The Hallmarks of Pseudoarchaeology

Newark Earthworks
A true measurement of the Newark Earthworks

Several years ago, probably around 2008, I remember reading a book which I highly recommend if you’re at all interested in the mysteries of science and how people think about them. The book is Paradigms Lost, by John L. Casti. Written in 1989, he spends a fair amount of time discussing pseudoscience wrote a section on what he calls the “hallmarks of pseudoscience,” which includes 9 item checklist. I thought I’d paraphrase those 9 items here as they relate to pseudoarchaeology.

The items in bold are verbatim, but the descriptions and examples are rewritten or paraphrased with pseudoarchaeology in mind.

Anachronistic thinking. Often proponents of fantastic, fringe or outright fraudulent archaeology think they’ve come up with something novel, new, or daringly imaginative that’s outside the box of orthodox thinking. In reality, all they’ve done is call up some outmoded way of thinking that archaeologists rejected based on evidence and scientific method many years ago.

A good example is the myth of the Moundbuilders. In the eighteenth and event the nineteenth centuries many if not most Americans believed that the various mounds throughout the northeast and central United States were built by a now-vanished race of people. The Indians, they reasoned, were too primitive to have figured out monumental architecture and they weren’t building mounds when Europeans arrived. There were also artifacts that much, much older than the current native population, artifacts of metals like copper, silver, and even iron. Various ideas about who the “Moundbuilders” were included Benjamin Smith Barton’s suggestion in 1787 that they were Vikings. Some, like Josiah Priest in 1833, thought they could have been anyone except Native Americans: Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, Norwegians, even Polynesians and the Chinese! It wasn’t until Cyrus Thomas’ Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1894, that science caught up to reality with regard to Moundbuilders. And if you’d think that no one would still find a way to dismiss brown indigenous people for a racist explanation over 100 years later, you’d be wrong. Glenn Beck tried to attribute the Newark Earthworks to the so-called “Lost Tribe of Israel” in 2010 (read about it here).

Seeking Mysteries. Proponents of pseudoarchaeology seek mysteries and “anomalies.” Archaeologists seek data, usually as they relate to research questions. For the pseudoarchaeologist, data rarely inform conclusions. Usually, it’s the other way around. The pseudoarchaeologist has a per-conceived conclusion and data are rejected or, more likely, not even recognized unless they are anomalous or supportive of the conclusion. Casti writes, “the basic principle underlying such searches seems to be that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ coupled with the methodological principle that anything that can be seen as a mystery ought to be seen as one.” I’ve had that quote by Hamlet tossed at me more than once when questioning the evidence of pseudoarchaeologists.

Appeals to myths. In simplest terms, form an explanation of an ancient myth as though the myth were an historical account of the highest accuracy. Use the myth as evidence for the explanation. If done right, the circular reasoning is hidden well and no one knows you’re lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps. I think much of the time the proponent of a pseudoarchaeological idea doesn’t even see the circularity of it all. Certainly one of the premier examples of this is the Atlantis myth. Plato’s two dialogues, the Timaeus and Critias—once used to parable the evils of a nation-state unchecked—later used to describe a supposed real city. Plato is at once both the source and the evidence for the claim.

A casual approach to evidence. Any evidence, no matter how quaint or vague, has value to the pseudoarchaeologist, even if it has been discredited. It seems that the pseudoarchaeologist is inclined to put more stock in the quantity of evidence rather than the quality. It’s rare that the pseudoarchaeologist will dismiss any bit of evidence even if it has been discredited, proven false, or otherwise shown to be questionable. An excellent example is the so-called Roman sword that J. Hutton Pulitzer recently proclaimed to be thousands of years old and “smoking gun” evidence that Romans had arrived in Nova Scotia, Canada during the Roman Period. Although the alleged sword appears to be a decorative piece of brass, and was shown to be of modern manufacture by an accredited university lab, Pulitzer maintains that he has data that shows otherwise. Data he refuses to reveal or share.

Irrefutable hypothesis. Science works essentially through falsification. If I have an hypothesis about an observation, the first step is to make every attempt to falsify it. The very first question should be, “what condition or evidence would need to exist for this hypothesis to be false.” Then seek to find that evidence or condition. If you cannot, then you can reasonably say the hypothesis is true. For now. Pseudoarchaeologists often present hypotheses that simply cannot be refuted. They might as well be saying it’s “magic,” because it isn’t science. Ley lines are a good example of such an hypothesis. These supposed “lines” of energy that exist between sites on the Earth’s surface that are, more often than not, arbitrarily deemed “sacred” or otherwise special. When asked what sort of energy, how is it measured, why does it travel the surface and not a direct line through the planet, etc, the answers are vague or non-existent. If you ask what condition or evidence would refute the existence of ley lines, the believer in them will never answer honestly. At least not that I’ve experienced thus far.

Spurious similarities. Believers in pseudoarchaeology like to ride the coattails of legitimate archaeology. They’re quick to ridicule the “orthodox” archaeologist who can’t “think out of the box,” but never describe the theory and method that underpins their own brand of research. An example of invoking spurious similarities will inevitably come if you argue with someone about an alleged “sunken city” like the geological formation off the coast of the Japanese island, Yonaguni is alleged to be. Argue and ask about the evidence long enough, and someone will eventually point out that “orthodox archaeologists didn’t think Troy existed until Schliemann found it.” Or they’ll point out the several inundated villages and settlements in and around the Near East in the Mediterranean or the Arabian Sea. Start pointing out the spurious nature of the comparisons, how Troy was recorded in more than one text (what about Yonaguni) or that dives on each of the sunken settlements revealed significant material remains that date to the cultures the sites are associated with (none for Yonaguni) and the responses are often irrelevant or absent.

Explanation by scenario. Archaeologists frequently find themselves offering scenarios to explanation events, such as the peopling of the Americas, when there isn’t enough data to recount the event with precision. But this is always done with deference to the natural laws of science and what is already known archaeologically. The pseudoarchaeologist has no requirement to stick to these principles and will often offer an explanation by scenario that has no underlying mechanism for support. Some aspects of Semir Osmanagic’s so-called “Bosnian Pyramid” displays this casual disregard for scientific laws and physics. Specifically, his recent claim that there is an “energy” “beaming” up through the hill that offer “spiritual healing” to visitors. Osmanagic is very specific with his claims about the energy: “the radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz with a strength of 3,9 V.” But he offers nothing in the way of a mechanism to explain the energy which, apparently, only his instruments can detect. He does say, however, that it breaks all known laws of physics.

Research by literary interpretation. Pseudoarchaeologists and their supporters like to use the words of real archaeologists to further their claims where they can. Even if those words are out of context and, in some cases, falsely attributed. In an article that ran in an issue of Ancient American magazine titled “Horses in American before Columbus,” the writer, Steven Jones, cites several scientific sources for equine bone dates which he either takes out of context or invents from whole cloth. In one example, Jones arrived at a date that the original author never suggested and in another he used one of two dates obtained for the same sample. One date fit Jones’ conclusions; the other was earlier and did not fit his conclusions. Jones saw what he wanted and enjoyed the association he was able to make with real archaeologists by citing their work, but failed to represent them accurately.

Refusal to revise. It is a rare day when a pseudoarchaeologist will revise his or her claim in light of evidence presented by actual archaeology. Often they simply double-down, completely ignoring the evidence. Or, and this is common, they respond to every bit of criticism and every question, but with rhetoric rather than substance. This last one has so many examples, I’ll just leave it to dangle.

But there you have it: John Casti’s “hallmarks of pseudoscience” reworked to the “hallmarks of pseudoarchaeology. I have another list of principles of pseudoscience that will definitely translate to pseudoarchaeology in much the same way that I’ll be posting in the near future. If you’re old like me, you might remember Bob Park’s “What’s New” email that he used to send out before he suffered an aphasia in 2013. At some point he published the “7 warning signs of pseudoscience.” So I’ll dig them out and see how they relate to pseudoarchaeology in a future post.

About Carl Feagans 315 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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  3. Seven Warning Signs of Pseudoarchaeology - Archaeology Review

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