Significant online fan communities have developed around the most popular pseudo-archaeology television series, such as Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island. Far from being uncritical of the claims made on those shows, these fan communities are spaces for radical speculation, but also for rapid self-correction. They are spaces in which professional archaeologists could participate more in order to foster and cultivate the critical thinking that already grows wild there. Much of the archaeological discourse on pseudo-archaeology focuses on the lack of critical sophistication in the general public, but I believe there is much material there on which we can capitalize.
Here, I will examine the fan reaction to the particular claim made on Episode 4 of Season 6 of the Curse of Oak Island (A Legacy Revealed), originally broadcast on December 4th 2018. In the episode, the team, with the help of self-described antiques expert Gabriel Vandervort, concludes that an iron object found in the previous episode, is in fact the point of a Roman pilum, or spear. The object’s discovery had already been revealed on the previous episode, broadcast on November 27th, but the team had initially speculated that it might be a medieval crossbow bolt.
In the debates that follow the initial broadcast of the claim, we see play out all the debates and discussions that are normal in archaeology, and we see deployed the same arguments and strategies used by professional archaeologists. Notably, technological and stylistic arguments dominate, accompanied by historical and ethnographic analogy, and some degree of source criticism. Some participants make taphonomic arguments. There is a concern for simplicity and economy of explanation, even among some of the true believers. Rather than a rejection of expertise, I encountered a substantial debate about its nature and status.
I have argued before that pseudo-archaeology, far from being an existential threat to the profession, actually presents us with abundant opportunities to plant seeds of critical thinking, and theoretical and methodological rigour. After following this particular debate in some detail over a period of almost a month, I can say that the seeds are there and growing freely. The garden merely needs tending.
The Curse of Oak Island
The Curse of Oak Island follows the adventures of treasure hunters investigating the legend of a buried treasure on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. The main theories put forward by the searchers are that the treasure was brought there by 18th century pirates, by medieval Templar knights, and now, by unspecified Romans.
So far, the Oak Island team has mostly looked for evidence of medieval Templars. That is already more than a stretch for North America, so the claim of Roman age activity is startling. A previous claim of a roman find on the island, this one a sword, had been debunked on the show itself by St-Mary’s university materials experts, back in 2016. It is therefore interesting to look at the fan reaction to a renewed claim of a Roman presence.
I tracked the reaction in four main online Oak Island fan communities: The Oak Island subreddit, the Oak Island forum on the treasure hunting and metal detecting website treasurenet.com, a Curse of Oak Island fan Facebook page, and the official History Channel Curse of Oak Island Facebook page.
From The Boston Standard
The claim is that this object, found on a beach on Oak Island, is the tip of a Roman pilum.
The reaction from treasure hunters
The treasure hunting community over at treasurenet.com is arguably the closest thing to a peer group that regularly follows and comments on the Curse of Oak Island claims. On November 28th, a day after the initial reveal, user eyemustdigtreasure created a thread about the find.
Posters initially critiqued the identification on technological grounds, posting evidence that medieval bolts generally had metal tips that were mounted on wooden shaft, whereas the claimed bolt was an all metal design. User jeff of pa invoked logical economy, or an Occam’s Razor argument, complaining that “Apparently, nothing on this Island comes from the last few Treasure Hunters, Visitors or Residents, and Only Knights Templars Left things there”. User gazzahk proposed that the object could be part of a logging pole and posted comparative photo evidence and pointing out that a Clarence Beamish had built a saw mill on the Oak Island in the early 1900s.
Some hours before the broadcast of the episode in which the object is identified as a Roman pilum, user Burlbark, in the same thread, proposed that “It appears to be a piece of an older style gigging spear”. Highlighting both the role of local knowledge in archaeological interpretation, and the importance of full transparency in scientific communication, Bulbark further proposes that “Its very likely that someone that lives there now knows of the resident that did all the fishing. This of course will not be shared”.
User Gazzahk, who had originally proposed the logging pole explanation, then posted a photo of a gigging spear, agreeing that it “certainly does look similar to the middle spike on this one (Found when google ‘old gigging spear Canada’ on image search.) Closer match than any cross bow bolts on the internet”.
From there, the gigging spear explanation rapidly gains momentum, perhaps in reaction to the Roman identification. Right after the broadcast, user darefulosit posts “So this young ‘expert’ says the ‘crossbow bolt’ is a Roman Pilum. I do not believe so. 2000 years old. Do not think so. More likely along the line of a 1/4” hotwire post fashioned into a gigging spear by some handy fellow within the last century”. A minute later, user Caryl adds “Absolutely! Just went down and looked at my 9 foot antique frog gigger. My points are still sharp, but the center spike is the same ¼ inch with a barb on it. Keep in mind mine hasn’t been rolling in stone surf for a couple of decades”.
A third proposal, by user stonebottles identifies the object as “Jesuit harpoon points…given to the Indians by the Jesuit priests here in Ontario. User Gazzahk acknowledges this as “more plausible than the Romans” and citing “J.Steeles theory (From her book The Oak Island Mystery, Solved)…that there was a naval store operation on OI run and controlled by the Jesuits”.
This particular group, which is part peer group and part fan community, but which is obviously made up of regular watchers, reacted to the claim by comparing it to known examples of cross bow bolts and pila, and by suggesting alternatives that are simpler explanations, given what we know of the local historical context. They quickly converged on the gigging spear hypothesis.
The reaction from redditors
Over on the Curse of Oak Island subreddit, which is made up of equal parts true believers, tongue in cheek fans, and harsh critics, user OldDriller created a thread about the find right after the first broadcast on which it was tentatively identified as a crossbow bolt. The user notes, however, that in the teaser for the following episode, the object is claimed to be Roman, and on that basis, the user speculates that it is a pilum head. OldDriller reviews other possibilies, such as marlinspike and wood awl, but concludes that “A mass spectrometer laser test should be done on the metal to get a finer metal technology dating, since obviously you can’t do a carbon dating on it”.
The discussion in this thread tends to the technological. User Mindless_Rutabaga notes that “A crossbow bolt would have had a bigger head to stabilize in flight”. User Neugo worries that the “image appears to show the edge of the ‘blade’ being about 1 cm thick! It’s not sharp at all. That means it can’t possibly be a crossbow bolt of the end of a spear. It can’t be a weapon at all”. After a user suggests a mason’s tool, user MacOisdealbh responds “Definitely not a mason’s tool, would not last a day dressing stone with that item… Modern restoration tools are similar, but high tungsten steel and industrial diamond heads on those!!” User Redux2redux makes another technological argument: “My first thought was that it looked machined or stamped in the transition from the tip down to the round part of the shaft. Not hand made or hammered out”.
Few users in that thread are convinced of either the crossbow bolt or the pilum identification. Several are working hard at it though. User WilliamJamesMyers: “this item is unidentified as of yet, no direct match, put about 8 hours into it so far. Still looking… It’s the tip that I can’t match to anything else”.
The gigging spear or fishing harpoon possibility is raised at various points in this thread, but doesn’t take off as it did on the Treasurenet board. However, upon reflection and after the broadcast of the pilum episode, the Reddit community does eventually converge on the gigging spear explanation. Or as user The SkepticalSensei suggests in the true spirit of Reddit, “It’s a lure. Not a fishing lure. It’s a watch next Tuesday lure”.
The reaction on Facebook
Posting on the Curse of Oak Island (New –NO Drama – Official) Facebook group on December 5th, user Josh Russel, who apparently is just down the road from me in Ponoka, Alberta, asks whether “the bros [Lagina brothers, protagonists of the show]… know about the attempts to discredit the Romans being there by that certain group of “historians”? In that thread, user Jarrod Morgan proposes the logging pin explanation and a few posts down, user Chris Wilson proposes the gigging spear, with a picture in support.
User Joshua Robert Betts on the same day reports that “My very first through last week when they found the ‘crossbow bolt’ was ‘that’s a Pilum’. User Winthrop W. Hamilton, for his part, thinks that “The producers damage credibility when they make outrageous claims about roman artifacts when it is obviously a fishing tool. We had one similar on the farm”. User David Tulo is in a minority in that thread in his support of the Pilum explanation: “The British Museum has samples of Roman pilums that look precisely like what the (sic) found on the show”. The post has two likes.
User Bob Prokop, while not completely dismissing the possibility of a pilum, makes an ethno-historical argument. “The so-called Roman pilum seems very small in scale. It also appears a bit blunt – although this could be due to age… I’d lean toward thinking perhaps it was a tine off a fishing spear of some kind used by the native Mi’kmaq”. He brings the rumoured nearby U-Shaped structure into the argument: “And the u-shaped structure at the same location just remnants of an old fishing weir? Pretty sure both [fishing spear and weir] were commonly used by Mi’kmaq for eel spearing”. He provides a historical photo and a link from the Nova Scotia museum in support of his argument.
Over on what seems to be the curated History Channel Curse of Oak Island Facebook page, the host account asked “Last night’s episode was explosive! What could this Roman artifact mean for the hunt?” Immediately below, user Joe Keaton responds: “Tell your ‘weapons expert’ it [is] a prong broken off an old fishing spear”, with a photo in support. There follows a long discussion with arguments both for and against the fishing spear and the pilum explanations. User Dareick Kernz agrees that “it is not Roman”, but worries that “if it was a fishing spear/prong I would expect more of a barb(s) on the ends”. However, Dareick Kernz remains confused because “The more I look around the more ‘Roman Pilum Spear’ keeps popping up”.
The thread shows a highly variable degree of respect for the expertise presented on the show. User Joshua Carr, pushing back against the critiques of the pilum interpretation asks “What good is it to be an expert at anything anymore?… I found this photo on the internet and TO ME it looks more like a this object, not the object your expert says it is”. In a more sarcastic vein, user Jared Wolney tells a doubter, “You proved an accredited, professional, respected, experienced, specialized, antiquities expert wrong with a one- minute google search. You might be the smartest man alive”.
On the other hand, user Andrew Nyberg claims that “The ‘weapons expert’ doesn’t even know what a roman Pilum was used for. And user Maureen Ahearn complains that “their ‘experts’ don’t seem very expert to me, just the same people History channel uses in their other ‘theoretical’ shows”.
What I have learned
This exploration, in real time, of a particular unfolding debate in pseudo-archaeological fan communities has taught me a few important lessons. Pseudo-archaeology communities deploy the same tools and strategies to evaluate claims as professional archaeological communities. They do so with less background and training, but those can be developed. Expertise, rather than being summarily rejected or even being highly suspect, is debated and is used both in support of and in opposition to pseudo-archaeological claims. While professional archaeologists often complain about the lack of respect for expertise among the public, and see it as one of the contributing factors to the success of pseudo-archaeology, respect for expertise can actually be harnessed by pseudo-archaeologists.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson of the project for me is that the popularity and television ratings of shows such as Curse of Oak Island cannot be taken at face value as a reflection of uncritical acceptance of pseudo-archaeological claims and models of the past by the public. Far from it. In the fan communities which I followed, even on the curated History Channel Oak Island page, there is at least as much critique as there is support for the claims, and in most cases much more. On the Reddit end of the spectrum, I would say there has developed a very significant group of loyal, passionate viewers who are in fact harsh, even caustic critics of the pseudo-archaeological claims made on the show. It will be interesting to see whether the same is true on the Ancient Aliens side. I hope to report on that after the holidays.