The History of Pseudoarchaeology: The Moundbuilders Myth

The first thing to look at any time you start a new project is the history of the topic. Our topic is practically as old as the field of archaeology itself, some might argue even older (Card 2018). The reason for this is that before the field of archaeology ‘professionalized’ there was a time of Antiquarians.

This Time of Antiquarianism is very much like what Jeb Card (2018) calls mythic science time, a time before names and before organization. It’s not as mystical as it all sounds, but that area of fuzzy memory where the mists of time are a little harder to see though, that’s where trouble starts.

We don’t need to walk through the history of the field of archaeology or drown ourselves in theory (thank god). A few highlighted moments will do us nicely. What we want to understand is that the way archaeologists interact with pseudoarchaeology and the public today is very different from the way early antiquarians and archaeologists did. The field itself used to be much more open and communicated with the public better. True, the field was far less professional and had issues that the modern professional field is still learning to detach from. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to ignore this, archaeology has issues, but it’s the worst of these issues that pseudoarchaeology tries so damn hard to hold onto.

Slight disclaimer here, we’ll be focusing mostly on North American archaeology and pseudoarchaeology. We may make a jump outside of these borders occasionally, but mostly we’ll stay here. The main reason for this is most of today’s’ popular pseudoarchaeology seems to come back to the Americas at some point, and secondly, it’s the area of archaeology that I am most familiar with and speak to with the most authority. So with that, let’s look at the what I consider the first real clash of archaeology vs pseudoarchaeology.

Archaeology vs Pseudoarchaeology, Begin!

When settlers and explorers first came to the Americas, they noticed the monumental structures that dotted the continent (Kolodny 2012). However, Europeans at the time couldn’t understand how people as ‘primitive’ as the Natives could have created anything as impressive as the great earth mounds in North America, or the stunning temples of South American. And so, lacking either the knowledge or the belief in the humanity of Native Americans, the Europeans decided that there must have been another race of people here before the Natives. One that was advanced and clever, and probably white like themselves.

Having no evidence of any kind to point to who these advanced peoples were, early antiquarians fell back on myths, folklore, bible stories, and mythic documents like the Icelandic Saga’s to help them figure out who it was that settled the Americas first (Feder 1990, Kolodny 2012). The most popular candidates for First were the Lost tribes of Israel, the Phoenicians, and the Norse. The Celts and random British figures also factored in, but the top three were (and still are today) the first grouping. There are lots of reasons for these different groups, spanning political, religious, and just plain racist ideals, but the important thing to take away at this point is, none of this was pseudoarchaeology….yet.

Even those who are usually put forward as early champions of a Native First theory were not as noble as we’re led to believe. This whitewashing of archaeological history feeds into Jeb Card’s (2018) argument of mythic scientific time. Card defines mythic time in his book Spooky Archaeology (2018) as “the time before names” and “time before human society.” He further applies this idea to mythic science time, a time before professional organization and scientific accountability. A time when the field of archaeology was just starting to develop and solidify into what we like to recognize as professional archeology today.

The case of the Moundbuilder myth encapsulates this. Not only as an example of how archaeology was developing at the time, but also as an example of something the fringe likes to hold onto even today.

The Moundbuilder Myth.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wasn’t at all sure who built the mounds, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t the Natives. Schoolcraft suggested Phoenicians, Celts, and Vikings (Kolodny 2012). Yet, at the same time, Schoolcraft expressed hearty skepticism about interpretations of rock drawings as Phoenician scripts (Kolodny 2012, Hunter 2018) or misreadings of Indian petroglyphs as Viking runestones. The reason for was his close connections with the Ojibwa tribe and his exposure to their writing. He famously brought in an Ojibwa elder to do the only known reading of the Dighton Rock inscription by a native speaker (Kolodny 2012, Hunter 2018). Though there are issues with this reading due to the region the Elder was from, it’s probably closer than any other reading of Dighton Rock (Kolodny 2012, Hunter 2018).

The discussion on who built the mounds was one taken quite seriously by early Euro-Americans. Timothy Dwight  in the first of his four-volume, Travels in New England and New York, published in 1821-23 said:

“Nor is there a single known fact which forbids us to believe that the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians in their voyages to different countries on the Atlantic…wandered…to the western continent” (1:91)(Kolodny 2012)

Annette Kolodny (2012) remarks on this suggesting that Dwight, like many of those who would become the United States founding fathers, was trying to create a historical narrative for the newly forming nation. Creating a new narrative gave the new nation meaning, and thereby created an identity for the Euro-Americans who were about to wage war with the British monarchy. This identity was important to the newly forming country because it gave them legitimacy to belong in the New World. This creation and assumption of identity is a theme we’ll see play out in other areas of pseudoarchaeology, but again, at this point, we are still not talking about pseudoarchaeology.

Letters exchanged between Samuel Mather and Benjamin Franklin discuss who the original founders of America might be. Old Ben even sends along a had written account from a Swedish gentleman he’d met who told him the Norse were the first inhabitants (Franklin 1773, Kolodny 2012). This was a popular idea at the time, leaving poor Christopher Columbus as a historical footnote (Kolodny 2012). He wouldn’t come again until sometime after the Revolutionary War and only then as a way of establishing a national identity to legitimize European occupation of the New World (Kolodny 2012). Nationalism is a repeating theme in pseudoarchaeology, and still, we are not yet talking about pseudoarchaeology, but I think the set up for it is apparent.

The nail in the Moundbuilder myth would come from Cyrus Thomas after being commissioned by the newly created Smithsonian Institution. Thomas originally thought the mounds were the remnants of a more advanced race of humans that were now gone (Kolodny 2012). However, through archaeology and oddly, the Bat Creek Stone, Thomas was convinced the mounds were connected to the ancestors of the Native Americans. Specifically the Cherokee because of the Bat Creek Stone inscription looking like Cherokee writing.

With Thomas’ proclamation, finally giving credit where credits due, interest in the mounds waned (Card 2018). But, this was the beginning of the what Card (2018) calls the Initial Engagement between the newly forming and professionalizing field of archaeology and it’s doppelganger, pseudoarchaeology.

I do have to agree with Fagan (2006) that just because a theory or idea existed in the past doesn’t automatically make it pseudoscience. Archaeology started off on some very wrong footing, but where the line began to be drawn, is with evidence and the adherence to the scientific method. Thomas found no evidence for the Moundbuilders to be anything other than the ancestors of the Native Americas, despite already assuming them to be non-Native in origin. This is good science. Pseudoscience is insisting that the mounds must have been built by another group of people despite overwhelming evidence that they were not, and also pushing that insistence on the public by using misleading or false information. Age doesn’t make pseudoscience, blindly ignoring evidence does.

So to recap where we are just now:
  1. The history and formation of pseudoarchaeology runs alongside that of professional archaeology. They share roots in the same past.
  2. Because the origin of archaeology is so far back in the past, it exists in mythic science time. This is seen with the Moundbuilder myth and how it was settled by Thomas during the early formation of the field.
  3. Just because a theory is both old and wrong doesn’t automatically make it pseudoscience, adherence to the theory despite evidence to the contrary, dose.

Next post we’re going to talk about how things changed as archaeology developed. From the early engagement of pre-professional archaeology, into the development of institutional professional archaeology, the re-engagement of professorial archaeology with the public, and modern-day archaeology’s interaction with pseudoarchaeology.



Card, Jeb J.
2018 Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018.

Fagan, Garrett G., ed.
2006 Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public. London ; New York: Routledge, 2006.

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

Franklin, Benjamin.
1773 “From Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Mather, 7 July 1773.” Founders Online. Accessed December 3, 2018.

Hunter, Doug.
2018 The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Kolodny, Annette.
2012 In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Websites to check out:
The Moundbuilder Myth. Ohio History Connection.

Music in podcast provided by

“We Don’t Dig Dinos” ArchaeoS0up Productions. Use with permission.

“Quasi Motion” Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Dark Hallway – Distressed” Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

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