AUGUSTA, Maine — Scott Wolter, a forensic geologist and host of a popular cable television show, believes a trio of inscribed stones found near Spirit Pond in Phippsburg more than 40 years ago are evidence that the famed Knights Templar fled to Maine, among other North American sites, after their persecution in 1307.

“It’s the greatest story that’s never been told,” said Wolter, who is described as a “real-life Indiana Jones” by The History Channel, which airs his show “America Unearthed” on its sister station, H2. “What you guys have in Maine are some of the most important historical relics in the history of the country. … Those stones that you have up there are priceless. They make Plymouth Rock look like a pebble on the beach.”

Perhaps the most bombastic part of the theory? The Knights brought with them the Holy Grail, he said.

Echoing the plot line made famous in author Dan Brown’s best-selling conspiracy novel “The Da Vinci Code,” Wolter claims the Holy Grail is not a cup, but rather the line of descendants from a secret marriage between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.

The controversial theory and its high-profile backer are reigniting debate around the stones, which other researchers maintain instead could be proof of a 15th century Norse voyage to Maine.

Still other noted scientists, including those with the Maine State Museum, continue to say the speculation simply muddies a case that is a clear hoax. Museum officials keep the stones in storage in Augusta.

‘Clumsy fakes’

Dr. Bruce Bourque, a professor at Bates College and longtime state archaeologist, said deciphering the authenticity of the Spirit Pond stones was his very first job at the museum.

“My first day of work, which was the first workday in January of 1972, these [stones] were sitting on my boss’s desk. He said, ‘Figure out what’s going on with these,’” Bourque recalled Wednesday.

“I took them to a Harvard linguist named Einer Haugen, and in about 10 seconds, he said, ‘They’re fakes, and in fact, they’re clumsy fakes,’” he continued.

While Wolter and believers in a Norse visit, including retired architect and New England Antiquities Research Association member Sue Carlson, clash on the topic of who made the stones, they agree on at least one thing.

Those who believe that the artifacts are authentic have claimed the reputable Haugen’s swift dismissal of the stones has served as an unfair deterrent to additional research ever since.

Once he called them fakes, legions of other scientists in the mainstream establishment wrote them off as such and wouldn’t listen to any other theories, Wolter and Carlson each said.

But Bourque said serious scholars have been right to follow Haugen’s lead.

Bourque quickly cited a number of errors in the runic inscriptions the late Haugen said represented proof of their modern origins. First, almost halfway across the third line in the most heavily etched stone — popularly referred to as the “inscription stone” — Bourque pointed to two identical symbols made up of vertical lines with circles overlapping the top halves.

The symbols have long been considered representations of the number 10, and because there are two, the year date 1010.

“This is Arabic notation, which the Norse did not do,” Bourque said. “The Norse used Roman notation.”

In another spot, the archaeologist located a runic spelling of “Haakon,” a name used by a string of Norwegian kings in the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The use of double vowels is a modern construct in the language, Bourque said.

Furthermore, Bourque said, pointing to a crisscrossed character appearing throughout the inscription, “This ‘Stung A’ does not exist in Norse language.”

The Hooked X

The “Stung A” is an “X” — the Old Norse symbol for the “a” sound — with a peculiar short line cutting out from its top right arm. Because the same symbol can be found on purportedly runic carvings famously discovered on stones in Narragansett, R.I., and Kensington, Minn., Bourque said the prevailing academic theory is that all the inscriptions are fakes, with carvers of the more recently discovered New England stones using the 1898 Kensington Rune Stone as their source material.

Wolter has another hypothesis about the symbol. In his 2009 book, “The Hooked X: Key to the Secret History of North America,” he wrote that instead of disqualifying all three sites, the symbol validates them.

Wolter said scholars thrown off by the hooked X are limiting their scope of research to the language used by Norse voyagers. He is arguing, to the contrary, that the stones instead were etched by Cistercian monks traveling alongside Knights Templar.

“These archaeologists have all been programmed [to believe the stones are fakes] and they can’t think outside the box,” Wolter told the Bangor Daily News in a recent interview.

The Knights were a religious military group during the time of the Crusades, but in 1307, previous supporters in the Catholic Church and French royalty turned on the order, accusing members of heretical practices and hunting them down.

Wolter said he believes the Knights were a threat not only because of the wealth they had gained over the years — which is what most historians believe — but because they were the biological descendants of Christ. If revealed as members of the divine bloodline, he theorized, their claim to power would rival those of the church and monarchy.

Persecuted, the Knights who weren’t caught and executed went into hiding, Wolter said, and some fled all the way to what is today North America. The hooked X, Wolter theorized, combines the upside-down V representing the male gender, the right-side-up V representing the female gender, and a small V on the top right arm representing a small female offspring.

Together, that’s Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their daughter, Wolter said, and the symbol was one of many used by the Knights and their monk supporters as part of a secret language to communicate with one another without giving away their continued existence.

Like in “The Da Vinci Code,” the theory assumes the Holy Grail has been misidentified for generations as a physical cup in which Christ’s blood was collected during his crucifixion. Wolter subscribes to a long-simmering fringe theory that scholars throughout history mistakenly have clung to the Old French “san greal” — or “Holy Grail” — instead of the similar but more accurate phrase “sang real,” or “royal blood.” In other words, the bloodlines of Christ.

In addition to a mention on a more recent episode of his show, “America Unearthed,” Wolter explored the theory in depth on a predecessor documentary, “Holy Grail in America,” aired for the first time four years ago on the History Channel.

Finding the stones

The late Walter Elliot, who died more than 15 years ago, was a hardscrabble Bath man with a high school education. He occasionally hiked in the area looking for arrowheads and other prehistoric artifacts, and in May of 1971, announced he had found three strangely chiseled stones near Spirit Pond in Phippsburg.

“The amount of publicity it generated right off the bat was amazing,” said Roslyn Strong, Maine coordinator for the New England Antiquities Research Association.

“Today, we’d say it ‘went viral,’” added Carlson, her colleague.

Strong and Carlson called Wolter’s Knights Templar theory outrageous, and say it’s so fantastical it threatens to drive other serious researchers away from the stones for fear of being associated with the claims.

“We get painted with the same brush as all the nuts,” Strong said.

But while NEARA members disagree with Wolter’s findings, they agree that the Spirit Pond stones deserve more study.

Carlson was raised by a Swedish father and can recall Scandinavian poetry from her youth. She said the 16-line rhythm of the etchings on the “inscription stone” followed a common pattern she remembered from those poems.

Carlson dismissed the Harvard linguist Haugen’s claim the stones were covered in “gibberish,” saying he based that determination on an assumption it was Norse language circa 1010.

Carlson said she believes it’s much more likely the stones were carved by Norse explorers in the 1400s, and using the later evolution of the language, she has translated it to be a poetic tale about a journey westward across stormy seas.

Perhaps bolstering Carlson’s theory is the location of two rectangular craters a few hundred yards from where the stones were found. An archaeologist excavated one in the early 1970s, proclaimed it was the remnants of a sod house and, using carbon-dating of a wood sampling from the site, said it dated back to around 1405.

Sod houses, Carlson noted, were typical Norse architecture at the time and similar remnants discovered at L’Ans aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland have been widely accepted as proof of a Norse encampment there.

Additionally, another of the Spirit Pond stones, the “map stone,” depicts what is now the Popham Beach area of Phippsburg and an open channel between Spirit Pond and the Atlantic Ocean — reflecting the conditions seen there well more than a century before Elliot found them. When the stones were found, the channel had been choked off with sediment buildup and ultimately dammed off by locals who wanted to harvest ice from the pond.

Carlson said it’s unlikely Elliot, whom she described as genuine and no-nonsense, was versed enough in geological history to have included that detail in a forged map, even if the runic inscriptions could be explained away by accusations he copied them from a book about the Kensington Rune Stone.

‘The latest and grandest’

“Maps are easy [to fake],” said Maine State Museum archaeologist Bourque. “He was familiar with this area. All he would have had to do was take out a gazeteer and trace it.”

While Bourque admitted he kept an arm’s distance from the excavation of the so-called sod house, he said it just as easily could have been a cellar from a Colonial-era homestead that happened to include old wood in its construction.

Perhaps most damning, petrographic slices of the stones taken in the early 1970s showed a layer of significant surface weathering built up over time, and “the grooves of the inscription cut clearly through that,” Bourque said.

“If they’d been laying out in the Maine weather for 1,000 years, they wouldn’t have stayed such clean incisions,” he said. “That weathering would have been seen in the grooves as well as on the other surfaces.”

Bourque said Wolter’s theory is “just the latest and grandest” in what has been a string of theories about the authenticity of the Spirit Pond stones over the years. And like the others, he said, the Knights Templar hypothesis eventually will quiet down.

“Most people figure out eventually that these things are fake and move on,” he said, gesturing at a line of previous theorists’ books and papers laid out across a table in a state storage area. “[In this book] it’s a secret code, then here it has something to do with ancient navigation, Sue Carlson thinks it’s poetry and now Scott Wolter believes it’s a Knights Templar plot.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.