Solving History with Olly Steeds - first two episodes - Spoilers

I don’t see this discussed yet, so I’ll bring it up.

Discovery Channel has a new show, Solving History with Olly Steeds. Olly Steeds is a British “journalist and explorer” who is “on a mission of a lifetime to solve the strangest, the most controversial mysteries of all time. I’m looking for hard evidence: facts, proof, that inside every myth, there’s a truth waiting to be told.”

Okay, so the premise is interesting - take historical mysteries and try to solve them using facts. So the question is, can he pull it off?

The first episode was about the Ark of the Covenant - what happened to it when the Romans sacked the temple in Jerusalem? Legend has it that it was smuggled out of Jerusalem through cave tunnels, transported through Egypt and then down to Ethiopia, where it currently is kept in a church in Ethiopia and guarded by a priest. The Ethiopian Christian Church holds that as a fact and tenet of their faith.

I watched it, and he was hard pressed to come up with facts. He demonstrated that motivated priests could have smuggled heavy, bulky objects out through the tunnels - assuming they could disassemble the Ark, which he said was true. He got Bedoins to escort him through the desert and talked about how they might have helped the priests. He found a temple in Egypt that contained artifacts that suggests the Ark was taken there, and then he went to Ethiopia. Unfortunately, nobody can get in to the church to see the Ark. It’s too holy. What he ended up with was an unconfirmed story and suggestive but inconclusive evidence.

Okay, so the first episode was intriguing but disappointing. What’s really bugging me is episode 2. This time, it’s about the Nazca lines - huge geomorphs in the Peruvian desert that show lines and animal shapes traced in the desert floor that are meaningless from ground level and only become visible from aircraft flying overhead.

He starts by addressing a historically proposed explanation - that they are star charts and astronomical connections. Although one of the lines does line up at solstices, he tries to demonstrate the other claims don’t hold. So he goes out at night, then uses his computer to overlay the geoglyph patterns over the constellation maps to show they don’t match. Well, his couple of seconds of fiddling around doesn’t convince me of anything, though he does claim that they’ve been given more extensive study by astronomers who have proven there’s no connection. Okay, great, but your little bit of TV was worthless. It wasn’t even good drama.

His second potential explanation is that aliens did it. Yep, aliens. And he gets Luis Vasquez, Professor of English and Law there in Peru (no affiliation stated) to put forth that idea and say he beliefs it. (Yes, even he admits that “as a researcher, I cannot prove it”, but he still suspects that UFOs are “not of this planet”.) So how does Olly address this? He falls back on “I cannot prove a negative” and mentions Santa and the Easter Bunny, then comments that basically it is a disrespectful “theory” because it assumes the ancient Peruvians were unable to build the geomorphs on their own. Yet the lines are just marks in the desert floor, made by scraping the dark surface rocks aside to expose the lighter dirt underneath (and demonstrated for us). It just takes simple tools like ropes on stakes, plumb bobs, sight lines, etc, to mark out the very elaborate shapes. Basically it is crop circles in dirt (which he didn’t say but I am).

Okay, while I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusions, I fail to see the “hard evidence” and “facts”. True, the burden is on the UFO believers to prove their assertion, but he doesn’t actually say that - which he should!

He then explores the idea put forth that the lines are maps to water sources, which was proposed by … a dowser. Now the concept that the geoglyphs mark the routes to water sources isn’t ridiculous, but the idea is proposed because a dowser claims he finds indications of water because of the lines. Right.

So what does Olly do to test this “theory”? He gets a real life dowser so he can “test” whether there is something to dowsing or not. Okay, how does he test him? He finds a spot with two aquifers and the lines marking the water connecting them, so we know where water exists, then standing a dozen yards away, puts a blindfold on the dowser and has him walk forward. Amazingly, the rods cross when the dowser gets to the white lines! :rolleyes: So what is Olly’s conclusion? “Senior Willie did prove that dowsing does actually work, so there must be something in Johnson’s theory.” :rolleyes::mad:

Well, geologists have tested it out and although a few do point toward water sources, the majority do not. So in the end he discounts the theory, even though he “proved” dowsing works.

At this point, his credibility is very low. Now he starts trying to explore the archealogical evidence of who the Nazca were. He takes us to a grave site, but the problem is that looters are finding and destroying the sites faster than the scientists can salvage them. He ends up interviewing two grave robbers on camera (wearing masks). They’re just an old farmer couple who sell the artifacts and bones. The sad part is that the answers to the Nazca mysteries are being destroyed by greedy artifact hunters and collectors.

So he takes us to one big archeological find, and tries to get permission to look around (supposedly arranged in advance), but is declined. Fortunately he does get to talk with an archeologist who is present to answer questions. That guy explains that the remains are not the site of a city or marketplace or administration center, but rather bear indications of being a religious and ceremonial center, a site for religious pilgrimages and big ceremonies.

So because he can’t get into the Nazca site, he goes to a nearby (okay, couple hundred miles) site of a different religious center, a so-called “real life temple of doom”. It consists of a giant stone-built temple full of miles of winding corridors that were apparently used for religious indoctrination. The initiate would likely be dosed with a hallucinagenic compound (san pedro cactus is a local plant that is a very potent source of mezcaline - it incites disoreintation and terror) and sent through the maze that culminates in a giant statue of a major god.

So now we get to the next unbelievable event. There’s a pit full of pottery shards. So the archeologist talks about their thinking that the ritual included breaking a jar of the liquid in the pit. And then, he proceeds to take a jar and throw it into the pit! That’s right, he’s at an active archeological site and throws a clay jar into the site feature to demonstrate that it breaks. WTF?

Then they talk about the san pedro experience, and Olly asks him if he tried it, which he says yes. The idea being that if one really wants to understand the kind of experience they had, one needs to actually experience what the drug does. So he describes his experience as “I didn’t vomit; it was my mistake.”

Therefore, Olly decides in order to solve the mystery of the Nazca lines, he is going to go take part in a ceremony and take san pedro. So he lines up a shaman and participates in a ceremony, and takes the drug. Apparently the mixture is slimy “snotlike”. Reporst talk about recurring visual patterns - stripes, checkerboards, a world that looks like a painting by Pablo Picasso. He reports bright lights shooting across the sky, a sky filled with colors and patterns. And he has a bunch of random, disconnected memories. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really give him any insight, but does give him a feeling of connection with his surroundings.

Finally he returns to the Nazca site, and finds out the site there also showed ritually broken pots and other offerings. Then that archeologist smashes a pot on the lines! And Olly drops one and they compare the results of dropping vs throwing. At this point he mentions they are reproduction pots. Okay, at least they’re not destroying actual artifacts, but I can’t help but wince. But I think they weren’t on one of the original lines, because when they go out to walk one, they have to put on weird shoe contraptions to protect the site. So I think they were just in a spot in the desert, not one of the actual lines.

Finally, they show the results of a German team’s study that showed that the dirt under the lines is far more compacted than the surrounding dirt. It is believed it was compacted by the soles of feet as the religious worshippers walked the lines as a religious procession. In other words, the lines weren’t made to be seen from above, they were made to be walked as part of the ceremony. Religious processions are a major component of beliefs everywhere, so this makes sense and it fits.

So that’s how the show wraps up - the solution to the reason for the lines appears to be as ceremonial procession paths for the people to walk as part of their rituals.

So what is my take away? Well, I don’t feel like Olly is really involved all that much in actual solving - he’s mostly interviewing others and reenacting bits to make drama for TV. They occasionally use CGI to enhance scenes when trying to imagine what a structure looked like or some artifact or such. This is probably the wave of the future for archeological programs, helping audiences see what is proposed. I don’t mind that so much. But I’m frustrated by the bits that seem more “make a TV show” than actually explore the truth. Like showing a UFO hovering over the Nazca site and Olly while he’s discussing that idea. Or the pot breaking. Or the supposed dowsing test. I think things like that are actually detrimental to the idea of finding the truth. When he pronounces the conclusion “we’ve proven dowsing works”, he’s not doing anything useful to finding the reasons for the Nazca lines, and he’s giving ammo to the woo crowd because he isn’t an investigator and doesn’t realize his “proof” is anything but.

I’ll probably watch a few more episodes and see where it goes, but overall I’m not thrilled with the show.

Also, let’s keep this thread to the first two episodes, shall we? I’m not sure spoilers are that big a concern on this show (as opposed to plot driven ones), but it will simplify things to limit the discussion a bit.

Irish, if you can get through 2 or 3 more episodes, you have more fortitude than I!

I was unimpressed by the first ep and only made it as far as the dowsing fiasco in the second before hitting ‘delete timer’ on my dvr…


How many amateur archaeologists are going to go to Ethiopia, claim that that’s where the ark is, and act as if it’s some new, never-before-thought-of theory?

I’ve never heard that version before. The version I heard was when the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, traditionally King Menelik I of Ethiopia, decide to return to his maternal homeland with an entourage. However, the entourage didn’t want to be away from the Ark. So, they made a replica and took the real Ark with them.