While I was exiled in western Kern County for my recent large project, I was re-acquainted with the History Channel. At this point in time, most of the History Channel's programming seems to be dedicated to whipping up fears over the impending 2012 non-event and trying to persuade their more gullible viewers that everyone from the old salt Nostradamus to Leonardo DaVinci* was a 100% accurate prophet who foretold the end of the world some time in the next few years.
Indeed, the Hysteria Channel would be a better name.
Buried in between these shows, however, are a few of the more run-of-the-mill psuedohistory shows. Amongst these was a show which "gave the evidence" (more like gave the supposition) that the Knights Templar, after having been persecuted in Europe, escaped to North America. The evidence for such a thing is scant, at best. There's the Kensington Runestone, which is far from having been cleared as a hoax. There's rock art that can be interpreted as indicating medieval armored men or European symbols, but if you are familiar with the rock art of the world you tend to find these claims more than a little lacking. There's some enigmatic structures which wouldn't seem out of place for medieval Europeans, but also are very much of types that the colonists from the 17th century onward were building in North America. Other than that, there are a few legends and bits of local lore that seem intriguing, but don't add up to much - a pile of poor, equivocal and vague evidence does not equal a single piece of good evidence, much less a compelling case (contrary to what Sam Spade might have thought**).
What struck me as I watched this was not how ludicrous it was, but rather how frustratingly close the folks on the program were coming without ever quite hitting on the subtle reason why archaeologists and historians don't take them seriously.
These folks have taken a few pieces of messy and unclear evidence, reached their conclusion, and then tried to make their case not by amassing further evidence and working out the proper context of their materials, but rather by ignoring the flaws in their current evidence and building up a case for possibility and mistaking that for probability or even certainty.
What is frustrating about this is that the basic scenario - that a small group of Europeans wandered into the Americas before Columbus - is not all that far-out. We know that the Vikings did it, so the technology and know-how was present in Europe. But if anyone other than the Vikings came over, we have yet to find clear evidence of them in the Americas and they were awfully silent about it in their own written record***. So, we are left with a distinct possibility, one that seems so tantalizing, with absolutely no solid evidence to back it up.
One of the more curious things about the people on the show is that they consistently state thing such as "the archaeological establishment doesn't want you to know about THIS!" I have written before about why that is not true. However, one thing that I left out of the previous discussion is that, contrary to what many of the proponents of these claims say, we wouldn't have to re-write history or prehistory if the claims were proven true.
You see, even if the Knights Templar made it to North America, they did very little that changed the lives of the people living here at the time. They also did very little to change Europe. If they had any significant influence in either place, then there would be much more evidence laying about in the form of changes to the archaeological and alterations to the historic records. If they did make it here, that would be interesting, and it might answer some questions about European history, but at most it would require a very mild tweaking of our histories, and more likely it would be relegated to an interesting but ultimately unimportant footnote.
It would still be good for the career of whoever proved it. After all, it would provide sensationalism enough to sell books and television shows, not to mention motivate funding agencies, and it might provide some interesting information about how humans adapt to unusual landscapes. However, these would still be minor, if glitzy, contributions to both archaeology and history. A small amount of information would be added, but little (if anything) would be re-written.
And that is another element that makes these folks frustrating. In addition to mistaking their wishes and assumptions for facts and data, they also overstate the importance of their alleged findings. And yet, all the while, they accuse us of arrogance. Go figure.
*The Leonardo DaVinci one was particularly hilarious. In it, the producers used a reference in one of his diaries to a nightmare he had as a child coupled with vague water imagery in a couple of his paintings to "prove" that he had predicted a global flood that would destroy humanity.
**Okay, he wasn't looking at evidence but rather reasons to act. Besides, that passage from the Maltese Falcon was pretty damn good, and revealed more about his character than anything else in the book. What does this have to do with prehistoric North America? I haven't a clue, just ignore me.
***One person on the show asserted that "everyone knew about the Americas and were coming here routinely before Columbus!" Really? They were awfully silent about it if they were coming, which one would think that some scribe or another would bother to jot down. Not to mention that, for a continent of people who knew where the continents of the Earth really were, they had some awfully peculiar ideas about the size and nature of the world.