Pseudoarchaeology

Pseudoarchaeology refers to pseudoscientific theories about the past. Some of these revolve around the idea that prehistoric and ancient human societies were aided in their development by intelligent extraterrestrial life, an idea propagated by Swiss author Erich von Däniken in books such as ‘Chariots of the Gods?’ (1968) and Italian author Peter Kolosimo. Others instead hold that there were human societies in the ancient period that were significantly technologically advanced, such as Atlantis, and this idea has been propagated by figures like Graham Hancock in his ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’ (1995).

Many alternative archaeologies have been adopted by religious groups. Academic archaeologists have heavily criticized pseudoarchaeology, with one of the most vocal critics, John R. Cole, characterizing it as relying on ‘sensationalism, misuse of logic and evidence, misunderstanding of scientific method, and internal contradictions in their arguments.’

The relationship between alternative and academic archaeologies has been compared to the relationship between intelligent design theories and evolutionary biology by some archaeologists. Fringe archaeological ideas such as Pyramidology have been embraced by religions ranging from the British Israelites to the Theosophists. Other alternative archaeologies include those that have been adopted by members of New Age and contemporary Pagan belief systems. These include the Great Goddess hypothesis, propagated by Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, according to which prehistoric Europeans worshiped a single female monotheistic deity—and various theories associated with the Earth mysteries movement, such as the concept of ley lines (alleged alignments of a number of places of geographical and historical interest).

History professor William H. Stiebing Jr. argued that despite their many differences, there were a set of core characteristics that almost all pseudoarchaeological interpretations shared. He believed that because of this, pseudoarchaeology could be categorized as a ‘single phenomenon.’ He went on to identify three core commonalities of pseudeoarchaeological theories: 1) the unscientific nature of its method and evidence; 2) its tendency to ‘provide simple, compact answers to complex, difficult issues’; and 3) its tendency to present itself as being persecuted by the archaeological establishment, accompanied by an ambivalent attitude towards the scientific ethos of the Enlightenment.

Academic critics have pointed out that pseudoarchaeologists typically neglect to use the scientific method. Instead of testing the evidence to see what hypotheses it fits, pseudoarchaeologists ‘press-gang’ the archaeological data to fit a ‘favored conclusion’ that is often arrived at through hunches, intuition, or religious or nationalist dogma. Different pseudoarchaeological groups hold a variety of basic assumptions which are typically unscientific: the Nazi pseudoarchaeologists for instance took the cultural superiority of the ancient Aryan race as a basic assumption, whilst Judeo-Christian Fundamentalist pseudoarchaeologists conceive of the Earth as only being 10,000 years old and Hindu Fundamentalist pseudoarchaeologists believe that the Homo sapiens species is much older than the 200,000 years old it has been shown to be by archaeologists. Despite this, many of pseudoarchaeology’s proponents claim that they reached their conclusions using scientific techniques and methods, even when it is demonstrable that they have not.

Academic archaeologist John R. Cole believed that most pseudoarchaeologists do not understand how scientific investigation works, and that they instead believe it to be a ‘simple, catastrophic right versus wrong battle’ between contesting theories. It was because of this failure to understand the scientific method, he argued, that the entire pseudoarchaeological approach to their arguments was faulty. He went on to argue that most pseudoarchaeologists do not consider alternate explanations to that which they want to propagate, and that their ‘theories’ were typically just ‘notions,’ not having sufficient supporting evidence to allow them to be considered ‘theories’ in the scientific, academic meaning of the word.

Commonly lacking scientific evidence, pseudoarchaeologists typically use other forms of evidence to support their arguments. For instance, they often make use of ‘generalized cultural comparisons,’ taking various artifacts and monuments from one society, and highlighting similarities with those of another to support a conclusion that both had a common source—typically an ancient lost civilization like Atlantis, Mu, or an extraterrestrial influence. This takes the different artifacts or monuments entirely out of their original contexts, something which is anathema to academic archaeologists, for whom context is of the utmost importance.

Another form of evidence used by a number of pseudoarchaeologists is the interpretation of various myths as reflecting historical events, but in doing so these myths are often taken out of their cultural contexts. For instance, pseudoarchaeologist Immanuel Velikovsky claimed that the myths of migrations and war gods in the Central American Aztec civilization represented a cosmic catastrophe that occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. His theory was criticized by William H. Stiebing Jr., who noted that such myths only developed in the 12th to the 14th centuries CE, over a millennium after Velikovsky claimed that the events had occurred, and that the Aztec society itself had not even developed by the 7th century BCE.

Pseudoarchaeologist Robert Bauval has written of his skepticism and even fear of mainstream academia: ‘[Academics] have formed a massive and global network through universities, museums, institutes, societies and foundations. And this immense powerhouse and clearing-house of knowledge has presented their dogma of history to the general public totally unhindered and unchallenged from the outside… On a more sinister note: now this ‘church of science’ has formed a network of watchdog organisations such as CSICOP and The Skeptical Society [sic] (to name but a few) in order to act as the gatekeepers of the truth (as they see it), ready to come down like the proverbial ton of bricks on all those whom they perceive as ‘frauds,’ ‘charlatans,’ and ‘pseudo-scientists’ – in short, heretics.’

Pseudoarchaeologists typically present themselves as being underdogs facing the much larger archaeological establishment. They often use language which disparages academics and dismisses them as being unadventurous, spending all their time in dusty libraries and refusing to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment lest they lose their jobs. In some more extreme examples, pseudoarchaeologists have accused academic archaeologists of being members of a widespread conspiracy to hide the truth about history from the public.

Prominent English archaeologist Colin Renfrew admitted that the archaeological establishment was often ‘set in its ways and resistant to radical new ideas’ but that this was not the reason why pseudoarchaeological theories were outright rejected by academics. Garrett G. Fagan expanded on this, noting how in the academic archaeological community, ‘New evidence or arguments have to be thoroughly scrutinized to secure their validity… and longstanding, well-entrenched positions will take considerable effort and particularly compelling data to overturn.’ Fagan noted that pseudoarchaeological theories simply do not have sufficient evidence to back them up and allow them to be accepted by professional archaeologists.

Conversely, many pseudoarchaeologists, whilst criticizing the academic archaeological establishment, also attempt to get support from people with academic credentials and affiliations. At times, they quote historical, and in most cases dead academics to back up their arguments; for instance prominent pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock, in his seminal ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’ (1995), repeatedly notes that the eminent physicist Albert Einstein once commented positively on the Pole shift hypothesis, a theory that has been abandoned by the academic community but which Hancock supports. As Fagan noted however, the fact that Einstein was a physicist and not a geologist is not even mentioned by Hancock, nor is the fact that the understanding of Plate tectonics (which came to disprove Earth Crustal Displacement), only came to light following Einstein’s death.

Especially in the past, but also in the present, pseudoarchaeology has been motivated by racism, especially when the basic intent was to discount or deny the abilities of non-white peoples to make significant accomplishments in astronomy, architecture, sophisticated technology, ancient writing, seafaring, and other accomplishments generally identified as evidence of ‘civilization.’ Racism can be implied by attempts to attribute ancient sites and artifacts to Lost Tribes, Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, or even extraterrestrial intelligence rather than to the intelligence and ingenuity of indigenous peoples.

Many academic archaeologists have argued that the spread of alternative archaeological theories is a threat to the general public’s understanding of the past. Fagan was particularly scathing of television shows that presented pseudoarchaeological theories to the general public, believing that they did so because of the difficulties in making academic archaeological ideas comprehensible and interesting to the average viewer.

Academic archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf believed however that critics of alternative archaeologies like Fagan were ‘opinionated and patronizing’ towards alternative theories, and that purporting their views in such a manner was damaging to the public’s perception of archaeologists. Holtorf highlighted that there were similarities between academic and alternative archaeological interpretations, with the former taking some influence from the latter. As evidence, he highlighted archaeoastronomy, which was once seen as a core component of fringe archaeological interpretations before being adopted by mainstream academics. He also noted that certain archaeological scholars, like William Stukeley (1687-1765), Margaret Murray (1863-1963) and Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) were seen as significant figures to both academic and alternative archaeologists.

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