Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Olly Steeds, host of Solving History, sits with an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian monk. (Photo: Courtesy Discovery Channel, Wikimedia Commons)

Investigating the Usual Mysteries

Does the Ark of the Covenant exist? Why did the Nazca build geoglyphs? Is El Dorado real? Our latest guide to solving these familiar mysteries is Olly Steeds, an investigative television journalist and host of the Discovery Channel's new series Solving History. Steeds uses archaeological sites, artifacts, and conversations with local people to provide clues. As an archaeologist who appears on PBS's Time Team America, I like the way that Steeds uses experimentation to bring the past alive for the audience. He re-creates a biblically accurate Ark of the Covenant, using two heavy stones to represent the tablets of the Ten Commandments, to see if smuggling the ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where it allegedly resides, was possible.

In many situations, however, Steeds uses pushy tactics to get his story. While trying to sweet-talk his way in to see the Ark of the Covenant, a holy man asks him not to film their conversation. Instead, Steeds places his video camera on the ground and lets it record, while his camera crew hides behind foliage and films the interaction. Occasionally, Steeds's insistent tone on sensitive subjects irritates the scientists he interviews and gets him kicked out of museums and archaeological sites. While investigating Peru's Nazca lines, his crew is not allowed to film at the 2,000-year-old city of Cahuachi. Steeds vents his frustrations by likening the archaeologists to the Italian mafia. He should understand the archaeologists' need for security, especially after he just finished strolling through a recently looted burial ground.

Perhaps the most disturbing scenes to watch were Steeds's candid interviews with looters about their techniques for finding human remains and smuggling antiquities across national borders. Although we often see the destruction they leave behind, we seldom witness looters' complacent demeanor about stealing artifacts and evading capture.

This fast-paced adventure series slows just enough to incorporate valuable interviews with scientists and other experts. Although Steeds is not teaching us anything new about our past or really solving anything, he does ask interesting questions, holds my attention, and keeps me wondering who he might offend next.