Oak Island money pit
|Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
The Oak Island money pit is an excavation on a small Canadian island off the coast of Nova Scotia that has been the object of attention of treasure hunters since 1795. As the name suggests, their efforts to date have not produced anything of value. The pit has been repeatedly re-filled and re-excavated.
Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of its continuing history is that, unlike other treasure-hunting locations (such as Cocos Island), it had no accompanying legend about anyone actually hiding anything there — the motivation of the original diggers was "it looks like something was buried here, let's dig". Later, various authors were inspired by the excavations to put forward retconned theories of their own.
The Oak Island "Money Pit" would likely have remained more of an obscure treasure-hunter's curiosity than it currently is, if not for a 1965 article in Reader's Digest that was condensed from the Rotary Club's monthly magazine.
The article was your typical sensationalist piece,[Note 1] taking its cues only from the people who really believed there was something buried there and that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it hidden.
With this Reader's Digest article, the Oak Island Money Pit surged into the national spotlight. It often appeared in anthologies of "unsolved mysteries" alongside the Abominable Snowman and the Loch Ness Monster.
A 1979 episode of the
crank magnetic striptease show In Search of... devoted to the "Money Pit" deepened public interest further. Oak Island got so popular with curiosity seekers that the natives had to beat the tourists off with a stick (but not before charging them top dollar[Note 2]).
Why no treasure will ever be found
Oak Island is dotted with natural sinkholes — depressions in the island's surface, surrounded by disturbed soil and sand.
If you were to excavate one of these sinkholes, you'd find fallen trees (preserved as log fragments), as well as natural layers of clay and rock interspersed at various depths.
Eventually, you'd run into the island's many natural subsurface channels and caves (likewise located at various depths) which act as natural conduits for sea water from the bay. That's about it.
However, if you were convinced a priori that some vaguely defined, secret cache of fabulous treasure was buried in one of the island's many sinkholes, any natural explanations could be readily ignored by you.
The disturbed earth and sand on the surface could then be seen as "evidence" that something was buried there after all. The log fragments could be pictured as part of "regularly spaced oak platforms." And ordinary flooding in the natural subsurface channels and caves could be imagined as "booby traps", cleverly installed to thwart would-be treasure hunters. Just like in Indiana Jones!
Throw in some rumors of mysterious stone plaques[Note 3] and links of gold chain or gold coins,[Note 4] and you've got yourself a tantalizing hook which will continue to sucker believers into investing incredible amounts of time and money into shuffling around the same natural sediment for many years to come.[Note 5]
Digging for what was never buried in the first place
In the olden days, making your fortune as a pirate meant taking on a dangerous, often illegal job, in which the trade-off to the ever-present risk of simply perishing in the very next battle was the ability to make a relatively good salary fairly quickly.
Pirates knew that — if caught — they faced a speedy trial, followed by hanging. This fact encouraged a "live-like-this-day-is-your-last"-type lifestyle. In other words, pirates were never that keen on implementing spade-oriented long-term savings programmes.
In fact, the only pirate ever historically known to actually have buried anything of value (the plan being using his buried treasure as a bargaining tool) was William Kidd — and Kidd's treasure was recovered for use in the trial against him.
The people who enlisted in a pirate crew were rarely privately rich, and — when not forced into piracy — making a career move into piracy was often seen as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme for the desperate and foolhardy. Money was earned to be spent.
As such, the very concept of pirates burying chests overflowing with Spanish gold doubloons at a spot marked "X" is a trope, belonging to the world of myth. It's essentially an invention of Robert Louis Stevenson for the book Treasure Island.
For extra irony points, please note that even the same History Channel producing the Oak Island show covered below have themselves pointed out that the very concept of buried pirate treasure is essentially mythical.
The "booby-trapped flood tunnels"
When treasure hunters dig down more than about 90 feet, their shaft invariably fills with sea water. Determined diggers often leap to the conclusion that this was a deliberate booby trap. The people who buried the treasure must have been SO wary about someone digging it up that they drilled tunnels all the way out to the coastline. These hypothesized flood tunnels bring in sea water, specifically to thwart the efforts of treasure hunters.
But the unique geology of Oak Island is sufficient to explain the flooding. The bedrock isn't one solid mass; it is riddled with naturally-formed caverns. Some of these caverns probably interconnect, all the way out to the ocean, letting seawater into parts of the underground. All it would take would be one breach of one of these flooded caverns -- such as by, say, digging a tunnel close to it -- and the seawater within it would quickly flood out.
One set of early treasure hunters claimed to have found box drains in Smith's Cove that were the mouths of the "flood tunnels." Since box drains look like nothing more than piles of rocks with smaller rocks on the bottom and larger rocks on the top, these could easily have been natural formations.
The Curse of Oak Island
Following the guiding principle that "no 'mystery' is stale enough to leave unexploited", the History Channel decided to make the latest money pit shenanigans into a TV show, The Curse of Oak Island.
The show follows the typical "treat everything as an anomaly"-format pioneered by History Channel shows such as Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters. The narration pumps the hype up to ridiculous levels sometimes. ("Wood? Buried underground? Could it be part of a treasure chest containing the lost works of William Shakespeare? The treasures of the Knights Templar? The Ark of the Covenant? The Holy Grail?!")
Two brothers now own most of the land on Oak Island, because one of them is obsessed with finding buried treasure there.
In one episode, the brothers decide to explore an old excavation adjacent to the money pit that was dug and lined with metal by previous treasure hunters in an attempt to prevent flooding.[Note 6] The brothers pumped it full of water, theorizing that "artifacts" would likely be flushed out in the process. Sure enough, some bits of rusted metal did inevitably come up, and were promptly pronounced "anomalous" by the brothers. Cue the theremin!
Later, one of the brothers goes on a boat ride around the island and comes back with the pithy observation that "It looks like a place that could have attracted pirates who buried treasure here".
Back in 1965, Robert Dunfield excavated the entire Money Pit area, digging a hole 100 feet wide and 140 feet deep; when he found nothing and ran out of money, he then filled this hole back up with whatever material was lying around. Despite this, the brothers will regularly pronounce oak timbers and other artifacts found at depths less than 140 feet as evidence of "the original money pit."
One might quip that half of Oak Island's Curse is that it was featured on the History Channel.
What was actually found
After two whole summers' worth of digging and draining, the brothers were shown to have recovered:
- Some coconut fibers taken from the beach, allegedly dating back to the middle ages.
- A single 17th century Spanish copper coin taken from the swamp (not the pit itself) — merely suggesting that humans had visited the island before the pit started being excavated (an uncontroversial and unremarkable suggestion).
- A small collection of loose change and military paraphernalia dating from the mid to late 17th century, on land where a man who'd served in the British army in the mid to late 17th century used to live.
- Timbers, and a gold-plated button, from tunnels that had been dug by 19th century treasure hunters and later re-buried.
- The show made a big to-do about finding a human bone fragment while dredging around the pit, but even die-hard UFO/paranormalists were not impressed.
What was hyped
Of course, those meager findings were only presented after the show had spent a full season slogging through every outlandish hypothesis imaginable about what could be buried there.
Wild conjectures entertained on the show include:
- Buried pirate treasure
- The Knights Templar burying the Ark of the Covenant (or perhaps the Holy Grail)
- Templar treasure carried to the island by Christopher Columbus
- A curse that will claim 7 victims (6 have needlessly died so far trying to excavate the pit)[Note 7]
- Maps of Oak Island hidden in the works of Shakespeare
- Ghosts messing with the metal detectors, preventing said devices from correctly indicating the presence of sick loot
- The crown jewels of Marie Antoinette
- Proof that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays after all
- 30 tons of gold
You just have to connect the dots, maaaaan!
In the third season of The Curse of Oak Island, the brothers receive a Roman-era bronze sword dredged up by a Nova Scotia scalloper some years before. This is implied to be evidence that Romans visited Canada, and possibly Oak Island in the first or second century BCE.
Later episodes of the show would show that the sword is actually brass (since it's a copper-zinc alloy, not copper-tin) and almost certainly an Italian gift shop trinket made in the 1970s. There was a long-term feud between a researcher who believed it was ancient and the researchers of St. Mary's University of Halifax regarding its relevance.
- Oak Island Money Pit, Expanding resource covering the Oak Island Money Pit's history
- The Secrets of Oak Island, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 24.2, March/April 2000 (implies that a lot of the findings on the island were gags pulled by the Freemasons)
- History, Hoax, and Hype: The Oak Island Legend, CriticalEnquiry.org, Richard Joltes's website
- The Curse of Oak Island, official page of the show
- Missing! An investigative report into Oak Island's long lost 90 Foot Stone
- Is There Pirate Treasure on Oak Island?, video by the guy who does that Today I Found Out series
- Oak Island: History Not Myth, a blog on Facebook
- "Fool's Gold: There's No Treasure on Oak Island" by historian Sean Munger, a 4-part YouTube series: 1, 2, 3, 4
- Ye olde clickbait, in other words.
- In a gold rush, the money's in selling shovels.
- The legend goes that a stone was found in the pit which bore the inscription "Forty feet below, 2 million pounds lie buried". Supposedly, the stone was
made up in the first placeconveniently lost. Go figure.
- Again, supposedly lost. Read: never existed. Depending on what source you read, the supposed "links of gold chain" found in 1849 were either seen by Jotham B. McCully but not documented until 1862, or seen only by William Chappell and not mentioned until even later when he wanted to fund his own treasure-hunting expedition.
- In that sense, it really is a money pit.
- Need we mention that said treasure hunters found jack?
- The idea that such a "curse" exists seems to have been made up after Oak Island became famous, to further hype up the alleged treasure.
- Joe Nickell, The Secrets of Oak Island. Skeptical Inquirer, March / April 2000.
- "Treasure Hunt: The Mystery of Oak Island". Reader's Digest Canada. 1965. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
- In Search Of… The Money Pit Mystery, The Internet Movie Database. Originally aired 18 January 1979.
- Konstam, Angus (2007), Blackbeard: America's Most Notorious Pirate, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-470-12821-6 pg 285
- Zacks, Richard (2002). The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8451-7
- See the Wikipedia article on Buried treasure.
- Evan Andrews, Did pirates really bury their treasure? The History Channel, 4 November 2015.
- Finnan, Mark. 1997. Oak Island Secrets, rev. ed. Halifax, N.S.: Formac.
- Retired geologist probes deep into sinkhole that is Oak Island, Saltwire, 13-May-2020
- The Curse of Oak Island. The History Channel.
- The Curse of Oak Island - Hey! We Found a Bone Kevin Randle
- Carl Feagans, Pretend Swordplay: Hercules Swords and the Hornets’ Nest of Reality. ahotcupofjoe.net, 5 February 2017.