If you follow this blog or podcast for any amount of time you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the things we cover can be traced back to 19th-century ideas. I’m not saying we should blame the Victorians for everything dealing with pseudo-archaeology, but I’m not saying we shouldn’t either.
What was going on during the Victorian era. Times were changing, social structures were being challenged, Darwinism, and archaeology was blossoming into a legitimate field of academic study. Kind of.
Of course, with every great growth spurt comes growing pains. And I honestly think that’s what the 19th century was for archaeology.
This is mainly me speculating basing all of this on 10 years writing this blog, and five years of hosting a podcast about debunking bad archaeology. I think I have a little authority to speak from here when I say the Victorian era in the 19th century was a powerhouse for fake archaeology. Some of the most enduring hoaxes that still plague modern archaeology today were created in the 19th century.
Some of them have been mostly dealt with, things like the Cardiff giant and Piltdown man. Not even the ancient aliens people push either of those as being authentic anymore. I know there’s a late hanger-on every now and then who pops up. I know the Cardiff giant was recently brought up as evidence for giants by one of the obscure vlogs I watch. For the most part though these of been laid to rest, debunked by archaeology and archaeologists of the 19th century, and continually reinforced by modern archaeologists, most pseudo-archaeology theorists don’t even bother with these.
There are others that have such staying power that I must marvel at them. Things like the Newark holy stones, the Michigan relics, the Kensington Rune Stone, the Bat Creek inscription, and the whole mound builder myth. Most of these things are complete hoaxes. They are not accepted in any way shape or form by the field of archaeology, but they are staples in the pseudo-archaeology arsenal of alternative history buffs.
Why do so many fakes come out of the Victorian era in the 19th century? What was so special about this time period that fakes were being made left and right?
One of the most obvious reasons for there being so many fakes from this era is the lack of ability to fact check them. In our modern era were used to Google and Wikipedia. We’re used to being able to type in a search term and get hundreds if not thousands of results to answer a question. This isn’t how things worked over 100 years ago. I’m not saying that people weren’t capable of distinguishing a real from a fake. The Piltdown man and means the Cardiff giant are clear examples that science and archaeology of the time was more than capable of spotting fakes when presented with them. The problem here is the average citizen had even less access to information than they do today, and in general trusted individuals who portrayed themselves as authorities.
Also keep in mind times were changing. People were moving into the beginning of an era where information traveled quickly, comparatively to the time, and lots of interesting spiritualist ideas were starting to spread. Many of the ideas that archaeologists deal with as far as the concepts that ancient aliens put forward, or giantologists argue, or even the lost Atlantean people push, mostly originated during the 19th century. At the time there was less information to counter these arguments with, and there, of course, was the accepted social stance that a lot of these spiritualist ideas fit into. Yes, I’m talking about things such as ethnocentrism racism, classism, and all the other fun things that I rally against constantly on this blog. I’m not saying the Victorians created racism, but they sure as hell liked using it.
During this time archaeology was concerned mostly with discovering origins and finding the oldest – whatever. Add to that the socially dominant idea that Native Americans could not have been the first people in the Americas, for reasons that are pretty much only supported biblically and even then not really. What you got was a race to find the first evidence of a superior white race that predated the Native Americans. When evidence began to come up lacking to support this loose hypothesis, some people took to creating that evidence themselves.
It can be speculated that certain hoaxes like the Bat Creek inscription were placed maliciously to harm the reputation of the excavator in charge. Other hoaxes, like the Kensington Rune Stone, may have been placed in an effort to confuse and befuddle the “learned men” of the time. Other hoaxes were most definitely done specifically to raise money. The Cardiff giant was created specifically as a moneymaking scheme, and it kinda worked. We also have to look at hoaxes such as the Piltdown man, which was basically an exercise in nationalism, and the desire to prove that Britain was better than everyone else because it had “the first man” the quintessential “missing link” in the evolutionary chain.
And we’re just talking about the archaeological hoaxes that most people are aware of. There are hundreds if not thousands of fake artifacts in the cultural history and art museums across the country and around the world. Artifacts that were created specifically to sell to institutions, like the Smithsonian, to make a quick buck. Some of these artifacts remained in the collections for many decades before being discovered as fakes. I suppose the comfort is that almost all of them had some detractor or doubter of their authenticity, but on the whole were accepted as authentic.
But how could so many fakes and hoaxes get past institutions specifically designed to study ancient history and art?
Basically, the technology wasn’t in place to debunk these artifacts. Even though communications were growing and becoming easier during the 19th century, they are still a far cry from what we enjoy today. I can send a text to a colleague and have an answer within an hour or so. During the 19th century, that question could take months to receive an answer. During that time the fake artifact or hoax may have already been purchased and possibly displayed to the public.
Authenticating artifacts was difficult as well, mainly because there weren’t as many experts as there are today. Collections were still thin, museums still growing, experts still being created. It was easier to pass off a fake as an authentic artifact or to just create a culture whole cloth in order to sell an artifact because the ability to debunk these things didn’t quite exist yet. There was no chemical testing at the level that we have today, no infrared scanning of paintings to see what colors fluoresce and what colors don’t. There was no way to molecularly test an object to see what kind of varnish was being used to create the aged look on an artifact.
So why were there so many fakes that come out of the 19th century and the Victorian era? Essentially, because that time period was right for it. The combination of fevered interest in discovering the human past, combined with lack of knowledge and comparative samples created a perfect storm for the creation and the selling of fakes and hoaxes.
Which should be the real question here though is, why are these fakes and hoaxes still accepted today as fact? It’s one thing to look back at the 19th century and the Victorian era and understand that people weren’t necessarily gullible as much as they simply didn’t have access to the proper information because it didn’t exist yet. It’s another thing entirely to be in the modern era where these things can be checked at the top of the phone screen and yet there is still fervent belief in the idea of the mound builders myth, that the Kensington Rune Stone is a real Viking room stone, that the Newark holy stones prove the lost tribes of Israel were in the Americas before Native Americans, and that somehow giants are real.
On the one hand yes we have ancient aliens that’s run for 14 seasons on television and has spawned numerous similar shows on various channels. But at some point, we can only blame the media for so much. At some point, we need to sit back and ask ourselves, what are we missing, and how can we fix it?
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