We’ve learned some interesting things in the first few episodes of Curse of Oak Island this season. I’ll go through the most significant, from my perspective as an archaeologist.


A couple of years ago, the Curse of Oak Island (COOI) team recovered 2 fragments of bone from their drilling in the Money Pit area. These were initially identified as human, with one showing European ancestry, and the other tied to the Middle-East. At the time, we didn’t get much information about the analysis itself.

In the “25 top moments you never saw”, we get some very interesting additional information. In one of the clips, someone from Wyndham Forensic Group in Guelph, Ontario, tells us that they have analyzed DNA samples “already in solution”, and that sample 3 of 9 contains human DNA.

Let’s work out the implications of the very carefully measured language used by the Wyndham rep. That the DNA was already in solution when received at Wyndham means that it was extracted from the bone and purified elsewhere. They received little phials that possibly contained DNA extracted from the bone. Wyndham then analyzed the liquid, probably looking specifically for human DNA. They found human female DNA in one of the nine samples they analyzed.

What she doesn’t tell us is equally interesting. We don’t know whether they looked for other DNA than human. We don’t know what method they used, although the most likely is PCR. That method allows you to find the kind of DNA (human, bear, whale) etc that you are looking for, even if it is in tiny quantities, but it is not good at finding DNA you’re not looking for. If you use a human primer, you will find human DNA if there is any. You won’t necessarily find any other kind of DNA.

In other words, if there was non-human DNA in the samples, we might not know it. The fact that she specifies that one sample contains human DNA strongly points to contamination. Contamination is a huge problem in DNA studies. Ancient DNA labs take all kinds of extreme measures to avoid it, and it is still one of their main problems.

If you are looking for, say, bear DNA from a bone sample, contamination by human DNA is less of a problem. It is unlikely that the sample will be accidentally contaminated by bear DNA, unless someone had bear steak for lunch in that lab that day. But if you have a bone that you know is from a bear, and extract a DNA sample from it, you might very well find human DNA in it also. That normally isn’t a problem, because you’re not interested in the human DNA, only in the bear.

When dealing with an unknown, especially if you are looking for human DNA, the contamination issue becomes extremely significant and problematic. Humans extracted the DNA sample, and therefore, contamination is sometimes difficult to rule out.

At this point, I really don’t have enough information to evaluate the claim that the Money Pit bones are human, but I strongly suspect that the human DNA Wyndham found is from contamination. I would want to rule that out before I accept the claim. The bones could be human, but at this point, there is a high probability that they are not.

A good research project gives details of its methods, assumptions, etc, so that its audience can have the tools to properly evaluate its claims. So far, the COOI team has not done very much of that, and certainly not in the case of this bone analysis.


In last week’s episode (Core Values), the team recovers two iron objects from the western end of the Island (Lot 21 area). These are initially identified as hammers by metal detectorist Gary Drayton, but later specified as swages (swage hammers?) by guest analyst Carmen Legge. He claims that these are rare finds, that they could date from the 14th century, and that they suggest intensive drilling and mining operations on the island.

Let’s take those claims one by one. Swages are blacksmith’s tools used to form iron into predetermined shapes. Whether these are simply hammers, or whether they are swage hammers is very uncertain from the pictures shown.

The objects both have clear hafting holes and were probably used as hammers, swage or not. The V-shape at the end of one of the objects, which Legge argues makes it a swage hammer, seems at first sight to be the result of use-wear or breakage, rather than a design feature. It seems to be absent from the other one. Regardless, this is not terribly important.

The claim that swages and swage hammers are rare finds is surprising. They are very durable, large, and heavy, which means they are easily found by archaeologists. They have been used daily in every smith shop for millennia, which means there is a lot of them around. Just for interest, here is PDF of Matthew Carter’s archaeology Masters Thesis from Memorial University on the excavation of a 17th century blacksmith shop in nearby Newfoundland.

The presence of swages and hammers in an area suggests a blacksmith shop. They certainly don’t by themselves, suggest intensive drilling and mining operations. Nothing inherently ties hammers and swages to drilling and mining, and nothing inherently ties blacksmithing to drilling and mining. That claim is very weak, just on its face.

I would hope that on the basis of the hammer finds, the team (especially Laird), has looked at that area in more detail to see if it is a blacksmith shop. It is difficult to tell from the images shown on television, but, the ground seemed very disturbed where the hammers were recovered. Perhaps that means it was already surveyed and or/excavated?

The claim that the hammers could be from the 14th century is one of those classic “could it be” moments of pseudoarchaeology. Yes, similar tools were used in the 14th century, but they were also used in the 18th century, from which most of the archaeologically visible activity on the island seems to date (not surprisingly). Further analysis of the objects might give them a better date, but for the moment, if we go by context, they are 18th century or later.

18 thoughts on “Oak Island archaeology update : bones and swages

    1. For you to make this conclusion that his claims are “useless” and he is not “privy to actual data” strikes me as a bit of a leap. Apparently you are the “know it all” since you seem to claim to know (and are able to judge the author about) what the author does or does not know. The original post here was very well thought out and explained unlike your trolling attempt at criticism. I would welcome your thoughts and explanations of the same content provided here in a detailed post such as the original post provided if you could please.


  1. Thanks for your professional take on this program. I am a fan of both Oak Island and Ancient Aliens, purely for entertainment. I find it preferable to fake-reality TV. I admit to being one of those lay people with only an idle interest in archeology, but know enough to recognize weak scientific assertions when I hear them, especially with Ancient Aliens. Every time Oak Island dates something to “before original searchers” I think, “but it doesn’t mean that item arrived before the searchers.” Anything made before original searchers could have arrived at any time after it was made. Especially when found so seemingly close to the surface. Everything they dig up is within a foot, however when you read actual scholarly articles on archaeological digs, they find items from similar time periods several feet in the dirt. I also find it interesting of note how little Laird actually says about items, just “it indicates man made”, never “Your right, it’s ancient.” I suspect he is not comfortable being included in the footage of any episodes, he looks uncomfortable to me, anyway. I have so many questions; desire to pick your brain. Instead, I’ll close with, I may not agree with any of their theoretical leaps, but you are (again) correct. These shows help to keep my mind active in learning, thinking, researching, and practicing an open yet practical mind. Thank you for your objective (in no way a “know it all”) perspective.


    1. Give me a break people i herd very cleary on the show that the swages had a date spread from the 1400 to the 1800. So stops this over analyzing of what was said on the show. It is a tv documentary that is also being over seen to provide entertainment. So of course they are going to provide specifications to keep the audience involved by providing information that us not totally reviewed by experts. Besides that have you ever heard the government provided archeologist on the show provide any analysis besides I don’t know. You would think that if anyone who should have provided a date for the stages it should have been him but I’m sure he wouldn’t have know what they were and would have provided his usual I don’t know.


  2. How about getting an interview with the bros and asking some of these questions. I am, however, beginning to think the treasure is the advertising dollars they are getting for having one of the highest rated reality shows.


    1. My guess, is that the Bro’s have little control on how the show is edited and that it is Prometheus, the production company that comes up with all the hair-brained ‘Could it Be?’ explanations and half truths.


      1. I considered the same since, early on in his own show, Marty Lagina occasionally seemed annoyed and more interested in actual evidence. Then he ended up as a guest on Ancient Aliens with Giorgio Tsoukalos. Marty was either contracted to go on the show and did a good job acting interested in Alien theories, or he is genuinely interested and receptive. Which is ok, but changes what I perceive of his complicity in show-biz.


  3. I found a swage (ancient) in an area that was close to where the GRIFFON last sailed from./ It was hanging in a 200 year old barn being demolished. Everything Contact wise on Oak Island is about secret agents. No one seems to care about this piece so its going to go up on ebay unless I get a response. Email me for pics.


  4. Question: is there iron ore on oak island and could not that “tar” furnace be a pig iron smelter ? We have many like that in Ohio that were built by French explorers to make trade goods and tools for themselves (nails, shovels, hammers, knives etc.) ? They wouldent let the metal detector in the area close to the site to see if the ground contained slag or iron bits. How about that hole in the rock that they claim was for a survey pole of long ago, and yes we have those too and I own one. They were used by the natives Americans to break open Hickory nuts , acorns and walnuts in large numbers for boiling to seperate the shell, meat for storing when food was scarce and oil as a cooking oil.


    1. It could be a smelter, but then I would say probably a small one, or one that was not used often, unless the excavation comes up with a lot more slag. Looking forward to finding out more about the structure.


  5. In season 7 of COOI another rather larger bone was found in the spoils of RF-1. However nothing further was ever said about it. Was it tested? Where did it go? How old was it? Was it human or animal? All the normal questions that the Laginas usually ask about artifacts that are recovered were never asked. The same happened to the tunnel found at the Samuel Ball residence. After it was found and video-explored a few feet, nothing was ever mentioned about it again. I would think that these 2 events would have required some sort of closure, even if the findings were not conclusive not favorable.


  6. I started watching Oak Island from season 1 but got bored with the speculation and no real facts after the first couple seasons. So now i started binge watching and finally watched this episode with the swages. each episode their evidence is more guessing that fact and more wild guesses. I don’t think there’s any treasure there, i watch now for the entertainment of their failures and the interesting items they’re finding that don’t really have anything to do with their quest, but they sure want them to.


    1. Yes, that’s exactly the point. Some of the objects *could possibly* be related to the treasure story, but there are much better, and much more likely explanations for them, and none of them establish that there is in fact a treasure.


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