The History of Pseudoarchaeology: Pseudoarchaeology and the Modern Era of Public Engagement.


So far we have talked about the co-evolution of pseudoarchaeology and archaeology to the point where archaeology isolated itself for the better part of 30 years, giving alternative archaeology fertile ground to grow and take hold. Now we’re caught up to the modern day, well the 2000’s anyway.

Two things happened in the early 2000’s that really impacted the interactions of pseudoarchaeologists and archaeologists.

1) The Internet became a widely used and important tool in the lives of most Americans.

And

2) New Atheism became a thing.

New Atheism was, basically, a revival of the Atheism and Skeptics movement from the 80’s and 90’s. The Skepticism movement, heavily influenced by Carl Sagan’s 1995 book Demon Haunted World, saw members of the general public begin to challenge all kinds of pseudoscience, heavily leaning towards religious based sciences like Creationism. Which was great for archeology since a good deal of Creationism attempted to simultaneously use archaeology to prove their religious claims of biblical world creation, and also refute archaeology because it didn’t support their religious claims of biblical world creation. This should have had a huge effect on archaeology because the general public was interested in actual archaeology again.

Sadly, professional archaeology wasn’t there to provide a lot of information for people, especially on the Internet, but pseudoarchaeology was. The problem came from two fronts, one was archaeology’s well know near phobic fear of anything new, and the other was an ongoing conversation inside the professional field of if we should even be engaging pseudoarchaeology in the first place.

Professional archaeologists fell into three distinct camps when it came to this, one was in favor of simply ignoring the problem, the second though we should confront it head-on with varying degrees of ferocity (Fagan 2003, 2006, Powell 2003, Romey 2003, Schadla-Hall 2004, Kehoe 2008, Feder 2010, Fagan and Feder 2006, Anderson and Card 2016, Card 2018), and the third camp believed we should somehow find a way to accept pseudoarchaeology and learn to live with them in a unified way, or at least tolerate their existence (Denning 1999, Holtorf 2005, Stout 2008).

Kathryn Denning, in her PhD thesis in 1999 levels several unflattering observations at her peers. Denning argues that it is not a case of ‘professional’ or ‘orthodox’ archaeology and unorthodox pseudoarchaeology, but that everything lays on a spectrum (Denning 1999) and we should accept this spectrum and the archaeologies that are on it equally. She is also quick to point out that things that were once considered ‘fringe’ in the past are now considered orthodox, and vice versa (Denning 1999). This is something that is frequently said by alternative theorists and is not completely true.

Yes, it is true that things that were once considered orthodox have moved from that place to the fringe setting, but not because the archaeological community just randomly decided it, as Denning (1999) seems to suggest, but because evidence has come forward to put it there. Think back to both the Moundbuilder Myth and Piltdown man, both were accepted as orthodoxy, as Denning would put it, and both were proved to be false by evidence and methodology. Also, it is exceedingly rare for a claim that is considered fringe to be accepted (Fagan 2006) usually on the same grounds of there not being anything to support them, think Atlantis.

Frequently alternative archaeologists point to the discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann (Feder 1990, Card 2018) as their prime example of unorthodox becoming orthodox. What they fail to understand is that Schliemann didn’t find Troy, he dug straight through it, misidentified artifacts, and then proceeded to steal them (Mac Sweeney 2018). (I am not a Schliemann fan if you can’t tell). Basically, he did all the things you shouldn’t do in archaeology. Frankly, it should be more than a little concerning that alternative archaeologists are upholding Schliemann as a role model. Mac Sweeney (2018) assigns the actual identification of Troy and the application of the rigorous methods Schliemann received credit for to Schliemann’s young assistant Wilhelm Dorpfeld.

Overall Denning’s argument, as is Holtorf’s and Stouts, is that archaeologists are being very presumptuous about declaring who has a right to speak for the past, and to a point they are correct. They talk around the near erasure of Native culture in America, aided in no small part by the colonial practices of anthropology and archeology (Denning 1999, Holtorf 2005, Stout 2008). What I think they miss here is that pseudoarchaeology is working really hard to do just that, to erase Native history in favor of a fantastical one where white Europeans arrived First. There cannot be a good reason to ever accept alternative archeology on the same footing as say Native American oral traditions. Especially when said alternative archeology work so hard to ignore and erase the Native American legacy in America.

Fortunately, this live and let live idea isn’t the most prevalent one among archaeologists today. It’s kinda more the “ignore it and it will go away” mentality, but there is a growing number of archaeologists who are completely ok with confronting pseudoarchaeology head to head. And it’s gotten a little easier to do with the power of the Internet and social media.

But first, a little perspective on the current state of the public perception of archaeology in America.

The 2000’s saw an explosion of pseudoarchaeology based ‘reality’ TV shows. Shows that focused on “explaining the unexplained”, or “discovering lost civilizations”, shows like Lost Worlds (2005), Ancient Aliens (2009), Unearthed America (2012), The Curse of Oak Island (2014), Expedition Unknown (2015), and now Legends of the Lost (2018). Not to mention shows that are object-oriented, hyper-focused on individual objects and the market value, shows like Antiques Roadshow (1997), American Pickers (2010), American Digger (2012), Diggers (2013), DigFellas (2013), and Detectorsits (2014).

On the other end, there was Time Team America, that ran for 2 seasons and fought tooth and nail for funding.

There are a few popular archaeology magazines, Archaeology Magazine, American Archaeology Magazine, and World Archaeology Magazine, and really only one major alternative archeology magazine, Ancient American Magazine, but National Geographic routinely runs special issues about aliens, lost civilizations, and hidden secrets, using it’s reputation to sell pseudoarchaeology to the general public.

I’m not even going to go into books, there’s just too many, and with the rising popularity of the ebook format, it’s even easier to get something into print these days.

Echoing back to von Daniken and Indiana Jones in the 80’s, the most recognized archaeologists today, due to the 13 year run of Ancient Aliens is the show’s host, Giorgio Tsoukalos (Card 2018) and perhaps video game character Laura Croft due to the successful Tomb Raider franchise. Pseudoarchaeology themes have spread beyond simply TV, they’re in big screen movies, big-name video games, comics, podcasts, and magazines. Archaeologists can’t even compete here.

So where do archaeologists even begin these days?

One place that archaeologists have found somewhat solid footing is in blogging, podcasting, social media like Twitter and Tumblr, and online newspapers and magazines.

Probably the best known online archaeologists are Kris Hirst (@archaeology) who has written for ThoughtCo.com since it was About.com about all kinds of archaeological topics spanning from what is archaeology to several topics in pseudoarchaeology. Kristina Killgrove (@drkillgrove) writes for Forbes.com about archaeology and the science inside archaeology. Jennifer Raff (@JenniferRaff) has written for The Guardian science blog and has recently moved to Forbes.com. She writes about human variation, genetics in archaeology and pseudoarchaeology.

Some archaeologists have found a way to use social media to get their messages out. Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) aka “the Space Archaeologist” was recognized for her work using Lidar and satellite images to do archaeology…from space. Her TedTalk has 1,058,465 views as of the writing of this post, and she makes herself available to travel and talk about her research to the public.

Other ways that archaeologists have tried to reach out, with varying degrees of success are YouTube videos, which can be a great way to reach out to the public, but even these have a drawback. Your videos are affected by two forces that have little to do with content. One is YouTubes own algorithm that is known to bury channels that are not paid or promoted, and then there’s the general popularity of video, which is effectively affected by how entertaining your video is. Basically, unless you have a high production value and/or are really good at making an engrossing video, it’s hard to get a message out on YouTube.

Facebook is another platform that archaeology has tried, with some success. But as Facebook is about creating social bubbles that few people explore outside of, you’re audience is probably going to be other archaeologists or like-minded people, Effectively, you’re preaching to the choir. Not completely useless, creating a community and keeping each other motivated and connected is important.

Twitter is perhaps one of the best social media platforms for getting a message out because it’s such a huge, global conversation. Personally, this is my favorite because it has the best potential to reach out to others outside your bubble. This requires a few easily learned skills, like learning how to @ others in order to start conversations, how to use #hashtags to allow for referencing and for joining larger conversations, and learning what time is best to send out tweets to reach the audience you’re looking for.

Lastly, I want to talk about Podcasting as a powerful way to reach out to a huge audience of listers. Granted, few podcasts start off as massive success overnight, unless they have the backing of a major brand like NPR, MSNBC, and Fox. This isn’t as much of an issue as it is on YouTube, because people come to podcasts looking for a topic. So unlike YouTube where most new views are generated by the algorithm, podcasts are actively looked for individually by topic, for now at least. Podcasting is also easy to get into, most equipment and software is cheap or free and editing is quick to learn.

However, don’t think there isn’t competition for ears with podcasts. Once again Pseudoarchaeology was an early adapter here. They used their well-honed skills of storytelling and public engagement to attract a dedicated lister base. Something most archaeology podcasts are lacking right now. Player.FM (2018) listed the top podcasts for the past year, and the top podcast is Earth Ancients which claims:

“Earth Ancients chronicles the growing (and often suppressed) evidence of known and unknown civilizations, their ruined cities, and artifacts developed from advanced science and technology. Erased from the pages of time, these cultures discovered and charted the heavens, developed medicine and unleashed advancements that parallel and, in many cases, surpass our own. Join us and discover our lost history.” (Player.FM 2018)

Professional archaeology is still getting its foothold in the world of podcasting, but there is hope. On the same list, we see podcasts from the Leakey Foundation, the BBC, as well as shows dedicated to debunking pseudoarchaeology, shows that give regular updates on archaeological discoveries and new, and shows that discuss the field of archaeology publicly. All of this is not only opening the field back up to the public but at the same time its putting archaeology on the same playing field as pseudoarchaeology for the first time in almost sixty years.

So to recap where we are now:
  1. The field of archaeology finally came out of its self-imposed exile to find that pseudoarchaeology had not only taken hold of the public imagination but taken over archaeology’s symbols and inserted itself into the public perception of archaeology.
  2. Because pseudoarchaeology exists due to successful public engagement, and archaeology appeared to have lost its ability to connect with the general public, archaeology is having a very hard time pushing back again the waves of false information about human history.
  3. However, through the use of social media and new media like podcasting, archaeology can find footing in the public mind and rejoin the conversation about archeology again.

Will this be enough to push back pseudoarchaeology? Time will tell, but we already know what doing nothing will get us. The idea that if we just ignore it and it will go away is a dangerous one. Jeb Card ends his introductory chapter in Spooky Archaeology with a warning “The most important error about spooky archaeology is that it will go away if we ignore it. These ideas have been with archaeology since before the word “archaeology” existed, and if we ignore that, we will likely be ignored ourselves (Card 2018). Basically, there is no such thing as harmless pseudoarchaeology.

 


Resources:

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

Denning, Kathryn Eleanor Lillian.
1999 “On Archaeology and Alterity.” PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1999. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/10220.

Fagan, Garrett G.
2003 “Seductions of Pseudoarchaeology: Far Out Television.” Archaeology Magazine, June 2003. https://archive.archaeology.org/0305/abstracts/tv.html.

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

Feder, Feder, and Garrett G. Fagan.
2006 “Crusading against Straw Men: An Alternative View of Alternative Archaeologies: Response to Holtorf.” World Archaeology, Debates in “World Archaeology,” 38, no. 4 (2006): 718–29.

Feder, Kenneth L.

2010 Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2010.
Kehoe, Alice Beck.
2008 Controversies in Archaeology. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press, 2008.

Killgrove,Kristina
2018 “Kristina Killgrove.” Accessed December 6, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/.

Mac Sweeney, Naoíse.
2018 Troy: Myth, City, Icon. Archaeological Histories 7. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2018.

Parcak, Sarah
2012 “Sarah Parcak: Archaeology from Space | TED Talk.” Accessed December 6, 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_parcak_archeology_from_space/up-next?language=en.
2018 “Sarahparcak.” Accessed December 6, 2018. http://www.sarahparcak.com/.

Player FM.
2018 “Best Archaeology Podcasts (2018).” Player.FM, 2018. https://player.fm/featured/archaeology.

Powell, Eric A.
2003 “Seductions of Pseudoarchaeology: Bogus Books.” Archaeology Magazine, June 2003. https://archive.archaeology.org/0305/abstracts/books.html.

Raff, Jennifer
2018 “About Me – Violent Metaphors.” Accessed December 6, 2018. https://violentmetaphors.com/about/.

Romey, Kristin M.
2003 “Seductions of Pseudoarchaeology: Pseudoscience in Cyberspace.” Archaeology Magazine, June 2003. https://archive.archaeology.org/0305/etc/web.html.

Schadla-Hall, Tim.
2004 “The Comforts of Unreason: The Importance and Relevance of Alternative Archaeology.” In Public Archaeology: Papers from a Session of the 4th World Archaeological Congress, edited by Nick Merriman, 255–71. London ; New York: Routledge, 2004. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=iZKCAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA255&ots=IoD45oLg0_&sig=Eofcz6a-91VsDPSM3OlMyjHKJ8U#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Stout, Adam.
2008 Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

West, John Anthony.
2003 “June 2003 AOM: An Open Letter to the Editors of Archaeology.” June 2003 AOM: An Open Letter to the Editors of Archaeology (blog), June 1, 2003. https://grahamhancock.com/open-letter-jaw/.

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