Friday, December 26, 2014

America Unearthed: Montezuma's Gold (review/commentary)

Once again, Scott Wolter, forensic geologist and host of America Unearthed, is venturing into the territory of the Mesoamericans, so once again I shall dissect the episode for you and add my own special brand of commentary.  Enjoy.
This episode, "Montezuma's Gold" originally aired November 29, 2014.  For now, the full episode is at the H2 page.
It begins with the delivery of a mysterious map with the note "Please put this to good use" and a computer chip.  It looks like the same map used in a previous episode about pyramids in Wisconsin (see my review of that episode).  In the package is also a crude lump of gold that looks like a child's version of something Aztec, with Freddie Crystal written on the back.  The chip has a picture of the map with a glyph drawn across it.
After the intro, Scott is scuba diving in a lake in Utah, looking for Montezuma's treasure. He helpfully explains that Montezuma was "that guy who led the Aztecs" and that he's most famous for "Montezuma's revenge." 
I will not even dignify that with a comment.
The map package apparently led him to this lake.  He admits to having seen the map before (ha!  nailed that!), the "Disturnell Map" (large size image).
Disturnell Map of 1847, from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Scott reminisces about the search for the underwater pyramids and says he's not done with the Aztecs, and explains how they came from the north, from Aztlan, and how this map places Aztlan in the Four Corners region where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.  (Too bad archeologists don't know about this!)  On this version of Scott's map, someone has hand-written "Montezuma's curse" over Utah.
Scott heads to "the middle of the Utah desert" to meet with Lois Brown, a journalist who coincidentally has written a whole book called Cursed Gold (imagine that).  She explains that Freddie Crystal showed up 100 years ago in Kanab, Utah with a mysterious map.  (Are maps ever not mysterious on this show?)  They are meeting in the place supposedly depicted on Freddie Crystal's map.
Scott's narration helpfully explains how the Aztecs were the "largest empire in South America" (you probably heard me yelling at the television from wherever you are at that stinker), and how Cortés "found" all kinds of gold there. (Yes, in the Aztecs' treasury...following in the footsteps of Columbus "discovering" land where people already had lived for thousands of years.)  When "war broke out" between the Spanish and Aztecs (he makes it sound mystifying... how did that ever happen?), all that treasure "just disappeared."

I have to stop here.  It didn't just vanish.  The Spanish were taking it away, running away, on La Noche Triste (June 30, 1520) after the death of Moctezuma II, who was being held prisoner by the Spanish.  The Spanish were greedy, the gold was heavy, the Aztecs had removed all the bridges from the causeways' canals.  The Spanish dumped much of the gold into Lake Tenochtitlan as they fled, where presumably it sank into the ooze.  Later, when Cortés razed Tenochtitlan, the rubble was used to enlarge the island and covered the areas where the causeways and canals once were.  Theoretically, that treasure is all buried somewhere deep under present-day Mexico City.  (You can search for La Noche Triste to read all about that sad night.)

Immediately the show goes back to Freddie Crystal, who somehow believed the Aztecs left Tenochtitlan carrying the treasure after Cortés destroyed their entire civilization and way of life and enslaved or killed 80% or more of them.  
I know there are theories that Moctezuma's (the more correct spelling) successor had the sunken (buried) treasure taken up from the lake bottom, but since they pretty much immediately went to war, I don't see how they had time, or if they did, where they could have hidden it that Cortés wouldn't have found it while destroying the city shortly after.  Would they have given up the manpower to carry that immense amount of treasure far away in the middle of a huge war?  
Apparently Freddie Crystal's maps came from somewhere in Mexico.  He, and his (mysterious) maps disappeared (mysteriously) in 1922.  Whenever anyone tries to search for the treasure in this area of Utah "bad things happen to them" according to the journalist, including cave divers being attacked apparently by ghosts.  A CURSE.
The journalist explains that the Aztecs (leaderless at this point, remember) had somehow rallied, extracted the treasure and sent it off with 2,000 slaves carrying it and an escort of warriors (without Cortés or anyone else noticing!) to hide it.
Several moments of simple research reveals that the new Aztec leader Cuauhtemoc, cousin to Moctezuma and son of Ahuitzotl (the ruler before Moctezuma), was actually tortured by the Spanish in an effort to find out what he had done with the lost treasure.  Eventually he was executed, without ever saying that he knew where the treasure was.  Why did he not admit "2000 slaves plus a band of warriors took it north but I don't know to where?" instead of insisting it was still in the lake even as the Spanish stuck his bare feet into the fire?
Scott and his journalist friend revel in the Aztec's reputation for sacrificing people, and say that the 2,000 slaves and most of the warriors would have been sacrificed to "guard" the treasure.  
Usually people were sacrificed to gods, not just randomly murdered on a whim and I don't think the Aztec concept of the afterlife would have matched up with the idea of guardian ghosts.
The journalist insists she doesn't believe in curses, however, and her and Scott head right into the caves, which Freddie found "walled up" and 1,000 townspeople tore down the wall and found the caves filled with sand.
Two thousand plus skeletons of dead Aztec slaves and warriors were not found when the sand was removed.
Scott does his geologist thing and says the sandstone caves were definitely excavated deliberately.
Well, Native Americans lived in that area for thousands of years, who is to say it wasn't them who dug out that cave and not Aztecs from 1500 miles away?  But of course the caves are on government land and Scott isn't allowed inside to really look around.
Somehow Scott manages to decide, on the basis of a peek inside the forbidden (CURSED) cave, that "it makes the most sense" to him that the Aztecs dug out the cave and "all the evidence" (what evidence!?) points to the Aztecs.
When Lois explains that Freddie Crystal only found a few "bones and beads" in the cave, Scott changes his story.  This cave, he says, was SUPPOSED to be the final resting place of the treasure, but something happened.  (A CURSE!?)  The plan was changed.  The treasure was moved!  But to where!?
(Normally I do not use so many interrobangs [!?] when I write, but the breathless nature of these programs just brings them out in me.)
Scott shows the journalist the "petroglyph" that was drawn across his map--a circle with a straight line through it.  She says immediately that she's seen it before, drawn near a (CURSED) cave where scuba divers were attacked by ghosts.
Water Glyphs, drawn by Paul Jones
Again, a few scant moments of research brought me many results about "water glyphs" with the explanation that they are found all over the American Southwest.

So it makes perfect sense to me that a glyph pointing to water would be found near a cave full of water.
Somehow, the revelation that a water glyph was found near a cave leads Scott right back to the treasure, and the fact there is undoubtedly a connection between the U.S. and the ancient Aztecs.
I don't know why he can't understand that there was no United States when the Aztecs were around.  It was just land to the north.  It wasn't magical.  Even if Aztlan was in the U.S. it still wouldn't be mysterious.  It seems evident from the serpent worship in the Mississippi area and the distribution of trade goods through both lands that there was contact between people in what is now the US and people in what is now Mexico in pre-columbian times, and why would that be weird? 
Scott keep mentioned "evidence" that the treasure was hid in that cave system.  What evidence?  Where are the bones, the beads?  Have they been proven to be Aztec in origin?  (There's a test they can do on bones to tell where the person grew up by isotope analysis. You'd think a geologist would know about isotopes in soil and rock.)
Scott then meets with Steve Shaffer, who wrote something called "voices of the ancients," who said he named that special, unique symbol (the common water glyph) the Key because it's the "key to Montezuma's treasure." Scott says perhaps the symbols are "several hundred years" old or (gasp) "even Native American." 
Really.  Petroglyphs in the Southwest being Native American?  Who would have guessed.
But Steve said he asked "some" Native Americans who said they didn't know anything about the symbols. 
So the symbols aren't Native American?  And of course, Aztecs aren't Native American either, because only First People of the U.S. can be called that. 
The two men spend some time looking at photos of various water glyphs.  Scott sort of explains something called the Latitude Exercise saying that's what the glyphs really mean. 
I could not find anything actually called that, that involves a hole, a circle, and a line as he described.  I don't know if the Aztecs used any concept like latitude on their maps.  But if they did use the circle, line, and hole method to calculate distances, certainly some of those glyphs would have been found in Mexico as well as the Four Corners area?  Why would they invent something to tell them where they are just to use for that journey and not use it again anywhere else? 
Steve says one of the glyphs was near a burial of 3 skeletons, all buried in the fetal position with broken-off feet.  Scott explains that the Aztec underworld was called Mictlan and it was very dark there and that's why Aztecs buried their dead in the fetal position so those skeletons MUST be Aztecs.  (I don't follow that reasoning either.)
Because no one else ever buried their dead like that.  Brief research, again, shows that many Native American tribes buried their dead in the fetal position, as did Neanderthals in Europe.
Of course, the three skeletons are "gone" and whether they were ever examined or documented professionally isn't stated.  Scott goes right back to "ritual sacrifice" and clearly those three skeletons were Aztec sacrifices!   Steve tells Scott that there's a cave with the water glyph "painted" on the ceiling and in that cave is where the treasure is.
Three Lakes Ranch is the location of this mysterious cave and, according to Scott, is also Aztlan (where the Aztecs came from originally).  And Montezuma (as Scott calls him) sent the gold there. 
Even though Moctezuma died right before the Spanish took off with the treasure and lost it in the lake and presumably Cuauhtemoc later hauled it out...Or not? 
Lon Child, the owner of the Three Lakes Ranch, says his father discovered in 1990 that the Aztecs liked to hide their treasure in "water traps."
The only mention online of Aztec water traps and treasure is on the various sites about the gold being on this guy's land.  I wonder what he charges treasure hunters for access?
Since the lake on the property is exactly 35 feet deep, and that's the depth of an Aztec water trap, clearly this was a Aztec-made lake, so his father bought all the land.  They dove on it, and immediately ghosts started attacking the divers and now all these years later the divers refuse to admit they ever dived there because of the CURSE.  Child Senior evidently did a good job of spreading around the idea that he owned the land where the Aztec treasure was, but because of the CURSE no one could get to it.
Child Senior used GPR (ground penetrating radar) and found the land near the lake had caverns and voids.   Here's where Scott could have used his much-vaunted geology creds and explained why limestone would be riddled with voids where there is also water, but he did not.  Child Senior had a well-digger come and amazingly there was some gold on the drill bit! 
There are gold mines in the Four Corners area, so finding gold shouldn't be a shock.  Again, something a Forensic Geologist should know.
So the well-digger came out with a bigger bit and drilled deeper but the bit broke.  The digger died that night, cursed!
Apparently no other digger would ever come out!  If I thought there was a billion dollars in treasure in my yard, I wouldn't give up on trying to get it out of the ground.  I'd call every well digger in the phone book and on the internet.
Scott says he'll drill and Child says NO you'll die, CURSED, but you can dive the pond and go into the Aztec 35-foot classic water trap.
Honestly the water trap thing sounds like something from Oak Island, or Indiana Jones, or even someone's AD&D campaign.
Scott says earnestly that since the "Aztec homeland was built on a swamp" they would be great at water engineering and hence making water traps.
I thought their homeland was Aztlan, in the Four Corners?  Does he mean Tenochtitlan, their capital city, built on an island in a lake?
Scott decides to send in an ROV to look at all the underwater tunnels because he thinks they are connected to the other cave he already looked at and therefore the treasure is there, even though he already said the treasure was moved from there.
Of course it's time for another bit of product placement for Scott's friend's ROV company. 
I have to laugh because it's unsafe for divers because of the CURSE so who is filming the ROV as it swims around?
Scott is amazed and confused that there's sediment at the bottom of the lake.  He is the worse geologist ever.  He can't see through the ROV camera because of the sediment so... into the lake go the people!  Because if there is sediment in the lake, there must be treasure! 
Just like how dead bodies grow insects through spontaneous generation, so does treasure hidden underwater generate sediment.  You learn something new every day, right?
Once under the water, Scott is baffled again because "it's pitch black" in the cave!  And the entrance is too narrow for a person.  And again, the SILT. 
Silt=curse apparently.
Now comes the dredging.  Looks like when I clean my pond filter.  Then the hose won't work, the "damn thing."  The Aztec's "water trap is a damn good one," Scott says.  So he's going to drain the lake!  But no, the AMBERSNAIL is endangered and lives only there and hurting one snail is a $50,000 fine. 
Maybe they should have known that from the beginning before they starting flinging around equipment!?
Scott remembers that he is a geologist and decides to test the mortar of some blocks pulled from the lake...and it's modern.  He wants "to drill but the land owner won't let" him because of the CURSE.  He concludes that the treasure is there but he can't prove it.

I have always taken a weird kind of comfort in the fact that all the treasure was still down there, under 500+ years of lake silt, debris, and Mexico City, waiting forever.  I'm going to keep that view, even after watching this show.
(Image sources: map; water glyphs; map