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Sunday 3 March 2024

The Evolving Treasure of Oak Island


(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)

This is basically a sequel to last week's post, about the way certain "fringe" topics evolve and adapt to changing times. There's another link to the previous post too, in the form of Britain's most fortean free-to-air TV channel, Blaze. This is home to Ancient Aliens, which prompted last week's musings, and The Curse of Oak Island, which set me thinking about this one (both shows originated on America's History channel, then came over to the UK's subscription-only Sky History, before ending up on Blaze where cheapskates like myself can enjoy them).

Wikipedia has a fairly substantial entry on the Oak Island mystery, which begins as follows:

The Oak Island mystery is a series of stories of buried treasure and unexplained objects found on or near Oak Island in Nova Scotia. Since the 18th century, attempts have been made to find treasure and artifacts. Theories about artifacts present on the island range from pirate treasure to Shakespearean manuscripts to the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant.

As cool as that sounds, the legend of Oak Island isn't widely known, even in Canada (my cousin in Montreal said she hadn't heard of it until I asked her yesterday). Probably most people who have heard of it did so through the TV show, which is now in its 11th season. In contrast to Ancient Aliens - which is hugely entertaining, but ultimately mostly nonsense - The Curse of Oak Island is a really great show. I can see why some viewers are cynical about it (because it's a TV show first, and a serious archaeological project second) but this really doesn't bother me. I find it fascinating to watch them digging up the island's history even if, treasure-wise, it's mostly all dead ends. On top of that I really like all the participants, who strike me as much nicer people than the cast of most TV shows (several of them remind me of the sort of people I've worked with over the years).

Browsing through various online forums, I get the impression some viewers think the Oak Island "treasure legend" was artificially created for the series, simply because the people behind it own the island and wanted a premise for a reality show. But I was aware of the Oak Island mystery long before the TV series hit the airwaves in 2014. I first encountered it in the 1990s, either in a talk that Lionel Fanthorpe gave at one of the Fortean Times Unconventions, and/or his short-lived but fondly remembered Fortean TV series. It also features in a book I've got by Lionel and his wife, Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars (2005), as well as another book I read around the same time. That was when my then-work colleague (and subsequent co-author on Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail) Paul Jackson lent me his copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island by D'Arcy O'Connor.

So I can vouch for the fact that most of the speculative theories (as well as historical snippets, such as the fact that future US president F D Roosevelt took part in an Oak Island dig in 1909) that crop up in The Curse of Oak Island were around long before the show started. Of course, there's nothing intrinsically fortean about a legend of buried treasure, but what makes Oak Island so fascinating is the sheer number of theories associated with it. While none of these are really far-fetched - nothing paranormal or involving aliens or other dimensions, I mean - several of them are sufficiently fringy to make them interesting. To paraphrase a list from the Fanthorpe book, here are some of the explanations put forward to explain Oak Island's elusive treasure vault:

  • Constructed by the British during the American war of independence to protect their army's payroll;
  • Built by Sir Francis Drake and his men to hide gold they'd seized from the Spanish;
  • Dug by William Kidd or some other pirate in the 17th century;
  • Designed to house precious manuscripts, possibly ones proving the true authorship of the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare;
  • Constructed by ancient Celtic or Norse sea rovers as a burial place for a great chief;
  • Built by the Knights Templar to protect the secret treasures they'd uncovered beneath Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

What jumps out is that some of these theories are more exciting than others. To be specific, the first three (which personally I'd class as boring) could comfortably fit inside the scope of accepted history, while the last three (all of which I find a lot more interesting) are way outside it. Not surprisingly, the TV show gives more prominence to these "exciting" theories - as do the Fanthorpes in their book, where they firmly align with the Templar hypothesis.

The thing that worries me slightly (and the main point I wanted to make in this post) is that the exciting theories came into existence after the boring ones. The earliest speculations and "legends" were solely about pirate treasure (yawn), with no Templars, Celts or lost manuscripts in sight. As the Wikipedia article says:

According to the earliest theory, the pit held a pirate treasure buried by Captain Kidd; Kidd and Henry Avery reportedly took treasure together, and Oak Island was their community bank. Another pirate theory involved Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who said that he buried his treasure "where none but Satan and myself can find it".
So the rational part of my brain tells me that, if there's any truth at all behind the Oak Island treasure, it was probably nothing more dramatic than a pirate hoard. On the other hand, my mystery-loving side insists it could have been the Templars' secret hiding-place for the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, or something equally spectacular!

Half-way through writing this post, I realized it could do with a picture of the two books I mentioned. The only problem was that one of them belongs to Paul Jackson, who lives 60 miles away. But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, he'd taken a photo of it and I'd saved it on my computer within 3 minutes of me asking him for it! So here's Paul's copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island, alongside my copy of Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars:


Kid said...

Perhaps I hid some of the comics on Oak Island that I know I've got but can never find, AM. It would explain everything - except the fact that I've never been to Oak Island. Oh well, no theory is perfect.

Andrew May said...

You never know, Kid - you might be on the right lines there. Perhaps it's Sir Francis Drake's comic collection (or 16th century equivalent thereof). He may have been smart enough to know that some things are far more valuable than Spanish doubloons.

Colin Jones said...

I had to google Blaze as I'd never heard of it but that's not surprising as I rarely watch TV nowadays except for BBC iplayer now and then which I watch on my laptop. I hadn't heard of the Lionel Fanthorpe TV series either but he did something similar on the radio - short documentaries on fortean subjects which pop up every so often on BBC Radio 4-Extra (the digital-only channel which broadcasts BBC programmes from the archives. I'm a regular listener).

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I'd never heard of tha radio show you mention, but I've found it now (The Fanthorpe Inestigations - presumably that's the one you mean) so I'll watch out for any repeats in future. Fortean TV was shown on Channel 4 in the 1990s, but I think that was before you said you first came across the word "fortean", so you wouldn't have had any reason to watch it (as, I'm sure, is true of most of the country's population!).

Like you, I watch very little TV these days (ever since getting broadband internet), but I occasionally scan down the Freeview schedules ... and if you do that then Blaze really jumps out at you for the sheer number of paranormal/UFO/unexplained-themed shows. They're not all especially well-made or entertaining, but besides the two I mentioned in the post, another one I enjoy is called The Proof Is Out There. In contrast to what you might expect from the title, this is really quite sceptical and scientific. They take various viral videos that seemingly show something paranormal or extraterrestrial, and analyse them by varous means - usually ending up showing how they've been faked or misidentified.

Kid said...

I was surprised to be reminded recently that the late Steve Moore, who worked on the Power Comics of the '60s, was a co-founder of Fortean Times. Small world, eh?

Andrew May said...

Yes, that's absolutely right, Kid. I first heard of Steve Moore in the context of Fortean Times, but later learned (possibly through your blog) that he's previously worked on Power Comics, of which I have very fond memories as they were my first introduction to Marvel Comics characters. I get the feeling he was very much a junior gofer at Power Comics, and may have started out in a similar capacity at FT!

Funnily enough, Steve Moore's name came up a couple of times in a Facebook thread about a recent post on this blog (my Fortean "shelfies"). Another memeber of the FT old guard, Mike Dash, mentioned that Steve was the editor of the more serious spin-off "Fortean Studies", as well as manually compiling an index of the first 66 issues of FT. So as you say, it's a small world!

Richard Appledorf said...

I first read about it in the 1960s in Readers' Digest. No mention of Templars back then; just your everyday pirate crew.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Richard - that tends to confirm what I suspected, that what I referred to as the "exciting" theories are relatively recent inventions to cater to changing tastes.

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, you can find 'The Fanthorpe Investigations' on YouTube - each episode is only a few minutes long and YouTube has five in total but I'm not sure how many episodes were broadcast originally on the radio (I think it might have been more than five).

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I'll give them a listen on YouTube later. The BBC Radio 4 Extra site only lists the same 5 episodes, so that's probably all there ever was. Two of the subjects, the Croglin Grange Vampire and the moving coffins of Barbados, were included in one of the talks I saw Lionel give at a Fortean Times Unconvention circa 1997. In fact, if you look back at my own musings on the latter subject on this very blog,, I mention the fact that Lionel used it as a plot element in a pseudonymous SF novel he wrote back in the 1960s. So obviously his interests have remained pretty constant over the years!

Ookie Wonderslug said...

Years and years ago I told them how to get to the treasure. My suggestion was to build a dike around the island and drain it. Then digging down to the treasure would be easy. They took the slower route and found the drains and blocked them. Just know they could have found the answer years ago if it weren't for the tv show.

Andrew May said...

Hmm, yes, but if their main focus is keeping a TV show going season after season, then finding the treasure quickly has probably never been a high priority for them! But you're right that water seepage does seem to be the biggest obstacle to finding anything more than a few metres down on that island.