Expedition Unknown – Beale Ciphers – S01E08

imageFor this episode, Josh is on the trail of a haul of gold that could be worth more than $65 million. In 1817 a Virginia adventurer named Thomas Beale lead an expedition that found huge plunders of gold and silver. It’s claimed the haul was over 8000 pounds worth of treasure and to keep the treasure safe, Beale devised a way to code three documents that listed the names of the people who found the treasure, the contents and the exact location. These documents were then locked and handed over to an innkeeper for safe keeping with instructions to open the box if Beale never returned. Beale never did return, the box was opened and what they found were the coded messages. These were then handed over to James Ward who then published the coded messages in the Beale documents.

Ward was able to decode and publish the second document which detailed where to start looking for the treasure. He used the Declaration of Independence as his "key". The first letter of each word is given a number and those numbers are listed throughout the page. Josh is hot on the trail and heads down to Virginia to see what he can learn. But first, he needs to make a stop at the world famous Foamhenge, which is a replica of Stonehenge. Say what you will, but it’s really quite lovely.

The center of the search is in Bedford where the Beauford Inn is listed by name in the decoded text. It is believed the treasure is within a 4 mile radius of the Inn. Josh meets up with Mike Evans who has been searching for the treasure and believes it is hidden off an old wagon trail. He uses his trusty plane to try and find a suitable location and then he and Josh head out into the back woods to try and make a discovery. They believe the treasure will be near a waterfall since that is one of the words they’ve been able to decode. With that in mind they search down the river, which turns out to be quite dangerous as the other partner Steve is sucked into quicksand.

Their hopes are raised as they find a horseshoe which would have been from the right time period. This means cargo was shipped through the area. What’s more, they find a coin from the late 1700’s. It seems they might be in the right place and with the right time period in mind. It’s a nice discovery, but they’re not able to come up with any more treasure.

Realizing that James Ward was a member of the Masons, he heads to Philadelphia to see if he can uncover more information. If Ward was a member, did he by chance use any of the Masonic codes or processes for creating his messages. Remember, Washington and Franklin were Masons and were heavily involved in writing in code.

Josh learns the Masons are steeped in codes and that Ward was a member. He may have some of his knowledge to decode the message. But not much more is able to be learned and Josh is back on the trail and meets up with Justin Cannady.

Justin tells the story of an old tin box his family had that broke open one night and revealed a false bottom. Hidden within was an early copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were lots of "drafts" but this one had the initials TJB in the corner and was torn across the top in a peculiar way. Justin believes this tear represents a mountain range. Since there is the Egyptian symbol for water on the back of the document, Justin feels if they find the mountain range, they will be a step closer to finding the treasure.

Justin and Josh head down the river that is within the four mile radius of Beauford Inn to see if anything matches. Oddly, they eventually come across one that might fit the bill. It does appear to be a match to the tears so they head in to investigate. To their surprise, they find a massive cave that could easily contain a huge haul of buried treasure. They repel down and find some evidence that people have been down here before. Josh and Justin discover an old nail and what appears to be the top of a lantern. It’s a huge area, but their search doesn’t reveal any treasure. But it looks like someone was down here at one point so who knows what they will find with more investigation. And what a fantastic discovery on it’s own.

Josh has some nagging questions though. The second document has been decoded, but in the past 100 years no progress has been made on the other two. Why is that? If we have all this massive computing power, shouldn’t we have cracked it by now? Josh heads to the National Cryptologic Museum to meet with Todd Mateer who’s a Cryptanalyst. He developed a program to use the Declaration as the key for the second document. It starts to work, but there are some issues. It doesn’t really line up that well. This means the translation or decoding of the document is inaccurate. In essence the decoded message isn’t really what the document contains.

Mateer takes the first and third documents and does the same analysis using the Declaration. What he finds is that the document has patterns of ABF DEFGH IIJKL MMNOH PP. Mateer believes the first and third ciphers were never meant to be solved. The creator of the first and third documents filled the page with  random numbers. But oddly, these random numbers are from the Declaration going in alphabetical order. This means he went down the list of numbers filling in the alphabet which isn’t a code at all.

So what we have is the person who wrote the code and the person who broke the code are the same person. In this case, that’s James Ward. Based on his findings, Mateer believes the entire Beale legend is a hoax and was put together by James Ward to sell papers. He created this legend, which may have had some basis in fact, and offered the coded letters as proof of buried treasure. He then decoded one cipher and sold his "book" so people could try to solve the other two. There may be no treasure at all and this was dreamed up as a marketing ploy.

Is there treasure or not? It’s strange how some of the clues link together. The map seems to fit. There is a fantastic cave which could easily hold the loot. Josh found the old horseshoe and the old coin. Pure luck or does this point to a bigger treasure waiting to be discovered?

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Expedition Unknown – Captain Morgan’s Lost Gold – S01E07

imageMost people would associated Captain Morgan with a rather festive tasting rum, but he was indeed a real person and by many accounts, the most successful privateer in history. And just to make the point, the difference between a pirate and a privateer is that the privateer is actually sponsored, usually by a government while the pirate is in it for the personal gain. Now that we have that distinction made, let’s see what we have going on.

Captain Henry Morgan amassed a large fortune looting gold from Spain. His main area of operation was Panama where the Spanish would load gold and transport it over to Portobello where it would set sail to Spain in Galleons. Morgan’s plan was to seize the city and nab the gold. Morgan was a good commander, but not really a good navigator. During his nautical days he sunk at least three ships. When Morgan decided to take the port of Portobello, he actually landed three miles away and took the city by foot. He held it hostage and declared he would burn it to the ground if he wasn’t paid to leave. Quite an interesting strategy, yet it worked and he was paid to leave the city alone.

This was merely the first stop on his world domination tour and soon he was down the road at San Lorenzo where the stormed the beach and lost five ships. This is where they believe his flagship Satisfaction is believe to have been wrecked. Morgan then flees on foot with his remaining crew and works his way back to Panama City.

The Satisfaction is believed to have gone down with a fortune in treasure on board. It is thought to have hundreds of treasure chests on board. Researchers have found dozens of wrecked ships in the area and are still looking for Morgan’s vessel. As you may expect, Josh hooks up with the team and explores the waters. They have made multiple discoveries of different wrecks and have pulled up a few items of note, including a large treasure chest. They take Josh out and after sweeping back and forth, they find a site worth looking into. They suit up and into the water they go.

It is indeed a wrecked ship, but turns out to be something much more modern than what they are looking for. Oh Josh you naughty tease! But wait, all is not lost. They head to another site and find something much more exciting. There are dozens of encrusted treasure chests lying on the sand floor. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and would be from the right time period as Morgan. They manage to grab a couple of small items including what looks to be a mule shoe. This would be good news as mules would have been used to transport the looted gold.

With air in their tanks running low and a storm looming on the horizon, it’s time to head out and continue in the tracks of Morgan.

Before the Panama Canal was built, Morgan would had to have used a small river which connected the two oceans. It is said he took his crew through this area in order to reach Panama City again. He took a small amount of supplies believing he could beg, borrow or steal what he needed along the way. This didn’t work out so well as he met up with local tribes who were none to willing to part with what they had. Josh speaks with some of the local tribes and their attitude toward Morgan is less than kind. It is said he pillaged, looted, killed, tortured and much worse to the natives he came across. To put it simply, he’s not held in high regard.

Josh keeps on the move and eventually heads back to Panama City. In Morgan’s final raid on the city it is actually set fire and burnt to the ground. Only one building and some rubble remain of the original city. This confirms some of the thinking that he was nothing more than a pirate.

Meanwhile, Josh links back up with the archeology team and their artifacts and help transport them over to a radiology lab where they can be scanned to see the contents. They identify two of the pieces which look to be a mule shoe and the tip of scabbard. The chest is simply too thick for them to get a scan of the contents. I’m sure we’re all thinking they should just take a crowbar to that chest and be done with it, but that’s not how saving artifacts works.

After digging deeper it doesn’t appear these relics are from Morgan or the Satisfaction, but instead from a ship called the Encarnacion which is still a ship from the 17th century and would have been used to explore the Western Hemisphere. Not a ship loaded with gold, but still a ship of historical significance.

So, not quite the treasure chests full of gold we were all hoping for, but an exciting and picturesque adventure nonetheless. Piracy took on many different forms, but it’s hard to argue that there are plenty of sunken ships in the waters of Panama. It’s also clear there is plenty of wreckage to sift through with a lot of that looking like real treasure chests. Do those chests have gold in them? Are they full of plundered trinkets and gems? It’s hard to say what mysteries they contain, but they contain something and with a bit more work and discovery these teams might soon be able to give us an answer.

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Expedition Unknown – Viking Sunstone – S01E06

imageJosh is back with an all new adventure and this time it’s to investigate the legend surrounding the ability of the Vikings to navigate the seas with nearly pinpoint accuracy hundreds of years before the invention of the magnetic compass. How were they able to travel such vast distances when the sun was hidden from view by the clouds or had disappeared from the horizon? Legend has it that King Olaf used a sunstone, a crystal with mysterious properties that allowed him locate the sun regardless of where it was.

Josh heads off to Alderney to the site where a sunstone was found in a shipwreck. It may be where the actually sunstone of King Olaf was found. It’s not long before Josh is out on the sea to visit the wreck site. They only have a few minutes to look around as the tide is quite vicious. Down at the bottom are the remains of a large boat complete with cannons. There is a lot to see and take in, but time is short and alas, no sunstone.

Of course you can’t go travelling without taking in the local cuisine which appears to be many forms of herring. Oh yeah, and there’s some beer. Five kinds of herring on the same plate seems a touch excessive if you asked me, but the rotting fish dish might be just a little over the top. But you at least have to try these things.

But not to be discouraged, Josh is off to Trondheim, Norway where Olaf set in motion an absolutely fantastic cathedral which is still under construction hundreds of years later. It is said that Olaf’s remains are buried under the church, but because there are so many tombs down there, they have no idea which one is his. Josh heads down to have a look and it’s a massive catacomb with tunnels leading out in all directions. It’s exactly what you’d expect, dark, creepy and loaded with skeletons.

They end up at the crypt where it’s believed Olaf is entombed, but all they can do is pay respects as there is no intention of disturbing any of the bodies. There is also rumor that Olaf’s original sunstone is buried with him. Clearly, they’re not going to get it back.

With that in mind, it’s off to Oslo to actually mine for sunstone. Turns out it’s a form of calcite crystal and there just happens to be a mine Josh can visit. And like all mine’s Josh end up in, this one is scary and full of perils. Josh makes an amazing but utterly frightening descent down. He uses an "elevator" that is a couple hundred years old and then repels down some sheer drops to get to the crystals he’s looking for. And with the gentle tap of the hammer, his guide Christian removes a fine piece of crystal.

Josh takes this to a man named "Guida" who is a master craftsman and can most likely build the Twilight Board and Shadow Stick that are needed in conjunction with the sunstone to help with navigation. These other two pieces help point the way once the sunstone is able to find the sun.

The man is an imposing figure, but his Viking Hall is a amazing and his skills are nothing short of impressive. After getting Josh dressed accordingly and showing off some of the Viking skills such as archery, he sets to work to make the board and stick. Within a few minutes he has both complete and they are exact replicas of the blueprints he was given. And no, there were no mechanical tools used in the making of the board.

They all agree to try out the process and head aboard a replica Viking ship under extremely cloudy conditions. The story goes that the crystal will show 2 images and you turn it so the images line up. You take two readings and the intersection points the way to the sun. From there you take the twilight board and shadow stick which give you an actual direction. Amazingly, they’re able to get a reading and point a direction for North. The pull out a magnetic compass to check their work and the 2 directions are almost identical. Since Josh isn’t know for his maritime skills, we’ll allow for a margin of error.

So how cool is that? Using these simple devices they were able to locate the sun and point themselves in the proper direction. And all of these tools and technologies are hundreds of years old. Sure, it might be a little slower than GPS, but you have to marvel at the use of it. This now proves the stone is not only real, but worked exactly as the legend said it did. The Vikings were able to navigate in a far superior way during that time. Sometimes the simple ways are best.

There you have it, sometimes you can prove a myth. And even if he didn’t the scenery, the food and the people were certainly worth the trip.

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Expedition Unknown – City of Gold – S01E05

imageFor this adventure we are heading out to Peru to look for the Incan Lost City of Gold. Back in 1532 Spanish Conquistadors cut and slashed their way through the Incan empire looking for gold and silver, lead by Francisco Pizarro. He wanted to fill rooms with gold and would stop at nothing to make it a reality. Hearing of his thirst for blood and gold, the Incas disappeared into the mountains and took their precious metals with them. But the question remains, is the City of Gold a myth, nothing more than the stuff of legend or is there really an ancient city out there in the mountains with vast stores of gold?

As with any good adventure you need to hit the market and stock up on supplies. And as with any good market there are some unusual things to try. Josh samples something which looks to be related to the guinea pig. No no, no need to take the meat off the bone and make it look presentable, just cook the rascal whole, leave the head on and eat it with your bare hands. Gadzooks, it looks shocking! Can’t say I would do it.

After the market, Josh meets up with Greg Deyermenjian, who’s been looking for Incan ruins for the past 30 years. He’s documented multiple previously undiscovered sites and firmly believes there are still many more to uncover. Greg has assembled a team and they will follow the ancient footpaths the Incas left behind. These paths extend up into Ecuador and down into Chile, nearly 10,000 miles of roads to follow.

While Greg puts together his team, Josh makes a side trip to the mysterious ruins of Machu Pichu. Unlike other explorations, he takes a luxurious train ride up to the site. It’s a glorious train with catered meals, fine dining and a wonderful observation car. Too bad getting to ruined cities can always be like that. He does however go back to his roots and in the market samples one of the local soups, a spicy blend of meats that includes bull penis.

But that’s not all you can get in the market. In order to scale the mountain and handle the thin air, they need to buy bags of coca leaves. These are the same leaves that make up the chief ingredient of cocaine. It is still used as stimulant and the team is going to need it.

With the team assembled, Josh heads up the mountain in some 4×4’s. The road is treacherous and narrow with severe cliffs off to the side. The journey is slowed by the oncoming rainstorm which forces them to take shelter in a local church. It is rough accommodations, but it has a foosball table and a 12 year old hustler that beats Josh soundly. It’s always so wonderfully strange to see people open up their homes to complete strangers. Ok sure, maybe handfuls of bills trade hands behind the scenes, but let’s not let that shatter the illusion.

They follow the road to the end of the line and then go by foot. Legend says the Incas threw away a lot of their supplies so they could make better progress over the mountains. To support the legend they dig around in Lake Pumacocha and find ancient potatoes from the Incan supplies. It appears they’re on the right path and so they continue up through the heavy jungle and find an ancient set of ruins to spend the night in.

As they continue their progression in the morning, they find rock paintings of llamas that further support the Incas followed this path. As they get ready to make a dangerous river crossing, they accidentally stir up a hornets nest, literally, and get stung on the face, legs and hands. And it’s time to cross the cold waters of the river. A river that nearly sweeps Josh away. These explorations of Incan mountain top ruins are dangerous!

But they are rewarded for their effort and find several Incan buildings that look to be houses or perhaps an outpost of some sort. They are completely overgrown but they are clearly well made structures. They even find a piece of pottery or art in what looks to be a window of one of the buildings. Greg definitely believes this is part of the Incan ruins. They don’t have the right tools or enough supplies so they mark where they are and Greg works to set up a team to head out to the same site later that year.

So no treasure rooms filled with gold, but there are definitely more Incan buildings and ruins out there. And the path they are following is thousands of miles long. If there is a Lost City of Gold, it could easily hide out there in the harsh mountains, covered in moss, trees and roots. So much of that area is unexplored so who knows what’s hiding behind the next ridge. No gold bars this trip, but who knows what the next one will bring.

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