Though originally published in 1998 and 2003, and most recently published in three volumes in 2013-2014, “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” is in reality a single (very large) book, the fruits of Geoff Bath’s vast sustained effort to till Oak Island’s unproductive historical soil.

The overall title broadly suggests its three constituent sections, in that Part 1 covers (possibly pirate) treasure maps (“Maps”); Part 2 examines the evidential haze surrounding the Oak Island “Money Pit” mystery (“Mystery”); while Part 3 attempts to put the myriad of pieces together to make sense of them all (“Interpretation”). Simples.

If only the Oak Island mystery itself were as straightforward…

Part 1: Maps

Here, Geoff presents all the “Kidd” maps that Hubert Palmer ended up with, and compares Howlett’s account of them with Wilkins’ account, as well as – and this is the good bit – lots of letters written and received by both Wilkins and Palmer.

I can’t be the only reader to find himself or herself surprised by Bath’s conclusion – that Wilkins essentially got it all just about right, while Howlett got a great deal of it wrong.

All the same, as far as reconstructing the modern history of the Palmer-Kidd maps goes, Geoff’s reasoning here seems very much on the money. I’d say his account gets far closer to what happened than even George Edmunds’ account (stripping both authors’ conclusions out of the picture first).

However, Bath gets himself in something of a tangle trying to make sense of the various maps Wilkins originated (both in Part 1 and in Part 3). Was Wilkins adapting maps or documents otherwise unseen, using them as templates for his own creations, or trolling his readers to help him identify mysterious islands? Too often Bath seems content to speculate in a way that paints Wilkins in an almost Svengali-like way, a kind of Andy Warhol of treasure maps.

In reality, I’m far from sure that Wilkins was any closer to historical clarity than we are now. Given that I can’t read more than a handful of pages of his “A Modern Treasure Hunter” without feeling nauseous (the fumes! the bad accents! the ghosts!), I just can’t see Wilkins as anything like a consistently reliable source, even about himself.

Yet one of the most specifically insightful things that emerges from Part One is Bath’s observation that it isn’t necessary for these maps to actually be Kidd’s for them to be independently genuine. That is, the set of maps’ whole association with Kidd might be something that was overlaid onto a (non-Kidd) set of maps: the supposed Kidd link might easily have been added to the mix as a way of “bigging up” someone else’s maps. If this is true (and you don’t have to believe that these are Oak Island maps for it to be so), many of the difficulties that arise when you try to link them to Kidd (e.g. dating, language, etc) disappear.

It’s still hellishly difficult to make sense of these maps, for sure, but Geoff is right to point out that Kidd may well turn out to be part of the problem here, rather than part of the solution or explanation. Something to think about, for certain.

Part 2: Mystery

In my opinion, Oak Island is a wretched, wretched subject, filled with all the slugs and snails of cipher mysteries and not the vaguest flicker of any of the good stuff. It’s a bleak, barren evidential landscape, filled with unconfirmed micro-features briefly noted by a long series of individual investigators, before being quickly razed from the face of the earth by gung-ho treasure hunters. There seems little genuine hope that any faint trace of anything historical or sensible still remains.

Putting the speculative sacred geometry and shapes picked on maps to one side, there are some (though not many) good things in Part Two I didn’t previously know about. Specifically, the idea that tunnels and features might have been dug aligned with the local magnetic compass at that time is quite cool, though obviously something that has been much discussed over the decades.

So I’m terribly sad to have to say that even a perceptive and diligent researcher such as Geoff Bath can make no real difference to this long-standing disaster area. His Part 2 is therefore little more than a Ozymandian monument to the effort and greed sunk in the pursuit of the Money Pit (not that a brass farthing or even so much as a period button has come of it to date).

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Part 3: Interpretation

Having struggled through the unpromising desert of the previous part, my expectations as to what Part 3 might bring were fairly low. But as Bath works his way through his interpretation section (repeatedly railing against the pox of untestable hypotheses), something actually rather odd happens.

All of a sudden, he mentions the Venatores (a early 20th century treasure hunting group) and the Particulars (a set of treasure hunting documents collected together by the Venatores). As this enters the picture, it’s as if a curious wave ripples through the whole research fabric: that, contrary to what you might have thought from the two previous books, it’s all not about whether Wilkins was credible or incredible, or whether Hill Cutler was stone cold serious or laughing all the way to the Terminus Road Lloyds Bank in Eastbourne, but instead that there might actually be something behind it all.

That is to say, what emerges – though all too briefly – is a frisson of that wonderfully engaging secret history paranoia where you can just sense stuff going on behind the scenes but which you know you probably won’t ever gain access to.

In the end, Bath’s well-researched and well-written books didn’t manage to persuade me of the existence of a link between the various treasure maps and the Oak Island mystery (and that, indeed, is a hypothesis that would seem to be politically untestable) nor of any kind of geometric cartography plan driving it all. However, it did manage to convince me that the whole Money Pit enterprise might possibly be built not on a vast hole, but instead on a history whose fragmentary parts have been scattered on the winds, and yet which might possibly be reassembled in the future.

It probably won’t happen but… who can say?

3 thoughts on “Geoff Bath’s “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” and Oak Island…

  1. James R. Pannozzi on March 12, 2017 at 3:00 pm said:

    Our local history channel on Cable carries a weekly program “Oak Island” produced by two businessmen brothers who have been searching the island for years. Every time they mention the “Money Pit” we burst out laughing. Yet, here and there they do find some historical artifacts…but….no treasure. And they’ve expended huge amounts of money for giant cranes and construction machines for digging. They seem to have found some buttons, a few coins, a spike probably used in the planking of a Spanish galleon and some other odd pieces including multi hundred year old pieces of wood from 150 feet down.

    A few things I wish they’d try, instead of guessing and randomly digging holes which soon fill up with water are muon scanning (a Japanese firm was using it to determine if there was an extra undiscovered room where Tutankhamun’s tomb is, and precise geomagnetic sensors to see if there is any deviations in the earth’s magnetic field (in particular the weak 3d line) anywhere on the island indicative of a treasure with lots of metal thingies in it.

    But before laughing, one must think of, what was his name, Mel something or other, who spent 30 years being laughed at until he finally located the wreck of the Atocha and recovered its fortune in coins, bars and gems.

  2. Way-out-west on March 13, 2017 at 4:47 am said:

    The Oak Island story sounds like something straight out of The Goonies!

  3. Nick

    Thanks for the review, though I feel that you perhaps glossed over the one feature of the work that might be of some interest to cryptanalysts, that is, the instructions on the maps being potentially cipher text.

    Presumably, most people would concede that the messages on the so-called Kidd maps are cryptic, and that their credibility suffers from associations with Captain Kidd, Harold Wilkins and others.

    However, setting aside these distractions, by taking the text upon the five potentially instructive maps as being genuine (that is, dismissing Captain Kidd, pirate associations, and the apparently questionable provenance) we are left with five sets of cryptic instructions, four of which are in the same format, as follows:

    ROCKS [Distance & Bearing 1] BY [Distance & Bearing 2]
    TREE [Distance & Bearing 3] (,[Distance & Bearing 4]).
    x BY y BY z

    We are told that the parchments are fading, but we might surmise that what we have are potentially copies of copies of the originals, but hopefully sufficient to work with.

    Given, then, that we may be dealing with a cipher of sorts, how to proceed? I think it’s fair to say that it’s counter-productive to approach breaking into a cipher by first declaring that it can’t be broken. As a rule, we accept what we’re given as being potentially genuine, and workable, and proceed from there.

    In the case of the maps, we do have what amounts to a probable text. It is widely assumed that the five cryptic (cipher) texts purport to be instructions for locating points on the ground. The context (the associated image of an island) might then lead one to imagine that the intent of the cipher is to locate a deposit, or a number of deposits.

    We may also have pointers to the location that could assist in breaking into the cipher. The documents lead us to suppose that somewhere in the world there’s a landscape that has significant features – a Tree, Rocks and a Triangle (all mentioned in the instructions) – also that it’s most likely an island where there’s a suggestion of a deposit, perhaps valuable.

    It stands to reason that Oak Island would be top of the list as meeting all these requirements. Here is an island with a highly significant Tree, with Drilled Rocks and Triangles of stones set out on the ground, where it’s believed that a treasure was deposited.

    This is the point at which most people seem to give up, because they refuse to believe in an Oak Island treasure, or a treasure that was not buried in the Money Pit, or simply declare that there’s no such thing as a treasure map. That’s fine, because not everyone will be prepared to accept that the cipher provided (for example, the Voynich MS, the Beale Codes etc.) is genuine.

    However, let’s assume that we’re prepared to attempt breaking into the cipher in this particular context – which means accepting the premise that there’s a point on Oak Island, not being the Money Pit, that’s significant in some way – maybe at which a deposit was made. Above all, we assume that the map instructions relate to the ground features identified on Oak Island.

    Although this is the point at which my investigations began, I acknowledge that you are not prepared to accept my conclusion that these cryptic instructions might be cracked by applying them to a strictly defined Ground Plan, or geometry, linking the Oak Island ground markers.

    However, for the benefit of those who have not read the books, the geometrical construction developed to link the ground features by survey reveals a particular design – an extended rhombus – points upon which seem to be the target of the instructions on the maps. It is the marrying of the maps to the underlying geometry that appears to break the cipher, as the ground plan provides the equivalent of a keyword. The mechanics of the ‘cipher’ are thereby revealed.

    Each map identifies a point on the rhombus in the image. All bearings in the text are taken as true bearings, with the instructions being applied to the above geometrical schema based on a magnetic variation of two-fifths the tangent of 30 degrees (that is, 13 degrees NW). The instructions all follow a common format, which is: take offsets from the Money Pit (the Tree) and the two Drilled Rocks (the East Rock first) and form a triangle from the three points thus defined, locate its centre and take a further offset presented in the general form a + b + ac as on the last line.

    The instruction, “From centre of triangle between [betwixt] rocks, 20 feet E” is an explicit exception, but the instruction “3 feet by 3 feet by FOUR” is 3 + 3 + (4 x 3) which equals 18 feet, “Five feet by four feet by Five” is thus 34 feet, and “7 Feet by 7 Feet by 8” is 70 feet. The five published maps then identify points in a regular pattern on the rhombus described above – the dots marked A, C, D, E and F in the image above – to within 4 to 12 inches of target. Point G is taken to be the Cave-In Pit, a hole some 18 feet deep and six feet wide, assumed to be original, that had been filled in.

    The fact that the process works with such accuracy may be of interest. It might suggest, at least, that the originator of the Oak Island excavations may have put as much ingenuity into identifying the location of the deposit as he did in creating the water catchment at Smith’s Cove and in excavating the so-called Money Pit.

    My point is that it’s all too easy to put the maps and the Oak Island mystery into the ‘fringe notions’ bucket, and dismiss a link between them, without conducting any investigation, but this risks throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    A constant theme of most of my writings is the all-too-easy way that people rely on, and believe implicitly in, the declarations of self-styled or so-called authorities who, in-depth research sometimes reveals, have not done nearly enough work upon which to base their opinions.

    Also, there’s a tendency to dismiss fringe topics on the grounds that nobody with sense or intelligence would give them a moment’s thought. In my view, therein lies a potential problem. If a subject is not fully researched, how can anyone know it has no substance?

    So, there are two more points I’d like to address. First, assessment of the so-called Kidd maps is highly coloured by what Anthony Howlett wrote about them, and in Book 3 I point out that he got the story wrong by relying overmuch on the memories of Mrs. Elizabeth Dick, who knew Palmer only in his declining years when he was suffering from dementia. Although Howlett had access to Palmer’s papers, he acknowledges that these were incomplete. A portion of them had been sold. Furthermore, Howlett positively refused to look at evidence demonstrating that his account was incorrect.

    Howlett was mostly relying on secondary source material, but through my research I obtained a pile of primary source documents – letters written by Palmer himself – covering the period of the maps’ discovery and assessment. I’ve published a number of Palmer’s letters that plainly contradict Howlett’s account, yet you seem unwilling to concede that what Palmer himself had to say about the sequence and the details of the discoveries, at the time they occurred, is likely to be preferable to what Howlett concluded twenty-five years later. In particular, Palmer did not fortuitously discover the maps, as is widely claimed. He bought three of the chests in order to obtain them.

    Second, opinion concerning the maps is also influenced by perceptions of Wilkins himself, who was in the habit of re-interpreting accounts and weaving tales about them in order to put people off the scent. Once more, I obtained primary source documentation – letters to and from his contacts, and particularly his brother – that sheds an altogether different light on the matter. Once more, you seem unwilling to concede that what Wilkins divulges confidentially in his letters is to be preferred to what he wrote publicly in his books.

    I feel that because discussion of the Kidd maps is prominently concerned with the spurious tales written about them, rather than taking the text upon them as being factual, people have avoided attempting to solve them.

    I suppose I’d have to concede that it might be remotely possible for someone to concoct five sets of instructions that someone else can interpret using a set of rules which enables matching them to a regular pattern of points on a geometrically constructed ground plan connecting the markers on Oak Island. Yet, I do find it strange that this can be done. In any event, I’ve been unable to repeat the feat with a random number generator.

    I feel that it’s because people all too hastily decide that the instructions are fake, without having probed for the real story behind them, that the current and previous owners of the island have expressed no interest in testing the predictive capabilities of the schema developed – for instance, does laying it out on the island by survey reveal other ground markers? This would not be a search for treasure, it would be a search for corroboration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation