Posts Tagged With: Cult Science

What is Archaeoastronomy?

moon in the trees

This is a topic that’s been bothering me since I started watching America Unearthed. Though to be fair, it’s not the first time I’ve seen the term misused, it’s just the point that drove the issue home for me. What I want to do here is give people a working idea of what the concept of Archaeoastronomy is. Probably this post is going to be updated occasionally as new and creative fringe uses of the term pop up.

Archaeoastronomy is a word that gets abused by everyone in the pseudoarchaeology fringe. I’m not really sure if it’s that the word just sounds cool, or if those in the fringe get a basic definition of a word and then run with it. The reality of the word is that it describes a collection of techniques used by most ancient peoples and it describes a field of study in the archaeology community.

How is archaeoastronomy describe by archaeologists  vs. what is commonly touted as archaeoastronomy in the fringe community?

Scott Wolter likes to describe archaeoastronomy in incredibly simplistic and misleading ways in his show America Unearthed. He also likes to change his definition from show to show using things like “The ancient practice of aligning buildings with celestial bodies.” or “Archaeoastronomy: ancient use of the sun, moon, stars, and planets in architecture and design.” This is simplistic to the point of being incorrect.

A correct explanation of archaeoastronomy is as described by the Center for Archaeoastronomy (CfA N.d);

The study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions, and the world-views of ancient cultures.

It is the anthropology of astronomy. It is observing how ancient peoples interacted with astronomy and not just how they aligned buildings to the “celestial bodies”.

I hope the difference in these two definitions can be easily seen. America Unearthed and similar fringe groups are only concerned with a single trait of the overall practice of archaeoastronomy. They only see one type of the many different expressions of archaeoastronomy in the world and from this they draw some pretty narrow, and very misleading, conclusions.

As can be seen in the archaeologist’s definition, we can see that this field is firstly concerned with the culture of the people practicing archaeoastronomy. What are their beliefs, how did they express them, how did they relate to the world, how did they translate that into their experience of space, and so on. We try to answer these questions through the clues left behind by ancient peoples in their surviving mythology, the ceremonial artifacts and religious spaces left behind, and yes, through the megaliths and structures that still stand today.

Archaeoastronomy is observable in most ancient cultures around the world, most notably in the cardinal orientation of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, the alignments of some of the Ohio Mounds, the Venus alignment of the Maya Palace of the Governor at Uxmal in Yucatan, as well as the most famous Stonehenge. The effort put forth in the planning, building and use of these buildings and structures is of great importance not only to the people who built them, but to modern archaeologists who study them. We can learn a great deal from these structures, about the cultures of their peoples, and most interestingly about the development of science and cosmological thought from the ancient astronomies and surviving indigenous traditions around the world (CfA N.d).

Obviously, archaeology plays a huge role in this study, but it’s not the only part. Living peoples, descendants of the cultures being studied, are hugely important to this field. These same living peoples are often, if not always, discounted by fringe groups when the concept of archaeoastronomy is brought up. This is a major flaw. Aside from completely ignoring indigenous peoples and native cultures still alive today, it also disregards actual ancient cultures and their life-ways and accomplishments.

Also importantly, and aside from ancient cultures, the way Wolter and the fringe use their idea of archaeoastronomy elevates it to some kind of mystical mumbojumbo. It strips it of any actual meaning  and allows the fringe to apply it to whatever they want, whenever they want. Doing this allows them to make far-out claims that have no evidence or support, but now they simply apply a scientific sounding word and give a half-assed definition and voila! Instant cult science!

Wolter and the fringe try to muddle the idea of archaeoastronomy so as to make it appear that the use of it among ancient people is rare and mystical. That the mere presence of something that might align with the sun or moon is truly unusual and sticks out. The reality of ancient peoples use of archaeoastronomy is actually quite mundane. This is not to say the set-up for this is easy or simplistic. It merely means that it was a lot more commonplace than the fringe wants to believe.

Archaeoastronomy was a necessity for survival for many people. Especially, people who were dependent on seasonal changes for their prosperity. At its most basic core, archaeoastronomy created calendars and seasonal planners for the peoples that used them. Certain alignments and astrological occurrences were essential to knowing when to harvest, winnow, and gather in order to have successful food supplies and social interactions. It is completely understandable that nearly every culture shares markers for major seasonal events like the equinoxes and solstices as well as regular monthly occurrences like full and new moons. These are easily observable and simply common sense to keep track of. To find buildings and megaliths that aligning or track these events is not surprising, though still important.

Again, this is not dismissing the use of archaeoastronomy among ancient peoples. It was and is an important part of their cultures. It is no coincidence that buildings and structures dedicated to tracking important astronomical events are almost always sacred or important municipal places in ancient societies. It should not be a surprise that cultures that were so closely tied to nature and the elements would likewise make such places important to them. We as archaeologists recognize this and take this into account when such places are uncovered or shared with us. This is not the case with the fringe.

Not only do pseudo-researches like Wolter assign meaning where there is none, due to their misunderstanding or misuse of the idea of archaeoastronomy, they create connections that make no sense within archaeology. They use the idea of archaeoastronomy as evidence for their conclusions, and often times as the only form of evidence. Calling things like early American cider presses, “sacrificial tables,” and then linking them to Stonehenge via arbitrary lines on a map is not archaeoastronomy. It’s fanciful thinking, especially in the absence of any other form of evidence.

Using the concept of archaeoastronomy as the fringe often does, one could go out into any field and find any large stone and then claim that said stone is linked to some type of astronomical alignment. This is all that is required in the cult science of the fringe to prove authenticity. Fortunately in actual archaeology, much stronger requirements for evidence exist. There must be other things associated with said stone, evidence of human use, artifacts, evidence of habitation or long periods of camping, evidence of other structural alignments, ethnographic evidence among the surviving peoples associated with said rock, ethnoastronomy (the study of contemporary native astronomies), surviving myths or oral histories of said rock. In archaeology one can’t simply say a rock is a marker without proving it.

Though archaeoastronomy is one of the most misused and misunderstood concepts in archaeology, it need not be. It is not evidence of supper advanced uber-races or aliens, it not evidence of diffusionism, it’s not a rare occurrence among the ancients. It’s also not evidence of a conspiracy of roving Europeans in the New World or of Atlantans disseminating knowledge. It is not the random connection of lines on maps stretching continents and oceans. It is not the abused am misused idea that the fringe wish it to be.

It is a concept encompassing not only cultural practices of ancient peoples but also the study of said peoples. It includes the study of ancient mythologies, oral histories of surviving peoples, cultural traditions, artifacts, structures, and megaliths. It recognizes the work of ancient peoples and understands their connection to their land and nature.

Let us understand archaeoastronomy for what it is, and not be fooled when used otherwise.

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Johnston, Grahame
2012    Archaeology And The Study Of Archaeoastronomy. 12 Dec 2012. Accessed 2/8/2016

Ruggles, Clive
2007    Course AR3015: An Introduction to Archaeoastronomy. . Accessed 2/8/2016

Center for Archaeoastronomy. (CfA).

Accessed 2/8/2016
Accessed 2/8/2016
Accessed 2/8/2016

Categories: Archaeology, Concepts and Themes | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Archaeology Fantasies Podcast is Two Months Old! Get Caught-Up Now!

In January we launched the Archaeology Fantasies Podcast over at the Archaeology Podcast Network. It’s Co-hosted by Sara H. and Dr. Kenneth Feder, who is the author of Dubious Archaeology and Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, and they deconstruct a variety of pseudoarchaeology topics. It’s been two months now and the show just continues to get better, if I may say so myself. Seeing that we’ve got several episodes in the can, I wanted to recap them and let all of you get a chance to get caught up.


The intro episode where we discussed what exactly pseudoarchaeology is and how Cult Science influences the average archaeology enthusiasts. We talk about how the media is out for ratings and not so much to inform, and how that is actually making it more difficult to correct misconceptions about archaeology.


Ken gets introduced to one of the more popular pseudoarchaeology topics on the internet right now in the form of the Genetic Disk. We discuss how pseudoarchaeologists try to lend validity to a fraudulent artifact by attempting to use actual scientists by quoting them way out of context. We show what happens when those same scientists find out their being misquoted, and we go over Ken’s check-list for how to spot pseudoarchaeology.


We delve a little deeper into the fringe and start to explore the world of Giants. There’s been a lot of talk about them lately so we thought we’d examine why they are so popular, and why there is exactly no evidence supporting their existence.


We examine the recent revival of the Mound Builder Myth. Ken walks us through the origins of the myth and how Cyrus Thomas proved the mounds were built by Native Americans. We discuss why there is a modern revival of the myth and what’s contributing to it. We also encourage everyone to take a mound to lunch and go visit your local mound parks.


We start to wade into the murky waters of the Creationism by tackling the global flood myth and the story of Noah’s Ark. We explain what kinds of geological and archaeological evidence we would expect to see if the global myth was true, and how we see exactly the opposite.

We’ve got a lot of great content coming up, including interviews with a variety of experts and researchers. With two episodes a month coming out on Mondays, there’s a lot to hear and learn. Get caught up now before you get too far behind. There’s not much more I can say except, Go listen and comment!


Want more on this topic? Go to ArchyFantasies Podcasts.

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Categories: ArchyFantasies Podcasts, Creation Science and Intelligent Design, Those Mysterious Mound Builders, Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cult Science

This is another term I assume people know and understand. I’m not talking about the study of Cults and how they work, I’m talking about those that mimic the process of science. Very much like a Cargo Cult, Cult Science goes through all the motions without knowing what they all mean.

Things like the Discovery Institute, with its fancy academic sounding name, and it’s staff of pseudo-scientists, who probably all have a string of letters after their names, their publications with their almost coherent jargon etc. It’s mimicry, They are attempting to create the facade of science in hopes of being seen as scientists, without really understanding what they are doing, or why real scientists do it.

We see the same things with Ancient Alien folks. They hold conventions, present papers, have notable speakers, and even have their own journals. They go through the motions of scientific presentation, without understanding the steps that should have gotten them there.

Again, we see this with the New Agers/Quantum folks. Big words, confusing manuscripts, people with perceived authority and no clue how the process works. Just like the John Furm Cult they seem to think if they pantomime bits of the process they will magically conjure the whole, ignoring that years of research, study, and often experimentation go into science.

I want to be clear that I am not grouping Citizen Scientists into this, so don’t do it yourself. Citizen Scientists work in tandem with trained professionals to aid them in their pursuits. This is completely different from what Cult Science folks do.

Lets take an example from life…

I have a confession, I used to belong to two different ghost Hunting groups when I was younger. I met the assistant organizer for the first group through work when I worked for the county clerk in college. She was a nice person, very no-nonsense, with just the right amount of quirk. I noticed the ghost garland she had on her desk long after Halloween and asked her about it. She told me, in a slightly embarrassed way, that she belonged to a Paranormal investigation team, and I got all excited. Ever since I was little I wanted to see a ghost and be a GhoustBuster like in the movies. The TV shows like TASPS weren’t big yet, so this was as close as I could get.

I attended a few training sessions, where we learned how to use out cameras and tape recorders, and how to identify different types of paranormal markers; you know, the room is cold, the lights flicker, things move without a perceptible brease. Then I went on my first, and last, hunt with them.

I must say it was rather disappointing. We went to a small graveyard, not even an old one, and after being smudged with sage so the spirits couldn’t get us, we spent the rest of the night looking at tombstones with flashlights and Psychics. The only notable thing that happened while we were there was that everyone gathered around a tree and a single leaf was waving by itself. No one bothered to figure out why, they just all assumed the tree was “Haunted” and that if they asked it questions it would answer them.

The “evidence” collected that day was nothing more than rolls of film with out of focus images and lots of flash-illuminated bugs and dust, and muddy, hard to understand voices and white noise turned up way to loud on the tape recorders. Honestly, I wouldn’t have recognized anyone’s voice on those recorders.

There was no explaining to these people what they were really seeing, or what was really going on in the graveyard. They had gone in with their minds made up, and nothing could persuade them otherwise. It irritated me, but keep in mind, I still believed in the supernatural at this point, so I just thought this group wasn’t critical or scientific enough. Which led me to my second attempt at ghost hunting.

The second group I joined, I actually had to interview to get into. TAPS had been on television for a few seasons now and everyone was bulking up their ghost hunting equipment. This group had digital recorders and cameras, they had infrared night vision cameras, and several homemade but impressive looking devices. They had a set up that included software that recorded four cameras at a time and walkie-talkie. Most impressively, they didn’t belive that every speck of dust was a ghost (or Orb in the lingo of the field), and they threw around words like Scientific, Data, Skeptical, and Hard Evidence.

I felt good about this group, we set up our equipment with precision, we spent hours analyzing the video footage, pictures, and voice recordings. Much to my disappointment, I was really bad at it. I never saw or heard what the other team members did, even after the team lead pointed them out to me. I frequently argued that glitches were not evidence, and other such explainable phenomena didn’t prove ghosts. The final straw centered around a bit of footage that the team lead swore was a full-body apparition, and I quickly explained that it wasn’t, it was merely the center of the camera and the way light worked. To my knowledge they still have the clip up on their website as “evidence”.

After that argument, I found myself less inclined to go on hunts. I couldn’t reconcile the obvious misuse of the words Science and Evidence with how I knew the scientific method worked. I also realized that my inability to see things wasn’t because I wasn’t ‘sensitive’ enough, but because there wasn’t anything there, there never was, and all the fancy equipment in the world didn’t make what we did “scientific”.

This is how Cult Science works, both groups thought they were being scientific because they had equipment and they spent time analyzing their ‘data’ afterwards. They shared it with each other via their websites, where they helpfully told you what you should be seeing or hearing.  They held seminars at libraries where they explained their efforts, they even held training sessions so their teams would know how to conduct themselves. They envisioned themselves as being a cross between the scholarly aspects of the Ghoustbusters and the technological aspects of the guys on TAPS. All of this made them Scientific right?


They lacked one important aspect essential to science, Doubt.

Richard Feynman made mention of this in his commencemtn speach at CalTech in 1974. It’s a great speech and you all need to go read it. Feynman was surprisingly entertaining and informative . The nitty-gritty of his point was that if you don’t doubt, you can’t do science. We see this in the Hypothesis portion of the Scientific Method.

You might know that the second step in the scientific method is to form a Hypothesis based on your observations. So, after you’ve noticed something, you form a question to help explain why the thing you noticed is occurring. The key aspect of a Hypothesis is that it has to be able to be falsified. If you can’t be proven wrong, you haven’t created a Hypothesis. This is why the scientific method can’t be used to verify claims about God or philosophy. (I know there are people who are trying, and it makes for fun reading, but I stand by my statement.)

To do science you need to doubt. Fancy equipment, long lecture sessions, and glossy publications don’t make science. Experiments based on falsifiable hypothesis do, constantly repeating those experiments does, adapting and changing your hypothesis based on the results does. Also, science can really only explain the natural world not the supernatural, and as soon as science can explain it, it’s no longer supernatural.

So next time you hear someone flinging the word scientific around, look at what they are doing, and ask them what could prove their hypothesis wrong. If they can’t answer you, it’s not science.

Categories: Concepts and Themes, Cult Science | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Between the Nazca Lines: Evidence vs. “I Wanna Believe”

Well, we now know what a Cargo Cult is, and we are now up to date on the recent research into the Nasca Lines. What I haven’t brought you completely up to date on is the actual Ancient Alien Theory explanation of the Nazca lines. The History Channel sums it up pretty succinctly:

Great Images being deliberately misinterpreted by the History Channel.

“The Nazca Lines

Etched into a high plateau in Peru’s Nazca Desert, a series of ancient designs stretching more than 50 miles has baffled archaeologists for decades. Along with simple lines and geometric shapes, they include drawings of animals, birds and humans, some measuring more than 600 feet across. Because of their colossal size, the figures can only be appreciated from way up in the air—and there is no evidence that the Nazca people, who inhabited the area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D., invented flying machines. According to ancient alien theorists, the figures were used to guide spaceships as they came in for a landing, and the lines served as runways.”[History 2011]

Never mind the screamingly obvious problems with the description, it does do a good job of summing up what most people think of the Nazca lines, inaccuracies and all.

(Trapezoid Line)

This idea that the lines were used as landing strips seems to come from the presence of the long trapezoidal geoglyphs and the supposed evidence of a leveled mountain top. Von Daniken mentions this in his books, but I haven’t found reference to it, or concern about it, in any of the research. Still, these ideas persist.So, the theory goes that the lines were laid either by man or alien in order to direct and provide a location for space ship landings. Tying this into the Cargo Cult connection; after the Aliens stopped coming to earth with their cargo, we humans began to build a religion around them, attempting to bring our alien saviors back to earth with misinterpreted ritual.

Websites abound on the Internet and even the History Channel, which has produced two seasons of a show called Ancient Aliens, tout belief in and even evidence of aliens. You can find lots of people who are ready to explain the Ancient Alien Theory and tell you all about the evidence supporting it. Not too surprising the Nazca lines fall into this category of evidence.

Even after the modern research mentioned in my last post, these sites still claim that the lines cannot be explained, that scientist still search for an explanation to the cause of the lines, even though this is not true. The reality is that we do have both really good explanations and building methods that require little more than a stick and some string.

(The actual Condor geoglyph)

Well known Skeptic, Joe Nickell, was able to reconstruct the geoglyphs in a remarkably short time using basic, simply reproduced, and most certainly available instruments for the time. Nickell’s, his two cousins, a friend, his 11-year old nephew, and father reproduced the 440 foot long Condor in just over a day and a half (baring time off due to rain) [Nickell1983]. They used merely a knotted rope, stakes, and a T-square they constructed from two pieces of wood. I really recommend the article; it’s a pretty good example of how the Nazca and their ancestors could have produced the geoglyphs without alien help.

(This is the Condor re-produced by Nickell et al. [Nickell1983])

So, now we know how the glyphs were probably made, we have a pretty solid theory onwhy the glyphs were made, we even know a fair bit about the culture of the Nazca (though I haven’t touched on that here). We’ve got the How, the Why, the When, and even the Where. At every point we know humans did this, and not once is an outside force required to accomplish any of it.

Nickell also makes a point about the whole “They can ONLY be seen from the SKY” statement:

“It is frequently asserted that the Nazca drawings are recognizable only from the air. That is not quite true, certainly not of the smaller figures, such as the effigy of a fish, which is only 80 feet long (Reiche 1976). Neither is it true of some drawings — attributed to the Nazcas’ predecessors — that are found on hill slopes (McIntyre 1975; Isbell 1978, 1980). Here, seemingly, is a clue to how the Nazcas could have been confident of the accuracy of their method of enlargement. Once a technique was found to be successful for producing large drawings on slopes, where they could actually be viewed from the ground, the same technique could be expected to consistently yield good results — wherever figures were drawn and whatever their size.” [Nickell1983]

This point was also made by The Nazca-Palpa Project in 2007 [Isla 2007], where they not only dated the geoglyphs and gave sequence order to the deposition, they remarked that the smaller glyphs could be seen from a short distance, like from a slope [Isla 2007].

I would hope at this point that I’ve provided enough evidence to remove aliens from the picture. I can show that the geoglyphs were most probably a cultural tool used to create a sense of community and possibly served ritual purposes dating from about 400 BC till sometime after 600 AD [Isla 2007]. I have shown that they could have been created using nothing more than a sketch, knotted rope, and T-square [Nickell1983], all of which was available in that time period. There is also the well known C-14 dates of the pottery sherds and burials associated with the lines, which help us put the lines into context [Isla 2007, Nickell1983]. There is no need to add aliens to the mix, they are unnecessary. They create a complication that is not needed since everything has a simple, human explanation.

As I say in all my presentations, if you are a True Believer, there isn’t a damn thing I can provide to change your mind. All the evidence in the world will be wasted on you, but if you came to this looking to have a few questions answered, I can help you there.


The History Channel
2011 Evidence of Ancient Aliens? The History Channel website. Jan 25, 2011.

Nickell, Joe
1983  The Nazca Drawings Revisited: Creation of a Full-Sized Condor. Skeptical Inquirer MagazineVolume 7.3, Spring 1983. Jan 25, 2011.

Isla, Johny
2007 Nazca-Palpa Project: Photogrammetric Reconstruction of the Geoglyphs of Nazca and Palpa. January 2007 Accessed Jan 09, 2011.

Categories: Ancient Astronauts, Between the Nazca Lines, Cult Science, History Channel, Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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