A real-life 'Da Vinci Code'

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Scott Wolter, host of ‘America Unearthed,’ takes an eclectic approach to solving mysteries in Minnesota and around the globe.

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Scott Wolter, right, drew on a piece of glass that was part of a graphic for an on-camera shoot last week for “America Unearthed.” The show is produced by the Chaska-based film company Committee Films. Wolter takes a nontraditional, and sometimes controversial, approach to exploring some of history’s mysteries.

Photo: Richard Sennott ,

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One day last summer, Scott Wolter was moved to visit the gravesite of Newton Winchell, a prominent geologist in Minnesota history. Winchell is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Wolter, a forensic geologist, admires the man, and he’s been studying the controversial Kensington runestone, as Winchell did in the early part of the 20th century.

As the story goes, Swedish farmer Olof Ohman came across the peculiar stone slab on his farm in 1898. Cryptic markings and the date, 1362, characterize the stone, which is exhibited at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minn.

Like Winchell, Wolter, who was hired by the museum in 2000 to assess the runestone’s age, encountered quite a bit of pushback when he deemed it a genuine article.

Wolter, who lives in Chanhassen, has continued to delve into the artifact. That day at the cemetery, as if Winchell were there in the flesh, “I told him, ‘We’re going to finish the job you started,’ ” he said.

It’s just one of many mysteries that Wolter is digging into for his TV show, “America Unearthed” on the History Channel, or H2. The show recently aired its second season. Right now, Wolter and the all-Minnesotan crew from Eden Prairie-based Committee Films are in the middle of shooting a third season.

The show has taken Wolter all over the globe. Locally, he’s investigated giant bones that the show said may hint of the Vikings’ presence in Minnesota; the Great Lakes copper heist, and what some believe might be Aztec pyramids at the bottom of a Wisconsin lake.

For Wolter, these types of investigations represent an “opportunity to get the history of the country corrected … that doesn’t come along very often.”

“What I say on the show is that, ‘The bottom line is, I want to get to the truth of these things,’ ” he said.

‘Let the rocks talk’

The runestone case catapulted Wolter into new territory, which he coined archaeopetrography, “because we employ geological microscopic laboratory science to rock-related archaeological mysteries,” he said.

Even though Wolter has been a principal petrographer in thousands of investigations all over the place — including that surrounding the Pentagon’s fire-damaged concrete in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — he had no idea how polarizing this research would be.

The runestone topic alone “generates passionate viewpoints on both sides,” he said.

Academics often take issue with Wolter’s theories along these lines. But in his view, it often boils down to the differences between what he calls hard and soft sciences.

Since the beginning, the runestone’s origin has stirred controversy, with most scholars now writing it off as a modern hoax. But Wolter, who studied the stone’s weathering and made five trips to Sweden to study the script, has learned to “let the rocks talk.”

To get firsthand experience on what it takes to carve a runestone, he made his own, which stands in his yard. It incorporates letters from an old Norse alphabet, a serpent and a cross, just for fun.

“I bet that will confuse scholars a thousand years from now,” said Wolter’s wife, Janet. “You should see our rock garden under the snow. That is where the souvenir rocks from trips usually end up,” including a wild boar skull that Wolter found in a cave.

After all of that legwork, Wolter found the stone had plenty to say.

  • related content

  • america unearthed, season 2To learn more about Scott Wolter and his History Channel 2 show, “America Unearthed,” go to www.history.com/shows/america-unearthed.

  • A skull keeps Scott Wolter company at his desk on the set of “America Unearthed.”

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