“The potential fallout from sensationalized, unscientific programming could be very negative,” cautioned Scott Ashcraft, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service in the region and an expert on rock art.
Ashcraft’s words of caution were not alone. Jackson County officials received multiple requests to deny the filming.
According to the official legend of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Judaculla Rock — an elaborate petroglyph in Cullowhee — is a warning. Legend holds that the petroglyph is the handiwork of a mythological giant, Judaculla, who also made lightening and thunder.
The soapstone boulder was easy to carve, but also easily eroded, so the inscriptions have worn away over the centuries. Archaeologists have concluded the markings on the rock were made over a period of many centuries, some time between 1,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.
But there are also other theories. Wild theories. There are claims of mystical powers, ancient secret codes, paranormal activity and even alien origins.
“Already, some groups have placed online absurdities about Judaculla and the Rock, encouraging visits to the Rock by some weird or unstable folks,” Keith Parker, whose family owned the Judaculla rock site for decades, wrote in an email to the county.
Critics of the cable program “American Unearthed” say it is prone to sensational, pseudo-science conspiracy theories. It has an audience of 1 million viewers, with a prime time slot of 9 p.m. on Saturday nights on History Channel 2.
“America Unearthed” purports to investigate alternative versions of history and portrays the host as a “real-life Indiana Jones.” Episodes have aired on subjects like underwater Aztec pyramids in Wisconsin, Southwest petroglyphs holding the key to Biblical artifacts’ final resting places, and secret societies behind events in American history.
The county has owned the one-acre Judaculla site since the 1960s, giving the county power to approve or deny the filming request. County Manager Chuck Wooten ultimately approved the filming application last week, although it was a difficult decision, he said.
“I was in a bind, to be honest,” Wooten said.
Opposition to the show came at the 11th hour. The film crew already had their wheels in motion. Wooten felt uncomfortable changing course and denying the permit.
“It was less than two weeks before they were supposed to be here that everyone started bailing,” Wooten said.
The show’s producers had reached out to several experts on Judacalla Rock in recent weeks, including Ashcraft, Cherokee tribal archaeologists, Cherokee cultural experts and landowners around the site.
Most of them initially offered to be part of what they thought was a documentary on Judaculla Rock. But they since cut off contact and have refused to be part of the show.
“In hindsight, I realized they were purposely under-informing, misleading, and misdirecting me along the way,” Ashcraft wrote in a warning email to county officials last week. “It took me this long to push through their veil of misinformation.”
Parker, whose family looked after the rock for decades before it was deeded to the county, also pulled out of the project.
“As I learned about the group, looked up some of the controversies, lawsuits, and mockeries they had made of some peoples and history, I cannot take part,” Parker wrote in an email to the county.
Wooten weighed the opinions about the show’s content, and fears over what direction it may or may not take. But, the county manager said he isn’t a history expert and didn’t have the knowledge to assess the claims either way.
Wooten said he turned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee to render an official opinion.
“If they told me they didn’t agree with it and didn’t support it, I would have not signed the permit,” Wooten said. But by the end of last week, and just a few days before filming was to begin, he hadn’t gotten an official statement from the tribe and went ahead with the permit.
Wooten added that given the show’s audience, it could lead to some positive publicity for the county as a travel destination.
Lorie Hansen, with Blue Ridge Archaeological Consultants and a volunteer for the N.C. Rock Art Project, suggested a committee be formed in the future to vet the authenticity and motives of any media groups seeking access to this site, and other prehistoric sites for that matter.
Wooten welcomed that idea and suggested appointing a panel that could be called on should a situation like this arise again.
Dr. Tom Belt, a Cherokee culture and language expert at Western Carolina University, said the filming is indicative of a larger issue: who should be the interpreter and keeper of Cherokee’s “culturally-fragile gifts?”
“From the Cherokee perspective, Judaculla Rock is a cultural validation of who we are as a people. We cannot allow our identity to be defined by someone else,” Belt wrote in an email to the county. “Correct and conscientious stewardship of these gifts is a moral responsibility to those who have passed and to those yet to come.”
Committee Films, the company producing the show, did not return a request for comment.