Expedition Unknown – Mayan Apocalypse – S01E09

image For this episode, Josh heads down Mexico way to try and undercover some truth about the Mayan Empire and why the civilization simply vanished. You remember the Mayans right? They had that wacky calendar that said we were all going to be obliterated and wiped off the face of the earth in 2012. Well, jokes on them. We’re all still here. The same can’t be said for the Mayan culture itself though. Looks like they were wrong about our demise and their own.

But new evidence has been brought to light which may answer some questions. At the height of the Mayan Empire there were over 4000 cities with a population of over 20 million people. They thrived and were masters of math, astronomy and the land. But then suddenly, they disappeared. Josh heads down to Cancun to get things started.

Before we go anywhere we must contend with a lost bag that has decided to take a side trip to Washington DC. Additionally, we must visit the exciting Dia de los Muertos festival. The people of Mexico embrace the idea of the afterlife and spirit world in quite a festive style. Not to be left out, Josh goes with some decorative face painting and blends in with the crowd. Good thing this didn’t turn into a Mardi Gras style event.

As Josh heads out to the ruins and makes his way into the thick jungles, climbs the pyramids and looks out into the thick undergrowth, there is something missing. Where is the water? What did the Mayans use for drinking and watering their crops? We know corn was a pivotal ingredient, but how did they grow it. Turns out the Mayan cities sit on top of thousands of water filled caverns called "cenote".

Josh is given the opportunity to head down into these caves which have been formed and eroded by rainfall. The clear water caverns are connected by thousand of miles worth of tunnels. It is also believed that these caverns were considered a place of supernatural power where demons and gods lived. This was the entrance to the Underworld itself. In order to keep the gods happy, the Mayans would perform sacrifices to show their devotion. This would include blood sacrifice as well as throwing offerings into the cenote. Strangely, this offering would many times be children. Is it really a good idea to throw people into your own water supply?

We can see evidence of their presence in the underworld by the pottery they left behind. This also means the water level would have been lower during that time.

Josh then heads to Chichen Itza, which has some of the best preserved Mayan structures. The city covers 1000 acres, has ball courts which seem pivotal to the Mayan people as well as sacrificial alters and temples. It is believed the city was built and designed to worship Chaac, the god of rain. The huge city sits on top of a network of cenote. Because of their skill with astronomy, it has been believed the cities were placed in line with the sun, moon and planets. But it is now believed water was equally, if not more important and dictated where the city would be placed.

One of the cenote, Holtun Cenote, has a small opening they can climb through so Josh and his guide head down. Turns out this small opening is actually a doorway to massive cavern. It also appears this cenote has some astrological significance as every May 23, the sun shines directly into the cavern and can illuminate the whole area. This would also line up with the pyramid itself which doesn’t appear to be any sort of coincidence.

As they venture down into the watery depths, they find quite a few items of pottery. But it’s the bones and skulls that really stir things up. Clearly people came down here on a regular basis. These items didn’t wash up here, but were placed by hand. They also discover a "shelf" that has human and animal remains lined up. This appears to be a sacrificial alter. Since people were obviously able to walk to these locations the water level would have been receding. This points to a severe and lasting drought for the Mayans. These sacrifices were an attempt to bring back the rain. Without the rain, the crops would wither and die and people would starve and die of thirst.

It appears the Mayans kept cutting into the forest to expand their empire and clear a places for crops. As they removed more and more of the trees, the rainfall dwindled. As the rain dwindled so did the people. The success and expanse of the Mayan people appear to have been it’s downfall. They were destroying the very thing they needed in order to survive. So as they build more and more, they ended up with less and less. It also seems that throwing bodies into the water and letting them rot didn’t do much good for the sanitation conditions.

As Josh says, perhaps we should look at this as a cautionary tale. We need to strike a balance. As we continue to use up our resources we will soon be at the point where we don’t have enough to sustain ourselves. And as always, this was a fascinating look at the people and culture of our neighbors.

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Expedition Unknown – Beale Ciphers – S01E08

image For this episode, Josh is on the trail of a haul of gold that could be worth more than $65 million. In 1817 a Virginia adventurer named Thomas Beale lead an expedition that found huge plunders of gold and silver. It’s claimed the haul was over 8000 pounds worth of treasure and to keep the treasure safe, Beale devised a way to code three documents that listed the names of the people who found the treasure, the contents and the exact location. These documents were then locked and handed over to an innkeeper for safe keeping with instructions to open the box if Beale never returned. Beale never did return, the box was opened and what they found were the coded messages. These were then handed over to James Ward who then published the coded messages in the Beale documents.

Ward was able to decode and publish the second document which detailed where to start looking for the treasure. He used the Declaration of Independence as his "key". The first letter of each word is given a number and those numbers are listed throughout the page. Josh is hot on the trail and heads down to Virginia to see what he can learn. But first, he needs to make a stop at the world famous Foamhenge, which is a replica of Stonehenge. Say what you will, but it’s really quite lovely.

The center of the search is in Bedford where the Beauford Inn is listed by name in the decoded text. It is believed the treasure is within a 4 mile radius of the Inn. Josh meets up with Mike Evans who has been searching for the treasure and believes it is hidden off an old wagon trail. He uses his trusty plane to try and find a suitable location and then he and Josh head out into the back woods to try and make a discovery. They believe the treasure will be near a waterfall since that is one of the words they’ve been able to decode. With that in mind they search down the river, which turns out to be quite dangerous as the other partner Steve is sucked into quicksand.

Their hopes are raised as they find a horseshoe which would have been from the right time period. This means cargo was shipped through the area. What’s more, they find a coin from the late 1700’s. It seems they might be in the right place and with the right time period in mind. It’s a nice discovery, but they’re not able to come up with any more treasure.

Realizing that James Ward was a member of the Masons, he heads to Philadelphia to see if he can uncover more information. If Ward was a member, did he by chance use any of the Masonic codes or processes for creating his messages. Remember, Washington and Franklin were Masons and were heavily involved in writing in code.

Josh learns the Masons are steeped in codes and that Ward was a member. He may have some of his knowledge to decode the message. But not much more is able to be learned and Josh is back on the trail and meets up with Justin Cannady.

Justin tells the story of an old tin box his family had that broke open one night and revealed a false bottom. Hidden within was an early copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were lots of "drafts" but this one had the initials TJB in the corner and was torn across the top in a peculiar way. Justin believes this tear represents a mountain range. Since there is the Egyptian symbol for water on the back of the document, Justin feels if they find the mountain range, they will be a step closer to finding the treasure.

Justin and Josh head down the river that is within the four mile radius of Beauford Inn to see if anything matches. Oddly, they eventually come across one that might fit the bill. It does appear to be a match to the tears so they head in to investigate. To their surprise, they find a massive cave that could easily contain a huge haul of buried treasure. They repel down and find some evidence that people have been down here before. Josh and Justin discover an old nail and what appears to be the top of a lantern. It’s a huge area, but their search doesn’t reveal any treasure. But it looks like someone was down here at one point so who knows what they will find with more investigation. And what a fantastic discovery on it’s own.

Josh has some nagging questions though. The second document has been decoded, but in the past 100 years no progress has been made on the other two. Why is that? If we have all this massive computing power, shouldn’t we have cracked it by now? Josh heads to the National Cryptologic Museum to meet with Todd Mateer who’s a Cryptanalyst. He developed a program to use the Declaration as the key for the second document. It starts to work, but there are some issues. It doesn’t really line up that well. This means the translation or decoding of the document is inaccurate. In essence the decoded message isn’t really what the document contains.

Mateer takes the first and third documents and does the same analysis using the Declaration. What he finds is that the document has patterns of ABF DEFGH IIJKL MMNOH PP. Mateer believes the first and third ciphers were never meant to be solved. The creator of the first and third documents filled the page with  random numbers. But oddly, these random numbers are from the Declaration going in alphabetical order. This means he went down the list of numbers filling in the alphabet which isn’t a code at all.

So what we have is the person who wrote the code and the person who broke the code are the same person. In this case, that’s James Ward. Based on his findings, Mateer believes the entire Beale legend is a hoax and was put together by James Ward to sell papers. He created this legend, which may have had some basis in fact, and offered the coded letters as proof of buried treasure. He then decoded one cipher and sold his "book" so people could try to solve the other two. There may be no treasure at all and this was dreamed up as a marketing ploy.

Is there treasure or not? It’s strange how some of the clues link together. The map seems to fit. There is a fantastic cave which could easily hold the loot. Josh found the old horseshoe and the old coin. Pure luck or does this point to a bigger treasure waiting to be discovered?

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Expedition Unknown – Captain Morgan’s Lost Gold – S01E07

image Most people would associated Captain Morgan with a rather festive tasting rum, but he was indeed a real person and by many accounts, the most successful privateer in history. And just to make the point, the difference between a pirate and a privateer is that the privateer is actually sponsored, usually by a government while the pirate is in it for the personal gain. Now that we have that distinction made, let’s see what we have going on.

Captain Henry Morgan amassed a large fortune looting gold from Spain. His main area of operation was Panama where the Spanish would load gold and transport it over to Portobello where it would set sail to Spain in Galleons. Morgan’s plan was to seize the city and nab the gold. Morgan was a good commander, but not really a good navigator. During his nautical days he sunk at least three ships. When Morgan decided to take the port of Portobello, he actually landed three miles away and took the city by foot. He held it hostage and declared he would burn it to the ground if he wasn’t paid to leave. Quite an interesting strategy, yet it worked and he was paid to leave the city alone.

This was merely the first stop on his world domination tour and soon he was down the road at San Lorenzo where the stormed the beach and lost five ships. This is where they believe his flagship Satisfaction is believe to have been wrecked. Morgan then flees on foot with his remaining crew and works his way back to Panama City.

The Satisfaction is believed to have gone down with a fortune in treasure on board. It is thought to have hundreds of treasure chests on board. Researchers have found dozens of wrecked ships in the area and are still looking for Morgan’s vessel. As you may expect, Josh hooks up with the team and explores the waters. They have made multiple discoveries of different wrecks and have pulled up a few items of note, including a large treasure chest. They take Josh out and after sweeping back and forth, they find a site worth looking into. They suit up and into the water they go.

It is indeed a wrecked ship, but turns out to be something much more modern than what they are looking for. Oh Josh you naughty tease! But wait, all is not lost. They head to another site and find something much more exciting. There are dozens of encrusted treasure chests lying on the sand floor. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and would be from the right time period as Morgan. They manage to grab a couple of small items including what looks to be a mule shoe. This would be good news as mules would have been used to transport the looted gold.

With air in their tanks running low and a storm looming on the horizon, it’s time to head out and continue in the tracks of Morgan.

Before the Panama Canal was built, Morgan would had to have used a small river which connected the two oceans. It is said he took his crew through this area in order to reach Panama City again. He took a small amount of supplies believing he could beg, borrow or steal what he needed along the way. This didn’t work out so well as he met up with local tribes who were none to willing to part with what they had. Josh speaks with some of the local tribes and their attitude toward Morgan is less than kind. It is said he pillaged, looted, killed, tortured and much worse to the natives he came across. To put it simply, he’s not held in high regard.

Josh keeps on the move and eventually heads back to Panama City. In Morgan’s final raid on the city it is actually set fire and burnt to the ground. Only one building and some rubble remain of the original city. This confirms some of the thinking that he was nothing more than a pirate.

Meanwhile, Josh links back up with the archeology team and their artifacts and help transport them over to a radiology lab where they can be scanned to see the contents. They identify two of the pieces which look to be a mule shoe and the tip of scabbard. The chest is simply too thick for them to get a scan of the contents. I’m sure we’re all thinking they should just take a crowbar to that chest and be done with it, but that’s not how saving artifacts works.

After digging deeper it doesn’t appear these relics are from Morgan or the Satisfaction, but instead from a ship called the Encarnacion which is still a ship from the 17th century and would have been used to explore the Western Hemisphere. Not a ship loaded with gold, but still a ship of historical significance.

So, not quite the treasure chests full of gold we were all hoping for, but an exciting and picturesque adventure nonetheless. Piracy took on many different forms, but it’s hard to argue that there are plenty of sunken ships in the waters of Panama. It’s also clear there is plenty of wreckage to sift through with a lot of that looking like real treasure chests. Do those chests have gold in them? Are they full of plundered trinkets and gems? It’s hard to say what mysteries they contain, but they contain something and with a bit more work and discovery these teams might soon be able to give us an answer.

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Expedition Unknown – Viking Sunstone – S01E06

image Josh is back with an all new adventure and this time it’s to investigate the legend surrounding the ability of the Vikings to navigate the seas with nearly pinpoint accuracy hundreds of years before the invention of the magnetic compass. How were they able to travel such vast distances when the sun was hidden from view by the clouds or had disappeared from the horizon? Legend has it that King Olaf used a sunstone, a crystal with mysterious properties that allowed him locate the sun regardless of where it was.

Josh heads off to Alderney to the site where a sunstone was found in a shipwreck. It may be where the actually sunstone of King Olaf was found. It’s not long before Josh is out on the sea to visit the wreck site. They only have a few minutes to look around as the tide is quite vicious. Down at the bottom are the remains of a large boat complete with cannons. There is a lot to see and take in, but time is short and alas, no sunstone.

Of course you can’t go travelling without taking in the local cuisine which appears to be many forms of herring. Oh yeah, and there’s some beer. Five kinds of herring on the same plate seems a touch excessive if you asked me, but the rotting fish dish might be just a little over the top. But you at least have to try these things.

But not to be discouraged, Josh is off to Trondheim, Norway where Olaf set in motion an absolutely fantastic cathedral which is still under construction hundreds of years later. It is said that Olaf’s remains are buried under the church, but because there are so many tombs down there, they have no idea which one is his. Josh heads down to have a look and it’s a massive catacomb with tunnels leading out in all directions. It’s exactly what you’d expect, dark, creepy and loaded with skeletons.

They end up at the crypt where it’s believed Olaf is entombed, but all they can do is pay respects as there is no intention of disturbing any of the bodies. There is also rumor that Olaf’s original sunstone is buried with him. Clearly, they’re not going to get it back.

With that in mind, it’s off to Oslo to actually mine for sunstone. Turns out it’s a form of calcite crystal and there just happens to be a mine Josh can visit. And like all mine’s Josh end up in, this one is scary and full of perils. Josh makes an amazing but utterly frightening descent down. He uses an "elevator" that is a couple hundred years old and then repels down some sheer drops to get to the crystals he’s looking for. And with the gentle tap of the hammer, his guide Christian removes a fine piece of crystal.

Josh takes this to a man named "Guida" who is a master craftsman and can most likely build the Twilight Board and Shadow Stick that are needed in conjunction with the sunstone to help with navigation. These other two pieces help point the way once the sunstone is able to find the sun.

The man is an imposing figure, but his Viking Hall is a amazing and his skills are nothing short of impressive. After getting Josh dressed accordingly and showing off some of the Viking skills such as archery, he sets to work to make the board and stick. Within a few minutes he has both complete and they are exact replicas of the blueprints he was given. And no, there were no mechanical tools used in the making of the board.

They all agree to try out the process and head aboard a replica Viking ship under extremely cloudy conditions. The story goes that the crystal will show 2 images and you turn it so the images line up. You take two readings and the intersection points the way to the sun. From there you take the twilight board and shadow stick which give you an actual direction. Amazingly, they’re able to get a reading and point a direction for North. The pull out a magnetic compass to check their work and the 2 directions are almost identical. Since Josh isn’t know for his maritime skills, we’ll allow for a margin of error.

So how cool is that? Using these simple devices they were able to locate the sun and point themselves in the proper direction. And all of these tools and technologies are hundreds of years old. Sure, it might be a little slower than GPS, but you have to marvel at the use of it. This now proves the stone is not only real, but worked exactly as the legend said it did. The Vikings were able to navigate in a far superior way during that time. Sometimes the simple ways are best.

There you have it, sometimes you can prove a myth. And even if he didn’t the scenery, the food and the people were certainly worth the trip.

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