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.
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!
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!”