The History of Pseudoarchaeology: The Re-Engagement of Professorial Archaeology with the Public

The Re-engagement of professorial archaeology with the public was not an easy one. There had been a 30-year silence on the end of archaeology and when they came back into it, it was as if they had forgotten how to communicate.

Ken Feder published the first edition of his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology in 1990, 30 years after Robert Wauchope published his Lost Tribes and Sunken Contents. Now in its ninth edition, Feder’s book has become a staple textbook for many a college class on Alternative archaeology. And it’s good, Feder has an easy way of writing with wit and simplicity, able to break down archaeological ideas and pseudoarchaeological ones so that the general public can understand what he’s saying. All without talking down to his audience. There is the criticism that Feder is too harsh in his tone and treatment of pseudoarchaeology, particularly certain individuals who try to push their flavor of alternative archaeology, but we’ll address this in a bit.

Feder’s publication seems to have triggered a brief rapid fired publication of pseudoarchaeological rebuttals. Stephen Williams published Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory in 1991, Francis Harrold and Raymond Eve Cult Archaeology & Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past in 1995, and Mary Lefkowitz published Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History in 1996. Understanding how books get written and published, we know these volumes were being written sometime in the late 80’s early 90’s which means the academic conversation about the problems with pseudoarchaeology were being noticed again around this time. Harrold and Eve’s book is an edited volume based on a 1986 symposium at the Society for American Archeology meeting that year. Feder, Luanne Hudson, and Herrold organized the meeting because they had become concerned enough by the prevalence of pseudoarchaeology they thought it should be addressed and brought to the attention of their peers (Harrold and Eve 1995)

Right after this rush of publications, we start to see on the back end of professional archaeology the conversations begin. Why do people believe this stuff? What’s wrong? Is it them? Is it us? A general discussion began about 1998, started by James Deetz. He made a call to his peers to return to a style of writing that was more prose like, more open, more storytelling and less fact telling. Deetz himself is a bit of a master at this with his books In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life and Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation.

Deetz’s call to archaeologists to be more open with their writing style is echoed by Adrian Praetzellis (1998) and Teresita Majewski (2000). Both talk about workshops offered in 1997 and 1998 to teach archeologist’s how to be more open in their writing. It’s Majewski who sums up why this sudden need to re-learn communication is so important. Naming *Hyperscience* as when archaeological inquiry has been narrowed down to such a small scale that archaeologists lose sight of the essential human aspect of the discipline (Majewski 2000). She calls out archaeologists for being protective of their “facts” and about who gets to tell the story linking the story of the facts together. Which is a sentiment we’ll encounter going forward. The idea of who owns the past is not only a valid argument but one we’ll see alternative theorists try to subvert.

Deetz, Praetzellis, and Majewski all make a collective call for archaeologists to become better storytellers, to embrace the power of story, and ignite the imaginations of the public through storytelling.

“I welcome the potential of storytelling, or ‘interpretive archaeology,’ to contribute to both public interpretation and archaeological analysis.” (Majewski 2000)

Storytelling is a skill pseudoarchaeology had already mastered by this point though. As such archaeology was at a huge disadvantage when it came to re-engaging the public.

It didn’t help that archaeological publications stopped being available to the public as well. This entire discussion with Deetz, Praetzellis, Majewski and their peers happened in the pages of Historical Archaeology, a scholarly journal for the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA). As such it was, and is, only available to members of the SHA’s. Many of its articles are still kept behind a pay-wall, and even in today’s era of Google, the articles are not always the first thing to pop up when you look something up. Not that most people would be willing to pay the price for an article anyway.

So the point here is, that in the late ’90s when this professional realization that archaeologist kinda suck at talking to the public was occurring, the public was completely blind to it because they were basically blocked from participating.

Lack of public participation is not an issue for alternative theorists though, public engagement is their bread and butter, and as we’ll see, their powers of storytelling and mastery of the Internet and social media again leaves professional archaeology in the dust.


Resources:

Deetz, James
1993 Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

1996 In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Expanded and rev. ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

1998 “Discussion: Archaeologists as Storytellers.” Historical Archaeology 32, no. 1 (March 1998): 94–96. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03373617.

Feder, Kenneth L.
2007 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. Ninth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Harrold, Francis B., and Raymond A. Eve, eds.
1995 Cult Archaeology & Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

Lefkowitz, Mary R.
1996 Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: BasicBooks, 1996.

Majewski, Teresita.
2000 “We Are All Storytellers: Comments on Storytelling, Science, and Historical Archaeology.” Historical Archaeology 34, no. 2 (June 2000): 17–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03374309.

Praetzellis, Adrian.
1998 “Introduction: Why Every Archaeologist Should Tell Stories Once in a While.” Historical Archaeology 32, no. 1 (1998): 1–3.

Williams, Stephen.
1991 Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.


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2 thoughts on “The History of Pseudoarchaeology: The Re-Engagement of Professorial Archaeology with the Public

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  1. Archaeologists use arcane language to prove to their colleagues that they are serious archaeologists. If something has a bull head you have to call it bucephalic instead, even though the word isn’t in any dictionary I have found. If something flourished or flowered in a particular period you can’t say that, you have to say it had its floreat, even though that originally meant “may it flourish”. If you are an outsider like me it is hard to buck the official line.

    1. I get your point, but have never hear those particular terms in 20 years of doing this and reading papers or going to conferences.

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