing to speak out.

  3. I saw that the paper published the letter! Well done!