In its second episode, seeking the source of ancient ruins, the series hands over the reins to a consultant… problems ensue
In this ongoing series for the Retroist, I’m reviewing every episode of In Search Of. For the background on this project, have a look at the first installment.
Air Date: April 24, 1977
Alan Landsburg Productions
Story: Hans Holzer
Written Narration: Hans Holzer and Robert L. Long
Produced: Hans Holzer
Directed: not identified
Photography: Paul Desatoff, Jeri Sopanen
Music: Laurin Rinder and W. Michael Lewis
Researchers: Herb Rabinowitz, Jeanne Russo
Acknowledgments: Robert E. Stone and staff of Mystery Hill ; Geochron Labs
A key detail attentive viewers note regarding In Search Of, episode two, is that Hans Holzer, the story’s primary source, is also the writer and producer. I’ll return to this detail again, later in this article. A director’s credit is absent in this episode.
The teaser opens on blue waters, both above and below, where rock formations ripple in the currents. Leonard Nimoy, the series narrator, says we are looking at the walls of a once-great city whose architects left it and “took root in a new land.” Who built it? And why?
Dissolve to a field. In a reenactment, a loincloth-clad human is building a wall of his own. Men like this one, Nimoy says, built what is now known as Mystery Hill, in New Hampshire. Who built Mystery Hill and for what reasons?
Following the theme music and credits, we are promised new evidence suggesting America was colonized long before the birth of Christ.
The stone walls of Mystery Hill are located near Salem, New Hampshire. Its walls, and lanes between them, form a fairly elaborate complex. Seventeenth-Century colonists first found them, says Nimoy, and now, 300 years later, investigators have begun to solve the mystery surrounding their origin.
Walking among the stone lanes are two men – Robert Stone, a Bostonian who bought the land to preserve it, and Hans Holzer, a professor, a “noted author, and a student of antiquity.” He will attempt to answer the questions surrounding Mystery Hill’s origins.
But first, who didn’t build Mystery Hill?
Nimoy says that New Hampshire’s tribes did not build with stone. Dismissed, in turn, follow a number of other possibilities regarding the place’s construction: Southwestern tribes; the makers of Wyoming’s Medicine Wheel stone calendar; and European explorers of the 10th-15th centuries.
Moving to a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, scientists tests charcoal material found wedged into the rocks of Mystery Hill. The charcoal dates back some 3,000 years.
Enter Osborne Hill, cousin of Robert and curator at Mystery Hill, who shows Holzer features of the site that correspond with astronomical events – monoliths that mark sunrises and sunsets across the year. Druids erected similar monoliths, and grooved stone slabs found at Mystery Hill suggest sacrificial surfaces. But then, did Colonial settler bring old gods with them in those early days?
Rather than either option, Holzer points to an oracle chamber – a primary pointer to Mystery Hill’s origins. He believes the sacred grotto, complete with speaking tubes, echoes similar sites constructed long ago by Mediterranean cultures. Holzer visits Barry Fell, described as a Harvard archaeologist. Fell is controversial among his peers because he maintains the inscriptions at Mystery Hill are those of the Minoans, descendants of the Phoenicians, founders of Knossos, capital of Crete. Minoan sailors, he suggests, were first blown off course, finding the Americas by accident, and then started navigating to the new land with settlers’ intentions. The prompt to migrate, Nimoy narrates, could have been a period of earthquakes in the area of Knossos, circa 1600 BC.
Back at Mystery Hill, Holzer and Osborne consider a carved stone – the inscriptions resembling a letter G – and Holzer says the stone is without question the product of a carver who knew the ancient Phoenician language and the Minoan culture.
“Everything feels right and seems to fit,” Nimoy intones. The masonry and layout of Mystery Hill are similar to Knossos; the lab carbon-dating puts the site in a pre-Christian timeframe, and another rock feature – a long, curved shape on one stone, briefly pointed out earlier in the episode – seems to suggest the hull of a boat.
While skeptics may object, says Nimoy, the solution is part of a growing consensus among experts. The conclusion of the episode places the Minoans within a continuum of other early visitors to the continent.
Developments? Debunked? Debate?
Contemporary readers can visit Mystery Hill in New Hampshire; it’s open year round under the moniker America’s Stonehenge. The site is still the subject, in recent years, of newspaper features and blogs.
That being said, Mystery Hill is apparently a mess, archaeologically speaking, according to recent reports. Quarry marks on the stones date to the Nineteenth Century (one theory is that the site is the 1823 homestead of a New Hampshire shoemaker), and owners in the 1930s altered the site at least once. The consensus suggested at the end of the episode has not, it seems, come to pass.
Additionally, most of the principals depicted in the episode warrant some contextualization.
Hans Holzer: Though he titles himself “noted author, and a student of antiquity,” Holzer was primarily a ghost-hunter. He achieved some notoriety in the late 1970s thanks to investigations and writings about the Long Island house that inspired The Amityville Horror movies and books. Holzer died in 2009.
Robert Stone: After leasing the Mystery Hill circa 1958 (buying it in 1965), Robert Stone’s work at the site persisted for years. He passed away in 2009. Dennis Stone, his son, now owns the operation.
Barry Fell: A professor of invertebrate zoology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Fell’s theories about pre-Columbian visitors to the Americas were seldom well-received by colleagues and archaeologists during his lifetime. Fell published several books on the subject. He died in 1994.
As for the carbon-dating in the episode, it was conducted by Geochron Labs, which is still in business. One might consider, however, and it has been noted elsewhere, that the tracing of charcoal to a timeframe of several thousand years ago speaks only to the age of that specific sample, and not to the stones and materials around it. In other words, old and new things can get mixed together over time in the wilderness.
The Takeaway: ‘Strange Visitors’
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Hans Holzer was a consultant to In Search Of. In the case of episode two, he was much more than a consultant – he steered the whole ship, in large part, writing and producing.
The resulting take on Mystery Hill is a bit of let down, especially when it veers into defensive territory at the end – “skeptics abound in every culture,” Nimoy reads, adding that many will find it hard to believe the implications of the research and carbon dating. But in the late summer of 1976, we are told, two distinguished researchers have joined the ranks of a growing movement that supports pre-Columbian Mediterranean explorers on the continent.
It is defensive territory occupied by Holzer himself, of course, and by Fell – or Holzer has assigned Fell to it – and while both men were evidently serious about their beliefs, neither were “distinguished researchers” in the field of archaeology. This is problematic. For example, it’s disingenuous to introduce Fell as a “Harvard archaeologist” in the narration. Truth is, he was a zoologist with an avocation in archaeology and most academics found his conclusions dubious.
All this in mind, the disclaimer at the start of the show does do its intended job – i.e. In Search Of doesn’t claim it’s presenting final answers to the mysteries it presents – even if it has to work overtime in this case. Meanwhile, Desatoff’s photography (joined by Sopanen, this time) creates a signature look for the show: it’s moody, full of shadow and atmospheric textures.
And, finally, one can’t help but think Nimoy has a bit of a twinkle in his eye when he says a penultimate line regarding future explorers to the stars…
Next Up: ‘Ancient Aviators’ digs into what mysterious designs on the ground in Peru could reveal about extraterrestrial contact in long-ago times.
*Episode Credits/Air Date Sources: in-video credits and IMDB.Com