'The real DaVinci Code: France Expedition
Reveals Intriguing Findings'
June 2006 - The Lake Superior Sounder
Last November, as riots shook the city, Scott Mitchen, of Ashland-based International Explorations, touched down in Paris. He disembarked, retrieved his luggage, changed dollars to euros and, set to go, realized his scheduled ride had not arrived yet. Made slightly uneasy by this fact when considering the reason he was there (not to mention the social unrest in the City of Lights at the time), he placed a phone call to an individual named Ed.
Ed did not answer. Someone named Duncan came onto the line instead.
"Ed can't talk now," said the voice, "he's caught in traffic."
"What should I do?" Mitchen asked.
"Walk outside, wait for our car," Duncan instructed, "as we approach, we'll flash our headlights twice."
That was Mitchen's signal, the code he should watch for to ensure he did not climb into the wrong vehicle.
It was not the most inviting way the well-traveled Mitchen has been welcomed into a country.
As it turned out, 'Duncan' was a man named Duncan Caldwell, one of France's preeminent professors of Pre-History, and Ed, his driver, really was caught in traffic. But there was no being too careful. The very reason Mitchen traveled to France had, over the years, resulted in the death of more than sixty people, and it would, in a matter of months, be all the buzz around the world.
Mitchen was living the real DaVinci code.
The journey started months earlier, when Mitchen was contacted by a producer he'd met on the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, on which Mitchen and his crew were featured raising timber from clear boreal waters. Mitchen is the founder of Timeless Timber Inc., a company which put the small Lake Superior town of Ashland, Wisconsin on the map years ago by salvaging sunken pulp logs. His current enterprise, American Wetwoods LLC, uses cutting edge technology to achieve a similar feat - in addition to drying the wood - even more efficiently. He and partner Tony Kopp founded International Explorations last year, placing emphasis on Mitchen's lifelong love of treasure hunting and recovery and using, says Mitchen, the 'glitter of gold' to inspire kids to find the real gold, which is in the library.
When he contacted Mitchen, the producer of the Discovery Channel show was in Hollywood, associated with an independent film company working on a documentary piece about some rather significant findings in the south of France, near the village of Carcassonne, specifically the nearby Rennes-le-Chateau, a ruinous castle where a fearsome-looking statue of Lucifer greets visitors and the words 'Terrible is this place' appear near the entrance, located in a region where the medieval pulse - Gregorian chants, long shadows cast by Church doctrine, and memories of people living in trembling fear of everything, including God and themselves - can still be felt. Here, castle ruins still cling to hillsides, visible over long otherwise bucolic miles. Here, village streets are narrow and cobbled, echoing with rigid lines and cramped spaces where direct sunlight never quite reaches the oppression of the era in which they were constructed centuries ago. As an Iowa crossroads town might give a visitor the sense that it's still 1895, here, says Mitchen, the feeling dates back much earlier. In some places it's 1600, or feels like it could be, no matter how many times the sun rises and the sun sets.
Mitchen was asked to come along with the film crew while the documentary was being shot on account of his expertise in artifact discovery and recovery.
"It was amazing," he says, "I took off from Duluth, Minnesota, landed in Paris, and felt like I had stepped right into the book."
The 'book' he refers to is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the best-selling novel that has been made into a movie and offers compelling - if arguable - theories as to the actual role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus, and the life of Jesus himself. Both the book and the movie have caused no small amount of controversy.
Right away, Mitchen, family and friends were aware of the inherent risks involved with getting on board the project. They knew there would be potential controversy, even outrage, over what the British director sought, and hoped to prove. Regardless of what might be found during the excursion, Mitchen knew there would be people who would never accept the suggestion that, when it comes to that which we have been told about Christianity, all may not be as it seems. He knew people were angry enough about The Da Vinci Code. And that, in the end, is just fiction.
This was the real thing. No creative license to hide behind, no suspension of disbelief necessary. Just facts - artifacts - stating yes or no, or at least suggesting maybe.
"As a Catholic, I went into this with a completely open mind," says Mitchen, "and I want to make that very clear. My job, my role here, was to analyze what I saw, relay it to people, and let them make up their own minds."
Mitchen is adamant about this, claiming that before each sojourn out of the country, he stops by a small shrine in Benoit and prays for safe passage and return.
"It's become my ritual," he says, "I don't normally make an issue of that, but given this particular subject, I think it's important for people to know that religion is still very important to me. My intent was never to help prove something negative about the Church, but I was brought there for my expertise, and what we found are things that can't be ignored. I'm very excited, but I make no claims one way or the other. Given the controversy, and also the depth to which these things matter to a lot of people around the world, it's important everyone is allowed to draw their own conclusions."
Secrets at Rennes-le-Chateau
The Rennes-le-Chateau itself is shrouded in mystery. A medieval castle village and commune, it has endured rumors dating back to the 1950s about a 19th century priest, Berenger Sauniere, alleged to have acquired large sums of money under mysterious circumstances. Since then, it's become the center of numerous conspiracy theories regarding hidden treasure allegedly found on the site, and secrets that threaten to shake the very foundations of Catholicism.
It was these secrets that attracted the film crew, and brought them - along with Mitchen - to France. The findings of that November trip are now being compiled into a documentary movie.
The trip was a departure from the norm for Mitchen, who generally seeks out sunken treasure, the kind found in roiling, rock pounded waters off the coast of Venezuela, say, or resting in swatches of sun-soaked, blue-green Caribbean ocean. The stuff of pirates. But he's been dreaming of Biblical treasure since he was a boy, since first combing river bottoms in his native southern Wisconsin. The Spanish galleons he's dived have often held church treasure, but never had he - or any people he worked with - been so involved.
Mitchen says when he was first approached about the project, he was aware of The Da Vinci Code, but unfamiliar with it. A book-on-tape copy quickly changed that, and right away he saw intriguing similarities between his story - as it unfolded - and that of Robert Langdon, the protagonist. At the same time, he became more and more aware of the risks involved with digging too deep, as it were, into sacred ground. The novel speaks of secrets kept for millennia, and those who are willing to murder to keep them.
The double flashed headlights of the vehicle that picked up Mitchen at the airport in Paris was a necessary step to ensure security.
And yet, Mitchen says he felt a peace come over him the entire time, a sense that, in spite of the uncertainty, he'd made the right choice to drop everything and come to France.
Following the lead of the film crew, after establishing what Mitchen describes as a strong simpatico between all of them, the first order of business was to get the locals comfortable with them. The villagers, it turned out, had secrets to tell, but things they were reluctant to discuss openly with people they did not trust.
"We did everything we could to get them to trust us," says Mitchen, "went out to dinner, or drinks, spent a lot of time talking about things not related to why we were there at all, so that when the moment came to broach the subject, they wouldn't balk."
Their investigation took them throughout the region, from the Rennes-le-Chateau to a 9th century church to the streets of Carcassonne, where cautious and conscientious locals told them stories and handed them artifacts, to the mountainous regions - alpine meadows where simple metal detector technology revealed possible clues, or answers, to long-standing questions.
As it is addressed in Brown's novel, the bloodline of Jesus is thought by some to not have ended on the cross as traditionally taught. Some believe Mary Magdalene and Jesus were wed, that she became pregnant, and after his crucifixion, traveled to the south of France where she gave birth to a daughter named 'Sarah.' In the book, the blood line is actually the long-sought 'holy grail', and descendants of Jesus and Mary are protected by a secret order called the Priory of Scion. Mary Magdalene's role in the life of Jesus was downplayed by a fiercely patriarchal church over the centuries, in part to attempt to preserve Jesus' divinity. Eventually, she would be recorded by history as little more than a prostitute.
Other more radical theories not associated with the novel suggest Jesus did not die on the cross at all, but his crucifixion was hoaxed in a conspiracy by Pontius Pilot to appease the Romans and Pharisees. It is theorized that Jesus and Mary Magdalene then traveled to France together, where they were married and lived out the rest of their lives in matrimony.
Traveling through this region was mesmerizing to Mitchen, who felt like - in an oblique sense - he was traveling in Jesus' footsteps.
"Whatever you believe, whatever conclusions you draw," he says, "it's amazing the sense of timelessness here. You can't help but feel like you've traveled back in time."
Talking to locals, utilizing Mitchen's technology to 'see' through walls and underground, the film crew was able to acquire a plethora of artifacts that are compelling, to say the least:
1) In a small, 9th century church, stained glass that has imbued sunlight for centuries, depicting not only Jesus and Mary Magdalene kneeling in front of an altar in a way that is difficult not to interpret as a marriage ceremony, but also Jesus and Mary with a child, and women depicted in a prominent positions of status within the church.
2) A painting, presumably of Mary Magdalene, worshiping in a cave in the final moments of her life. Behind her, through the cave mouth, the landscape is strikingly familiar to that in the Carssaconne region. Mitchen believes (and this is where his contribution to the expedition is really evident), he has located the distant castle and mountain peak that are visible in the painting, and pinpointed from that vantage point the spot where Mary is depicted. Using ground-penetrating radar, Mitchen hopes to be able to see what lies beneath that spot. If the signal returns a void, he may have found his cave, and that, he believes, could be the spot where Magdalene was laid to rest.
3) A small pewter bust of Christ, whose significance, Mitchen says, isn't yet clear, but whose discovery is intriguing nonetheless.
4) The testimonies of several locals, one in particular named Gerard, a Frenchman with no seeming motive whatsoever, who tells of secrets buried in Rennes-le-Chateau.
"He was impossible not to listen to," Mitchen recalls. "He had no motive, no agenda, wasn't getting paid."
Speaking tentatively but sure of himself through the capable translation of Duncan Caldwell, Gerard stated, "I don't want to change the faith of Catholics. I have no reason to hurt people who believe. If it was just the church at stake, I would have no problem revealing what I know. But out of respect for believers, I think this information should be given out in a soft way."
Whether all of this information compiles into irrefutable evidence remains to be seen. But as seems to be the case with everything Mitchen is involved with, the distinction between Hollywood and the real thing, as he puts it, should be recognized. He and his crew and partners encounter things on a daily, weekly or monthly basis that it takes Hollywoood months at a time and millions of dollars to fabricate. Mitchen's 'treasure' is the real article, rather than props on a sound stage, and in the case of what he's seen in the south of France, might someday have remarkable impact.
"Being a Catholic," he says, "I find it fascinating. It's simply things you cannot ignore. Has it changed my belief in Jesus? Only in the sense that I appreciate him more. And I ask myself, what would Jesus want? Would he want to know the truth, whatever that was? I believe he would."
INTRIGUING - At top, an altar painting in France's Rennes-le-Chateau reportedly depicts Mary Magdalene worshiping in a cave. Through the cave opening behind her, a distinctly French landscape, a distant castle and mountainside (enhanced lower left). Scott Mitchen of International Explorations believes the photograph he took recently (lower right) shows the same vista from roughly the same vantage point, and using ground-penetrating radar hopes to find the burial place of Magdalene.