The History of Pseudoarchaeology: From Engagement to Isolation.


Things changed drastically as archaeology developed and professionalized. During the pre-professional time, or the Romantic Era of archaeology as Jeb Card and David Anderson (2016) call it, archaeology was really more of a jumbled collection of competing methodologies, antiquarians out looking for epic adventures chasing down mythic locations, and making extraordinary claims to establish racial dominance and promote nationalist agendas (Card and Anderson 2016). However, as the field of archaeology matured, it began to challenge these behaviors, choosing scientific procedures over frivolity, demanding evidence to support wild claims, and in general, growing up.

For example, Alternative theorists love to point out a couple early hoaxes that archeology had to deal with. The most famous of these would be the Piltdown man hoax.

Ever so briefly, the Piltdown man was an early 1900’s hoax were the lower jaw of an ape was altered to look like it belonged with the cranial part of a human skull. It was ‘discovered’ in 1912 in Sussex England and was lauded as the missing link (Feder 2010, 1990). Though the hoax wasn’t one-hundred percent debunked until 1949, it did have its early detractors (Feder 1990). Many thought it was just a little too convenient that Piltdown man was discovered where it was, and as time went by and more actual hominids were found around the world that predated Piltdown’s supposed age, more suspicions were thrown at it. 1949 was the beginning of the end for Piltdown man as a series of tests revealed that the bones that made up the skull were not the right age or even from the same species (Feder 1990).

Piltdown man fits because of the desperate need by the British government to have, not only an early hominid discovered on their soil but to have it be *the* missing link. British archaeologists at the time were willing to overlook clues that this was probably a hoax. Yet 40 years later, after a lot of questions from inside the field, the Piltdown man was exposed.

The reason this case is so well known is because it played out in the public eye, mainly by the circumstances of the time. Newspapers carried stories and images of the Piltdown man (Feder 1990). The public loved it and talked about it. It was even presented by the researchers to the public. Because of this, other researchers were able to know of and examine the hoax, and call it into question long enough to finally get it disproven. Now when we talk about the Piltdown man, we’re talking about the hoax and not the supposed missing link.

The development of Institutional Professional Archaeology.

Honestly, this is where things start to decline as far as the interactions between archaeology and pseudoarchaeology are concerned. Leading up to the 60’ Archaeologists were all over the place publicly. During the 1800’s they were traveling around speaking and presenting findings. Granted this was a necessity of the times, but the side effect was a great deal of public engagement.

As time moved on, Archaeologists began to appear on the radio and then TV (Card and Anderson 2016) embracing the new media as ways to communicate with the public. They wrote popular books about archaeology and, again, spoke publicly about the topic.

This all seemed to work out best over in the UK. Sir Lenord Woolley was all over the radio, Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel were named TV personality of the year in 1954, the UK show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral was a success where the US version What in the World was not (Card and Anderson 2016). Overall, it seemed like everything was going good.

Then the New Archeology moment began in archaeology, symbolizing a shift in archaeological theory and practice. This time was important, it was a time when archeology began to look critically at itself and evaluate itself. It started important theory groups like gender and queer theory, started a realization of the colonial practices of archeology and called out the racism of the field. We’re not going to delve deeply into any of this here, but it’s important to understand what was happening as the archaeological field solidified and professionalized.

Unfortunately, it also isolated itself, pulling away from the public eye and behind academic walls. Card and Anderson (2016) point out that during this time where archaeology was maturing and professionalizing, the public saw very little of it. Instead what they did see was TV, books, and magazines pushing sensational ideas like ancient astronauts, ley lines, hidden symbols and lost civilizations (Card and Anderson 2016). Few professional rebuttals were issued, and even those didn’t appear to make it to the general public.

Chariots of the Gods? by Erick von Däniken was published in 1968. It inspired a TV series In Search of Ancient Astronauts airing in 1973. These were just a few of the most popular, clearly pseudoarchaeological media of the time. The result of all this uncriticized attention on fringe ideas resulted in actual archaeologists becoming characters and stereotypes, and the most recognized ‘Archaeologist’ in the US during the 70’s and 80’s being von Däniken and Indiana Jones.

The only book to come out at this time that I can find is Robert Wauchope’s book Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents in 1962. Even this though was a response to a 1947 book by Harold Gladwin, who was either being completely serious with his offensive, racist diffusionist theories or was just trying to be funny. Jullan Steward said about Gladwin’s book:

“Anthropologists who are familiar with Gladwin and with Gladwin’s solid contributions to Southwestern archeology during the past two decades will recognize this book as the release of partially suppressed theories with which he has long wanted to taunt the profession. They will understand that his manhandling of facts, his whimsical methodology, and his beating of dead horses are designed to get their blood pressures up. They will recommend that their friends should read the book for sheer entertainment but that they should not believe a word of it.” (Steward 1949)

Either way, he did have noted eugenicist E.A. Hooton write the foreword…so.

As archaeology withdrew from the public eye and from the public discussion of archaeology, they lost control of their image and symbols. Jeb Card (2017) points out in his book Spooky Archaeology that the void created by archaeologists was gladly filled by pseudoarchaeologists putting on the trappings of archaeology and creating an image that allowed them to co-opt archaeological authority.

“Anyone willing to wear the old symbols of pre-professional archaeology can claim the archaeological legacy and it’s mythic social currency even if their ideas or methods have no significant tie to actual archaeological practices, past or present.” (Card 2018)

It took over thirty years before the next book written by a professional archaeologist challenging pseudoarchaeology would be published. By then pseudoarchaeology had its hooks in the minds and imaginations of the public. Von Däniken and his cohort had not only lit a match, but the flames had caught, inspiring movies like Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Comic Books like Jack Kirby’s Eternals (1976), Games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974), hundreds of popular fiction stories and even more ‘Docu-mysteries’. Even newspaper comics routinely poked at these ideas, The Farside by Gary Larson started in 1980, routinely joked about archaeology, cavemen, and aliens.

 

So to recap where we are just now:
  1. During the Romantic era of archeology, it was pretty chaotic, but as the field professionalized, archaeologists began to question extraordinary claims and test them using developing methodology.
  2. As archaeology further developed and focused on much-needed self-reflection and theory development, it isolated itself and withdrew from public discussions.
  3. As archaeology left the conversation, pseudoarchaeology jumped in with both feet.
  4. When archaeology came out of its self-imposed exile, it realized the damage done by its non-participation, but at this point, the damage was done.
  5. Now archaeology is trying to desperately catch up with pseudoarchaeological claims and re-learn how to engage the general public.

Basically, by the time professional archeology decided to wake up, the damage was already done. Pseudoarchaeology was part of the mainstream and nearly every part of entertainment. When archaeologists began to re-engage pseudoarchaeology, they were confused at the public’s rejection of the world of facts and theory, and even argued amongst themselves about how best to embrace this new wave of fringe beliefs. Still, it was clear something had to be done, the question was what, and how.


Resources:

Card, Jeb J., and David S. Anderson, eds.
2016 Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016.

Däniken, Erich von.
1968 Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. New York: Berkley, 1968.

Feder, Kenneth L.
Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2010.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. Ninth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Gladwin, Harold S.
1947 Men Out of Asia. Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1947.

Reinl, Harald.
1973 In Search of Ancient Astronauts (TV Movie 1973) – IMDb. 16 mm, Documentary. Thunderbird Video, 1973. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133018/.

Steward, Jullan H.
1949 “Men out of Asia. Harold Sterling Gladwin.” American Anthropologist 51, no. 1 (January 1949): 113–15. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1949.51.1.02a00210.

Wauchope, Robert. Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents: Myth and Method in the Study of American Indians Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.


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