Swords and sophistry: Questionable archaeology to the hilt (UPDATE: Not a Roman sword)

Welcome to 2016! I predict that this year we will continue to see the popularity of pseudo archaeology – a cracked spinoff of a science-based field that studies human long-past history. Yes, more out-of-place artifacts, ancient alien astronauts, Atlantis, etc. Today, we bring you the continuing saga of SwordGate and a heretic historian who is attempting to prove claims that will CHANGE history. Along the way, we find out how important critical thinking and skeptical inquiry is to shine light on sensational claims that the media puts out there without doing their due diligence.


“Confirmed” — you keep using that word

2015 ended with a dust up about a sword, an alleged Roman sword, found near Oak Island, Nova Scotia. The sword is covered in verdigris, a oxidation coating which suggests the object is made of copper or brass. It had supposedly been found in water and was kept by the person who found it for decades before it came to light. The exact details are not given.

Oak Island itself is known for its mysterious money pit. This latest news event involves “historic investigator” J. Hutton Pulitzer who says that this sword is authentic, from a Roman shipwreck off the coast, and that this artifact is the “smoking gun” to support his idea that Romans beat Christopher Columbus to America by more than 1000 years.

The problems with this claim are many and various. Once certain knowledgeable people started looking at it, the story turned odder and odder. Let’s unpack why this hyped Boston Standard story is doubtful.

First, note that Pulitzer is not a professional archaeologist. He called himself “a leading visionary in the world of marketing, product development, and entrepreneurship”. Jason Colavito looks more closely into Pulitzer’s claims that he is a “Smithsonian Laureat”. Colavito finds that the claim made about the Smithsonian is not quite right. That is, the truth looks to have been a bit extended to supply him more personal accolades. His reputation is… hmm, what is the opposite of “stellar”? He likes to threaten legal action against people who are critical of his stuff – a common tactic for those who can’t back up their claims with evidence, so they go the intimidation route we’ve seen lots of times before. Not cool.

Many who tout “extraordinary” discoveries in archaeology aren’t qualified themselves to make the claims but they sometimes recruit others with credentials to help. The news story said that a report was forthcoming with more information about the sword.

Speaking about the report, [Pulitzer] said his team of researchers include experts and academics who are largely ‘out of the system’ so have nothing to lose by supporting unorthodox theories. “Some are retired, and some have left the system for various reasons,” Pulitzer explained. “I think we should all fight for the truth and people should make up their own minds. We are just saying ‘here’s what we have found’.”

So, experts “out of the system” is another sign that this claim is shaky. Those “in the system” would be more than excited to hear about a spectacular new find. Why aren’t they excited? Why not share this great find with everyone instead of keeping it under wraps? Can you blame us for being careful?

Then there are ties to a TV show, The Curse of Oak Island. As DN readers know, science is not done on cable TV. Nor should it be. Meanwhile, Pulitzer can be found recruiting people to be a “Warrior for Truth”. The site called “History Heretic” (also run by “Commander” Pulitzer – not sure why he uses that title) states that Nova Scotia does not allow diving for shipwrecks which constitutes hiding history. So, no one can explore the sea floor where he thinks there is a Roman shipwreck that will rewrite history. That is certainly unfortunate if true. However, taking this route of high drama and hyperbole is NOT winning him supporters in the professional arena. He seems VERY in love with his ideas and not so much with supplying scientific foundation for the claims.

Such finds, whether they be shocking artifacts, fossils, lost cities, or remains of Amelia Earhart, are the rightful domain of experts who have studied the literature, the body of work, and proper methods of retrieval. Not treasure hunters or TV crews. It’s not that someone COULDN’T stumble on a fantastic find but this should only be trusted (and publicized) when it’s been examined and investigated by people who can determine how it fits into the story of the world.

Right after the announcement of the sword finding as “100% confirmed” archaeologist Andy White looked into the Nova Scotia sword and found it wanting. Scientists do this. Critical thinkers do this. We question, we look for a foundation, we see if evidence all points to the same reasonable conclusion. That’s how establishing knowledge works. Because this is a very serious claim, we have plenty of reasons to make sure it is viable and not some mistake or hoax (on the claimant or on us). People seemed to be very interested in finding out more about the veracity of the claim since White’s questioning post took off. It was the start of something kind of big for White – SwordGate.

That same day, a reader informed White that there was another sword like the Nova Scotia piece found in Florida, leading him to question if they are related. White reached out to his professional colleagues, as one does.

Pulitzer noticed the buzz. The next day, White received an email from him asking to “remove all the fake and libelous comments” from an older post. An adamant request like that requires work for any blogger to determine exactly what the issue is. It also brought up problems with comments on the post which may be libelous (even if the original written piece was not). This is tricky stuff and one reason why we moderate comments heavily. The offending post was from September but seems to have gained attention because of the current sword story.

Also on December 17, ANOTHER sword was found, this one in California. This is all getting very wacky. As White says:

The more of these swords turn up, the more likely it is, I think, that we’ll eventually figure out the source. I’m betting it’s not ancient Rome.

On December 18, a similar sword is found for sale on eBay.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four known “Roman swords” floating around there that appear to be cast from the same mold.

White gets information that this design is mass produced, probably based on a real Roman artifact. Like a rational thinker does, he explores possible explanations: Are they all authentic, or based on one authentic sword? Are they modern? Copies? What does this mean for the Nova Scotia sword? Pulitzer backpedals on his former statement that the sword was confirmed authentic. The appearance of all these replicas, or whatever they are, have tarnished the claim he’s making. On December 18, two days after the original Boston Standard article is published, it is revised without a followup. The claims are now softened, less concrete or, shall we say, not as sharply stated. White notes that Pulitzer probably doesn’t care much for this type of attention and he will have a hard time finding a graceful way out of it.

Will Pulitzer live or die by the sword?

The fringe media picks up the sensational claim but not the critical details. No surprise there. That’s what they all do. The devil in the details is overlooked for wishful thinking and hit counts. Steer clear of beyond doubtful sites. But as is clear, even reputable news sources have issues.

White continues to “test” the various possible conclusions about what is going on with these swords. This is something Pulitzer’s group didn’t do or didn’t show us they did. The “report” or “white paper” that was originally supposed to be published still isn’t out (as far as I can tell). Is the public supposed to just swallow whatever claims we are fed? Yes, apparently that’s exactly what we are supposed to do. No thank you.

Then it gets weirder as Pulitzer digs the hole even deeper by saying the sword is magic: that it has a navigational quality that makes it point to true north. That is certainly a testable claim, and a rather easy one too. But no tests or demonstrations are given. The source story continues to evolve which should make all readers wonder why it was a news story to begin with if we can’t even get all the facts right! Pulitzer cries conspiracy and labels skeptics (who just wish to get at the truth) as the bad guys. He may think we are ganging up on him. But we’re not! We just want to find out more because it would be REALLY GREAT if we could say for sure that this is true. Good researchers are doing what we do – asking questions and expecting actual answers. I’d say Pulitzer takes the prize for at least looking like he’s doing pseudoarchaeology while insisting he’s not. He’s got some explaining to do and is getting “cranky”. Just do this whole “changing history” thing in a credible way! That’s all we ask!

While we’re waiting for that, check out Andy White’s post on why SwordGate is important. Fringe archaeology is a big business. Our society MUST be have voices of critical thinking and skepticism who provide the much-needed rational commentary on these sensational stories. Also, see a previous post on why we should speak out about pop pseudoarchaeology.

By the way, the “replica” sword or whatever it is, is on sale at Design Toscano. (You know them, the ones that make that Bigfoot statue for your yard.) Go on and grab one. It’s now even MORE of a conversation piece than it ever was before!

Foundry cast iron replica from the Naples Museum. Paying homage to the craftsmanship and technique of metalsmiths in the Roman Empire, our exclusive museum replica is a rough iron foundry casting like those found in Pompeii. This remarkably heavyweight replica boasts characteristic details, and makes a handsome gift for yourself or anyone who enjoys Roman history or artifacts. (Design Toscano)

UPDATE (22-January 2016) The sword is definitely NOT from Roman times. Metallurgical analysis has shown the Nova Scotia sword touted by Pulitzer is of modern origin. Pulitzer, of zero credibility, disputes it. The end. “I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR!”


  30 comments for “Swords and sophistry: Questionable archaeology to the hilt (UPDATE: Not a Roman sword)

  1. Tom
    January 4, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    I doubt that the forging technique or impurities in the metal would match genuine Roman swords. This should be simple to test.

  2. Andy White
    January 4, 2016 at 3:36 PM

    Indeed. Pulitzer claims they have done that and says that the sword allegedly from Oak Island is an “exact match” to some known Roman artifact(s). He hasn’t released any details, though, and I’m very dubious. He claims there is a “matching,” authentic Roman sword in an Italian museum, but has not shown us an image of it. I (and many other people) have been scouring the internet looking for this “original” sword, but thus far it remains just an assertion. In a nutshell, I think the simplest explanation is that all the brass/bronze Hercules hilt swords floating around out there are probably souvenirs cast from the same mold in the 1800’s (or maybe even more recently). It’s an easy hypothesis to falsify if it’s incorrect. I’m not holding my breath, however.

  3. fredthechemist
    January 4, 2016 at 3:41 PM

    Another problem: a copper or brass sword would be of little use to a Roman, as these are soft metals. A Roman sword would most probably have been of iron (cheap, strong), which would NOT have given a “verdigris” coating; it would have rusted.
    My understanding is that by Roman times earlier bronze swords (which would have given verdigris) had long been supplanted by far cheaper iron ones. The iron age followed the bronze age – especially in weaponry.

  4. Jan
    January 4, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    This is correct. Very very early (from the “legendary” period) Romans would’ve used bronze swords, but the vast majority of historical Roman warriors and soldiers would’ve used iron swords.
    Even as commemorative objects created as rewards for gladiators during Commodus’ time (which is iirc what the owners claim), these have zero precedent.

  5. Kitty Mervine
    January 4, 2016 at 8:19 PM

    The Oak Island show has sadly gone from digging to “what will next be claimed as the treasure!” It is a joke. My husband and I have decided that Amelia Earhart is somewhere on the island. I think a show that would cover how this become such a “story” would be wonderful. The Readers Digest article gets the credit for the recent resurgence, as it should. But, it’s been fun figuring out WHAT NEW THEORY will be advanced. Jimmy Hoffa? Dodo birds? Tasmanian Tigers and the bones of Nessie, you have a theory they will put you on the show!

  6. Steve Collins
    January 4, 2016 at 8:20 PM

    A long time ago I read a Scientific American article about the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. It noted that iron has many deficiencies to bronze when used for tools. It said that the reason “iron” supplanted bronze was that instead of being “iron,” it was steel. Blacksmiths removed carbon from cast iron by repeatedly heating and hammering out the iron to make, say, a sword. The result was that the sword was made of many lamella of steel which made them better than either “iron” or bronze.

  7. Jeff
    January 5, 2016 at 6:39 AM

    Having just the internet, and no cable, has an upside. More reading and less trash.

  8. Hans Moleman
    January 5, 2016 at 9:53 AM

    It’s funny, I came here right after reading an article called “Did Aliens Leave Behind this 2800-Year-Old Nokia” only to see the prediction lead off this article. The only logical conclusion that I can draw from this is that Sharon is actually a time-traveler from the future.

  9. busterggi (Bob Jase)
    January 5, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    Fancy meeting you here!

  10. busterggi (Bob Jase)
    January 5, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    The Treasure Force Commander has claimed it is a ceremonial sword personally awarded to gladiators by the emperor Commodus. Apparently Commodus shops at Linens & Things http://www.lnt.com/product/statues-and-figurines/796131-2448607/sp1086-gladiators-sword-of-pompeii.html.

  11. January 5, 2016 at 9:05 PM

    I started writing that story up and thought, goddamn it’s too stupid. That’s why I quit the day-to-day news as it was!

    I think my apparent “prediction” could be classified as implicit retrocognition, in psi-speak. Oh, nevermind…

  12. Karl
    January 6, 2016 at 1:01 PM

    I hate watch this show with a passion. The only “treasure” they ever found was a old Spanish coin, one you can purchase on ebay for about $20. A plant by the “reality” show producers?


  13. Dolores
    January 6, 2016 at 2:29 PM

    The entire content of the H2 channel? That’s a big target.
    Worst shows on TV (excluding Foxnews):
    Oak Island: I predict they will seek the body of Christ in a cave.
    Ancient Aliens: the eruption of Krakatoa will be shown to have been an alien death ray.
    Finding Bigfoot: using satellite Infrared imaging, the team will show that the streets of Peoria are populated by bipedal primates.

    All “mixed martial concussions” (but at least it’s real).

  14. Loren Petrich
    January 6, 2016 at 11:24 PM

    It’s not impossible that some ancient Romans or even earlier Mediterranean people had reached North America. Pytheas of Massalia had gone far to the north before he had to turn back. But I think that it would be fun to imagine what some ancient voyager would have reported on if he had made it back. Let’s see if any of you can identify these:

    A cross between a mouse and a weasel as big as a small dog, an animal that likes to feign death when it is threatened.

    A hedgehog as big as a small dog with spines in its fur. Removing them from one’s skin can be a painful experience.

    A black-and-white badger that squirts a nasty stink from its rear end if it’s disturbed.

    Big pheasants with naked heads.

    Big herds of wild oxen with the manes of lions that graze in a grassland drained by a river as big as the Nile. (one would have to do a bit more exploring to encounter this)

    The people there grow a strange grain crop which they bake. The grains burst open, making bread.

    So why don’t we see any of that in some ancient account? We see similar sorts of descriptions in St. Brendan’s account, for instance.

  15. Loren Petrich
    January 7, 2016 at 12:35 AM

    I should add another one: venomous snakes with rattles on their tails.

    If my explorers reached the southwest-American desert, they could report on plants with thick leaves that are covered with spines, and a plant that looks like a green tree trunk and that is covered with spines.

    If some explorer did return and write about what I’d mentioned, some of his contemporaries would likely dismiss his account as full of tall tales. That’s what Strabo and some others said about Pytheas, for instance. Herodotus, the “Father of History”, also got called the “Father of Lies”. When a stuffed duckbill platypus reached Britain, it seemed so bizarre that some people thought that it was a hoax, that it was made by stitching together parts of different animals.

  16. Karl
    January 7, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    The show does have a lot of cranks on with their pet “theories”. So I would imagine some crank coming on with a belief the body of Christ or Hitler’s grave can be found on the island is in the near future. We’ve had, what, templars, free masons, Shakespeare, ark of the covenant, and Incas.

  17. Dolores
    January 7, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    You wrote
    “It’s not impossible that some ancient Romans or even earlier Mediterranean people had reached North America. ”
    If you would like to list all of the highly improbable things as “possible” you could certainly generate a lot of programs for the H2 channel.
    Oh wait…that’s already being done.

  18. the14thListener
    January 7, 2016 at 12:36 PM

    Had no idea Linens n Things was still in business online and selling Skymall stuff. The prop sword next to King Arthur’s chalice is much cooler.

    I’m guessing we have a leading (great weasel word, like “fastest-growing”) visionary in marketing, working on the big challenge of convincing us this sword is really from ancient Rome. My theory is already better and more probable than his.

  19. Dolores
    January 7, 2016 at 12:51 PM

    You wrote:
    “If some explorer did return and write about what I’d mentioned, some of his contemporaries would likely dismiss his account as full of tall tales. That’s what Strabo and some others said about Pytheas, for instance. Herodotus, the “Father of History”, also got called the “Father of Lies”. When a stuffed duckbill platypus reached Britain, it seemed so bizarre that some people thought that it was a hoax, that it was made by stitching together parts of different animals.” [end of quote]

    “Some people” think Obama is not a natural born US citizen. Your incomplete anecdotes are among the favorites of “mythozoologists. ”
    I.e. The “reasoning”: If “some people” a century or more ago briefly couldn’t verify a story of an actual animal from an unexplored region, then, today, we should believe in Nessie and Bigfoot, because, you know, Ohio (Bigfoot hot spot) is largely unexplored, and science, travel and communications are just like the days of the discovery of the platypus.

  20. Christine Rose
    January 7, 2016 at 1:31 PM

    Has anyone been able to confirm that there is a similar sword in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli? “Naples Museum” is not a useful designation. It seems that there should have enough attention to this thing to get the attention of someone in Naples who knows. They have a highly significant Herakles statue which is nothing like this at all.

    My suspicion is that if there is such an item, it’s likely not a sword at all but part of a cup or a table. It’s too clunky to be a sword handle, and too symmetric to be a statue or painting.

  21. Ryan
    January 8, 2016 at 12:53 AM

    So far noone has been able to identify a legitimate, authenticated artifact that matches (even roughly) the sword in question. Certainly not cataloged in any museum. And from what I can tell there are a lot of people looking, with inquiries being made directly to multiple museums and professionals in the field asking personal contacts. From what I’ve read there is zero precedent for a sword of this type (cast brass/bronze ceremonial swords as claimed by Pulitzer) in ancient Rome, and some features of the sculpted handle like wise use post-roman design motifs.

  22. Loren Petrich
    January 12, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    Dolores, you state that ancient Roman travelers reaching North America is one of many “highly improbable things”. Do you have reason for supposing that to be the case?

    My case for possibility is based on the voyages of the likes of Pytheas, St. Brendan, and Leif Ericsson. Whether or not that actually happened is another story. There does not seem to be any clear physical evidence of such a visit, and I know of no Greco-Roman accounts of clear evidence of such a visit. Evidence like reports of fauna like venomous snakes with rattles on their tails. Consider that alleged Roman sword mentioned here. It’s far from unambiguous evidence of such a visit.

  23. January 12, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    This is far from over. It continues. http://www.andywhiteanthropology.com/blog/most-of-what-pulitzer-said-about-the-roman-sword-last-night-was-total-bs-heres-why

    Pulitzer rivals David Rountree in the paranormal world for oversized ego and self-aggrandizement.

  24. busterggi (Bob Jase)
    January 12, 2016 at 11:36 AM

    JHP – the Ivan Marx of pseudoarcheology.

  25. Dolores
    January 15, 2016 at 6:25 PM

    Because the reputable historians don’t think it is true. And please, don’t embarrass yourself by referring to Galileo.

  26. DanielWainfleet
    January 17, 2016 at 4:50 PM

    Pulitzer said it was “verified authentic”.By whom? When ? And in what way? I suppose he’d rather not say. Just because it had verdigris doesn’t mean it’s Roman,or even very old.

  27. Richard uk
    January 18, 2016 at 1:41 PM

    I agree…if the Romans had reached America and they,of course, would not have known that they had beat Columbus,thats our simplistic view in hindsight (and you know what they say about hindsight),it would have been recorded in their histories,not just once but many times…this would not have been something to keep quiet about or to pass over as unimportant,but would have been exalted to the further glorification of Rome.

  28. Uncle Ron
    January 22, 2016 at 4:42 PM

    Except that you ADD carbon to iron to make steel. Some of the earliest steel was produced by putting charcoal bits between layers of iron and forging them into a solid piece. When it corrodes the pockets of incompletely fused carbon swell and rupture on the surface giving it the name “blister steel.” Later, iron was broken into small pieces and re-melted in a clay pot producing a more uniform mixture called “crucible steel.” “Cast steel”, a mark found on many tools from the late 18th C through the earliest 20th C is essentially the same thing. Smiths marked their edged tools “cast steel” as an indicator of higher quality.

    The main problem with CAST IRON is that it’s brittle. A sword needs to be tough and have some flexibility. Repeated forging and folding iron using a charcoal fire for heat gives the layers you mentioned and (originally by accident) works in some carbon. This makes the blade flexible and helps it keep an edge. Japanese Samurai swords, with thousands of layers, are the penultimate example of this technique.

  29. Karl
    January 29, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    It was good to see the Curse of Oak Island took the sword to reputable scholars at an excellent university and seemed not to edit scientists too heavily to make it appear they mystery deepened. Pretty much the show had the experts indicate the sword was of modern construction. They didn’t even seem to turn to Pulitzer or some pseudoscientific crank to get “the other side”.

  30. Mark
    February 28, 2016 at 6:55 PM

    What I gather from the article, I can not believe people fall for generalities. When this guy was going around claiming this sword as ancient Roman without any verification or allow any, red flags should have gone up. The same can be said of all those Bigfoot believers that claim that Bigfoot is an ancient giant ape, from another planet, or even from another dimension without asking where is the proof for such a statement.

Comments are closed.